life goes on

Every time I thought about posting a blog about plants and gardening since the last time I did, back in November, it seemed too trivial to bother. So beside the point. Not worth your feed space. I also haven’t thought a lot about my garden. Politics and the steady stream of crazypants has sucked the life right out of it — or at least my interest in it. That, and maybe winter.

But life goes on. It has to.

Galanthus nivalis

I’ve heard birds (finches?) singing in the predawn. Witch hazels are blooming. My hellebore and pussy willow are weeks ahead of schedule. The little camellia I keep in the plantry has been wearing pink and a light clove perfume for days now. Snowdrops and crocus are blooming all over town.

Noticing is a start. I like to think going through the motions of recording every tiny event will help lift me out of the pit of despair. And my fingers are crossed that spring will be the elevator it usually is. I need its miracle magic more than I ever have before to remind me how to move forward and rise up.

So while I temporarily ignore the news and shirk my political responsibilities (I’m endlessly grateful to those keeping the fire burning) I’m going to try to get gardeny and garden blahggy again.

Because life goes on. It has to. (Plus I’ve missed you!)

Down to earth — madness

(Originally published in EastBayRI newspapers sometime in March. I have been remiss in reposting! But because it is currently snowing outside, I thought I might as well make up for misplaced intentions. What’s written below isn’t old news — although I really-really-really wish it was.)

I spent the entire Sunday of the time change outdoors soaking up the sun, holding sweet and earthy scents in my nose, listening to birds compete for attention, and gardening as if it’s spring. The very next day it sleeted. Dark gray days of rain followed, then sun again. As I write this, there’s snow forecast for the equinox. March, poor thing, suffers from wild mood swings.

I know that about March (and can relate) but I started cutting my garden back anyway weeks ago at the first hint of April. Suddenly I couldn’t stand to look at its tatters for one more minute. I hauled armloads of fallen stems and seedheads that no longer held any winter interest to the compost pile. When that back and forthing became too tedious, I broke the rest of the debris into bits and spread it as mulch around my perennials’ sprouting crowns. Tidiness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. (My mess is creative clutter.)

In the last couple weeks those perennials have put on another bit of growth while spring marched on. Redwing blackbirds came back at the beginning of the month (if not before); I heard choruses of spring peepers sound in my neighborhood on the evening of the10th. On the 12th I noticed black-crowned night herons and a pair of Canada geese had returned to the tiny Tanyard Brook reservoir on State Street in Bristol (my favorite place to bird and turtle watch through the chainlink). Crocuses vied with snowdrops on social media for most-liked, #spring. Pussy willows broke out of bud and the earliest daffodils began blaring tiny trumpets.

I’m a little nervous about jumping the gardening gun but my inclination, despite sleet, frosty nights, and humbugging snow is to trust the signs and follow their cues. So now I’m waiting, sort of impatiently if my inability to wait patiently is anything to go by, for the forsythia to bloom. Its yellow arches and mounds are the universal signal that the ground has warmed another notch, and it’s time to commence the next to-do on my list: rose pruning. But rose buds have already swelled and the other day I couldn’t keep my pruners pocketed. You try.

Most* of the roses we grow around here are so hardy and unperturbed by March’s moods that they won’t be overly injured by premature pruning. *I did once almost kill a marginally hardy rose by accidentally pruning it before a very hard and prolonged April freeze. Mea culpa. But if the rose I pruned last week suffers any dieback I’ll just prune it again shorter this time and be happy I did. Which says something because I’m in the habit of lopping my roses to within inches (12-to-18”) of the ground. There are invisible dormant buds up and down rose canes, even all along the old gnarly trunks, which respond to severe pruning (and a topdressing of compost) with gratifying vigor. It’s actually very hard to kill a rose. Even for me.

Along with roses, it will be high time to prune butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii and cvs.), bush clover (Lespedeza spp.), blue beard (Caryopteris ×clandonensis), and Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) to their lowest buds (anywhere from about 2 to 12” from the ground). Might as well shear the lavender then too but not nearly as hard—cutting back into the woody bits generally only gains you ugly stumps.

In the meantime, while the weather goes through its moody March madness, holding our horses gives us gardeners a good chance to reassess, dream, and plan. As perennials begin to flush out from dormancy so do the memories of the best intentions I formed last year and over the winter. I could—and should—stay busy making endless lists of all of the changes I want to make. And, after the pruning is done, the daffodils peak, the tulips begin to bloom, and the ground dries out a bit, all signs will point to digging in. By then spring won’t be denied and neither will we.

She says. But here it is, April 4 and there’s a good 4 or 5 inches of snow on the ground and counting. Last week or the week before it was in the balmy 60s. (Even my mood swings aren’t this violent.) Daffodils — in peak! –have faceplated; muscari and chionodoxa are buried; forsythia is trying to look tough; my magnolia is toast. Big sigh. Spring marches on? Remains to be seen here. How about in your garden? 

Desperately seeking spring

my witch hazel buried under an ever-deepening drift.
my witch hazel buried under an ever-deepening drift.

After what seemed like a slow start winter has gotten stuck in a Ground Hog’s Day loop of snow and bitter cold. Here, that is. Not everywhere. It might be hard for New Englanders to believe that this winter ranks among the warmest on record but elsewhere winter has been weirdly spring-like. A discomfiting circumstance for anyone living in such a place who worries about a last minute freeze frying the apple blossoms. But such a treat for visitors from the winterlands.

Normally (if there is such a thing as normal anymore, anywhere) the Northwest Flower and Garden Show is timed, as they all are, to enliven a raw, dark winter and raise hopes for a shining spring. For many years, back when I lived in Seattle, I relied on the show to keep from losing my will to live. I paid what felt like a ransom to soak in the smells and burn colors onto my retinas. I stroked green growing things when no one was looking. Although I was a wannabe gardener hungry for information, I never even bothered to attend the lectures because I couldn’t bear to sit still in a dark room when there was so much blooming in another one.

I timed my trip back this year (after way too long) to coincide with the show. And call me crazy, but I only spent a whirlwind morning taking it in (with Slow Flowers superstar Debra Prinzing as my guide!) because it was hard to enjoy spotlit dreamscapes, pretty as they were, when the real outdoors was bright and blooming. I neither gave a lecture nor attended one. I would kick myself now if I hadn’t been able to gather inspiration, information, and joie de vivre in mossy Ravenna Park, Pike Place Market, the Carl S. English Jr. Botanical Garden at the Ballard Locks (where Z and I kept off the grass and forgot to feed the parking meter), the Volunteer Park Conservatory, along sidewalks of my favorite neighborhoods, and from my best friend’s front porch.

Have you sought out spring this winter or has winter been spring-ish all along? If you went away, where did you find it?

FYI: I’ll be heading to the Boston Flower and Garden Show to give a talk on Friday, March 13 at 1:30. If you’re in the neighborhood that lucky day, desperate for a dose of spring, and can stand to sit in a darkened room, I will be over the moon to see you there!

Spring cure

Driving home today with a flat of blue and orange pansies in the wayback I thought about how dependent I have become on their funny monkey faces to cure my spring blues. (Is it just me or do you feel overwhelmed to the point of inertia by the potential of spring?) Almost as soon as the nurseries put pansies out I’m there. This year it feels like very early days but evidently I couldn’t wait. I even tried to resist the urge and then, right before the nearest nursery closed today I invented excuses to go. I suddenly needed to replace a gardening hat I lost over a year ago. I had to buy a pruner holster because I just put mine … somewhere… (It was an expensive flat this year.) potted pansies and stipa 4-13-14My garden is still in its not-pretty-yet stage and the cheerful pots of pansies by my plantry door are totally lipstick-on-a-pig but since I’m not quite ready to tackle all of the dividing and transplanting that my garden requires in spring (it’s Plantiful, doncha know) it felt like the perfect way to ease back into the groove of growing again. And I think I’m a titch happier for it. Money well spent.

It occurred to me to post an old down to earth column on the subject of spring blues and the pansy cure but then I discovered that I already had. Last year. Here.

Do you get the spring blues too? What’s your cure?

Down to earth – when spring drags its feet … force it.

(Originally published March 19, 2014 in East Bay/South Coast Life)

Forget what I said about savoring the last weeks of winter. I’m over it now and I know you are too. Spring can’t come fast enough. Sunshiny days in the 50s and 60s are just a wicked tease arriving as they still do between snow showers and polar vortices. We’re all ready for the tug of war to be over. Ready for the grass to green up and the daffodils to peak. Ready for spring to show in the trees the way it sounds in the birds’ songs. At least we can be pretty sure by now that winter’s muscles are weakening. And spring has the stamina gene. It will win out. Eventually.

Snowdrops are a very good sign that spring is on its way. They’ve been blooming for a few weeks already. Crocus is an even more gratifying sign and I did spot a few of the sweet little wild looking ones (Crocus tommasinianus) open on the last warm day. The honeybees were out that same day, working the witch hazel. And the skunk cabbage are up. It really can’t be long now. But any time the temperatures dip back down to (or below) freezing and snow shows up in the forecast, winter begins to feel interminable again. Until spring wins the tussle once and for all, I say we might as well force it.

I remember my mother displaying vases of bare sticks and twigs in our house when I was a kid. We’d chuckle and snort for weeks about how “pretty” her arrangements were (sarcasm runs in the family) until suddenly they actually were pretty—beautiful even—studded in spring flowers. Given my wonky sense of humor, my perennial disaffection for winter past February, and my vocation as a gardener, it’s no wonder that the practice of tricking tree and shrub branches into an early spring stuck with me. Also, it’s easy.

Simply cut a few budded branches, preferably those that needed pruning anyhow. Because pores close quickly, the stem ends will need a fresh cut, just like flowers do, right before putting them in a vase or bucket of warm—almost hot—water in a bright room. Woody stems need a little extra incentive to draw as much water as possible to the buds, so expose plenty of pith (the tissue under the bark) either by cutting on a sharp angle, or by using your pruners to split the stem an inch or two straight up the middle. Martha Stewart offers a third method involving a hammer. I’m all for finding ways to alleviate the maddening symptoms of spring fever, but the practice of stem smashing seems more likely to damage tissue than open its watery pathways. I could be wrong.

Magnolia stellata forced 3/9 -- 2 weeks to bloom
Magnolia stellata forced 3/9 — 2 weeks to bloom

Next, wait and watch. Change the water periodically and make fresh cuts whenever you feel especially impatient. Depending on the plant and the calendar, your vase of sticks should pop into flower in two weeks to a month or so.

Forsythia is the fastest to force and will be especially quick now that we’re only weeks away from its actual huzzah. It’s not my favorite spring blooming shrub out in the landscape mostly because it’s so common—if yellow is to be the official color of early spring, why not plant acres of fragrant lime-yellow winter hazel (Corylopsis glabrescens) and northeast native spice bush (Lindera benzoin) too? But my mom and I can tell you there’s almost nothing more hilariously cheerful in the living room than a giant vase of forsythia sticks in full bloom. Except maybe a vase of winter hazel, spice bush, crabapples, quince, or magnolia. So if spring can’t come fast enough for you, go ahead and force it.