I have a complaint to make: spring is far too fickle for my liking. After what seems like endless months of fighting with shovel and blower through head-high drifts of snow, dodging deadly icicles that inevitably seem to form exclusively over my back door, and shuddering as each new arctic blast depletes what little is left of my household heating budget – suddenly spring arrives unannounced, like a dinner guest at the door an hour before the party starts –very much welcome, and very much not.
Without even a “by your leave,” all the damp dreariness of winter disappears into a burst of sunlight, warmth and flower, leaving the gardener bewildered and unprepared. In a dizzying whirl, the first tiny crocus and snowdrops appear, followed by the early tulips, daffodils, anemones, iris reticulata and a host of other small spring bulbs. Then the main show arrives – everything from flowering dogwood to Darwin tulips to apple blossoms to camassia– appearing all at once with such a hurried presentation that it’s hard to appreciate even a tenth of it. And how ephemeral this display can be! Depending on the capriciousness of windy spring weather, an entire tree full of heavenly scented peach blossoms may only last only a day or two. Two years ago, I had an entire bed of tulips mowed down by hail. And in the ultimate insult, one time, the day before my wisteria was to bloom for the first time after a ten year wait, every bud but one was wiped out in a late May frost. One bud! Ten years! What’s a gardener to do?
The answer is simple: bring in spring. You can easily transport spring inside where you have at least a modicum of control over both timing and the elements, and are able to set the pace of the display to something less than Mother Nature’s normally eye-popping speed.
Here in my garden, this process takes several forms. One of my favorites is forcing branches, as I wrote about last week. Almost every flowering bush or tree, from ornamental quince to pears, can be forced indoors. Not only are arrangements of these cut branches extremely dramatic, the scent associated with many of these species can only really be appreciated up-close and indoors. Best of all, by cutting branches in succession, you can prolong the display over several weeks
Another good way to appreciate the beauty spring has to offer is pots of bulbs indoors. As I came into my kitchen this morning after wading out into the rain and slush to let out the chickens, there in the hallway paperwhites, crocus, and clivia were all in full bloom – a heady contrast with the gray and sleet outdoors. While many species need to be started in the fall for an early spring show (or like the clivia, are long-lived houseplants) there are still some, like pre-cooled hyacinths, paper whites, lily of the valley, and anemones, which can be started now for a late spring display. If you have totally missed the boat for starting your own this year, then simply buy potted plants from your local florist for now, and immediately put a reminder in your August calendar to order bulbs for next winter’s show. Forcing bulbs indoors isn’t difficult (I’ll be writing about that later on this year) provided you choose varieties suitable for forcing.
Finally, don’t be afraid to get out the shears and start a-snipping outside as the flowers begin to appear. Most bulbs make excellent cut flowers, and one of the best ways to appreciate these delicate beauties is in the vase. (The myth that cutting the flowers reduces next year’s display is just that: in fact, the opposite is true, as long you are sure to leave the foliage intact to wither away on the bulb) One idea: a special garden just for cutting. Several years ago I planted a small out-of-the-way area with early, middle and late tulips; narcissi, muscari, and hyacinths. Now, if for some reason I don’t have potted bulbs on hand (like last year, when neglecting my own advice, I forgot to order in the fall) I can simply go out and cut for the house without worrying about diminishing the display in the border.
So with a little forethought and preparation, even if snow flies in May, or slurries of slush still lie silently on your front walk, just waiting for the unwary, you too can laugh at weather. All you need to do is bring in spring.