The Little Things

Early spring in my zone is anything but a 128 piece brass band playing at full tilt. That brass band blaring part will come in May, but April is notable for its quiet moments. Those plants that foretell the spring to come are looking very good right now.  That they dare breach the comfort of their winter home for the windy, chilly, and sometimes snowy and sleety garden in late March and April makes them well worth growing. That transition between the winter and spring is a long and blustery hallway. Gardeners can shut the door on the winter, and anticipate the spring light at the end of the tunnel. I would describe that time as April.The most notable of the small early spring things are the small flowering bulbs that require a fall planting. The chionodoxa forbesii “Blue Giant” that is pictured above grows but 6 inches tall. But these true blue flowers with white centers can make that interminable wait for spring a little easier to bear. Left to their own devices, they will multiply at a steady rate. The bulbs are so small they can be planted with your index finger. Every day I look at the chios, as I call them.  They come early, and are ephemeral. Blink, and they are gone until next year.

My favorite spring preview is always about the crocus. These little bulbs produce the most amazing cup shaped flowers with brilliant yellow stamens in early April. Of course the best view is from down on the ground. In April, there is time for a little dallying in the garden. Bad weather in late March can lay waste to them, or shorten their bloom time to but a few days, but I would not do without them. The one March that bad weather destroyed the flowers before they even opened was a bad March indeed. I was not heartbroken. I was insulted. April is a preseason gardening time for Michigan gardeners. There is time to take a good look. Time to smell, see, and hear the garden coming to life again. The small spring flowering plants are many. Snowdrops and winter aconites come first. Pushkinia, anemone blanda, frittilaria species, scilla, leucojum, crocus –  the list is long.

My crocus collection came with the house. 20 years ago I probably had 5 plants in bloom. They have increased at a leisurely rate, and now put on a fairly respectable show. This is nothing like visiting the Netherlands at bulb blooming time. It is a quiet April moment in Michigan.

a sunny April day with crocus tommasinianus in bloom

Pickwick crocus

the Pickwick’s up close

Giant Dutch purple crocus

Of course no discussion of April in Michigan would be complete without some reference to the hellebores. Mine are just coming on. The flower stalks are tall and arching.  The flowers themselves are modest in appearance, as most of the flowers are nodding. Pick a hellebore bloom, and turn it right side up in your hand, and be enchanted.

I know exactly why I devote lots of space in my garden to hellebores. The plants are sturdy. The foliage is glossy green the entire gardening season. Properly sited, they require next to no maintenance. Clumps 20 years old are not unusual. I so appreciate that they begin blooming in April. Their early spring appearance affords me the time to truly appreciate them. My April is not usually about the work of the garden. It is much about anticipation.

I might routinely anticipate the beauty of my April garden, but the bigger reality of this year’s pre-spring moments is always a unique experience. An experience that is not especially showy, and not particularly vocal. April is a a kind of quiet that draws gardeners up to a fire of slow heat. I would say that the April garden in our northern zone is a meeting of the early spring plants, and the caring hands of the gardener in charge. Every year in April, I find reason to celebrate this relationship. Welcome, spring!
















Thinking Spring: The First Of The Small Flowering Bulbs

first crocusThe first spring flower in my garden is always a snowdrop, but the crocus are never far behind. This year, they are early. I suppose an unusually mild winter and a decent string of warmish days account for that. Last year, spring begrudging arrived in late April.  My crocus had barely been in bloom a day before one bitterly cold late April night knocked them to the ground. A gardener’s life is much about moments – some of which are very brief. I am more than a week into the crocus blooming-this is a good year for them. This first crocus is blooming through the remains of an old clump of lady’s mantle. I only do the most rudimentary of fall cleanups. I like a garden to have a winter blanket. Still, that crocus bloom pushing its way up through the matted mess of roots and decaying leaves, is a testament to the persistence of life.

FullSizeRender (5)My crocus do not seem mind the thicket of baltic ivy that covers the ground where they emerge every spring.  There is more to this than meets the eye.  Baltic ivy on the surface is a tangled mess of vines.  But underground the roots are stout and unbelievably thick. If you have ever tried to remove a patch of Baltic ivy, I am sure you threw aside your trowel for a sharp bladed trenching shovel. A mature stand of ivy slated for removal takes the sharpest and biggest tool, a steely amount of determination, and a will to overcome. Add to this a lot of sweat and time, and you will get the picture.  My crocus does not mind the ivy. They thrive, in spite of it.

IMG_0144They push through what is underground, and emerge above ground-effortlessly. Gracefully. They manage their life with equal parts of grace and tenacity. It could be that my most favorite part of the crocus blooming is how they make me get down on the ground to see them. Being close to ground level is an experience of nature like no other. Ground level in a garden is an experience of a living city that is thriving. That experience is what keeps me gardening.

FullSizeRender (3)The story of the earth, and all of the life teeming just below and just above the surface, is a tale that delights each and every gardener. I am sure that what makes gardeners such a close but equally diverse group is their respect for the miracle that is nature. Everyone experiences gardening differently. Those differences make for lots of stories that get passed around.  The respect that every gardener feels for that incredible force that we call nature is what glues us all together. On the flip side, I am just about unglued waiting for our winter to end. The crocus is making that easier to bear.

IMG_2853So my story, this 23rd of March, is that I have crocus in full bloom. Crocus are incredibly beautiful. They are a member of the iris family.  The white stripe at the center of the leaves is typical. Crocus bulbs are planted in the fall. The corms are small, and not very expensive. They take next to no effort to get them planted 3 inches below ground. Even on a cold November day, planting crocus is doable.

DApril-16a-2013SC_0040-9-620x416When they bloom, there is an explosion of color. The blooms are large and showy. They populate an area readily and without any intervention from me. I have never done anything to them, except plant and enjoy. I greatly admire how they shrug off the late winter weather. The coming of the crocus tell me that spring is on the way.

IMG_2856The beginning of spring is not always so easy to detect. One spring day, the birds start singing. That is my first sign. The dormant garden has nothing much to say, but for the crocus.  The crocus emerge and go on to bloom during that time when nature is not entirely sure it is ready to swing in to spring. If you are a gardener, transitional blooming early spring bulbs might jump start your spring.

crocusCrocus are not native to North America. The first species crocus bulbs reputedly made their way to the Netherlands in the mid 16th century from Turkey. This photograph of crocus tommasinianus blooming, via Wikipedia, provides ample evidence that the species crocus are just as lovely as the more readily available giant Dutch hybrids –  derived from the species crocus vernus. Crocus_longiflorus5 from wikipediaCrocus longiflorus, photograph from Wikipedia

crocus blue pearlCrocus chrysanthus Blue Pearl  blooming around a fence post, from Wikipedia. It is a gardening moment that stops me dead in my tracks. How enchanting is this? Happy spring to you.


Sure Signs Of Spring

snowdrops.jpgI have had some signs of our very early spring. Piles of snow in April.  Hellebores encased in ice.  Yews whose foliage is bright orange from  exposure to cold, wind and salt.  White leaved tips on boxwood tell the same tale.  Broken and smashed boxwood-those people plowing snow for days and months on end hardly knew where to start or end their efforts.  Every rhododendron I have seen has damage of one sort or another.  But there are some signs of spring that are as right as rain.

crocus.jpgI had no idea what my crocus would do, considering the length and the severity of our winter.  Would they come up in March, sense the three feet of snow overhead, and give up?  Would they bloom late, pout about a season that did not favor them, and peter out overnight?  Would they stay put below ground, in anticipation of a better spring next year?

crocus.jpgMy worries were unfounded.  Lots of my worries about the garden have much more to do with me, than how nature responds to challenging conditions.  This early spring has made clear that the smartest move I could make as a gardener is to carefully observe natural phenomena.  And take comfort in the fact that nature is eminently able to handle trouble. I may have been laid low by this winter, but today I have crocus in bloom better than I have ever had them. When I got home from work tonight, I was astonished.  My field of crocus-a sure sign of spring.

crocus.jpgThe crocus are very low to the ground. I would recommend that you take the effort to get down and take a few moments to appreciate them.  I am making a very special effort, as they are the first sign of spring in my garden.  These Pickwick crocus are gorgeous today.

crocus.jpgThe life of the gardener is not convenient, predictable, or easy. That said, I would say that every plant in my garden has had a hell of a winter.  Their troubles are much more trying than mine. Any plant that managed to survive the winter we have just lived through deserves my recognition.

crocus.jpgThe crocus wide open in the sun the second week of April- hear hear.  Well done.  Thank you.  So glad to see you.

crocus.jpg The crocus blooming is a sure sign of spring.  These tiny plants blooming big bring me a substantial sigh of relief.  The coming of the crocus in my zone means that spring cannot be far behind. So incredibly beautiful, the crocus in early spring.  Every gardener that I know appreciates the little treasures.  They have a sure idea about what constitutes a big treasure.  The big treasure are those small moments.  Gardeners one and all, I am happy to know you.  Having a crocus moment?  Write me.  Thanks, Deborah


The Crocus

budded-crocus.jpgI’ve been told that our spring season is lagging behind the norm a good 3 weeks.  Every gardener I talk to is sick and tired of the winter that will not let go.  I was dressed to the nines today-meaning my winter coat, hat, and gloves.  Last year, at this time, we were 4 weeks ahead of the norm.  Who knew April 29th the overnight temperature would be 24 degrees.  What conclusion can be drawn from the fact that April 21 this year is 7 weeks behind April 21 of last year?  In my opinion drawing a conclusion does not change the facts.  But at least my crocus made an appearance

The lengthy and late April freeze last year was dramatically destructive.  The magnolias failed to bloom. The crabapples-no one heard a peep out of them. The flowers of apples, cherries and pears froze, and dropped.   Disastrously late frosts dealt a killing blow to gardens, and fruit farmers. 2012-the spring that wasn’t.  But those frosts came after a long hot spell.  My crocus came up, and promptly passed out and melted in the heat.

crocus.jpgLast year’s spring disaster has had me on edge.  I have been watching the April weather as if I had nothing else to do.  Once my crocus appeared, I was sure the spring would be long, temperate, and rewarding.  Why so?  Crocus emerge from the ground early.  Though they look delicate, they are tough.  They emerge at that time when the transition from winter to spring is a big fluid situation.  They thrive on the conflict-or so I thought.

crocus-Pickwick.jpgThe hybrid crocus known as Pickwick is as beautiful as it is vigorous.  Crocus bulbs are small; you could hold 50 in one hand, in the fall.  Those fifty bulbs can light up an early spring garden.  A little package that contains a great gift-the small flowering spring bulbs.  Our spring has been very very cold and equally as gray.  It seems like I waited forever for a mild and sunny day to come along.

A great garden is all about an experience. That day when the crocus are open wide is a really good day.

purple-crocus.jpgThis cluster of crocus predates  my ownership of my property.  In a good year, I will have them a week.  In a bad year, not at all.

April-snow.jpgTwo nights ago-we had night temperatures right around 28 degrees.  And snow.  What could I do about it?  Nothing.

below-freezing.jpgEvery beautiful moment in the garden is just that-a moment.  My crocus this year-I had one half hour of one day to enjoy them.  Would I give up on the crocus?  Absolutely not.  That one moment of great beauty makes for a memory that will stay with me.  Was I disappointed?  terribly so.