Written By Anne Raver
Spring came early this year. My rhubarb poked out of the ground in late February, its fat knobs of brilliant red and lime-green telling me we had never really had a winter. The fuzzy buds of my saucer magnolia swelled to worrisome fullness and I walked around the yard of my old Carroll County farmstead, asking my lilacs and viburnums to please not bloom too early and get zapped by an unexpected frost.
But now spring is in full swing, and the fragrance of my Korean spicebush (Viburnum carlesii) fills the air. Its clusters of deep pink buds open to creamy flowers that attract early pollinators, as well as me, to bury our noses in its heady, spicy scent.
My double French lilacs, brought here from my grandmother’s garden, begin to open their luscious clusters of pure white, sweetly scented blooms.
I love to cut a few slender branches of these fragrant early-bloomers, plunging them immediately in a bucket of water that I carry about the yard.
Sometimes I place them in a tall vase, where they look glorious just by themselves. (I always recut the stems on an angle and dissolve an aspirin in the water, just like my mother did, to keep them fresh.) They also complement the bright colors of favorite early tulips, like Generaal de Wet, a fragrant deep orange that lasts long in a vase, or poet’s daffodils (Narcissus poeticus) whose sweetly scented, white petals have a light-yellow corona edged in red.
Who can be sad when spring rushes across the land, bringing up the skunk cabbages down by the stream and turning the woods to a haze of soft green?
It is a time to be out walking and taking deep breaths of cool air mixed with all these heady scents, and to watch the bees and tiny flies nuzzling the pollen, sipping the nectar, happily doing Nature’s job.
(And please don’t spray your lawn with herbicides; dandelion greens are not only delicious in salads and stir-fries, but their yellow blossoms are crucial to early pollinators. Plantain, that hated weed, can be eaten the same way, and its leaves are important food for the larvae of the Baltimore checkerspot butterfly, Maryland’s state insect.)
Magnolias, dogwoods, tree peonies and mock orange (Philadelphus virginalis), whose sweet-citrusy white flowers bloom in late May, are part of this grand march toward summer, so if you do not have any or many of these shrubs, early spring is a fine time to plant them.
Good soil is the key to any plant’s health, be it a woody shrub, tree or vegetable, so it is a good idea to test for basic nutrients and pH, which is a measure of the level of acidity or alkalinity in your soil.
Some shrubs, such as blueberry bushes, which not only have lovely white flowers in spring, but delicious berries in summer, followed by vermilion fall leaves, thrive in acid soil. Others, like lilacs, which are native to the limestone cliffs of Asia, prefer slightly alkaline soil.
Vegetables are happy with a pH of 5.5 to 6 or a bit higher for brassicas, such as broccoli, cabbage and kale.
Although soil test kits are available, they usually only test for pH, and then not very well. So I take samples of soil from different areas of the garden – the lilacs, the blueberries, the vegetable beds – clearly marking the bags, and send them to the University of Massachusetts Soil and Plant Testing Laboratory (www.umass.edu/soiltest), in Amherst, MA. A basic test costs $10, and you will have a report within a few weeks.
Water is the other key to basic plant health, and different plants have different needs. My agaves, for example, would die with too much water; my broccoli and lilacs need an inch a week.
If you are new to gardening, a basic text kept in your garden tool bag can answer a thousand questions, from water to planting depth. My own dog-eared bible is A Garden Primer, by Barbara Damrosch.
Of course, spring also means savoring those first greens from the kitchen garden, and now is the perfect time for planting onions, radishes, and cool-loving vegetables, from spinach and arugula to French radishes and many different lettuces.
If you did not have a chance last fall, work in a few inches of compost and aged manure, if you can find any, into the top of garden beds, without disturbing the structure of the soil beneath. You may love to dig, but unless you are starting a new garden, it is better to leave the architecture of the soil to the earthworms, fungi and microbes, which work together to feed and protect the roots of your plants. So I just add about three inches of compost, and use my hand cultivator to mix it into the topsoil.
Voila, I’m ready to plant spring peas.
Sugar snaps are my all-time favorite, although I love the flat snow peas, too, and both appreciate a tall trellis to climb. It is a good idea to put up the trellis first – slender poles like bamboo or black locust saplings, if you’re near a woods – strung with soft jute or ready-made six-inch netting.
Plant them an inch deep, a few inches apart, and train the first little tendrils up the strings. If they wave about in the air too long, they will lie down on the ground like forgotten children. Help them up the trellis, and they will grow vigorously, cover themselves with innocent white flowers, and form pods before summer gets too hot for their taste.
As for the alliums, I actually start onion and leek seeds in late February, indoors, because alliums need to develop strong green shoots before longer days trigger bulb growth. (So consider starting spring in winter next year.)
If you have not started them by seed, now is a great time to plant onion and shallot sets, which are dried bulbs, or bunches of green transplants of leeks and onions, which will develop quickly.
I love having plenty of green onions, or scallions, for salads and garnishes for soups, and Cipollini onions – small, flat, white little bulbs with a deliciously mild flavor – are terrific with a bit of cheese and French radishes (plant these now!) with a chilled glass of white wine, as the sun goes down (and you drift about the garden smelling the flowers.)
As the weather warms in May, I plant seeds of zinnias, sunflowers, cosmos and other favorite annuals, to intensify the colors of my vegetable garden, and to bring in the pollinators and beneficial bugs.
I love the prairie plants, too, from coneflowers, which come in many colors, to tall prairie plants, like purple ironweed and cup plant, with its daisy-like yellow flowers. These add stature to the garden, and even offer perches to the birds.
May in Carroll County means tomato time, too, and if I have not started my own plants, I take two trips – one to the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival at the Howard County Fairgrounds in West Friendship (May 5 and 6, www.sheepandwool.org) and one to the Landis Valley Herb & Garden Faire, in Lancaster, Pa. (May 11 and 12, www.landisvalleymuseum.org). Make sure you bring a big car, because the homegrown, often organic tomato, pepper and eggplants, as well as herbs of all kinds and heirloom roses and perennial plants are irresistible.