Judith’s Garden: Prelude to spring

We are now well past the Vernal Equinox, that precise point in the calendar when, all over the planet, daytime and nighttime are essentially equal.
This celestial marker, which occurred this year on March 20 at exactly 5:58 p.m., is also meant to signify that we have somehow magically passed from winter to spring. 
But in reality, as we all know, new seasons do not appear on command at predetermined times.  Spring, in particular, always seems to arrive both slowly and gently in Vermont.
Gradually, as the days lengthen and the sun rides higher in the sky, the air becomes warmer and the frost leaves the ground.
Teasing April
April is like a playful tease as gentle spring arrives on its own sweet time.  We cherish each of April’s pleasures as they appear, both for their beauty and for their message that our natural world is awakening.
For me the first sign of spring comes at the beginning of April when the buds on the serviceberries outside the kitchen window begin to fatten up.  But I know full well it will be several more weeks before they finally burst into flower. 
Then, a week or so later, I look up at our barn slope and see the beautiful patches of snowdrops — always a miraculous sight that some years happens even before the last snow has paid us a final farewell. 
After the snowdrops have finished flowering their green leaves remain for about a month as the plant makes food for the coming year. Then, almost overnight, the leaves vanish too and everything is hidden until the following spring.
Snowdrops are easy to grow in our gardens. Find a partially shady spot where the soil does not readily dry out; then, either in late spring or in the fall, plant some snowdrop bulbs.  For years to come, their dainty white flowers will herald the arrival of spring.
CROCUSES ARE LONG-lived bulbs that pop up in all sorts of places in mid-April. Photo by Dick Irven
Crocuses, from clear white to deep purple, dainty blue scilla and even a few early daffodils also grace my garden in April.
But these early daffodils are merely a preview. Here in the Goshen it will be mid-May before broad sweeps of white and gold daffodils fill my flower beds, signifying that spring has arrived in all its glory.
Of course the exact dates when all this magic happens varies tremendously depending on your location.  We live fairly high on the western slopes of the Green Mountains but, even a few miles away down in Brandon or Middlebury, these events often occur a full fortnight earlier. 
And back in mid-March my son, who lives in South Carolina, sent me a photograph of his crab apples which were already in full bloom. It must be almost summer down there by now!
THE FIRST GREEN shoots tell us spring is on its way. Photo by Dick Conrad
Spring ephemerals
Many of our most beloved early flowers are known as “spring ephemerals” — amazing plants that are perfectly adapted to life beneath tall deciduous trees. 
Here, in the month or so before the trees leaf out, the sun shines down and warms the soil. And during that brief time while the ground is still sunlit, spring ephemerals are able to complete their entire annual life cycle. First they put out leaves and flowers, attract pollinators and then set seed, all the while photosynthesizing and storing enough food to carry the roots through the coming year.
With these essential activities accomplished, they shed their leaves and retreat back beneath the ground, waiting to reemerge the following spring.
Spring ephemerals in the forest are an absolute wonder to see.  In late April and early May you can find wide swaths of Spring Beauties and Squirrel Corn, large clumps of Dutchman’s Breeches and Trillium, and many other lovely wildflowers — all going from flowering to setting seed in those few short weeks of opportunity.
BLUE SCILLA COMBINES beautifully with the very first daffodils of the new season. Photo by Dick Conrad
Spring ephemerals also make delightful additions to a woodland garden. Many, like crocuses and scilla, are bulbs which can be readily purchased at garden centers in the fall.
Others, like Virginia Bluebells and the various kinds of Trillium are actually perennials with rhizomatous roots.  American Meadows, the online company based in Burlington, carries many kinds for planting either later this spring or in the fall. Before choosing, take a bit of time to learn about their various natural environments and then select those that match the conditions in your own garden. 
As a case in point, the lovely White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) naturally occurs in the alkaline soils along the limestone cliffs of western Vermont, whereas its two cousins, the Red and  Painted Trillium, (Trillium erectum and Trillium undulatum) thrive in the acidic upland woodlands around here.
I like to plant spring ephemerals among ferns and other woodland plants. This way I will not be left with bare patches of soil after the ephemerals die back.  To avoid accidentally disturbing them later in the season I usually mark the planting spots with small sticks.
Some early bloomers keep their leaves all summer.
Epimedium is a perennial plant that puts out its delicate flowers early in April, well before its leaves appear. Then, all summer long, those handsome leaves create a sturdy and attractive groundcover.
Our native Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), which blooms in my garden around mid-April, is another lovely plant that, unless the summer is excessively hot, keeps its leaves until fall. 
THE NATIVE BLOODROOT is one of the earliest plants to bloom in Judith’s garden. Photo by Dick Conrad
About 15 years ago I decided to clear our barn slope and plant a garden. There was little of interest to save, apart from a tiny patch of the wild bloodroot. Every year I had marveled as its clear white flowers, like miniature anemones, emerged between the thick grasses and ferns which, at that time, completely dominated the slope; I was in awe that such a delicate plant could survive under such adverse conditions.
I carefully dug the single rootstock, which easily broke into smaller pieces that indeed exuded a reddish liquid reminiscent of blood.  I tucked the pieces into various shady corners around my garden, and now every April I am rewarded with dense patches of delicate white flowers, followed by attractive scalloped leaves for the remainder of the season.
Garden chores for April
Sometimes layers of sodden leaves accumulate over the winter where some of the earliest flowers — such as Snowdrops, Crocuses, Epimedium or Bloodroot — grow.  To make it easier for their new green shoots to push their way up towards the light, take a few minutes in early spring to gently rake back those heavy leaves.
TOWARD THE END of April the wild serviceberries are like snow in springtime. Photo by Dick Conrad
Later in April, once new shoots appear on your rose canes, remove all the winter die-back (any blackened section of stem above the highest green bud), using sharp clean pruners to snip it off just above a robust outward-facing bud.
But a word of caution — never dig your flower or vegetable beds until after they have fully dried out (which some years may not happen until mid-May).  Even walking across water-laden and soggy beds can compact the soil and ruin its structure.
And of course April is a wonderful time for starting seeds in cold frames, as well as tidying the tool shed and making plans for the future garden.
Judith Irven and Dick Conrad live in Goshen where together they nurture a large garden. Judith is a Vermont Certified Horticulturist and teaches Sustainable Home Landscaping for the Vermont Master Gardener program. 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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