Berkshire Garden Style: Consider a Spring Garden
I know last month I said I wasn’t so fond of spring. It’s true that the anticipation can get to me, but once everything starts greening up I remember how much I love this time of year. In fact, I find myself in love with the spring garden more and more each year. Maybe it’s because I’m able to notice more and more. It’s my 25th year as a gardener. That’s 25 springs and innumerable opportunities to have noticed the miniscule, the quiet, the discrete. The close-to-the-earth and the incredibly distant. A spring garden requires me to reach across the landscape and piece together what’s happening way up on that hillside – a plume of shadblow, for example, emerging from the still-barren forest – with, say, the sea of tiny Cardamine flowers hovering like a little cloud atop the still unmown May grass . Both of these plants are features of spring, and of what I’m calling the spring garden.
Berkshire Garden Style is about honoring the landscape that’s already here. And so, keeping in that spirit, I want to take a minute to draw attention to the unsung praises of the spring garden. Unsung, because spring plants tend to go unnoticed and unappreciated. Our senses aren’t sharp yet. I’ll admit, my brain still feels foggy and a little dull from the long winter. The gardening season is gearing up, and I’m still a little out of gardening shape and so I’m tired these days.
We’ve been lucky so far that this spring has been allowed to go slowly, to unfold at a reasonable pace. With the warm weather coming up, that’s all about to change. And so I want to take this opportunity to capture the fleeting and subtle beauty of the spring garden, which too often gets labeled as the beginning, merely a prelude to the fuller, lusher garden of June and July. But the landscape this time of year is really a thing unto itself, beautiful and glorious in its own right.
May is the month of transformation. And transformation is good, right? At the beginning of the month there isn’t much that’s green or flowering. At the end of the month we have Memorial Day: the all-but-official kick-off of the summer season. By then, the whole landscape might be leafed out, fruit flowers already dropped, the grass filled in and slated for regular weekly mowings. But a spring garden is different every day. And maybe that’s one more reason why it tends to go unnoticed – we literally might not notice something because it’s here one day, gone the next. A spring garden is ephemeral; its main characteristic is change. May is a busy and intense time, a crucial time for getting stuff done, and so I know – it’s hard to pause and notice things. In fact, I’m hurrying to get this blog post done before the heat wave hits us and the delicacy of the spring garden is pas I’m trying to hurry up so that you all can slow down and smell the shadblow before it’s gone.
A spring garden is subtle, not as obvious as June’s jungle of vegetation, and when we appreciate the subtlety of some plants, we learn and understand more about the plant world. This time of year, a cultivated garden is defined by clumps that spread slowly, that are still tucked and tidy, not yet smothering out their neighbors: blooming strawberries, bunches of primroses, clusters of Pulmonaria, the delicate curls of fiddleheads, and the tender stubble of hosta spears. Still, not everything is subtle. There is the spectacle of forsythia and the brashness of daffodils, each a level of in-your-face showiness that can blind you to anything else that’s happening in the landscape.
It’s not that these spectacular plants don’t have their own time and place, such as in Jeffrey Steele’s woodlands, where a sea of naturalized daffodils can have quite a powerful effect. The other day I drove by a meadow in Tyringham that had been left unmowed and daffodils were scattered through, mingling with the other meadow plants that were just emerging, and it was quite lovely. And yet, there’s so much more to notice in the spring. There are the flowers that promise fruit: blueberry bushes, Cornelian cherry, witch hazel, and native flowering shrubs and trees, like the wild azalea, hazel, dogwood, shadblow. These trees and shrubs have blooms that are smaller than most cultivated varieties. They aren’t showy. They’re smaller and subtler because, without a dozen other blooms to compete with, they can be. I like the way I happen upon them when wandering woods and fields.
And so, keeping in that spirit, let me take the time to draw attention to the unsung praises of the spring garden. In the most obvious sense, a spring garden consists of whatever plants are happening right now. There are the spring ephemerals that lace the terrain, cultivated and non-cultivated landscapes alike, as though reminding us that all the land is a garden to someone: hellebores, trout lily, hepatica, trillium, bloodroot, the spiky shoots of jack in the pulpit. At the forest’s edge, we start to see the green patchwork of the understory filling in: carpets of ramps, naturalized daylilies, false hellebore, blue cohosh, skunk cabbage, and the funny little flowerheads of clumping sedges. The next day, the tips of leaves may have just barely begun to emerge like a soft fuzz spreading through the forest.
And so, when I talk spring garden, I suppose I’m really talking about what most people think of as landscape in general – there’s the intentional, cultivated garden, and there is the land all around us, woodlands and hillsides and meadows. I’m just going to include it all here, because it’s all a garden, whether intentional or not, and spring is so fleeting and so rich. I want to draw attention to all of it.
spring garden is the haze of red maple blossoms pinking up distant hillsides, so gradually at first we question if it’s even really happening at all. We can see the blush spreading out there, but won’t notice the change when we’re up close to the red maples in our yards. A copse of hazel is another example. Hazel has the sweetest little flowers and catkins, but they really only read well if encountered en masse. Spring gardens are about communities of plants: clusters, bunches, swaths, copses, and stands. You need to be far away to appreciate plants in spring, as the budding of trees can only be witnessed from a distance when a whole stand of them start to do it together. Or, you need to be up close – like, on your hands and knees close – in order to really appreciate a wild ginger flower tucked beneath the curled leaf, stems all hairy and the blossom almost fungal looking. The landscape this time of year challenges our perspective and asks us to pay attention in different ways. It requires attention to what’s happening way out there a mile away or right here, popping up so quietly beneath last year’s brown dry leaves.
I think that the spring garden is one of the best kept secrets of the Berkshires. The spring garden happens at the most fickle time of year: glorious and 65 one day, 40 and sleeting the next. Therefore, those likely to experience the spring garden are those hearty enough to weather New England even during its not so glorious months. And so, Berkshire gardens have traditionally been cultivated and celebrated for a seasonal population of people who tend to come here during the summer months. But I see that shifting. People who come to the Berkshires from elsewhere are coming to stay. We’re getting more permanent residents. And I see more permanent residents are taking an interest in gardening. And for gardeners such as ourselves, Berkshire Garden Style gardeners, we’re working to expand the definition of what a garden is, to not just think of it as the cordoned off perennial bed on the edge of your yard (though those can be great!), but also the woods, the park, the hills, and even the little nest of tangled plants between your house and your neighbor’s.
Spring gardens also aren’t so celebrated because they take foresight, patience, attention, and delayed gratification – qualities that don’t come easily to busy people, qualities that aren’t inherent to our ever-connected, work-til-you-drop, bigger, better, faster culture. Maybe we like the chaos of summer gardens because they mirror our lives and our short attention spans. You don’t have to go far until boing! another flower smacks you in the face and you go “ooh” and then move on to the next. In the summer, when we want a plant, we can go to the nursery and buy it and plug it into our garden at home. But you can’t do that with a spring garden; whatever you planted last year is what you get to enjoy now. Now is the time to start thinking about bulbs and what you might like to plant in the fall to enjoy next year at this time. Spring gardens require a kind of (Lord help me) mindfulness. And so, if you’re really looking to slow down, expand your awareness, and appreciate subtlety, may I ask (just in case you’re not catching my drift here): have you considered the spring garden?