Suddenly, the whole world has burst into bloom and started to turn green. The abrupt transition happens every year, even if the miracle of it always seems to take us by surprise.
Sometimes you just have to state the obvious: Spring is joyful. In a dynamic, temperate plant world such as ours, the burgeoning of the leaves and blossoms stirs a corresponding growth in our spirits. There is also work to be done in the spring, but amid this natural reawakening, it doesn’t seem like real toil.
If you want to channel this ebullience into something more lasting, it helps to think of principles that transcend the season. Great gardeners are shaped by these ideas:
The next six to eight weeks are the time to prepare beds, sow and plant annuals and veggies, gather and plant containers, revive the herb garden, plant dahlias, and generally go with the horticultural flow. But it’s important to remember that this isn’t the only “moment” in the garden, either to enjoy or to create, and the same rewards await on the other side of Memorial Day, when the heat chases fair weather gardeners away.
Gardening, when it gets under your skin, boils down to stuffing your world with plants. The growing season becomes an eight-month parade in which each flowering plant is like a float, coming and going. Some of the most dramatic landscape designs come to the fore after the spring, particularly with the increasing interest in ornamental grasses and perennials.
When horticulturists at Longwood Gardens in southeastern Pennsylvania tracked the blooming calendar of 462 varieties of perennials, they found that almost two-thirds of them peaked after June 1.
[When perennials bloom at Longwood]
This shift to a multi-seasonal mind-set isn’t just for enjoying; it’s for doing. Some important aspects of gardening are better not done in the spring. Reaping the harvest, planting a fall garden, dividing the irises — these are the jobs of late summer. Seeding the lawn is the work of early fall, which is also the best time to put in a new shrub or tree or move an existing one.
The show of cherry blossoms is brief — that is one of their charms — but they have been readying for the display for eight months. This has to be another metaphor of sorts: Spring may come but once a year, but the gardener can work toward it year-round, just as you work on the fall garden now by planting asters, toad lilies, and trees and shrubs valued for their autumn color.
When you spend five or more hours a day looking at a digital screen, as we now do, it’s easy to see why life in general seems busier than ever; all the other stuff of quotidian existence gets compressed or diminished. In a world of “now,” the garden offers a respite, but only if we set aside our expectations of instant gratification.
An authentic garden demands foresight and patience. If you seek to rush it — by planting fast-growing, weak-wooded and densely foliated trees — then what you gain in early effect is replaced with an ongoing maintenance nightmare later in the form of broken branches, encroaching vegetation and a creeping gloom that limits everything else you grow in its shade.
Some folks with deep pockets will have a four-inch-caliper tree installed at great expense when a 1
In general, a perennial takes two or three years after planting to shine and a ground cover about the same time to fill in. A small shrub may wait four years to fulfill its promise. A large shrub or small tree needs five to seven years to have presence, a shade tree seven to 10 years or more. “Gardens really aren’t going to sing until they are three or four years old,” said landscape designer Barbara Katz, of London Landscapes in Bethesda. “People just don’t understand the time it takes to develop a real garden.”
So slow down and wait for the reward. Or plant a vegetable garden. Come to think of it, plant a vegetable garden anyway.
This is an integral part of gardening and one that professionals rarely talk about, perhaps because it is taboo or perhaps because it is so obvious. Most gardeners and designers I know rarely get it right the first time, because even they cannot predict how living organisms will thrive or not in a given spot and how they will behave with their floral playmates.
When a new planting doesn’t go to plan — it’s pretty evident after two or three growing seasons — tweak it, edit it or rip the whole thing out and start again. More important, allow yourself that option at the initial planting. Fixing a problem “is just a fantastic opportunity to get better at it,” Katz said. “Give yourself license to make mistakes.”
The dilemma is in deciding whether to give something more time to work out or to cut your losses. After years of trying to get catmint to grow in an increasingly shady bed, I pulled it out and replaced it with sedge grass, something I should have done much earlier.
A horticulturist friend of mine just pulled a honeysuckle vine after waiting five years for it to form a vertical statement on a purpose-built trellis. “It wasn’t dense enough, the flower clusters waned, and the more I trimmed it the less it bloomed,” she said.
Some perennials are inherently short-lived, and you have to stay on top of them to keep the effect you want. Coneflowers, gaura, some cranesbills and heucheras are classic examples. Be prepared to replant or replace. “They can be like reality TV stars whose careers in the garden were over and done before they began,” said Kelly Norris, director of horticulture at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden.
[Heuchera is a popular perennial for shade, but which variety is best?]
In the case of the coneflowers, for example, you have to either plant fresh ones each year or fill the gaps with such other, longer-lasting meadow perennials as goldenrods, asters and liatris.
In one prominent spot in my garden, a witch hazel now forms an important focal point in front of a wall, a site that needed a large shrub or small tree. I first planted a Chinese fringe tree, but it became too large and dense. I replaced it with a variety of upright Japanese maple, which was perfect except that it died from freeze damage. I replaced it with the witch hazel. Years before, in another corner of the garden, I had removed a witch hazel that had become too rampant, replacing it with a weeping Japanese maple that has remained in scale. Once you realize you don’t have to stick with a plan that isn’t working, the revelation is liberating.
“On the flip side, I look at things that I planted 10 years ago, and they are still there: the yuccas, Solidago drummondii, hardy cactus,” said Norris, author of “Plants With Style.”
Immutable garden vignettes, rare as they are, present their own problem: At what point do you try something new? This probably comes down to your personality type, but don’t rest on your laurels.
The most important zone in the garden, and the one supporting the most life, is the one we can’t see — the soil. But it is here that plants take up water and nutrients and where roots wander to find communion with beneficial bacteria and fungi. The gardener keeps this veiled universe fueled by adding organic matter. This, in turn, improves both the vitality and physical structure of the soil. The benefits cannot be overstated: Enriched soil equates to healthier and more vigorous plants, helps prevent soil erosion and compaction, and reduces the need for synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
Organic mulch, as it breaks down, helps to feed this biosphere, but in the spring, we tend to go mad with the mulch. Garden beds need no more than an inch or two, to keep weeds back and to conserve moisture. Repeated, thick layers of mulch promote surface rooting of plants that is highly detrimental. Mulch stacked in piles against tree trunks — mulch volcanoes — has no horticultural value and can harm the host trees.
Mulch quality is also inconsistent: Shredded bark is desirable, shredded wood less so, and mulch that has been stockpiled can undergo anaerobic fermentation that produces compounds that give off vapors that can damage or kill plants. If it smells bad, it probably is. (Rake it away from plants until the mulch stops smelling.)
One of the best mulches is of shredded leaves, or semi-rotted leaf mold, from the fall leaf drop. Recycling leaves also saves on the mulch bill, which can add up. A two-inch layer of shredded leaves in November will have kept winter weeds at bay and promoted earthworm action. It can be incorporated into the soil now for all of the microscopic critters waking up as the soil warms.
Compost from yard waste, aged and screened, makes a superb soil amendment.
If you are laying acres of mulch, you don’t have enough ground covers and other plants.
The Internet offers a whole world of information and counsel, much of it sound and applicable to gardeners in our neck of the woods.
[Plant your seeds at the perfect time using this gardener-approved guide]
The University of Maryland Extension service has a comprehensive website (extension.umd.edu). General help is available under its publications section, where a variety of practical topics are examined. Vegetable gardeners will find advice in its Grow It Eat It section.
Similarly, Virginia Tech’s Cooperative Extension service (ext.vt.edu) has a menu of topics dealing with common problems. The university’s Department of Plant Pathology, Physiology and Weed Science (ppws.vt.edu) also has a useful guide for identifying weeds.
Both universities and the University of the District of Columbia train master gardeners to provide help to local residents through plant clinics.
Public gardens in the Washington area provide educational programs and are also good places to visit to see plants suited to the Mid-Atlantic and how they grow. Prime locations include the National Aboretum, the U.S. Botanic Garden, Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, Green Spring Gardens in Annandale and River Farm south of Alexandria.
You can venture farther afield to see other inspiring gardens, including Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond; Chanticleer in Wayne, Pa.; Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa.; and Winterthur, just north of Wilmington, Del.
It may take a wait of two or three years to find a plot, but joining a community garden is another great way to learn from other gardeners. The key is to find the accomplished growers and to observe not just what they are planting but — this may be the greatest secret to growing veggies — the timing of their seeding and transplanting. Ultimately, the best teacher is your own experience.
How do you remember all this stuff? Keep a garden diary. Recording a log of plantings and their performance has value, especially when you come to look back at it a few seasons later. Examining a diary entry from last March, I could rekindle my sense of annoyance that a long, lingering winter had delayed the usual jump on the growing season. “Nothing in,” I wrote. “Spring is three weeks late. I survey delayed work and weeds.”
This year, March has given us May weather, and the spring will be different, though not necessarily better. One thing is certain: The observant gardener will spend the whole year in growth.