MARCH…EARLY SPRING…and silently the garden comes to life…new green wings unfurl over the sleepy landscape in subtle sequence: leaf after leaf, bud after bud. Gently I lift aside the frayed brown blanket of leaves and mulch to find spring’s miracles emerging from the earth and dig down to sniff the earth’s perfume, readying itself for another season.
SURPRISE…In like a lion…I wake up to find several inches of snow on the ground this morning. Dougal, Holly and I go out to knock the wet snow off the drooping branches of my big shrubs and rosemary bushes…some of the thicker woody branches have already broken. We also put out more feed, niger seed and suet cakes for the hungry birds sitting on the back deck…just waiting for us to show up!
SNOW MELTED…SUNNY AND WARM AGAIN…
Celebrate the end of the dark days of winter…Today, my garden is a spring bouquet of golden daffodils, fragrant white narcissus, hyacinths, snowdrops, sweet violets, white and purple alyssum, fluffy chervil and parsley near luscious blooms of hardy cyclamen…oh, so glorious, I want to just sit and enjoy, not work.
But as the days lengthen and perennials start to wake up and shake a leaf, I am outside planning, planting, pruning, and mulching and loving every moment…
I look over my seed collection of hardy and cool season vegetables such as lettuce, spinach and other salad greens, radishes, peas, and carrots. Along with a few trays of onions and shallots I plant them all following my garden plan done during the winter. By staggering the sowing of lettuce seeds every few days I will extend the harvest period well into the summer.
By mid to late April I’ll be ready to plant the warm season vegetables along with annual companion herbs and flowers: tomatoes, peppers, basil, beans, savory, marigolds, calendula, corn, pumpkins, watermelon, zinnias, cosmos, borage and strawberries.
Of course all of this is based on typical warm spring weather…whatever that is!
MARCH PARADE…time for wearing green…Huge gray clouds break open and a sudden rain shower forces me inside. After tucking a small roasting chicken filled with fresh herbs into the oven, I go to my drafting table and try to concentrate on a landscape plan for a client but there is so much to watch outside…rain barrels filling, geckos showering, Duchess the turkey flies off into the
woods, birds on the covered feeder, squirrels foraging since I know they can’t remember where they hid acorns last fall…
Later, the clouds roll on by and the rain slows to just a few drips from the trees, the mid-day sun soon filters through the window. My eyes follow the light to the photos and sketches of my favorite gardens and plant combinations pinned to the tack board over the drafting table. The sunlight picks up the glow of a few old garden tools, cleaned, oiled and hung on the wall…along with favorite quotes from well-known gardeners and writers.
ART and SOUL…While designing a garden for a client I usually include elements that evoke Music, Motion and Light. All or any of these will help to make a garden come alive by adding movement and sound. Encourage the wind to play a lively role in the garden by including trees, shrubs, perennials, and some grasses that respond to the wind…rustling pines with their long supple needles, willows and birches that whisper and sigh in the breeze, ornamental grasses and wispy shrubs such as Spanish broom that frolic and sway in the wind…watch them all dance and listen to the breeze rattle their leaves.
For added sparkle, I like to hang strings of miniature white lights on small trees, the arbor by the porch, or along fences…on warm, dark evenings they give the garden a soft glow. Solar lights along a path or garden border allow me to enjoy a stroll on dark evenings or will lead along the path to the front porch.
MEANDERINGS…very little can match the sight, sound and smell of a deciduous wood in springtime. Budding trees cast their shadows on the soft and spongy leaf mould, but it is the diversity of many different plants and animals living within that brings the woods to life.
There are wrens and robins singing, cardinals chirping, woodpeckers drumming high up in the trees, butterflies sunbathing in warm shafts of light and a silent army of insects and invertebrates slowly recycling the fallen leaves and dead wood that are such a vital part of this woodland life.
Most obvious are the woodland wild flowers that flourish and bloom in dappled light before the unfurling leaves block out the sun…bluebells, patches of primrose, violets, anemones, jack-in-the –pulpit and many other treasures…all act as indicators of a woodland with a long history.
This MORNING I’m SPRING DREAMING…for a while I sat lost in thoughts and dreams and continued to watch a few small birds chase each other through the sprouting bushes and tangled vines. In the sunny warming days of spring it is this excitement of childhood again full of hope, promise, and discovery, when the seedlings and tightly balled knots of leaves come bursting forth out of the earth.
Observing this ever-renewing miracle of life is so gratifying. Seeds, cuttings, roots…all are my future children. Some will be tall and elegant, some short and feisty, some wild, others tame. But all will respond to my care, love and respect.
I look forward to the sweaty days of summer when the plants set fruit and the cycles are renewed…but for now, I am content to enjoy the garden perfume of soil, rain, stones, and herbs…
MID-to late-MARCH…it’s the thrill of springtime with so much to be done. Every day there are new buds, shoots and blooms to enjoy…the urge to be outside doing something is overwhelming. This month brings whiffs of spring and masses of golden blooms… daffodils, forsythia, kerria and winter jasmine. I’ve always loved March; it gives me that first blast of renewed energy…
Reading over the pages I wrote in my journal during cold winter days…I can now sow my cool weather seeds and begin more planting in the protected vegetable garden. Later, I manage to make a few more notes for reading and planning next winter.
This month came in like a lion…hard cold and gray,
but after 10 days of superb sunshine and warm days my cool crop seeds are now sprouted and showing true leaves…mesculan mix, larkspur, poppies and nigella…and the violets in the yard are already blooming so I’ll be able to collect some blooms to make candied violets.
PERENNIAL Bulbs…the mainstay of my spring garden, along with roses and herbs, of course. There they are every spring poking their little heads up toward the sun. The muscari, daffodils, hyacinths, and snowdrops are part of my perennial bulb collection that appears first. When cutting any of these fragrant beauties to bring inside, I cut the stem on a diagonal at the base of the stem close to the ground. The remaining leafy foliage will be the food for next year’s bulb growth.
I treat my spring bulbs rather rough…I allow the bulbs underground some time to take nourishment from their foliage and after that flops on the ground in an untidy mess…I, eeeeeekkk, tie them loosely in a knot.
Oh please, yes I know some people say never do this…but I ‘ve tried doing it several ways and this works fine for me and seems to hide the yellowing foliage while other plants…usually hellebores and daylilies… grow up around the miserable mess…but, DO NOT CUT OFF THE FOLIAGE, YET!
Heirloom Roses For Cutting…Early flowering roses fill vases in every room of the house throughout the spring. I always cut blooms in mid- morning, picking them in
bud before they have fully opened preserves the life of the cut flowers and their fragrance…there is such extraordinary beauty in something that is so simple. My favorite early bloomers are Madame Alfred Carriere and Zephirine Drouhin.
TIP: always pull off lower leaves that will be below the water line in a vase and snip the ends of the stems at an angle…the flowers will absorb water more easily and the water will stay fresher.
IN SEARCH OF, new perennials…
Whenever searching for perennials and buying any plants I use the following basic guidelines:
*I Do Not Buy pale, yellowing, droopy specimens.
*I look for plants that are healthy, green and full of vigor.
*I check to see if they are badly root-bound: if there is a mass of matted dry roots, the plant has been in the pot far too long…this can sometimes be fixed [rectified] at planting time.
*I always examine plants carefully for signs of disease and or pests, neither of which you want to take home. Harden your heart and pass them by!
ALSO, for those who want instant garden gratification, many plants are sold in full flower…this is good for identification but not the best way to buy. A plant in full flower has achieved its purpose for the season and new growth will slow dramatically. I would cut back drastically as blooms begin to fade! Whoops, there I go off on another tangent, back to the subject…buy small, buy smart…strong healthy plants are the best investment. AND, size matters…a 4” pot will grow very quickly with my planting instructions.
Blooms and Fragrance for Indoors...Along with my fresh flowers, Meyer lemon tree, and phalenopsis orchids are pots of sublimely fragrant Sambac jasmine, some potted white oxalis to enjoy for St. Patrick’s Day and a few sprouting pots of pastel tulips. When the blooms are finished I’ll let the foliage dry and save the bulbs to plant outside in the fall…the other pots of bloom will go outside on the patio for the season.
For watering my indoor plants, especially orchids, I always use the water collected in my rain barrels. As my orchids begin to sprout again, I start watering with a weak solution of fish and seaweed and continue as long as the plant blooms. I just counted 3-5 new bloom spikes on each of my orchids. Speaking of rain water…I need to add barrels to the downspouts on the garage and hook them together with hoses for watering the tomatoes this summer…gotta go!
End of March…out like a lamb, beautiful, sunny and temps in the 60’s. I’m way too anxious to get my tomatoes, peppers and basil in the ground… But I know that planting before the soil and night temps are consistently warm enough will keep the plants from growing and setting blooms.
SO, I always use my ‘BARE BOTTOM’ test before planting tomatoes and peppers from starts…if I can sit on the ground, pants down, and not get cold, well then…the soil is warm enough to plant! Carl always laughed at me when I did that!
When setting out single stem plants in the garden such as tomatoes, peppers, basil, snapdragons, and coleus…I always put the lower parts
of their stems several inches below the soil surface; this buried portion of the stem will send out many new roots that allow older roots and the plant to stay cooler and suffer less from lack of moisture.
Spring plays hide and seek: here one day and gone the next. No other season is waited for with such anticipation and hope…while I might still need a sweater; a vase of daffodils on the kitchen table can banish memories of winter in a glance!
Looking back over the chilly weeks of the past two months…I try to remember the things that gave me such pleasure on gray cold days outside…my potted cyclamen which flowered madly in perfect morning light, some brightly colored primrose and gerbera daisies from Fresh Market…
INVITING TRADITION…to welcome the season…I always enjoy the old world custom of inviting friends over for afternoon tea which I serve out in the garden. It’s fun to decorate the old iron table with early flowers and herbs and set out a selection of delicious home baked goods…lemony Madelines, fennel and lavender short bread, almond tarts, nutmeg biscuits with fresh made butter and my jam from last summer…and of course…hot herb tea.
2 sticks butter
2/3 cup sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
1 ½-2 cups organic flour, sifted as needed
2TBSP. freshly ground fennel seeds
Preheat oven to 350°…
Add sugar and vanilla to soft butter. Stir in flour and seeds and mix till stiff then work with fingers until the mixture is blended…you can add a TINY bit of water sprinkles if you must…Press evenly into an iron skillet.
Bake 25 minutes. Score shortbread immediately and return to oven to cool completely…overnight or all day…make sure to turn off oven. The secret to good flavor is to grind your fennel seeds fresh.
FOR lavender shortbread, simply substitute lavender buds for the fennel seeds. This is so good!!! Hard not to eat the whole thing…
Cutting Advice: for plants that flower on the ends of the current year’s growth…they should have been cut back by now, for example: buddleia, caryopteris, vitex, Russian sage, and late flowering spirea. It is very important to know your plants and their specific trimming needs.
On shrubby roses, I thin out dead wood, canes growing towards the center of the bush and any overcrowded growth. Climbers need just a little pruning to remove dead wood and crossed or rubbing branches…and, I typically clear away scraggly growth at the base of the climbers leaving a framework of only the strongest, healthiest canes.
I always water well, top dress with compost and mulch after any heavy pruning.
MORE CLIPPINGS…Dead vegetation still left that has provided winter protection should be cut back to the ground by now to make room for new growth. I gather up dead leaves and other debris…all this material can be shredded and added to the compost pile. However, if any of this material is diseased or pest infected, I soak it in soapy water first for several hours. NOTE: if you don’t have a shredder, start a brush pile. It will just take longer to break down, but, will provide shelter for lightening bugs, ladybugs and other GOOD BUGS.
Once again…Speaking of the compost pile, chances are the bottom half of the heap is more than ready now. I’ll use it to top dress my garden beds and spread over any bare spots on the lawn…about a ½ inch deep on the spots.
SEED TIP: When I’m unsure about planting tiny seeds on a slope or tender seedlings in an exposed windy site, I put them in native soil in a brown paper “lunch” bag and then plant the bag in the garden leaving a 6”-8” paper collar above the soil. The bag will protect both seeds and/or seedlings when they are in the ground and will eventually rot away allowing plant roots to work into the soil.
AND…to speed up germination of big, hard seeds such as peas or beans…soak for a few hours in diluted liquid seaweed before planting.
KNOW IT, GROW IT…cascades of clematis. These great vines can be planted any time of the year, will grow in almost any soil and there are many splendid varieties to choose from that offer color in every season. One of the earliest to bloom and add luscious fragrance to a spring morning is Evergreen Clematis…love, love, love this one! Rich green leaves and hundreds of tiny white fragrant blooms.
The early spring flowering Montanas are very easy to grow even though their flowering period is much too short. I grow them in a sunny spot, with consistently moist
but well-drained soil.
Later comes the viticellas which bloom from early June to autumn in colors of lavender to deep violet. One of my favorites is C.jackmanii, deep purple blooms from spring to fall that look spectacular entwined through a pale pink rose such as ‘Blush Noisette’.
Large hybrids come in every shade and some, like ‘Nelly Moser’ have a colored stripe running down the center of each petal. This delicate clematis usually blooms from May to July.
For a glorious fall display of blooms and fragrance, I choose sweet autumn clematis, a paniculata. Usually semi-evergreen, it is quite adaptable and will grow in sun, part sun or light shade.
All clematis do best when planted in an open position with their roots shaded from the hot sun.
Clematis stems are vulnerable to breakage. To protect a young plant and give roots the cool shade they need, I simply run the shoots from the base of the plant up through an overturned clay pot mostly submerged in soil. I enlarge the drainage hole with the tap of my garden fork to accommodate the size of the vines. I am always sure to water consistently if there is no rain.
SIMPLE CLEMATIS PRUNING: For early flowering species that flower on last year’s growth, prune only to restrict growth. Cut back by removing flowering shoots after bloom.
Summer flowering large blooms need to have weak and dead wood trimmed and remaining vines cut back to a strong bud in March.
Late flowering on current season’s growth, cut back to 3 feet above the ground…sweet autumn clematis.
Upwardly mobile…vines of all kinds. I like to plant small-scale vines such as certain types of clematis near old roses and allow them to trail and mingle blooms. Positioned behind my HERMOSA rose is a lavender clematis that has wound its way through the shrub adding a striking color and textural punch…
Winding up the front porch railing is Akebia quinata or what I call chocolate vine because the blooms smell like chocolate…really! The vine stays green all winter and all I do is cut it back some each April or May after blooming.
Plant self-clinging vines properly…dig a hole and prepare the soil as you would for normal planting. Put the vine’s root ball into the hole and finish the planting as usual…
NOW, the important part: take the vines that have been wrapped around a stake off the support stake, untangle and spread them on the ground on each side of the hole…along the trellis, fence or wall as shown in the illustration. The vines will find their way ‘up’ on their own and attach as they grow!
Whoops…onion sets need to be planted. I usually put several rows in early and then about a week to ten days later stagger planting the remaining various sets for two or three weeks until all are done…this will give me onions to harvest for several weeks during the summer.
Once showing green, my onions really enjoy some manure tea. Easy to make…I just let a cup of chicken or cow manure stand in 2 gallons of water for a few days…to use, I dilute the mixture to look like weak tea.
SPRING IS IN THE AIR…clean out water barrels just before rain is forecast so that they can fill up again as quickly as possible. Add a few lumps of charcoal to keep water fresh and sweet…a screen inside the lid will keep away mosquitoes; clean out gutters and downspouts; take a look at windows and screens, need I say more?
LORE AND LEDGENDS…
If you see the underside of the leaves in an early spring breeze, it will rain before you sneeze…
And…When swallows fly low, rain is on the way…
Last…Clear moon, frost soon. Halo around the moon, rain soon.
MAD AS A MARCH HARE…ever wonder where the saying comes from???
During early spring the fur flies as the hares of country lore in England live up to their name and indulge in some furious boxing matches. Mostly this happens when females or jills, unimpressed by male antics to engage them in romance, stand up on their hind legs to fend off the over eager males or jacks.
By the way…rabbits do not like the smell or taste of onions…so I always try to make a perimeter border of onion chives, society garlic, garlic, leeks or such to protect special plants in garden areas…
STAKING STRATEGIES… Tomato plants need something nice and sturdy to climb or lean on and I’ll get more tomatoes; the quality of the fruit will improve by being off the ground; and will cut back on soil-borne diseases. They may start out small but they will be HUGE by late summer.
*Regular determinate tomatoes will stay at a manageable height but caging will still improve the fruit quality and yield
*Vigorous determinate tomatoes will need something sturdy to grow on; a little pruning will improve air circulation and fruit quality
*For vigorous indeterminates I use a heavy metal frame to hold the tomato vines…these I always prune early in the season…
I’m already tasting the heirloom tomato plants growing in the sunny garage window.
A Taste of Sunshine…make a Mediterranean-style dish. Turn simple ingredients into something special…onions, potatoes, eggs and fresh herbs!
My friend and French sister, Jeanine, made this for me one beautiful spring day when we spent time together working in her garden. The tortilla is a traditional dish from her country…usually carried to those working in the gardens or fields and served at lunch with bread, tomatoes and a light white wine.!
TORTILLA…slowly sauté some thinly sliced potatoes in olive oil in a frying pan…layering as you make with sliced onions, salt & pepper, fresh thyme and rosemary. When potatoes and onions are cooked, beat 3-6 eggs and pour over the top of the tortilla. Let cook without stirring…turn over onto serving plate when done. Amounts vary according to size of pan. Very loose recipe…use your skill and imagination.
…as winter chills give way to spring sunshine, something begins to stir…