The spring season is the most volatile in the Mid-Atlantic as we transition from temperate to tropical. To live and garden here is to experience a recurring shift in climates that is hard to explain to people from elsewhere and sometimes difficult to fathom ourselves.
You become inured to it over the years and don’t stop to think that fellow Earthlings live in environments that are more cohesive and coherent. If you lived in, say, Southern California, you would have warm, wet winters and hot, dry summers, the classic Mediterranean formula. Yes, there would be years of drought and periods of deluge, but the underlying patterns wouldn’t change much. I imagine the Canadian Maritimes as a region of dark, deep winters and autumns full of gray storms, but summer days long and bright and windy. You would know where you stand.
Washington is an entirely different world, a place that just swaps one climate wholesale for another. One month we are in northern France and the next in the West Indies, but without the soothing sound of the palm fronds dancing in the ocean breeze (or the rum punches and calypso music, for that matter).
The climactic tussle puts me further in awe of our garden plants, which cannot escape these vagaries and have learned to dance with both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
The shift always makes for a bumpy ride for the gardener, although this spring was unusually turbulent. My gardening friends cannot remember one quite so odd. After the damaging freezes at the start of April, the month turned into the hottest on record. It rained a lot at times, which we needed. Certain things bloomed with a remarkable intensity and for a long time. This delight comes with a price. Last week, for example, brought us squarely into the realm of summer with a steamy heat that reached 90 degrees. That was the air temperature; the garden beds were barely at 60 degrees.
This is around the temperature at which the periodical cicada emerges from the soil for one final act of flight, sex, egg-laying and death. This after many years in the dark, cold ground. It’s the ultimate case of going out in style. Earlier this month, a partially erupting brood of cicadas was evident as they crawled out of the ground, shed their papery brown shells and turned into arthropodal glamour pusses. The cicadas are genuinely beautiful in their freakish way. You can pick them up — they won’t harm you — and study their orange wing venation and orange legs. Their wide-set and little red eyes are like rubies.
Many people regard the cicadas as unsettling, but young children and old gardeners, who still find the world a wondrous place, adore them.
The cicadas that survive the birds and mate can do real damage to the garden; the female slits the underside of tree branches to lay eggs. A hatch that is big enough can result in visible branch dieback by late summer, high in the tree canopy. There is very little you can do about this, although I have found that a trip to the garden center can take the mind off the inevitable setbacks of gardening.
I generally don’t enjoy shopping, but there are times when getting stuff at the start of the growing season is both a necessity and, occasionally, an unalloyed pleasure. I begin to salivate when I see something I desperately want — a certain plant or an organic feed with kelp and crab shells. I can’t explain it, except the response is no doubt linked to endorphins and bargain prices.
In April and May, I found myself with alarming frequency in garden centers, nurseries and mass merchandisers. Some were near, others weren’t, and the farthest was 123 miles from home.
Part of the reason for this spree was that I did no winter seed starting this year because of other labors (and dissatisfaction with my seed-growing setup). Another reason is that I have become obsessed with tender, decorative salvias, which provide flowering from early summer to mid-fall.
I have so far amassed approximately 20 Mexican bush sages and half a dozen of the red flowering Salvia microphylla, which are smaller-leafed, hardier and bloom with delicate red flowers all season long. I also picked up five Salvia guaranitica, a variety named Black and Bloom, developed for darker stems, bigger flowers, and more leaf substance than the better known Black and Blue. My salviamania is so potent that I even bought a flat of common bedding sages, Salvia coccinea.
I was at a specialty nursery in northern Maryland the other day, mentioned I needed dahlias and was directed to what turned out to be a large, Amish-owned retail nursery near Orrstown, Pa., Lurgan Greenhouse. I was debating whether to go that far — another hour’s drive — for some dahlias. When I got there, it was an Aladdin’s cave, with lots of everything, from trees to ferns to annuals. The prices were most appealing, and the rub, if there was one, was that you could pay only by cash or check.
I loaded up on dahlias, ferns, container annuals and, um, salvias. They also had a large section of aquatic plants, though not what I wanted (tropical lilies). But in this aisle, my eye was drawn to a tank of bullfrog tadpoles. My fishpond needed a few frogs, so I netted three of them. If I had bought 10, the price would have dropped to 99 cents each, but no pond outside a bedroom needs 10 bullfrogs. A fellow has to sleep at night.
With all the sages and dahlias and container plants in place, I feel I can gird myself for the heat and humidity. I might even learn to like it. Well, perhaps not, but I could sympathize with the novelist Albert Camus. Consumptive and trapped in wartime Paris, he yearned to get back to his native Algeria.
“Sometimes I think of health,” he wrote, “as a great land full of sun and cicadas.”