The February Gold variety of daffodil — cheap, cheerful and early — lived up to its name this year in my garden, but only because it’s a leap year.
The buds threatened to open for a week and finally unfurled Feb. 29, in an old, spreading clump on the side of a rocky bank. The flowers are bright yellow, somewhat dainty and not a great prospect for the show bench. Mine are further diminished because the clump is overgrown: The blooms are too few and crowded in a thicket of leaves. Some gardeners perk up underperforming daffodils by giving them a good feed while in leaf, but my colony really needs to be lifted in June, divided and stored until September planting time. I can’t guarantee that this will happen. In late June I’m fussing with vegetables and summer perennials, and the shriveled foliage of spring bulbs does not beckon.
The real value of February Gold is that it is a marker, the start of daffodil time, a period that both anticipates and celebrates the shift from winter to spring. This is a moment when even the most indifferent souls among us seem to notice the rest of the universe and the ways of the cosmos. Folks at the other end of this nature-human continuum have realized that the glorious phenomenon we call spring has been stirring for weeks. In my garden — which is not particularly planted with this time in mind — the hybrid hellebores have raised their cream-and-pink blooms in showy profusion, the species crocus are flowering robustly, and the bulbous irises are dark, speckled and glorious.
There are other signs of the season weeks before the cherry blossoms pop open. In mid-February, the goldfish were in their winter torpor, deep and still below a layer of ice. Now, they are frolicking at the surface and looking for wayward insects. The mourning doves look broody, and formations of migrating geese are stirring up the clouds.
This is delightful in one sense but a little alarming in another, because there is still winter work to be done. In the vegetable garden, the boards that retain raised beds need their annual resetting, and the spar that fell off the cedar arbor still needs fixing. The gate to this veggie plot requires some carpentry work so that visitors stop pushing it when it should be pulled. Perhaps a sign with “PULL” on it would help. A birdhouse is loose and needs securing before the wrens show up, which might be any day now.
Most of all, there is winter pruning yet to tackle. In the vegetable garden alone, this means attending to two mature bowers of rambling roses, a red-currant bush, a gooseberry bush and a grape vine that sprawls up and across the arbor. I’m a week or three behind in these chores, but I’m still recovering from the blizzard of late January, which set my mind clock back a month. Nature doesn’t care. It’s time to grab the lopping shears and the hand pruners.
All of these woody plants will flower and fruit in coming months from the buds on last year’s shoots. So if you blithely cut back branches, you can wreck the year’s production.
The currant and gooseberry bushes produce a congested thicket of growth each year, and the late-winter pruning offers a moment of liberation for gardener and plant alike. I remove entirely the stems that are two or three years old — they are thicker and darker than the more productive wood. The ones you keep are younger, thinner and lighter in color. But a good number of those are removed, too, to open up the bush so that the new growth gets light and air movement. The remaining stems are full of buds, and I cut them back by about a third. The plant looks like a scrawny shorn sheep afterward, but by the end of April, the branches are thick with fresh growth and full of blossoms.
The grapevine spreads a net of lateral shoots over the top of the arbor. After pruning, the vine is reduced to about five lateral branches, each cut back to a single pair of buds. This also involves taking off unwanted branches on the laterals. The pruning invigorates the vine, and by May the grape leaves are fully grown and shading the bizarre white flower clusters that will develop into fruit.
The vine shares the arbor with a robust climber, the rosy-pink form of Clematis montana. This will be festooned with vanilla-scented flowers around the time of the apple blossoms, and because it is one of the first clematis to bloom, you leave it be now and prune it back hard in May.
The popular early-season, large-flowering clematis can be tidied up and trimmed now, removing dead and weak stems. The remaining strong stems should be cut back to just above the lowest pair of plump buds. Take care not to damage the base of the stems, where the dreaded clematis wilt can enter the plant. But somehow, on the threshold of a new growing season, even the idea of that malady can’t deflate the gardener.