I always tell people that if they want to really show off their garden to plan to do so in the month of June (that’s still Spring, isn’t it?). Certainly not now: The weather’s been dreary since we dropped into the twenties (the cold ones, not the roaring ones) the first week of November, which is not officially ‘the cruelest month,’ but it might as well be, since it’s only going to get darker and colder for another six weeks before the Winter Solstice lures you into a false sense of imminent escape. Imminent? It only gets brighter by a couple of minutes a day! (Much like me, except I seem to be moving in the opposite direction.)
Anyway, if your garden doesn’t look good in June, it really is your fault.
Spring is the sound of a key turning in a prison lock that releases you from the Stygian darkness: The first sight of a snowdrop, glory of snow, or hellebore; the first hint of yellow on a forsythia that had already bloomed again at Halloween; the neighbor’s witch hazel that I used to take cuttings from for propagation until they caught me; and of course, all the dropped recycling that appears as reliably as daffodils once the snow melts. (OK; this all actually takes place in Technical Winter—but it’s Emotionally Spring.)
Relish this time (with mustard, of course), as it means that it will only get better from here, as opposed to December, when in my native Pennsylvania you buy a jumbo pack of Bic lighters to heat up your car keys when outdoor physics has taken a hard turn North. I used to drive a Prius, which had no actual key, only a bunch of buttons on a fob, a strange little word from the 1590s that apparently means “to put someone off deceitfully.” Which was accurate in my case: the buttons on my fob were arranged so that I would more likely trigger the car alarm than open the doors. Luckily, I traded my beloved Prius (ground clearance: zero) in for a Subaru after a particularly nasty Winter and before I tried to warm up the remote with a Bic lighter.
It is soon after I see the witch hazel in beautiful bloom that I remember my “special bulbs” (they used to be called “minor bulbs” until Holland realized that special sounded a heck of a lot better and “minor’” implied criminal charges).
And I say, “Oh fudge!” (and if you believe that wording, I have a non-existent Prius to sell you) upon the realization that I did not rake and/or vacuum up all the leaves that had fallen in the Fall. Now, in Spring (or late Winter, or wherever the heck we are), the leaves that would have been oh-so-easy to remove back in the Fall have been frozen into a darn good imitation of a tarp.
Raking is the easiest response at this point. It gets rid of the impenetrable leaf cover quickly, while—alas—dramatically lessening the number of minor-league specials I will get to enjoy next season.
“Sorry!” “Sorry!” “Sorry!” I repeat to the savaged baby bulbs as I continue to rip a good third of them out of the frozen earth. Of course, I had advised thousands of gardeners to avoid this unnatural disaster by shredding those leaves into sensible mulch back in the pre-Ice-Age season. My failure to do so then—and my panicked response now—is the cue for dog walkers to saunter past the garden from both directions.
“Oh my; what are you sorry about?”
“How far back we going? It’s already two in the afternoon and you probably want to be home for dinner.” Or maybe it’s “supper” out here. I have no idea. I spent the first 30 years of my life on the mean streets of Philadelphia, but since then I have resided in “Pennsylvania Dutch” country, where it took me years to learn the local language, which is actually somewhat mangled German (it’s “Deutsch”, not Dutch). Say now.
Back in Philly, we had breakfast, lunch, dinner and wadder ice on the stoop for dessert in the Summer. Out here, people also have supper, which probably isn’t breakfast, but beyond that I’m clueless.
My destruction of the helpless tiny bulbs reminds me that daffodils are next (to emerge, that is; not to be ruthlessly raked). The tarp o’ leaves is no less thick over their resting places, but sturdier they are. And so, when I remove the Winter cover of death, the only thing I see are tiny little green sprouts that I suspect are happy to be liberated and are darned harder to damage.
Then it’s off to uncover the tulips! Yes, despite the deer, voles, Evil Squirrels, mice, et al., there are still tulips to be seen. (Well, not yet, but God willing and the rake don’t break, they will emerge!). Maybe.
My actual “working garden” is off to the side of the house, and its raised beds are already mostly filled with over-wintered garlic, which will not be harvested until around the 4th of July, which I have discovered is not the ideal time to use those beds for tomato planting.
When the hours of daylight are falling fast and the tomatoes may not care how warm it is when it gets dark at 6 p.m., I am fastidiously not collecting the leaves as I know I should be doing. But I am NOT avoiding the chore! No siree! I mark every day that passes with increasing amounts of (slight) guilt as the bulk of the leaves sit out there freezing solid.
The tulips are contained (as opposed to the crocuses, which spread like warm butter on toast, running over the edges and making everything a somewhat glorious mess) in two raised beds in front of the house. These are “mounded beds” that have no frames. I claim that this is because Eliot Coleman explained to me that in the “French Intensive” style, raised beds are unframed so you can grow trailing plants down the sides.
I have no trailing plants down the sides; I was just too lazy to frame them. I wish I had, because they look way too much like graves this way. Anyway, over many years the Dutch (the REAL Dutch, not the Pennsylvania Deutsch) would send me great sampler kits of bulbs in the Fall: “Special” bulbs, impossible-to-destroy daffodils, and a bunch of allegedly non-returning tulips, which I would hold up at planting time and in a gently reassuring voice, explain that they are perennials and will return year after year.
Years have passed since I planted any new bulbs, but I still have a grave—ah, bed—containing some 50 or so tulips, of which there are rarely two alike. The rest are singles, which makes for a weird display and is no help in investigating which varieties are reliable returners. Besides, I long ago forgot the names. Oh, and there are always a few to a dozen black walnut sprouts where tulips once were but are now guaranteed not to return. Not because of the black walnuts, but due to…
Evil Squirrels. Evil Squirrels that probably have a nice tulip display somewhere in the woods. If I ever find it, I’ll replace the tulips with other bulbs: Light bulbs! ❖
This article was published originally in 2023, in GreenPrints Issue #133.