The beautiful chaos of the spring garden


A view of the organic vegetable garden at the residential portion of The British Embassy in Washington, D.C. in 2011. (Linda Davidson/THE WASHINGTON POST)
Adrian Higgins
Gardening columnist April 24, 2013

Spring arrives. People tell me that this must be my favorite time of year. I smile outwardly while screaming on the inside.

Sometimes I think the whole point of gardening is to mitigate against the craziness of April by getting as much as possible done at other times. When I savor the spring, it is because I look at work already done: the climbing rose I pruned and tied in January, the burgeoning Asian maple I planted in October, or the hundreds of tulips I buried in November.

Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the "Washington Post Garden Book" and "Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden." View Archive

But as much as you seek to prepare, the chaos of spring takes over. This has to do with the oddities of our Washington climate. From October to March, we live in a sort of northern temperate zone. The rest of the time, we are in a subtropical place. April is the unpredictable transition, a time when it might be cold, wet, dry or hot. The skies bring a meteorological vaudeville of hail, wind, snow, thunder and rainbows.

I recently went out of town for a week. Before I left, I found myself burning the last of the firewood. When I returned, it was 86 degrees, the next day 91 degrees. The cabbage transplants had croaked. I felt I had been cheated out of a spring, though the mercury dropped afterward, and my blood pressure along with it.

The weather tug also made for a pretty awful cherry blossom show, if the trees outside my house were any measure. A bleak March (in like a lion, out like a lion) delayed the bloom, and when the flowers appeared, the abrupt heat caused the leaves to rapidly veil the blossoms, which were then removed by a deluge.


Gardening Illustration. (Illustration by The Washington Post; images from istockphoto)

It is this roller coaster that brings a nervous energy to the gardener, who knows that there are tasks that cannot wait. Compounding the problem is the fact that there are three gardening galaxies converging into this black hole.

The first is the last of the winter cleanup. No matter how much weeding, pruning and renovation you do in winter, there are always jobs you missed. In my garden, it was pulling the last of the bittercress and henbit, doing major surgery on an overgrown fig tree and simply bagging all the debris generated by winter work. Okay, I got major help on the last bit, but sometimes I long for the bonfires of my youth.

The second element is the cool-season window, basically a period from the beginning of March to the middle of May when you try to dish up a garden as fresh and lovely as a 70-degree afternoon. Tip: Fall-planted pansies and violas spring back with eye-popping vigor in April. I lump into this period the spring bulbs, of course, but also the peonies, bearded iris, clematis and early roses, the mere thought of which has the power to raise one’s spirits.

This is the period when the vegetable gardener can produce the first season, but only if the weather cooperates (or you’re Michelle Obama and can bend peas to your will).

Because March was both cold and dry, I’ve had a devil of a time getting peas and fava beans to germinate, and the same can be said for lettuce, Swiss chard, mesclun and beets.

I have seen two plantings of cabbages die, the first from the cold, the second from the heat.

Now I’m nurturing pepper and tomato seedlings for the third preoccupation: getting ready for the main, steamy and hot growing season. Soon, it will be time to plant patio containers, drag out potted tropicals and think about sowing beans and cucumbers.

Zinnias, dahlias and coleus all are in my immediate future.

This year, the April madness has coincided with the wholesale replanting of a corner of the ornamental garden with shade-loving perennials and small shrubs. The project has been on the drawing board, literally, for weeks, but now I’m assembling hellebores, cranesbills, deutzias and much more to bring the scheme to life.

There will be time in the weeks ahead to sit and sip iced tea under the grapevine, but not now. Now is the time for anxious toil. But it’s a good vexation. For me and many other harried gardeners in spring, the only thing worse than fretting would be not fretting, not caring, not working the soil. In spring, trying to create and maintain a paradise exposes our vanities and limitations, but it sure does feed the soul.

@adrian_higgins on Twitter

AAlso at washingtonpost.com
Read past columns by Higgins at washingtonpost.com/home.

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