Spring is the short, simple title we give to the complex and drawn-out awakening of the natural world after winter dormancy.
We declare the season underway next week, but the natural stirring has been going on for some time, although probably unnoticed unless you grow camellias or witch hazels or keep honeybees. The process of rebirth lasts well into May, when most trees have finished unfurling their solar panels.
The most evident aspects of the season - the warming temperatures, the longer days, the arrival of the cherry blossoms - have a way of exciting those among us who are least connected to the cycle of life forces at play.
Why should these phenomena even register, you ask? Phenologically, we may be the one species on the planet that is the farthest removed from the spring. We don’t have babies just during lambing season or grow hair only after the vernal equinox or mark spring by growing a new pair of antlers.
And yet, even the feeblest nature lovers feel the sap rising, which is surely to the good. A common plea from non-gardeners is, what should we be doing now to get ready for spring? On one level, nothing. Spring will happen; savor the blossoms.
The question, I believe, is rooted in a form of guilt: Nature is about to shower us with unearned gifts; what can we do to make amends? The idea also betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of gardening, which is - or should be - a year-round enterprise for year-round effects. The two are not synchronous; the flowering crab apple was planted eight years ago, the tulips in November, the peonies three years back. And so forth.
But this disjointed cause and effect is still in play, and for tender plants and annuals, including vegetables, the next eight weeks will define our personal landscapes until Halloween or beyond. So, yes, there is work to be done now, with the understanding that there is always work to be done if you want your life bathed in wondrous plants and enriched beyond measure.
I have spent the past month in the vegetable garden replacing the untreated pine boards I use to retain raised beds. They last three years before breaking down. Against the fence line, I have sown hundreds of peas and sugar snap peas, which I plant in close, staggered double rows. A pencil makes a fine dibble. Peas prefer a more even and cooler climate than I can provide, but if the spring is temperate, I can get a crop before the heat settles in. I have done the annual dormant pruning of the gooseberry and red-currant bushes and started to tackle an old rambling rose. But the rose has an awful lot of dead wood and, in truth, may have croaked well before the spring peepers now in voice. I shall wait to see what leafs out before spending any more time on it.
I am not as quick as other gardeners to try too many new things, but in my quest for one of my favorite winter squashes - Red Kuri - I found Blue Kuri instead, from Kitazawa Seed Co., and look forward to sowing the seeds beneath sturdy trellises in May.
I also found a variety of runner bean with unusual coloring. The usual hue is scarlet or a red and white bicolor, but Sunset, from Hudson Valley Seed Co., is peachy pink. I will sow these in August for a fall show and harvest.
I’m not a huge fan of zucchini, but I admit I was beguiled by a seed packet. Hudson Valley is known for its use of artists to illustrate its packets, and for the Dark Star zucchini it turned to Eric Losh for a moody, starlit scene.
I was also struck by the painting for Pippin’s Golden Honey Pepper, by Scott Bricher. The pepper ripens in stages in a rainbow of colors. It comes via the Pennsylvania seed curator and author William Woys Weaver from a folk artist of the last century named Horace Pippin. Pippin provided seeds to Weaver’s grandfather in exchange for honeybees. Peppers should be started indoors now; they take longer than tomatoes to germinate and develop. Mine are now in a six-inch pot by the windowsill.
Another sure sign of spring’s arrival is the mindless laying of shredded wood mulch by the ton.
A thin layer of mulch has its value against weeds and dry soil, but when it is laid not as a modest top dressing but as a commodity and as a harmful “volcano” against tree trunks, something has gone wrong with the common view of what constitutes a domestic or even commercial landscape.
Every square foot of bed, border, tree box and hellstrip getting smothered in mulch in March would be much better used as space to grow plants, even something as predictable as liriope.
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When I told Mark Buscaino, executive director of urban forestation group Casey Trees, that I was feeling a rant brewing against mulch mania, there was a pause at the other end of the line. “Rock and roll,” he said. Arborists have been railing against the practice, he said, for the past 30 years. “It’s absolutely nuts.”
Hoe those winter weeds before they explode next month, scratch up the soil and sow some flower seeds. Enough of the mulch, already.
Ornamental grasses with last year’s dried top growth should be shorn in advance of the growing season. Sharp hedging shears are a safe and effective tool for the job. Cut a few inches above the soil line.