Whatever it is that spring does to the soul, it’s doing it bigtime this year. And even though I owe you a long overdue Post, full of facts and tips and musings (insight is accidental), all I feel capable of is an ode to joy.
We’ve all spent a year-and-change fearing and fleeing from tiny white balls spiked with evil red points. And we’re not quite done yet. So, when I pulled into my driveway after two weeks away, bracketed by three airports and four flights populated by too many people who think masks are best worn below the nose, all I wanted was to collapse.
But what greeted me was a vision of spring sprayed across the front yard. Blast of awe! The colors popping atop green stems and dangling from branches, white and crimson and lazuli and dawn-pink and apricot and bright butter yellow (your choice, forsythia or dandelions; the bees love both), packed a powerful thrill.
I can’t quite pinpoint whether it was the sort of thrill that shivers your spine up to your heartstrings when a just-born baby belts out its first yell, or the kind that seizes your ribcage when you find you’re still breathing after dodging a bullet. Maybe a combination.
Haven’t we all had our senses sharpened by the past year-plus of collective traumas? I know it’s not just me. The New York Times reports New Yorkers’ raptures over tulips they swear are more profuse, more aburst with color this year. I’m not saying that New Yorkers are the essence of blasé, but when you live in the second most exciting city in the world (yes, Paris wins), it probably takes a lot to excite you. After all, weren’t they the ones who invented the word meh?
They’re noticing what I’m noticing: there is beauty riotous around us.
Around me. Minutely: with the bumblebee’s lurch-landing on a spray of cherry blossoms; with the unfurling of the impossibly deep-purple tulips, every petal edged as though nature had shaped it with heavenly pinking shears. Or on larger scale, on the lemon magnolia that last year emitted one piteous flower, but this year bedecked itself top-to-bottom in a creamy yellow riposte to the buttery flaunt of forsythia across the lawn.
Name it. Tame it?
And even with the weeds—especially with the weeds! They flower so fast and so furious, they must know the fate I have in store for them. My first task in the spring garden is not to plant; it’s to weed, because I know from experience that the weeds will win if I ignore them.
I’ve been reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, which makes me think that I should know those weeds’ names. So I ordered Dickinson and Royer’s Weeds of North America. I will not go to the extent of asking the weeds’ permission, but I can at least call their names as I root them out.
Plantain, its green rosettes of leaves easy to identify. I should, in fact, ask its permission for the rooting out, because it’s edible and medicinal, and adds zest to a salad. I should treat it with considerable respect, and maybe even eat it.
And dandelions! Read up on these and you’d think we should be cultivating them–except who needs to, when they grow themselves just about anywhere, thank you very much.
Then there are Johnny jump-ups, from the violet family. The Weeds guide tells me they hail from Europe and Asia, and have “escape[d] from cultivation.” I picture the getaway: the moment the cottage door shut out the evening, the Johnnies hiked up their leafy emerald pantaloons and hightailed it into the nearby meadow, flowery faces alight with laughter. They are still laughing. Especially at me, in hilarious popups all over the lawn.
Others? It will take some scrounging to find their names. The tiny ground-hugging creepers with their fairy-blue blossoms. The low-leafed lurkers between the bricks of the walk, throwing up flower stalks like periscopes. I can see their whites blooming where an eye might peer out.
I could invent names for them myself, for now. That might add to the number of popular names they acquired before Linnaeus came around and pasted Latin on them.
All in good time
Did I say ode to joy? It may not be joy for the weeds, but for the garden as a whole, it’s a happy tradeoff. The crabapple trees nod their pink-festooned branches, tapping thanks at my hat as I remove the blue-blooming creepers besetting their roots. The new leaves of a resurging aster emerge into view as I dig out the dense carpet that had settled around it; by the next day the aster seems to have doubled in size. The prostrate larch exudes relief as I advance on those periscoped legions that had been greedily eyeing it, and resumes its inching progress toward bed’s edge.
Granted, I’m cultivating for decoration at this point; the veggies will come later, as will their weeds. But the big thrill is that things are growing. They are coming back. Life is recovering and taking over again. The grasses that will become July hay burgeon in the meadow. The trees at the woods’ fringe are shaking diaphanous scarves in shades of green. Male robins patrol their territories, while mockingbirds flirt shamelessly with each other; we all know what comes next there.
Me, I’m just trimming a bit to help point a few flowers in a particular direction on one infinitesimal patch of planet Earth. Outside doing my thing while everyone else does theirs.
The inner weeds…
Then comes a rainy day that drives me indoors, and starts me to wondering. We’ve all been so sequestered and shuttered for the past year. That has allowed some underground development—sinking new roots, inching into new territories we might never have explored had we continued ranging out in the open. But maybe, as we begin re-emerging, we—I—need to consider anew what to cultivate in the precious, precarious life that remains.
In order to give it light and nourishment, to bring it to bloom, what might have to be trimmed away? What should I be weeding out in my own life?
Name it; tame it. That’s going to take a good many rainy days to figure out.
And now, your turn:
Remember to sign up for the “newsletter” if you want notices of future posts, if you haven’t already done so. And whether you sign up or not, please post your comments below. (If others post comments before you, the Reply box for your comment will appear after their posts.) I try to reply to every comment, but please feel free to answer others’ comments yourself, too. Here are a few questions to get you started, but go for any topic this post or gardening in general inspires you to.
- What flowers do you most look forward to, in your own garden or others’, when spring arrive? What do you think makes them so appealing to you?
- How many of the weeds who frequent your garden and your lawn can you name? Which ones do you try hardest to get rid of, and which ones do you pretty much let go?
- Do you think this spring was especially powerful for you?
If you’re commenting for the first time with a particular email address, your comment has to wait for my clearance (spam-thwarting at work there). After your first approved comment using that address, your next should go up automatically. If you’re concerned about privacy, you don’t need to include your surname. I am the only one who sees your email address.
Remember I’m running a contest for 2021: the reader who sends me (kateriffoley at gmail dot com) the weirdest garden-related snippet of news or information between now and December 31, 2021, will win some kind of cool prize. Might be a hori hori: might be a gorgeous gardening book. I promise it won’t be a woodchuck. I’ll offer a few choices when the time comes. So please, keep your antennae up for choice tidbits, and send them on!
I love weeding. It is always so satisfying (except when it is frustrating), often providing a much needed feeling of accomplishment. And what a challenge you have presented to think about what needs weeding in my life. The answer is a lot! There’s the physical — I did weed out all the winter socks with holes or thin spots (thankfully Goodwill actually recycles textiles that are no longer functional), which was very satisfying, although it is just the tip of the iceberg of no longer needed stuff — and then there are all the time-sucking habits I need to reign in or discard, an even more difficult weeding task! It is true that the pandemic has gotten me thinking more about what is truly important, and has raised the question of what I really want to spend my precious time on (aside from the unavoidable have-to-dos). Implementation is much more difficult, but thank you for the challenge!
You’re right, Madheza, there is great satisfaction in weeding. Good thing, since it seems to be a constant task–not the best situation for this inconstant gardener! But socks, oh my, and old clothes. Sometimes I think it would be best to hire somebody to do that purge for me; I keep thinking of ways to repurpose them. Say, by turning them into ties to hold vining plants to their supports. (Best done in a garden that isn’t directly under public view, I suspect.) Or sometimes I think of cutting up old shirts and slacks to use the fabric in quilts–not that I lack in new quilting fabrics, and not that I have ever even started to make a quilted placement. I thought I’d do that this past winter, but somehow got distracted by gardening books and seed catalogs….
Your post bursts with life…and poetry, too. I want to set it out as poems, or at least plant that seed with you. Do you think it’s too late for me to get some caterpillars going on a milk-weed plant?
Susan, first of all, thanks for the lovely comment!
Second, getting caterpillars going on milkweed would depend on when the monarchs go thru your area. As far as I know, nothing else will eat the foliage; only monarchs have evolved to withstand the toxins in the plant. The monarch butterflies migrate north from Mexico, stopping first at points south. Since the migration starts in late Feb. or thereabouts, by now the generation breeding in southern parts of the US has probably done its thing, and the next generation emerged from chrysalis and moved further north. But, no reason not to plant milkweed; it’s a perennial and should come back even stronger next year. Persuade some neighbors to plant it too, and you might have a monarch fest next year! (I’ll look into the usual migration progression and get back to you on that.)
Bought my own milkweed a couple of weeks ago. I named it Martha, because
my mother and her beau loved watching monarchs from a bench overlooking the Pacific.
What a lovely idea to name the plant, Susan! Hope you end up with a host of green Marthas. Such a beautiful way of remembering your mother and something she loved.
Back with more about monarchs, Susan. There are quite a few websites that talk about monarch migration routes and timings, but you might want to take a look at this site: https://journeynorth.org/monarchs
If you scroll down, you’ll find bulletins posted on various dates. Although the caption on one of those makes it sound like the migration from Mexico didn’t start this year until around March 10, I also found reports of spottings in California, from Los Angeles area up to Santa Cruz, in late February. A little notation at the top of the page tells you where the current generation is now headed/ landing.
One of the nice things about this particular website is that you can sign up to report on sightings in your area. Let us hope, there’s always a next year.
Tulips tulips tulips! One of the few times I remember having my mother’s full attention as a child was when we planted perennials in the front garden. We stayed out there all day, on our hands and knees, as she showed me how deep to dig. Every time they came up in the spring, it was such a lovely reminder.
Such a sweet memory, Emily! I love this. It’s funny how our childhood memories of gardening and/or gardens color our later life. And for something like tulips or other fall-planted bulbs especially, it’s such an amazing gift to a child to put things into the ground to sleep through the winter and then burst out into life months later. Is it some deep-seated message about planning ahead, and delayed gratification? Or is it just about doing everything possible to make beauty happen? (These days I’m anticipating the delayed gratification of the oriental poppies’ blooming; those plants have taken three years to get a grip and assert themselves, and you’d think it was Christmas or Hanukkah or lunar New Year the way I’m looking forward to the three, count ’em, just three, blossoms pending in the green blobs atop the poppy stems.)
For less delayed gratification, though, nothing equals tulips. Such amazing range of colors and variations on petal shapes. It’s a wonder any rabbit ever dares to munch on them.
Hello Kateri. This is the Inconstant Consumer. While I have that phobia about putting my hands in dirt, I like to look at things growing. And I’m lucky to live with E, the Constant Gardener. Our backyard is blossoming—we call it “Mini-Versailles”—and I’m looking forward to when the butterfly bushes bloom and the Monarchs arrive. I was inspired to buy my sister-in-law Molly in Ohio a butterfly bush for her garden. She and I love the Monarchs. The Inconstant Consumer first looked on Amazon, and they had a beautiful pink butterfly named the “Miss Molly.” Seemed like fate. But Amazon for the butterfly bush? Then I spoke with Don at Knollwood Nursery In Beavercreek, Ohio and while they were out of Miss Mollys, they had some beautiful pinks—could one of those serve as a Miss Molly Knockoff? Then I read online that while the bushes attract butterflies, the leaves are not edible for caterpillars. Don suggested I get a couple plantings, which included I think a milkweed thistle, for the caterpillars to munch on. Knollwood delivered the lot just in time for National Sister-in-law’s Day—yes a made up holiday last week to show my appreciation of the woman who has made my brother so happy. Thank you Miss Molly, who by the way is a Constant Gardener. And thank you Kateri. I don’t think this Inconstant Consumer would have had butterfly bushes on the brain without your column. Certainly not for other than visual consumption. Happy Spring, dear Kate. Zoom soon?
What a wonderful story, Susan aka I.C.! It is unfortunately true that those butterfly bushes do not nurture many caterpillars–and definitely not monarchs’ caterpillars. But they sure do attract some amazing pollinators. Last year I saw a gorgeous tiger swallowtail flitting from flower to flower on my tiny bush; later in the summer, I witnessed a hummingbird moth, which is an astounding sight. I had to look it up before I could believe it. And of course, the bees of all sorts just loved it. It was a shock to find that they died back to the ground in the winter, so I had to cut back all the dead foliage (during late-spring cleanup this year) and am hoping the promises of foliage I see will deliver. Meanwhile, my strip of pollinator bed also includes a couple of milkweeds (planning on more), coneflowers, and achillea. But I’m planning on adding a lot of dill and parsley plants (for tiger swallowtail caterpillars). It is great to have a local nursery to rely on for good suggestions; we’re lucky to have several in my neck of the woods.
5 days after Molly put the Miss Molly Knockoff butterfly bush out—it wasn’t yet in the ground—the first Monarch of the year appeared, nibbling on the bush. They do find their way!
And I posted Mollys Monarch sighting to this website on animal migrations. You can even find out when and where the first earthworm appears.
Optimism is springing up for sure.
How do u know Kate ?? Writing coaching? Interesting how editing becomes a metaphor for weeding 🙂
And writing for planting! (Helen, you may not remember, but Hillary is the person who originally put me in touch with you!)
you’re right.. forgot that connection.. it’s SO long ago.. but don’t we have Di in common?
Yes, indeed! But we only found that out much later.
Such a tiny world.
Long may we nurture it!
I will have a field of blossoming peonies within the week. I wait for them all year. I cannot paint them as fast as they will last. Everyday I will cut a fresh bouquet to greet me when I come downstairs at 6 am to the kitchen. Day after day there remains less and less counter space to cook. I breathe them in and don’t exhale. Morning chores begin with feeding the horses, (my two cats), then the birds, (who eat like horses), and then drinking hot coffee with the peonies that fill the room.
Peonies are one of those fleeting joys that are worth waiting a whole year for, Lorna! Every year I want to order a dozen more peony plants, and every year I have to remind myself that there just isn’t room for them. But I’m looking forward to the arrival of a yellow tree peony this fall. Imagine what it would be like to be one of those specialists who grow all peonies and only peonies! If they’re distributed across blooming times, it would mean an entire month of total inebriation.