The Spring Garden

May Day (3)Despite a run of very warm weather, and the tomato plants I have seen sitting outdoors for sale, it is still very much the spring season here. One of my favorite things about gardening in the mid west is the fact that the seasons change.  I like all of them.  Spring is a special favorite, as it comes on the heels of the dregs of the winter.  Speaking of the dregs, we have a forecast for 37 degrees overnight. Our last frost date is the end of May-some 2 weeks away. This is no hardship.  The spring season, even on the coolest of days, is a delight. My variegated lily of the valley is proof positive of that. My tulips are on hold, in full bloom. The dogwoods are just about in full bloom, as are the lilacs.

DSC_0457The spring flowering trees are at their best when the spring is cool and moderate. Some years ago all of the flowers on my magnolias were frosted off, and the new shoots sustained damage as well. Our past winter was terrifically cold-especially in February. As a result, my magnolia flowers are so so this year. But I have seen lots of crab apples, cherries, red buds, and Bradford pears striking in bloom. The spring flowering trees-I would take a chance on them. My dogwoods are just beginning to bloom. Spring blooming trees are a marvel, and there are so many kinds to choose from. I see very few young flowering trees when I drive through neighborhoods.  And not so many stands of tulips either.

spring season (5)I ascribe this to the notion that many people feel the spring is especially ephemeral, and is shorter than the other seasons. However, the spring is just as long as every other season. The spring does not begin with a flowering phase.  The long process by which plants emerge from the ground and break dormancy is every bit as beautiful as a patch of daffodils in bloom. That pale limey green I call spring green is as visually lush as the new growth.

DSC_0219These dwarf spruce are not so dwarf any more, after 30 years in the ground.  When the new growth emerges on the tips of every branch in the spring, the visual effect is spectacular. The hellebores have been in bloom for at least a month. The warm weather pushed every plant full speed ahead.  At times there was too much to look at, and not enough time to look.  A good friend in the nursery business told me years ago that his gardens are designed to peak in late summer-this is when he has the time to appreciate them. I want it all.  Every season. This is why I make a special effort to enjoy the spring, even though it is a very busy time of year.

May Day (4)This patch of creeping jenny, campanula, and sweet woodriff is lush and fresh.  That quality applies to every inch of the spring landscape. All of the failures in the garden now are winter failures. Everything in the spring garden is growing robustly.  Regular rain sustains all that growing. There hasn’t been enough time for bugs and fungus to take hold. The time for disappointment comes much later.  The spring is about promise and possibility.

spring season (2)My yellow magnolias are rarely in bloom longer than a week or 10 days, but each one those days is heavenly. I look forward to them with great anticipation. The spring garden has an expectant atmosphere. How ephemeral the flowering makes the experience of that blooming all that much more sweet.

spring season (1)My perennial garden is finally beginning to fill in.  The delphiniums should be so beautiful this year.  They have just about filled the tomato cages that I hope will keep them aloft when they flower. Would that the catmint would keep this shape.  By midsummer it will fall to the ground, splay out, and need shearing.  This moment is a good one.

Mother's Day 2014 (41)Rob plants lots of spring pots, many of which feature lettuce, bok choy, chard, and herbs. This pot is good enough to eat. That luscious quality speaks to the best of what spring has to offer. There is no other fresh like spring fresh.

DSC_0433This new garden we did for a client last year has a few early flowering perennials-notably euphorbia polychroma and anemone sylvestris.  My client planted yellow and white viridiflora tulips, and white triumph tulips.  What a charming spring garden she has.

May 11  2015 009 I can hardly believe I have seen basil for sale outdoors already.  It despises cold soil, as do tomatoes, and many of the summer season annuals.  The best way to tell if you can plant for summer is to put your finger in the soil.  If it is very cold, wait to plant any tropical plants. A week of consecutive night temperatures above 50 degrees is a sign you might consider planting tropical plants. I am not ready for geraniums, or calocasia, or caladiums.  I want my spring as long as I can have it. The best way is to ignore the siren call to plant for summer when it is too early is to cultivate a spring garden, and enjoy the spring around you while it lasts.

Flowering Trees

paperbark maple


Every spring, I swing by my Mom’s house last house.  She died in 2002-so yes, this yearly visit is a pilgrimage of sorts. I had occasion to visit a regular client in the same neighborhood about what we would do this year, so I drove through the neighborhood. The landscape looks entirely different than when she owned it, save for an old record breaking size paperbark maple on the left side of this photograph.  She grew this tree from a twig start from Musser Forest (do I have the name right?)-I am guessing better than 25 years ago.  Paper bark maples are highly esteemd for their shaggy, cinnamon colored bark.  Why am I talking about it?  The girl that grew this maple taught me how to garden-and to love trees.

dawn redwood  This dawn redwood down the street from my Mom’s old house is an astonishing tree.  It is thriving in an urban neighborhood, just a few feet from a driveway.  The driveway of a gardening person, I might add-the yard always looks well cared for.  In my twenties, I loved visiting this tree before or after I visited my Mom.  Sometimes we would walk down the street to look at it together.  Forty years later it is still well worth the visit.  The woody trunk and branches are beautifully sculptural.

weeping cherry

As for ornamental, or smaller growing flowering trees-what do you make of them?  Some years, I cannot get enough of them. That cloud of spring pink is intoxicating.  The cherries, apples and crabapples have thousands of small blooms that flutter in the slighest breeze.  They can also be swept away in an afternoon, if the wind is strong enough.  They bring ballerinas and tutus to mind.  The flowers are just plain pretty, and that is sufficient reason to grow them.  Maybe more importantly, those blooms are seductive.  They may encourage a not so gardening minded individual to actually purchase and plant a tree.  Who knows where that could lead.  A few years later, perhaps they might be planting katsuras, or weeping Japanese white pines.  I love them the most for this reason.

bradford pearsA neighborhood street lined with Bradford pears  is a good spring look. This is a large growing ornamental tree whose fruit is small, and better suited for birds than people.  Bradford pears are highly susceptible to wind and storm damage.  Plant a good cultivar, such as Cleveland Select, and give it room.  They are not so broad, but they may grow as tall as 60 feet.

I have no idea what this pink flowering tree is, but it is certainly exuberant, blooming in front of a red shingle house. I like the nerve of this.  It takes the edge of of all of that sugary sweetness.  Some years, flowering trees strike me as silly. Somehow a petunia handles being pink much better than a tree.  All that frou frou and fluff, on a tree, for heaven’s sake.  But the fairy tale part of the tree is very short lived.  The bloom span might be two weeks, in the longest and best spring ever.

yellow magnolia

Every last bud on my 8 Butterflies magnolias frosted off a few nights ago.  I imagine this tree in my Mom’s neighborhood suffered likewise.  Magnolias are much more dramatic in bloom than cherries or crabs.  The individual flowers are much larger.  In the years when the flowers frost, there is a whole season ahead in which to enjoy a tree that has beautiful bark, leaves and attractive structure.

This dark foliaged crabapple lives in the traffic island across the street from my shop-I can see it out my office window.  Every year it virtually defoliates by late summer-usually from drought and fungus. Once in a white we will clean up around the base, and prune.  But every year in the spring it is a happening.  This showgirl has a heart of steel.

This is a fairly large tree-I have no idea what it is.  It’s the wrong shape for a Bradford, and it looks too symmetrical to be an apple.  But it is breathtaking in bloom, whatever it is.

weeping cherry

Weeping trees leave me cold.  But I rather like how this tree is trimmed on the bottom.  And it certainly is willing to bloom.  Such a stark landscape for such a tree with such a romantic air.

pink flowering trees

My favorite part of small growing flowering trees?  They lend themselves to being planted in groves, blocks, or swirls. They are quite comfortable being the star of a show.  The flowering branches are great in a vase.  All this pink?  Just a little fleeting frosting.


Best Spring Ever

Our winter was benign, and left early, never to return.  Our spring has been balmy, even tempered.  I can only think of two nights where I worried about frost.  It shows.  Early spring bulbs were beautiful.  Flowering trees woke up and represented early. My hellebores, congested with blooms.   Cool nights are making every spring statement essay length.  My old tree form wisteria is gorgeous right now. In its vining form, wisteria can be a colossal irritation.  It grows too fast. It frequently refuses to bloom, after all the work you might do to feed, water, and prune properly.  It crushes anything but the strongest support. Rumor has it that some ancient estate in the south has been completely engulfed by a wisteria vine covering acres. Like I said, just a rumor from my early gardening years that I have never forgotten.  Is not any wisteria story believable?   But this year-the wisteria blooming makes me understand why gardeners put up with them.   

The tree form isolates those uncivilized and fast growing tendrils from the community at large, and keeps all their mischief confined to their own home.  My first wisteria tree was a one gallon whip; I planted the tiny thing with nothing but lawn around it for blocks. I drove 3 galvanized steel stakes into the ground as far as Fred from next door could manage.  Within a year I was tying the trunk to my steel tripod with nylon stockings. The first five years-not a good look.  My green vining version of Cousin It, bound to those silver poles-bizarre looking.  Of course, there were no flowers.  Neighbors would occasionally ask me what my intent was with that plant.         

The 6th year, my tree wisteria bust forth with hundred of fragrant lavender racemes-all of them dripping to impossible lengths.  Thousands of pea-like flowers, weeping in the most breathtaking way you could imagine. I laid down on the ground under that tree, and looked up through those flowers to the sky-a perfect gardening moment.  This spring, the wisteria is blooming everywhere-heavily.  The perfume, heady.  

Not all evidence of a great spring is so dramatic.  My old Picea Mucrunulatum have pushed forth very long candles this year.  They are going for broke.  This new evergreen growth I call spring green.  Everywhere I see plants growing robustly; they have all been coached by the mild winter season, and the milder spring.  Some years we have had no spring. An extreme winter is replaced by an equally extreme summer.  I so understand why the gardens, and the gardeners in England take my breath away.  A gentle and moderate climate is the best dance partner any gardener could ever hope for. 

The tulips at the shop are in their glory right now. Their incredible size and height I attribute to a benign frozen dormancy, and regular soaking spring rains.  Juicy. My asparagus this year-divine.

Our early spring plantings show no signs of being under siege from overly cold temperatures.  The in ground plantings have grown and thickened up; the blooming is profuse.  In this limestone pot, the new Alyssum “Snow Princess”.  A new variety that has gotten much press at trial-I will give it a try.  That distinctive alyssum spring smell-I got the message from fully ten feet away.

The crabapples have been outstanding.  The flowers on this coralburst crab-dense.  A coralburst has a naturally round lollipop shape-in bloom, they will make you smile.  This spring, our spring-every gardeners smile is a broad one. 

As Janet would say, this particular spring has been so beautiful, one could fall to the ground and weep.  That’s the kind of gardener she is.   As for me, it has been everything I ever imagined, and more.  The best spring, ever.

Flowering Trees


All trees flower; the spent chartreuse blooms from the Norway maples in my neighborhood have begun to blanket the streets like an algal bloom on a pond.  I do so appreciate that vibrant spring green; I feel deserving of it, after my winter. Green flowers seem appropriately dignified, for a tree. But those early and girly pink flowering trees-do we love them? This old weeping cherry-is it beautiful, or is that candy pink ballerina’s tutu too too much?   

I am very fond of all the magnolias that manage to survive in my zone.  The saucer magnolia has opulently scaled pale pink blooms.  They flop open in a decadent and provocative manner.  The slightest frost stains the pale flowers with rust; the slightest heat finishes the flowers off in moments.  The ground beneath them will be littered with decaying petals-no other tree makes such an ostentatious display in bloom.   It is the Sarah Bernhardt of flowering trees; do I like this?  Whether I do, or not, I like seeing this play, every year.   

These weeping willows are astonishly dramatic, at the blooming and leafing out stage. This grove is dripping yellow green spring. No small part of how beautiful they look is the large space that was given over to allowing them to be what nature intended.  Willows are perfectly splendid in the spring. 

This old crabapple ignites, and lights up the sky behind my neighbor’s garage; it is in full bud right now, ready to burst forth on the scene from my terrace.  I do not even see this tree the entire rest of the year.  The next 10 days, it turns the air pink.  Do I like this?  Would I have this?  Am I happy to have it right now-yes.

Across the street is an old top grafted cherry.  The trunk bark is split open like a weak seam on a tight shirt-who knows whether lightning, scald, or other damage created such a giant wound.  But the tree has put on its frothy petticoat every year I have lived here, despite the fact it gets no care of any kind. Some days I marvel at the contrast of its dainty blooms, and its scarred trunk-other days I cannot bear to look.  Are grafted, weeping and blooming trees an alien nation- born of man’s misguided meddling with nature?  No matter my answer to this question, would I have inherited this tree, I would care for it, and treasure its persistence.  

My big Norway is in its glory right this moment-chartreuse and blue never looked so good.  This stage will be gone, before I have had my visual fill. Some trees are architectural; their branch structure, or bark, or shape, or leaf forms reward the eye of a gardener.  The giant shade trees- their massive dignity have graced streets all across this country. They are able to put a protective roof over a garden in such a graceful way you might not even notice.   The ornamental trees-those smaller trees with odd forms, or showy blooms-they have their day, and their place.  Should you be thinking about trees, try to figure out what you like; I hope you have more success than I.   

Who are the ornamental trees?  If you like subtly natural, look at the amelanchiers (serviceberries, or shadblow), cornelian cherry, witch hazel, and its relative, parrotia.  If you like the showgirls, go for pink cherries, crabs, and magnolias. Magnolia Jane is small growing and very floriferous. If you blush at that pink, try the Venus dogwoods, snowdrift crabs, apple trees, the magnolias stellata, or the yellow magnolias-Yellow Butterflies, or Elizabeth. Should you live in my zone, visit a nursery right now, and review your choices. Be seduced-this is what spring is all about.

My ornamental tree review, The Galaxy Magnolia Girls, are putting on their show nightly, as long as the cool temperatures last.  I do not plan to miss a single performance.