April 30, 2013

The 'Hurry Up' Season

It seems like just a few weeks ago, I was starting to rake leaves out of dormant perennial and shrub beds around our property.  I would clean one bed per day and feel I was doing a good, thorough job of getting my garden in shape.  Over several days I cut back the grasses that had provided winter structure.  Each time I completed an area I would step back and admire my handiwork.
I did not know it, but those were the good old days.
A hundred square feet of lawn
disappeared as part of the
"Hurry Up" season
This past weekend, Betty and I re-established the edge of our shrub bed and moved multiple cubic yards of mulch into it.  We stripped off a hundred square feet of grass out to the drip line of a nicely maturing Forest Pansy Redbud, we trimmed winter kill from a dozen shrubs, and we put up 140 linear feet of fencing around our vegetable garden.  And all that was just on Saturday.
This morning, the epimedium have
burst into bloom... and so need
to be mulched
Welcome to the Hurry-Up Season.  Spring in New England takes its time appearing.  There were still patches of snow on our lawn in mid-April.  Then, in very quick succession came snowdrops, squill, daffodils, forsythia, hyacinths, magnolias and, just this morning, epimedium and bluebells.  Spring is suddenly racing ahead at a full gallop.
Ten days ago, two mountains of
mulch appeared at either end of
our driveway.  Half of it is gone.
Hosta is making its appearance known, thrusting up little spikes that, in a few weeks, will become giant leaves.  And, as soon as the sixty-plus hostas in our ‘hosta walk’ have shown themselves, it will be time to sink down the soaker hoses that keep the garden lush through the summer months.  There is a second mountain of mulch in our driveway that could not be spread until the perennials made their presence known.  Now, with salvia, columbine, coreopsis, brunnera, dicentra, and a dozen other plants in our borders staking out their spaces in the garden, that mulch needs to be carefully placed in beds for weed control.  Oh, and those same returning perennials need to be reined in so as not to intrude on their neighbors; and the peonies – now growing an inch a day – need to be staked.
Did I forget to mention our lawn?  Once the last of the snow melted, the grass was properly raked to get it ready for the new season and remove the accumulation of winter debris.  The grass greened up nicely and now it is starting to grow.  I have added ‘sharpen the lawn mower blade’ to my to-do list.  There is also a smattering of dandelions in our lawn.  We don’t use broad-leaf herbicides to get rid of them (it would also kill off the beneficial clover and nice-to-look-at squill and violets that help give the lawn a lush, exotic look).  Instead, each afternoon I survey the lawn for dots of yellow, and then pry out the offending dandelion, root and all, with a screwdriver.
All winter long, we piled up brush
from winter storm damage...
All winter long we piled brush from storms in one spot.  In March and early April, we cut down damaged trees and pruned ornamentals, adding to the pile.  By mid-April, the brush pile was ten feet high.  Last week, it took eight loads in a pickup truck to get it to our town’s transfer station.
...Eight truckloads later, the debris
was gone; all in a day's work
The vegetable garden looms large on the horizon.  As soon as the fence was up, the ‘cold weather’ crops were planted.  Now, each week in May will mean another clutch of seed packages that beckon to be put in the ground (and then thinned, watered and weeded).  The ‘benefit’ of the garden – fresh vegetables – is weeks away.  For now, it is all work and postponed enjoyment.
You can pack a lot of plants into a
Prius.  This was our haul on
Sunday from Andrews' Greenhouse
in Amherst.
Sometime during the month of May, dozens of container gardens will also come to life.  To make that possible, containers need to be brought out of the basement (a few weigh up to fifty pounds each), assessed for damage and cleaned.  Then will come multiple shopping expeditions at garden centers to find exactly the right mix of annuals (and a few perennials) to give each container a distinct personality.  Planting each container can consume an hour.  The 16 flats of annuals shown at right were purchased Sunday morning.  They'll be used in Betty's container gardening programs during May.
The good news is that in early June the pell-mell rush slows to a more stately pace of garden maintenance.  There will be time to actually sit back and enjoy what we have done.
That’s the pleasure of gardening in New England.  When you finally see your handiwork in its full, joyous bloom, your mind miraculously wipes clean the aches and sweat that are the hallmark of May.  You sip a beverage of choice and enjoy a breeze perfumed by nature.  You admire what you have wrought and think to yourself, ‘this is why we did it.’

April 2, 2013

The April Fools

Three weeks ago, the snow by our front door had retreated sufficiently that a clutch of yellow crocus had burst open, ready for whatever pollinators were buzzing about.  Two days later, the Storm That Wasn’t Supposed To Get This Far North dropped a foot of ‘partly cloudy’ on Medfield.  Over the weekend, the snow retreated, exposing the spot where the crocuses (croci?) had bloomed.  Alas, there were only crocus greens.
On Sunday, the crape myrtle,
hydrangea and lavender came out of
the garage, even though the ground
was still covered with snow.
Welcome to New England, the home of the April fools. 
‘April fools’ is not a day; it is season in which spring arrives in fits and starts.  Temperatures begin to rise, and so I drag pots filled with tender shrubs and perennials from out of their winter quarters to begin the acclimation process.  Then, the evening news brings word from a cheerful weatherperson that an unexpected dip in the jet stream will bring nighttime temperatures down into the upper teens.  Out I go, into the fading twilight, dragging pots back into the garage. 
At least I provide a continuing source of amusement for our neighbors.
The trick is to ignore the pink and
yellow lines, which show a nice,
gradual warming trend for the
month.  It's that blue bottom line

that counts.
This past weekend was a glorious time, weather-wise.  Temperatures soared to 60 degrees and so Betty and I went to work clearing oak-leaf-clogged perennial beds.  When the inner sidewalk bed was done, we found we had exposed broad patches of daffodil shoots, which gave us the zeal to tackle the next bed.  That one, too, had bulb greens awaiting the kiss of sunlight.  By yesterday afternoon, we had even cut down the grasses in the xeric bed fronting the street.  There is nothing like exposing a little green to get a gardener’s heart thumping.
In mid-afternoon, of course, a cold front came through, bringing high winds, rain, and plummeting temperatures.  This morning, we awakened to temperatures in the twenties.  All those fragile bulb greens – which had been protected under that covering of leaves – are now exposed to the elements.  Yep, we jumped the gun yet again. 
Winter has not yet run its
course.  This photo of our
front lawn was taken
April 3, 2011.
Anyone who has lived in New England for a decade or so knows the April weather stories:  the April Fool’s Day snow storm of 1997 (more than 20 inches in Boston) probably tops the list, but how about the ice storm of mid-April 2011 that let you watch the swelling buds on your fruit trees freeze before your very eyes? 
Maybe the Boston Marathon has something to do with it.  If it’s warm enough for 26,713 athletes to run 26 miles, surely it’s reasonable to expect that a few plants can survive outdoors.  What we fail to remember is that those athletes want it to be cold and dreary.  If it’s warm enough to grow petunias, runners will be dropping like flies.
In our spare time, Betty and I manage Medfield’s community garden with sixty plots for a like number of gardeners.  On March 23, Betty gave her annual vegetable gardening talk at the town library.  A room full of people listened intently as she repeatedly said that soil temperature is the only reliable indicator of when to plant.  The air temperature may be 55 degrees, but if the soil an inch down is 35 degrees, nothing will germinate.  By my count, she repeated that mantra five times.
No sooner did she finish her talk when the first hand went in the air with the inevitable question:  “How soon can we start working the garden?”
To her credit, Betty did not throw anything.  Instead, she smiled and gave her pat answer:  “You tell me what the weather is going be through the end of April, and I’ll tell you exactly when you can start your garden.”
Patience is the principal virtue of a New England gardener.

This clutch of
daffodils is waiting
to bloom... and to
be snowed upon.
At the same time, I know that the teasing will continue.  In a protected corner by our garage, a dozen daffodils are already eight inches high and headed up, waiting for the perfect afternoon to dazzle me with their blinding yellow trumpets.  And, just as surely, Old Man Winter will have a last gasp, and those daffodils will suffer the indignity of multiple inches of snow, sleet or freezing rain (or maybe all three).  But eventually, spring will arrive.  In New England, we call that ‘May’.