FEW TRAUMAS are more painful for the gardener than the establishment of spring-planted shrubs.
To begin with, they either arrive from the nursery just before a truly outstanding freeze in March followed by two tornadoes, or else they arrive the end of March just before April enters with a startling spell of dry-sunny weather and 92-degree temperatures.
But then again (as this year) neither March nor April misbehaves, and the plants are excessively slow to leaf out.
Commonly they are dry as bones when received, and look as if they had been dug last August and stored in a coal bin since.
Depending on various omens, I usually soak the bare-rooted shrubs 40 hours in the lily pool, then plant them and alternately pray and curse.
Now I know, to begin with, I have no business growing scarlet thorns (hawthorns) which are susceptible to more ills than Aunt Augusta who was disappointed in love at that age of 20.
If you want a thorn, our native Crataegus phaenopyrum, the Washington thorn, is not only more beautiful than any of the European thorns, but more elegant as well, and of far handsomer growth habit and quite healthy as well.
Still, I am much annoyed that my scarlet thorn, an English sort, is coming on so slowly.
Another plant calculated to collapse the average gardener is the common, black locust in its gold-leaf form. As every country fellow knows, you can cut a branch of locust and stick it in the ground and within five years you have a big tree. Even locust fence posts often took root in my country, southwest of here.
And yet it can sulk when transplanted. It likes to be moved in the spring, or at least it growls less at that season. It sits there without the least sign of life for weeks. Sometimes, if the gardener does not seem nervous enough, it shrivels and wrinkles its few small stems a bit.
If all goes well, however -- and once in a while it does -- there is the slightest of swellings from between two thorns and gradually -- very gradually -- a leaf bud reluctantly emerges.
A shrub of equal (though contrary) nervous-making is the flowering currant. It leafs out instantly, or at least the rudiments of the green leaves (like a tiny bunch of parsley) stick out from the stems. Then they sit. Four weeks later the gardener wonders if they have been embalmed by the nursery before dispatch. They do not die, they do not grow. They sit.
Sargent's crabapple commonly delights the gardener who sets out a three-foot specimen by bursting into bloom. How remarkable and how splendid. And then it sits for a month, no leaves appearing, and the gardener starts to despair. But it, too, with a little luck, eventually puts out leaves a month late, and if great attention is paid to watering it in the summer, it eventually makes a very small tree that is the joy of all.
Now along the Lower Mississippi where I grew up we would no more have planted a mountain ash than a ptarmigan.
Up here you can grow mountain ashes. But of course they make medium-sized trees. When I saw Sorbus tianshanica offered for sale and (upon consulting my Dictionary of Gardening) saw it referred to as a creature of vast beauty, I of course bought one. It arrived with one stem, no twigs, and a root like a pokeweed or carrot, and I thought that was very good. Such roots can cope with clay.
I hope. I have planted it in "retentive" clay. Doubtless it will turn out later that it insists on sandy loam. It sprouted out promptly and produced a few flower heads. This is alarming.
And so on and on. Over they years it has dawned on me that gardeners worry if a plant -- a new one newly planted in spring -- blooms or if it does not bloom. If it leafs out late. If it grows rapidly or if it doesn't.
And rightly does the gardener sweat with anxiety. The shock of being moved and of getting established in changeable weather is a crisis for the plant. If its tender leaves are stewed by an accidental series of 90-degree days, or if its emerging buds are caught by an outrageous drop to 23 degrees, or if they are battered off by hail, or dried out by wind, then disaster is upon us.
Now this spring -- whatever other objections may be lodged against it (such as the worst and feeblest flowering of the dogwoods in the memory of mankind) -- has been neither too hot nor too cold, neither too wet nor too dry.
It has been, I think, too medium.
And yet I know I am lucky indeed, planting woody shrubs at the end of March, that conditions have been so nearly perfect for their survival.
This has been, needless to say, no comfort whatever. I want the days to warm up. Still, I'd like them to be rather cool, also, so the roots can get going without too great drain on the plant's skimpy plumbing system.A lot of young soft leaves (all busily evaporating water), before the roots have started growing well, will mean a terrible strain on the plant.
I urge the weather on, this way and that, with eager prayers. I whoa it, with timely curses. I cannot myself take the strain of watching these unestablished plants day by day. But if I'm out of town, it's even worse. The gardener's life is not a quiet one.