Field Notes 8

Northeast BY GORDON HAYWARD/Putney, Vermont, Zone 5

Turning Point

THE WEEKS BETWEEN the end of winter and the beginning of spring here in the Northeast form the cusp of the gardener’s year. We look back with longing at the respite offered by four to five months of winter, a sedentary, tea-sipping time when we catch our breath, go to garden symposia, read, and don’t have to pull a single weed. At the same time, we look forward to seeing the last of the snow and the first of the bulbs. More than once in late March or early April I’ve gone out with shovel in hand on a warm late-March day to scatter piles of snow on the lawn and driveway to hasten its disappearance, all the time marveling at the witch hazel and Daphne mezereum (pictured below) already in bloom.

Once the snow is gone, there is a mercilessly short period of time before the emergence of bulbs and perennials, and yet there’s much to do. So much that more than once I have found myself gardening right up to the edge of retreating snow. I can’t wait. No matter what the common wisdom about when to open up beds in the spring, I’m right there where snow meets open ground, mindful not to walk on the sodden, easily compacted soil. I’m raking soaked leaves that blew in after I finished raking last November, especially where I know daffodils and crocuses will be poking through any day. I’m pulling the first weeds of our seven-month growing season, picking up broken branches and sticks from beds and lawn, cleaning the garden shed, taking divisions of herbaceous perennials, putting the furniture and garden ornaments out. With a wheelbarrow, I haul up from the cold cellar the large terra-cotta pots Mary and I planted with tulips last October.

Then there’s the edging—something I haven’t had time to attend to since last August. In mid- to late April, once the lawn is no longer sodden and before the perennials along bed edges have grown much, I can see the line where lawn meets bed. I like crisp dropped edges. They clearly define the shape of both bed and lawn, establish a frame, and keep lawn grasses from creeping into adjacent beds. With edges cut, I can feel and see the launching of the new gardening season.

And then, before I know it, the spring gardens, raked and edged, are awash in color: with perennials like phlox, foamflower, bloodroot, and pulmonarias blooming alongside daffodils, crocuses, and the tulips in their pots by the entrance to our garden. Above them is a canopy of bloom from magnolias, Rhododendron mucronulatum, cherries, pieris, and even Acer pseudosieboldianum underplanted with Vinca minor ‘Bowles’. But still, it’s not enough. I begin to wonder what new spring bloomers are for sale at my favorite nursery. H

To do in the garden

  • Rake leaves off gardens before plant growth begins.

  • Cut back ornamental grasses and Russian sage to about 12 inches.

  • Prune fruit trees in March.

  • Don’t prune maples or dog-woods—they’ll bleed sap—and don’t prune shrubs that will bloom before July 4, as they bloom on wood formed last year.

Worth growing

February daphne

Daphne mezereum

This three- to five-foot upright shrub (USDA Zones 3–7) is the first to bloom in early April here in southern Vermont. We know it’s in bloom when we can smell its heady fragrance 30 feet away. Native to Europe and western Asia, it was brought by colonists to the Northeast, where it has naturalized. Half-inch rosy purple flowers appear before two- to three-inch dark green leaves. Flowers cluster along the top foot of each upright stem, which by June give rise to poisonous scarlet berries. ‘Bowles” Variety” and ‘Paul’s White” are readily available cultivars, as is a fall-blooming form, ‘Autumnalis’. This shrub tolerates a half day of shade, but prefers full sun and well-drained soil. Plant container-grown plants or seedlings only, and once established, don’t move them. Sources, page 88.

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