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A Sense of Herbs -- First day of spring

March 31, 2003

Henry Van Dyke wrote: "The first day of spring is one thing, and the first spring day is another. The difference between them is sometimes as much as a month." But not this year!

Spring 2003 -March 21 - arrived on schedule with relative calm, and welcome warmth.

The crocus along the front walk, snuggled in a carpet of caraway thyme, sprang into bloom. By the fence, the forsythia, whose flowers are too often decimated by cold winds, started showing a touches of yellow. The Purple Pansy redbud that will someday shade the deck, has a whisper of the magenta blooms to come. And there are encouraging bumps on the branches of the pink and the Kousa dogwoods. The old roses; 'Baronne Prevost,' 'Madame Isaac Pereire,' and 'Zephirine Drouhin' are bursting with tiny, new leaves. They are all begging to be pruned.

The shrubs and trees tea viburnum (Viburnum setgerum,) sweet- shrub (Calacanthus,) and the medlar (Mespilus,) show very little winter-kill. Santolina, standing like soldiers stoically guard the front of the house. All this suggests to me that plants manage cold weather quite well as long as the thermometer doesn't take an up and down roller coaster ride. This year it just stayed cold. And the snow helped by blanketing the garden.

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Some plants seem to have had a harder time. But many may yet surprise me. The prostrate rosemary looks like a goner but a tender scented geranium from last summer, showed live roots when I started to pull it out. Moral to the story: it's too early to give anything up for lost. If the weather stays warm, wait another three weeks before you start consigning things to the compost heap.

Be patient with plants like sage and lavender. Before too long they themselves will tell you which part has been killed by the winter, that's the time to trim back. That's also the time to grind up your winter collection of egg shells in the blender with plenty of water and spread the slurry around these gray leafed plants. They love a limey soil.

Another caveat, a few plants are naturally late starters. They like to stay huddled shyly under the ground until they are positive that the weather has really warmed up. These are the plants you need to mark carefully so you don't dig into them when you plant annuals. I lost countless butterfly weeds (Asclepias tuberosa) with distressing regularity because I didn't follow my own advice.

The ground is soggy after our snowy and rainy winter. If you go tramping around on the garden soil now, you'll pack it down so nothing will grow. On this past weekend, when I sowed poppies (Papavar somniferum), epazote (Chenopodium abrosiodes) and dill (Anethum gravolens) I laid down a plank to walk on. It spread my weight nicely. Or, you could, as one garden writer recently suggested, do your early garden work in snowshoes.

Inside, the seeds that need stratification to sprout (Arnica chamissonis and Allium moly) have been sown in starting mix and are resting in the old refrigerator in the garage. At the proper time they'll see the light of day and enjoy a bit of warmth.

One job I won't put off is fertilizing the daffodils before they bloom. A bit of bone meal or bulb food worked in around them now will pay dividends next spring.

There is a lot to do trees to plants, the plans for the Bible Garden finalized and so much more. But I may just sit back and let Spring work her magic. Jean Walsh Angland wrote: "Spring sp95i.; does not ask an audience, but shapes each blossom perfectly indifferent to applause."

Even so, I may just give Spring 2003 a great big hand.

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