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We are still due winds and rain, snow and ice, bitter cold, and in general, unfriendly days. But each day is a shade longer than the one before, and as a friend remarked - it is time to get snapping.

The bulb borders were raked, fertilized and remulched in early January. It was prime time for that chore. Foliage of our spring parade of absolute beauty was already showing. If you haven't already accomplished this chore, pick a nice day and take care of it. After the leaves unfold it is difficult to remove autumn's debris.Even now care should be used when fertilizing bulbs and perennials that keep their rosette of leaves. Scattered on or within the leaves, commercial fertilizer will burn the plants and may even kill the entire plant of perennials if it is left to rest on the crowns of the plants.

Also crucial to rosettes of winter foliage is a heavy mulch of layers of big leaves. There will be warm days when the sun's rays beat down, heating these layers of wet leaves. This in turn can rot the crowns of perennials. Lighten the mulch from the centers.

Astilbe foliage, little brownish, curly leaves, was found approximately an inch high. No doubt, this will be killed back as it frequently is when it emerges too early. This happened last year several times, but the root system doggedly sent forth more.

The severe freeze just before Christmas completely browned the foliage of epimedium that normally remains bronzy-red well into early spring. These need cutting back now. New growth was discovered in early January, and soon these plants will send up their delicate flowers which will be hampered if old leaves are left.

Nose cones on some of the hostas have popped up. These were covered with mulched leaves. According to Bob Solberg, who sells a wonderful collection of these foliage plants, they can be dug and left on top of the ground during the winter without any damage to them, so they will be all right.

The main problem with hostas is the destructive little voles (not moles) that eat the root system. Gardeners have reported losing all of their plants to this little rodent. They usually follow mole runs, but can be anywhere under thick mulch.

Trillium nose cones were up in autumn, so watch your plantings carefully. One footstep can damage the leaves now. Even the flower will suffer, be disfigured. A top dressing of rotted cow manure will assure bigger blooms if applied within the next few weeks.

Witch Hazel (Hamamelis species) are beginning to bloom, wafting their fragrance in the air and teasing a brave bee forth. If these shrubs need pruning anyway, bring a few sprays inside to enjoy. Forsythia and flowering quince, chaenomeles, will also blossom when brought inside to give a bit of spring in the air.

Since gardening has flourished into an all-time favorite activity for Americans, it is wise to get seed and plants ordered now if local nurserymen do not carry the rare or exotic ones you've decided on. There is sometimes a 10 percent discount for early orders, too.

Holbrook Farm and Nursery, Route 2, Box 223B, Fletcher, 28732, is a good source for perennials and shrubs. Visitors are welcome, Monday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. April through October. Allen W. Bush is a delightful plantsman.

The Gathering Garden, Route 1, Box 41-E, Efland, 27243, offers herbs, flowering perennials, wildflowers and ornamental grasses. Call owner Bill Barker, 563-6595, for opening dates.

Send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to The Wildwood Flower, Route 3, Box 165N, Pittsboro, 27312, for Thurman C. Maness' 1990 list of plants. Maness specializes in Lobelia species, but offers a limited number of other perennials and ferns. His nursery is strictly mail order only.

For wildflowers, Niche Gardens, 1111 Dawson Road, Chapel Hill, 27516, is an excellent source. All plants are nursery propagated, carefully packaged to arrive at their destination fresh and ready to plant. The new spring catalog is $3.

Montrose Nursery, P.O. Box 957, Hillsborough, 27278, specializes in hardy cyclamen. Owner Nancy Goodwin says in her spring catalog ($2), ``We are proud to have on our list 14 of the 19 known species and a total of 26 forms available,' all grown there from seed. Many other plants are offered.

Spring will come, and in the meantime we can dream and plan.


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