Marching into Spring

March is a tough time for a Chicago gardener. One minute it’s warm and sunny; the next there’s a snowstorm (we’re having one right now). There’s the desire to get out there and dig already (too soon!) set right up against the desire to hide under the covers for another two months.

But this is actually a great time to be in your garden. You might do a little raking back of protective leaf mulch (or you might wait until April, if you don’t have tiny snowdrops to uncover). You can prune some shrubs (and if you layer the pruned branches underneath, that’ll provide a little cover for beneficial insects and butterflies).

Mostly, though, it’s a time to observe and plan — the heavy labor will come later, don’t worry! There’ll be plenty of time for doing.

Note where the hellebores are unfurling their thick buds and leaves, and think about whether you might want to add another one or two for next year. Pay attention to where there are gaps in the garden, places you might add spring-planted, summer-blooming bulbs like cannas, gladioli, and lilies. Don’t forget the dahlia tubers to brighten your autumn! Enjoy the budding viburnum; you might even brush your fingers against tightly-furled buds on forsythia, cherries, peaches.

Consider the snowdrops — the ones on bare dirt are dramatic and the ones on grass are barely visible, but resist the urge to move the latter. Soon the grass will green up, and the white of the snowdrops will contrast beautifully. Instead, just make a mental note for where you might want to add more snowdrops for next March.

Also, are there some close enough to the sidewalk for the neighbors to notice as they walk to work in the morning? Maybe you will move a few of those closer to, once they’re done blooming for the season, so next spring will be just a little cheerier for the whole neighborhood.

I read somewhere once that the best thing for a garden are the steps of the gardener. I think that’s true — just remember to stay on the path in the March garden, so you don’t compact the soil too much.

Walk in potential. Dream a little.

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Perennial update

Have *finally* done the Perennial layout edits and sent the note to the layout person. I knew what I wanted done four months ago — why did I wait so long to do a five minute task? It bewilders me.
Am hoping he can turn it around quickly, and we can actually be selling the book by April. Thanks to everyone who has been so patient for so long! I do think it will be a charming little romance, a pleasure for garden lovers to enjoy, and a nice gift book for people going through cancer treatment and survivors.
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Garden Dreams

Woke up, got the kids off to school, and went back to bed to finish reading Thomas’s _The Hate U Give_. Finished book, wiped tears away, going to make some notes for my own YA.

Then go back to prepping questions for a doctoral student’s dissertation defense @ noon today. Later today, meeting some friends to talk to them about maybe joining the Garden Club; I’m hopeful that they’ll have both time and energy to be more involved, maybe work on one of the bigger projects. (Julie, Nara, Amanda — if you happen to be free @ 3:30 today and want to join us at Serenitea, I’d love to talk gardens with you too.)

There’s a lot the Garden Club could do, but it could use an injection of energy from younger members. We should do more partnering with all the other local garden organizations for a start — West Cook Wild Ones, the Deep Roots Project, the Forest Park Community Garden, etc. I have daydreams about doing more with community gardens, native gardening, reaching out to Austin gardeners, etc.

I had an idea last summer for a project — border gardens, partnering people on both sides of Oak Park’s borders (so, for example, on the west and east sides of Austin), getting donations of time and money and plants and know-how to help people on the borders add more flowers to their gardens. Haven’t had time to seriously look into it yet, but I don’t want to forget about it, as I think it could be a really nice way to start building partnerships and community with our neighbors. We could gather mums and bulbs in the autumn, for example, and plant both; I can see ribbons of color extending around Oak Park. Well, we’ll see.

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My front yard has dozens of snowdrops now. I would like to have hundreds, if not thousands, but snowdrops are kind of pricey as bulbs go ($5 each from White Flower Farm, for example).
They are supposed to multiply fairly rapidly — you plant them in clumps, and then they throw off offsets from the mother plant. I figure if I add another clump of ten every year for the next ten years, eventually, there will be lots. They look so bright and cheery against the soil and the early grass; they just glow.
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Wild Animals

I’ve been up since four — woke up with my heart thumping from a bad dream. It’s sort of ridiculous in retrospect, because it wasn’t anything like my childhood nightmares of being trapped in a house with wild animals trying to eat me (for some reason, that was my recurrent nightmare in childhood, and interestingly, I got quite good at fighting the animals over time, but let’s put that aside for now).
My heart was thumping because I had *forgotten something on the schedule*. Specifically, I’d forgotten that I’m hosting a seed starting garden club meeting at ten a.m. today, and the person I’d inveigled into presenting would have been there for half an hour without the handouts I was supposed to print out, and without being introduced, and without the lemonade and cookies I’d planned to bring, and I felt horribly guilty and was going to throw my hair in a ponytail and pull on some jeans and jump in my car and race over to the library, which is thankfully only five minutes away, in the hope that I could get to her before her talk ended. And then I woke up, heart thumping.
I might have a few too many things on the schedule right now.
Local folks, you should come to the garden club thing. There will almost certainly actually be lemonade, cookies, and handouts. Main library, small meeting room, 10 a.m. today. Stephanie Wahlquist of West Cook Wild Ones will be talking about seed starting, and I plan to overcome my weird anxiety about seed starting and actually just try starting already, after hearing her talk.
I would like to set small things growing right now.
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On January 25th, it was unseasonably warm, and I noticed that my forsythia was covered in tight little buds. I took the opportunity to prune the shrub, giving it a nicer shape, and brought all the trimmed branches inside. I soaked them overnight in a warm bathtub (which was slightly messy to clean up, but not too bad!), gave them a fresh cut the next day, and put them in a pitcher of water. I’ve been changing the water every few days, wondering if anything would happen.

The first picture was taken February 4th, by which point lots of little green leaves had emerged. Cheery, but I was still hoping for flowers! A little worried that I had done something wrong. But today I noticed that two little yellow flowers had emerged, hooray! I expect that the branches will be covered in them before long. It may have been 0 degrees outside yesterday, and not much warmer today, but in my dining room, it’s spring. 

All of which reminded me of a poem I wrote a long, long time ago…

flowers and branches

it started on the worst kind of day, the kind of day when your boots pinch and your head aches and there’s an itch on your back just where you can’t reach it. I had no one to scratch it. he was there and I was here and it was my own choice so I couldn’t exactly complain but I certainly wasn’t
happy. he had done something, I can’t remember what, to make it worse instead of making it better, and I just hurt. so I asked him to send me flowers. please. he sounded startled but agreed and that was a small victory though bitter too. nine years together and only recently had he decided that it would be acceptable to give me flowers. as long as I didn’t take them the wrong way.

he had given me flowers twice at that point. firstly: when I was terribly sick, at the instigation of our old lover who was visiting town. she chose them, orange mums. secondly: when we were buying groceries at the small gourmet store and I asked him to buy me some flowers. he agreed. I chose them, yellow daffodils. he did pay both times, so technically they were from him. more importantly, he agreed they were
from him. baby steps.

these flowers that I asked to be sent to me were another baby step. he agreed. casually, and I wasn’t sure that he would remember. when days went by with no sign of them I assumed that he had forgotten. he didn’t often forget things but sometimes he forgot quite important things. then
a message on my machine said that they had tried to deliver flowers but I hadn’t been home. then there were three days of missed messages and missed delivery attempts and after three days of this the flowers, all the
flowers, started to feel like they were maybe more trouble than they were worth. he was apologetic on the phone, though he really had no control over the situation.

finally they arrived, only two days before I was leaving town, and so there was little time to enjoy them. lilies, little red berries, tall elegant dry branches. they were rather impressive, actually, and he had chosen them himself, or at least something like them. the web page warned him that they did not guarantee the same flowers would be delivered. I determined to enjoy them, despite everything, and for two days I took very deliberate pleasure in my flowers. then I left. I thought about throwing them out before leaving. one of the lilies was already drooping, and they would be sad and dead by the time I returned three weeks later. I have an unfortunate tendency to see omens in this sort of thing, and expecting to be depressed, it didn’t seem wise to leave them to rot and greet me with
foul scent and mold on my return. but they were still beautiful. I left them in the vase.

one week with him. a few days with an old lover. a little more than a week with my family. a miserable cold. when I took the taxi back from the airport I wanted nothing more than to be home, even though being home meant being alone again. I unlocked the door, turned on the light,
climbed the stairs. and at the top of the stairs, the dining room, and in that room, the dining table, and on that table, the vase of flowers. the lilies had gone dry as dust, and crumbled to the touch; the red berries were dry and hollow. there was no scent. but the tall thin branches had
put out fresh leaves, pale and green and very much alive. once I had cleared away the dust and rubbish, they were lovely.

my first thought was that I should make a poem about these branches, that they were just too good a metaphor to waste. something about not giving up, about how you think something’s dead, but if you just hang in there
and clear away the old rubbish, you may find something beautiful, yadda yadda yadda, you know the routine, squeezed into a few lines, some good clean words, maybe some rhymes. but that was no good, really.

it was simpler than that in the end (though longer, too, unsurprisingly). those branches, those leaves — that is how I am, when I think of him. he is green leaves within me. I live in the heart of winter, and despite everything, he is the spring.

January 6, 2001

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A lot of tropicals go very dormant in the winter, dropping most, or even all of their leaves. I find it a little scary, to be honest, because I’m not at all sure that the plant (a bougainvillea, in this case) is still alive. You can bend the branches to see if they’re still supple — if they’re snapping, that’s a bad sign. But mostly, I end up just waiting and hoping, that when the warm weather returns and it’s save to return them to my sunny porch, the leaves and flowers will come back too.

In the meantime, some grocery story primroses underplanted add a nice note of cheery color in January, and don’t make me feel quite so despairing when I glance in this plant’s direction. They should last a few (or even several) weeks, and when they’re finishing up, you can dig them up and plant them in the garden, in a nice part-shade woodlandy spot, where they should be perennial (in zones 4-8), returning for a number of years and even spreading by seed

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It’s called forcing, when you cut branches from the trees and shrubs and bring them in to flower early, but I prefer to think of it as gently encouraging. We had an unseasonably warm few days last week, and my forsythia was heavy with buds. The contractor who’d planted it for me years ago had asked why I wanted such a weedy shrub. At the time, my only answer was that my parents had had a row of them, and they seemed so cheery in early spring — I’m not normally a yellow fan, but I make an exception for forsythia (and daffodils).

Now, though, I’d add that weediness can be a virtue. That first photo is the forsythia unpruned. I went in with my pruners and clipped away branches that were going off to the sides, falling over and touching the ground, crossing other branches. I neatened up the whole shrub, which gave me a nice armful of branches to take back inside.

Then a few sharp splits to the stems (you can take a hammer to them, if you prefer), and submerged in a warm bath I had ready. I left them overnight (putting a towel over the stems to weigh them down into the water, as they kept stubbornly popping up). And now they’re waiting in water; I’ll try to remember to change it every few days. The buds should continue to swell, and then open, sometime in the next 1-8 weeks, giving me a host of little yellow flowers that shout the news that spring is coming, spring is almost here.


In the depths of a Chicago winter, I need the reminder.

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As I headed out to the airport, I had to pause and take a quick pic of this beauty.

(I’m safely at the gate now, with plenty of time to spare, but I had a moment of panic that I was going to miss a flight because I was obsessively snapping photos. I feel like there’s a lesson there, about how I pack as much as possible into my life, but also feel like I must document every moment, and maybe I should just chill a little…but that’s not likely to happen, is it?)

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