While my attention has been focused on the goings-on of our new president, my calendar suddenly reminds me that we are less than four weeks from the dawn of a new spring (as if a new political era was not enough). Spring is a season I love; it’s my time to enjoy the first sightings of hostas and baptisias as their buds emerge from the ground, the gray-green linear leaves of daffodils and squill planted last fall, and the early bloomers such as hellebores and snowdrops, that are harbingers of what is to come in the months ahead.
But to be honest, spring also has its down side. Many years ago, at a meeting of the board of a horticultural organization on which I sat, a famous New York garden designer posited a theory that had been shared with her by another member of the horticultural cognoscenti: spring is the collective nervous breakdown of gardeners. Some theories need to be fully flushed out before they are understood, but everyone who has ever had a gloved hand on a spade or on a pair of pruners in late March, and has fretted about an endlessly annotated to-do list, could understand this theory without another word being spoken.
Like our president, I hope I will accomplish all of the things I can in this brief moment while I can still remember my agenda for the season. I will enjoy sowing seeds and clearing beds of winter debris and last year’s leaves that were never really picked up properly because of an early snow. When I burn my brush pile, I will admire the flames as they soar into the spring sky and then will be happy to have nothing more than scorched earth left behind. (And, I wonder, trying to see the bright side of things: Will the EPA under Pruitt do away with current restrictions on the length of brush-burning season? If so, I could take that task off my spring to-do list and move it to a less busy time of year.)
I can identify with Trump in this moment. Here I am caught in the chaos of my own making, as I try to take on everything on my list so I can find time later in the season to hit the tennis courts or play a round of golf. (I wish I could scrape together the $200,000 to join Mar-A-Lago, but most of my funds are invested in green energy, i.e., the plants I keep buying for my garden.) As I take on task after task without a clear approach to how to accomplish them, I keep thinking I need to be smarter. I need to prioritize and focus on what matters most. Is eradicating alien weeds from my plant population the cause of most importance to me, or do I simply want to work on preventing plant disease throughout the garden by tweaking my current version of the affordable health care act? I know that chucking it out and starting all over sounds promising, but do I have any better ideas on how to manage disease beyond clearing out diseased peony foliage in the fall and routinely examining plants for iris borers?
These questions call to mind another group of politically minded people other than our president and his cabinet – the protestors in New York and Washington and at town hall meetings across the country. Like them, I must keep my calm and determine what my priorities are. As I work to clean up my home environment, invest in infrastructure as I shape some old yews that are in need of structural pruning (late winter or early spring is the ideal time for this task), sow seeds of cool-season annuals such as poppies and plant peas (two things that should be done as soon as the earth can be worked), and turn my compost pile so that it continues to do its aerobic best, I must remember to fight for what I value most And, if I lose sight of my goals as I am digging up fall-blooming asters and anemones and dividing them so that I can have more plants without any investment other than labor, I simply need to look down at the earth with some humility and observe the new growth all around me.
A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.