Judith's Garden: The promise of spring


CHIONODOXA IS ONE of the earliest flowers of spring — as their clear blue flowers push up through last year’s decaying leaves. Photo by Dick Conrad

THE LOVELY WHITE bloodroot flowers fully open on a sunny day. Photo by Dick Conrad

EVERY YEAR, AROUND the third week of April, the serviceberry tree at the corner of Judith's house bursts into bloom, proclaiming “spring is here.” Photo by Dick Conrad

SNOWDROPS — WONDERFUL HARBINGERS of spring — are easily grown and will gradually multiply year by year. Photo by Dick Conrad

Photo by Dick Conrad

THE SOUTH SIDE of the house creates a warm microclimate, and here the daffodils will bloom several weeks ahead of those further out in the garden Photo by Dick Conrad

Spring comes slowly in Vermont and it always seems a tad fickle. Just this morning, as I write this during the last week of March, I once again donned my snowshoes and took a solitary walk in the woods accompanied by Ingrid, my ever-faithful canine companion. 

And even in April, after a string of warm days has lulled us into complacency, we may still wake up one morning to find a frost-covered garden. 

But, ever so gradually, the natural world awakens and all around us we see and hear those unmistakable signs of spring. And, before long, the first flowers to greet the new season — snowdrops, squill, bloodroot and the earliest daffodils will be spreading their message of hope. 

Now more than ever, in these anxious times, our gardens offer us safe and special spaces where we can observe the amazing rhythms and wonders of nature. I like to think of my garden as my personal refuge during a difficult storm.

Here are three special signs that, year after year, tell me “spring is on its way,” and some of the first flowers of the season that soon will be singing out “spring has arrived.” I know this year they will be even more welcome than ever.

GOLDFINCHES TRANSFORMED

This past winter a huge crowd of goldfinches regularly flocked to our feeders — sometimes even crowding out the ubiquitous chickadees. The goldfinches’ winter garb was decidedly low-key — brownish feathers with black and white wing-bars. Then suddenly a little miracle unfolds as, feather by feather, the males gradually transform themselves into glorious golden birds — all the better to attract the females during the coming nesting season.

By now our feeders are put away for the season and the crowd of goldfinches has spread out. But they have not gone far. Each time I see a flash of gold as one darts around the garden, my heart gives a little jump for joy.

SWELLING BUDS

By early April — as they prepare for flowering and leafing out — the buds on most woody plants are swelling visibly. I am particularly fond of observing this phenomenon in the serviceberries, both along the road and in my garden.

Serviceberries are small native trees that flourish at the edges of the forest and also make wonderful additions to our gardens. Twenty years ago I planted four Shadblow Serviceberries (Amelanchier canadensis) — which grow to about 12 feet high and wide — where I would be able to see them from our kitchen window. More recently I added the one you see pictured that greets us when we come up the driveway.

Every spring, from late March onwards, I watch as their buds gradually fatten up. Then all of a sudden one morning, somewhere around the third week of April, I will wake up to discover each small tree covered in delicate white blossoms, telling me “spring has sprung.”

ARRIVAL OF THE WOOD FROGS

For me another amazing miracle of the season is the arrival of the wood frogs in our small pond. 

The first time I heard them I thought a flock of quacking ducks had descended on the water. Very slowly I approached to see who might be there and I soon realized it was actually dozens of vocalizing frogs darting around on the surface of the pond, all frantically trying to attract a mate. Suddenly they discerned my presence — and everything went silent. Finally, after a minute or so, as they detected no further movement on my part, the raucous cacophony started up again.

Wood frogs spend their winters in a semi-frozen state dug into the ground under the leaf litter on the forest floor. Each spring, when the ground temperature rises sufficiently, they warm up enough to move around and seek out open water where they will lay and fertilize their eggs. 

Once this mission is accomplished they all leave and return again to the woods. 

HARBINGERS OF SPRING

By early April, all around the garden, green shoots are pushing their way up through the cold brown earth. They are like nature’s little messengers, announcing the start of the new season, and I know it will not be long before the earliest flowers are here.

Here in Vermont we must wait until May for the “big spring flower show” — with carpets of daffodils, bluebells and many more beneath a canopy of flowering crab apples. But I have a very special place in my heart for those first blossoms of April, with their smiling faces and messages of hope. These are indeed stalwart and compact flowers that can survive a late cold snap and perhaps even a little snow.

Snowdrops, with their pure white little bells and green striations inside, are among the earliest flowers to open each spring. One fall, many years ago now, I planted a few dozen nondescript brown bulbs on our barn slope — a spot that is readily visible from our dining room window. 

And over the years this small investment of time and money has rewarded me handsomely. Every summer, down in the earth and hidden from sight, each snowdrop bulb gradually creates side bulbs, thus multiplying the colony. So now, every spring, literally hundreds of little white bells arrive on cue to greet the new season. 

As the snow recedes I am also on the lookout for the flowers of our local bloodroot — so called because their chunky roots exude a reddish sap when broken. It is said that the native populations of America used this sap as a skin decoration. 

The flowers, shielded by a wrapping of leaves as they push their way up through the leaf litter, have pure white petals with yellow centers of pollen. Furthermore, to protect the pollen from rain and cold, the flowers will only be fully open on sunny days. 

As I mentioned, we must mostly wait until May for the big daffodil extravaganza. But daffodils are also opportunists. I planted some along the warm south-facing wall of our house — a gable end where not too much snow accumulates — and each April I am rewarded by their cheery faces that arrive well ahead of their counterparts further out in the garden. 

And finally, I would be remiss not to mention the true-blue — and aptly named — Glory of the Snow (Chionodoxa) that each spring eagerly push their way through the remains of last year’s leaves during the sometimes chilly days of early April. 

Again, along the south-facing wall of our house they bloom alongside those first daffodils — creating a beautiful study of yellow and blue that is bliss for this winter-weary gardener. 

This is the time of year when the Gilbert and Sullivan song from their operetta “The Mikado,” which I learned as a child, still rings clearly in my head:

The flowers that bloom in the spring

            Tra la

Breathe promise of merry sunshine —

As we merrily dance and we sing

            Tra la

We welcome the hope that they bring

            Tra la

Of a summer of roses and wine.

And that's what we mean when we say that a thing

Is welcome as flowers that bloom in the spring,

            Tra la la la la

            Tra la la la la

The flowers that bloom in the spring!

Judith Irven and Dick Conrad live in Goshen where together they nurture a large garden. Judith is a Vermont Certified Horticulturist, garden writer and landscape designer. You can subscribe to her blog about her Vermont gardening life at northcountryreflections.com. Dick is a landscape and garden photographer; you can see more of his photographs at northcountryimpressions.

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