Gardeners are the most hopeful people I know. No matter how bad the weather last year, no matter the unusually warm spring that teased out blossoms only to be killed by an “unprecedented” late frost, no matter that summer brought flood or drought, no matter the winter ravages of bark-eating rabbits or root-gnawing voles, we approach each new season with hope, believing that this time spring will be perfect, summer will provide the ideal balance of sun and wet, and winter will lay a gentle layer of snow upon our ground, then do no more.
I have never seen a gardener quit gardening because she or he lost hope. When the temperature is below zero and the snow above eye level, we happily set out for a class on hot new perennials for “summer sizzle.” Come spring, we frequent nurseries where we see, we want, we buy. We bring our treasure home and plant it, carefully, following all the instructions that we as gardeners know. It dies. We go back and get another just like the one we lost. We plant it. It dies. We go back and get yet another. But we never ever give up; no “three strikes and you’re out” for us.
We approach our plants with inexhaustible hopefulness. We have a viburnum that is rather scraggly; it has in fact been scraggly and piqued-looking from the day we got it. We feed it, spray it, talk to it. We bemoan its lack of success and ask everyone who will listen what to do to make it grow, but we never remove it. And why? Because we know that this year it will finally respond to our love, take hold, and flourish. We have a hydrangea that has not flowered in five years, despite the nursery’s claim of “profuse” and “exquisite” late-summer blooms. Remove it? Try a different shrub? Never. Because this year it will finally flower. We know it.
Of course, we get discouraged. Have I not despaired over my lawn or lost heart when the deer ate to the ground yet another spray of gorgeous daylilies? Do I not hear, whenever I get together with gardening friends, the tales of pests and diseases, of winter damage and failure to thrive? But we always rally. Our hopefulness kicks in like my old two-cylinder motorcycle, the one that never failed to start. If it rains for days, we say, “This is good for the garden, we need water.” If it fails to rain for days, we say, “This is good for the garden, we need sun, and besides it is easier to add water than to deal with too much rain. Aren’t we lucky that it isn’t raining!”
Henry Mitchell, who for two decades shared his thoughts on gardening with the readers of the Washington Post and who made his mark in garden-writing by being a bit cranky, liked to observe, “The kind of innocence that is best lost quickly is the simple-minded belief that spring will be lovely. It will not. It will be dreadful.” Nevertheless, despite Henry, we believe.
And this year, miracle of miracles, our hopefulness has found validation. This spring has been lovely. I have been on the phone with fellow gardeners for several weeks now marveling at the glory of this particular spring. It began slowly in mid-March, experienced a bit of a set back on April 1, and then picked up where it left off, a perfect balance of gradually warming temperatures, lots of sun, and plentiful gentle rain.
Typically, my start date for getting out in the garden has been April 1. This year I have been out since the second week in March. I completed the needed spring chores this past weekend, three weeks ahead of my usual deadline of May 1. Kevin has transplanted most of the shrubs destined to move this year, and Ben has transplanted the Cornus mas tree that was rapidly outgrowing its location. We transplanted one day and on the next came a gentle rain, no tearing winds or downpours that wash away the topsoil, but the kind of rain a transplant needs, steady and easy. I now have the rest of April to play – to plan, to plant, to reset and transplant perennials, to get ahead of the weeds, and to just enjoy. I cannot remember another spring where play was possible in April.
Neither can I remember such an intensity of spring bloom and color. The melting snow revealed snowdrops just waiting to stand up straight and expose the touch of chartreuse that dots their white. Then came the early miniature daffodils, earlier than ever, circling the trunks of the paperbark maples. Then later came the larger King Alfreds trumpeting yellow from our patio garden, then the Chionodoxa emerged to soften the yellow with their gentle blue. The Magnolia stellata is a cloud of white and the Magnolia soulangea a cloud of magenta. We’ve had a week of sun to illuminate the gold and white and blue and magenta, a week without rain that might shorten the show. I invoke the ghost of Henry Mitchell, shake my fist at him, and say, “See, we were right to believe.”
Still, I know Henry is more right than wrong. We teeter now on the verge of insufficient rain. It was promised for yesterday but did not arrive. I am beginning to worry about the transplants. In the past we have had snow in late April, falling on leaved-out trees and shrubs, breaking branches. I have in the past had the heat on in May and come out in the morning to finds plants frost-bitten.
Oh, yes, Henry, remind us: “It is not nice to garden anywhere. Everywhere there are violent winds, startling floods. There is no place, no garden, where these terrible things do not drive gardeners mad.” Yes, this has been our experience, and yes, we have all been driven mad by the weather. But we never stop hoping. For this is what makes a gardener – not a green thumb, not a degree in horticulture, not even a love of plants, but rather an intransigent hopefulness that defies experience and reason. And that is sometimes rewarded.
This piece appeared previously at https://perennialwisdom.net It is republished here with the kind permission of Judith Fetterley.
8 December, 2022