Sunday Opinion: The Season

Our remarkably cold spring has helped make more than a few things clearer to me.  Every year I encourage gardeners to plant for spring.  In the fall, and again come spring.  It can be one of the lovliest times of year in Michigan.  There are the spring bulbs-literally thousand to choose from.  Some are small and subtle-others are big and showy.  They are easy to plant- little brown orbs that only need to be popped underground.  They are completely programmed for a spring display- the day they go in the ground.  There is no better representative of promise and hope than this;  an early spring blooming bulb you can hold in your hand, and dream of the future.  Part of the party-plant as much as you can, as fast as you can.  That fall dirt will indeed be chilly.  

 The spring flowering bulbs are not the only party going on in the spring.  There are the wildflowers-an equally large group.  The spring flowering bulbs are exotic looking-meaning they are native to countries other than ours.  They look other-worldly.  The wildflowers are native.  Their wild and subtle beauty speaks to the celebration of the natural landscape-wherever you may live.  A nod to the native landscape-this is a pleasure for any gardener.  Phlox divaricata is one of my favorite wildflowers-that blue is unforgettable.  Michigan has more species of native orchids than any other state, save Florida.  Many of them bloom in the spring.  Should you be a gardener who also watched the Royal wedding, I am sure you spotted the long fronds of blooming Solomon’s Seal in the flower arrangements at Westminster.  Were they not beautiful?  There is a spring season.  I would encourage you to celebrate the spring wherever you may garden.

Perennials that represent beautifully during the spring-there are plenty.  I could list my favorites, but that is not my point.  If you do not have some part of your garden which is devoted to a celebration of spring, you will spend a few months longing for another time, and a different circumstance.  My garden has Magnolias, hellebores, European ginger, crocus, daffodils, crocus, tulips, trout lilies, PJM rhododendrons and sweet peas-I have a whole lot going on in my garden in the spring.  By mid March I can sense change in the air.  But dinner on the deck featuring homegrown tomatoes and basil is a long way off.         

There are those cold tolerant spring container plants-why would anyone do without them?  The pansies, violas, primula denticulata, ranunculus, lobelia, annual phlox, alyssum, and ornamental cabbage-all so beautiful.  My favorite combination this year-Creme Brulee heuchera, dark violet pansies, lavender and peach violas, and cream yellow alyssum.  I have some ideas about what fuels the urge to skip spring gardening.  We have four seasons in Michigan.  Spring, summer, fall, and  winter-each last about 3 months.  Our spring has been terrible really-very cold and very rainy.  But this is what we have now-for better or for worse.  Given the prospect of a really cold spring, there is that idea to skip it, as it might be short and fleeting.  I still plant for it.  The beauty of spring plants is such that the risk is well worth taking.  Some years my Magnolia Stellata blooms but 2 days-I have already had over a week of it this year.    

I have clients who wish to plant their summer annuals May 1.  They wish to follow up with planting vegetables May 10.  As much as I understand the idea to try to lengthen the summer beyond 3 months, nature is remarkably uncooperative in that regard.  Annuals and vegetables planted too early, in really cold soil, with cold night temperatures-they struggle to survive.  Should they survive, they are set back.  They may never recover the entire season.  Tropical plants set out too early in cold soil-it will take a lot of time for them to recover from the insult.  The insult?  Pushing the season.  No matter what any of us long for-the seasons turn when they will.  The turning of the seasons apply to all of us equally.  You gardeners for whom a garden is a sacred way of life-nature  could care less about your passion and committment-you will be on nature’s schedule no matter what you do. Plan ahead for a spring garden.  That garden reigns the better part of three months. Stave off the need to plant for summer too early-plan for a gorgeous spring.

 If you have a mind to skip the spring season, and challenge the opening date of summer-be prepared to plant twice.  Of course I have planted summer flowers too early.  Clients have events that are important.  June is such a tough month to plan for.  An unusually warm spring can mean the spring flowers are looking tired in June.  A cold spring can delay the summer plantings-which in the best of circumstances will not look at all grown up in June.  Summer annuals just get looking good in July.  Some years, the summer annuals never get really good.  Investing in gardening is a risky business-there are no guarantees.  No promises can be made.  Plants can die.  A planting scheme can turn out not at all how I imagined.  When I get too concerned about the prospect of failure, or too worried about the risk, I try to remind myself that act of making the garden is as important as the outcome.  Does any summer flower look anything like a forget me not?  Is there a reasonable substitute for dogtooth violets or violas in June that you know of? Pots of pansies and voilas just get looking good in June.  I have had them go on into July.  A beautiful spring is out there, in one form or another.  I would chance it, given that I cannot substitute one seasonal experience for another.      

The truth of the natural order of things will be told.  Ity is not tough to spot plants that are suffering from cold-they have that look about them.  Those gardeners that do not plan for a spring season can be tempted to plant summer annuals way too early.  They forego the beauty of the pansies, violas, and annual phlox for geraniums or begonias that are not prepared to survive outside a greenhouse at this time of year.  They plant out tomatoes the first of May; they buy their tomato plants a second time, once the summer weather sets in.  The end of May usually brings the beginning of our summer season.  It can be a week early, but it is just as likely to be a week later.  I plant my own summer flowers in June.  Given warm soil, they take off and grow fast-faster than plants that have been planted in cold soil.   Rushing the spring, hanging on to the summer too long,  editing the fall, ignoring the winter-this never works.  A life seriously imagined, and experienced in the present-a life well lived.  The changing of the seasons informs, and guides.   

No doubt it has seemed like our winter went on forever, pushing spring out of the picture.  Last spring-the best I ever remember. By best, I mean cool and surprisingly mild.  This year, miserably cold and wet.  Yet both seasons are well within the parameters of what we can call spring.


  1. I was really surprised that there weren’t more flower arrangements at the Royal Wedding. I wonder why? It would have been beautiful to have 2 large lush arrangements flanking the church doors when the couple came out.

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