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Berkshire Garden Style: When the Queen Orders Roses

What’s happening on the Japanese calendar of microseasons in February: East wind melts the ice; bush warblers start singing in the mountains; fish emerge from the ice; rain moistens the soil; mist starts to linger.

Looking outside from the Lyman Conservatory at Smith College on a recent visit to get a dose of green.

It’s spring – at least according to the gardens of England on Instagram. My feed is filled with their Camellias, early Crocuses, Hazels, Hellebores, and Snowdrops. Especially Snowdrops. Some folks are just crazy about Snowdrops! (And, fun fact, those who love to collect and cultivate snowdrops are called galanthophiles, after the genus of snowdrops, Galanthus.)

Their spring is slow and long, and it starts in February. Some in England actually refer to these early blooms as winter flowers, not spring flowers because, well, it’s February. But it looks like spring to me because even though we’ve had a mild winter and recent sunny days are tricking us, we’re still mostly frozen, in that stage between dormancy and beginning.

Maybe I’m also particularly attuned to what’s happening in England because I’ve also been listening to two Philippa Gregory novels, Earthly Joy and Virgin Earth, which imagine the lives of two John Tradescants, father and son, who were gardeners for English royalty in the 17th century. I love England because the temperate climate is dreamy and I identify with some English gardeners that I see on the Internet and many of the English gardens that I’ve visited.

An English garden in February from one of my favorite gardeners to follow, Edward Flint.

The captions are lovely, the gardens equally so.

The southern English climate is so much like my birthplace and home of my paternal family, coastal southern Oregon. Also, it helps that we speak the same language, which is why I might follow English gardening culture more closely than other gardening cultures.

My brother and sister-in-law’s garden less than a mile from the coastline in Southern Oregon

where the Lavender grows huge.

But at the same time, the Gregory novels are about how the Tradescants, ultimately, were servants. They were respected, had a peership even with royalty – but at the end of the day it goes back to “us and them,” to servant and master. They got to be expert gardeners, but only to a certain extent. They ceased being in control when their expertise ran against the wishes and desires of the royalty they served.

A Viridissima garden in winter.

I’m into these books because, obviously, I like reading about gardens and gardeners, but I also relate to being a servant. My family carries this mindset; I come from generations of people who were accustomed to – and survived by – serving other people. I live in a community whose strongest industry is the service industry. I don’t despise this – people here are fairly more empowered than those in the service industries of other communities. We can live a pretty good life here in the Berkshires. But ultimately, I am still a servant. I am still in my place. But I’m at least blessed with having some authority as an expert.

Houseplant companions admire the wintery view from the Viridissima office in Becket.

In one book, one of the John Tradescants has a conversation with the queen. The queen says she wants Roses under the Oak tree. He dares to say that the roses won’t perform well there, that they won’t thrive, and if he planted them he’d have to keep replacing them. He’s speaking the truth because he knows the plants. And yet, she initially thinks he’s defying her. That just because she wants it, it should be done.

Of course, that was the 17th century. It’s fiction. But I see this mentality still lingering in some of our gardening traditions. That if we want something bad enough we can disregard what’s already in the landscape. That we can raze the trees and plow everything up and start over with complete disregard to the current inhabitants. It’s a tradition that echoes the worst consequences of imperial land grabs.

If you’ve been reading my blog then you probably already know that my gardening philosophy is not about granting wishes – though, I do truly hope to please! – but about cultivating landscape carefully and thoughtfully. However, English gardens on Instagram and reading about the Tradescants has me reflecting on some of my own practices as a gardener. To be honest, I can sometimes relate more to the queen than the servant! Some of my practices are about controlling nature. Take, for example, forcing. It doesn’t sound very nice, does it? Forcing is the horticultural term for coaxing plants to flower early, inside. I like to call it “cheating spring.”

This month, I have been forcing bulbs and flowering tree branches. For bulbs, there are the classic winter spectaculars, Amaryllis and Paperwhites. These bulbs are so trained to be forced that they’re kind of a one-time show unless you really commit yourself to growing them specifically to re-perform. I don’t exactly know how they’re grown to bloom when they do here in New England, but I assume it takes chemicals, resources, and hormones in order to get them to perform when we want them to and in the quantities in which we consume them during every winter season. They are resource-intensive in order for us to sustain them as indoor forced plants.

I’m also forcing hearty spring bulbs, ones that require a cold period. I start them out in the greenhouse and then I bring them into the workroom to warm them up even faster. These include: Hyacinth, Iris reticulata, Daffodils, Crocuses, Snowdrops, and some Tulips (though I prefer tulips in spring planters in April and May). Once these bulbs get close to flowering, I bring them into the home, alongside the houseplants as my or my clients’ indoor companions so we can have a bit of early spring.

Similarly, whips of Witch Hazel, Forsythia, Quince, Pussy Willow, and Magnolia (which is trickier) are snipped from the tree and warmed up slowly. First in the greenhouse, then into the workroom, then, once budded up, into the house so we can get a preview of what is to come very soon.

But! We can only cheat spring so much before it comes back to haunt us. If you force too quickly, plants become etiolated. Etiolation is when the cell walls become too thin because the plant is growing too quickly with not enough light. You’ve probably seen light-starved seedlings (or, maybe you have tried to start seeds on a windowsill inside your home only to learn that you don’t really get enough light), those young, filamentous sprouts who stretch too much for the light. So, as with everything, there’s a balance between cheating spring and not succumbing to etiolation.

We can try and cheat spring, but real spring really is not too far off. People are seeing Hellebores and Snowdrops in their yards. The recent stretch of 50-degree (and sunny!) weather brought out witch hazel, which I smelled before I saw. Tips of Daffodil, Allium, and even Tulip foliage are peeking up here and there. Hints of early spring aren’t that unusual anymore, but it’s too easy to forget that just a few weeks ago it was -18 degrees.

It’s not necessarily the early warmth or the sustained cold that is a threat, but the dramatic fluctuations that can be really stressful on organisms, particularly those that are quick to respond. For some, it just takes the right amount of light, just enough warmth to leap into action. If a warm spell invites them to respond with growth these plants make themselves vulnerable. Because it’s February, and it’s perfectly reasonable that temperatures may drop down into single digits or sub-zero temperatures again. Not that things are reliably steady in nature, it’s way less steady than ever. Freaky even.

In the book, Tradescant ends up getting through to the queen. It’s not off with his head. In fact, she’s taken with his willingness to “defy” her (lucky him!). We never do find out what he plants there, but I know I would plant Hellebores, Sedges, and all the spring flowers I could fit. It is fun in horticulture (and my life) to push the limits of possibility, but a lifetime of constant striving and growth with no time to bask in the sun and soak up her rays leads to etiolation, being threadbare, fatigued. It leads to legginess, droopiness, joylessness, and weakness. That doesn’t really sound like what we or a queen wants, does it? So we can push a little, but then we must pull back, and let nature unfold at her own pace, on her own terms.


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