The Self-Taught Gardener: Spring musical

There is no other art form that compares to gardening. Each week in the garden is like a movement in a musical piece.

Stockbridge — One of the most exciting things about the art of gardening is that it is not static. Plants grow, mature, multiply, and eventually senesce. Whatever landscape is created will change, in response to weather, time, evolving light conditions, and competition from other plants, and it is this change that makes gardening most similar to one art form above all others: music (and perhaps, the related art form dance). Gardening is filled with the quiet movements of emerging winter aconite, the almost vulgar jazzy crescendos of hydrangeas in mid-summer, and the softer classical adagios of fall foliage and moments in the season when snow gently falls on bare branches. This last image calls to mind a Chopin prelude or a masterful touch in a production of Madama Butterfly that was performed over twenty years ago at the New York City Opera in which director Mark Lamos created a snowy scene that will forever connect Butterfly’s death with the snow and the music. Music is weather, movement, and time wrapped together into one composition, as is more obviously evidenced in the sense of seasonal passage of Vivaldi’s Les Quatre Saisons. And a sense of time, weather, and season are the essence of a garden.

For someone such as myself who craves the excitement and energy of change, there is no other art form that compares to gardening. Each week in the garden is like a movement in a musical piece, it is temporal and rhythmic and seems filled with crescendos and pace ranging from the allegro con troppo of wind-blown grasses to the lento of gently rustling spring foliage. (For readers more familiar with music than I, please excuse the simplicity of my comparison. I have not had a piano lesson since the age of 12.)

Spring beauty, or Clatyonia, will bear flowers and set fruit and seed before midsummer. Ephemerals evolved to complete their reproductive cycle while water and light are plentiful on the woodland floor.
Spring beauty, or Clatyonia, will bear flowers and set fruit and seed before midsummer. Ephemerals evolved to complete their reproductive cycle while water and light are plentiful on the woodland floor.

 

Spring is perhaps the most musically diverse and unpredictable of seasons in the garden, which was in evidence this past month as the emerging ephemerals at Bartholemew’s Cobble scaled up unseasonably early and were then muted by a blanket of snow, that called to mind that snowy scene in Madame Butterfly and its foreshadowing of death. I could almost hear the music as I entered the woods, and felt the same sense of foreboding that took my breath away all of those years ago at Lincoln Center. What would become of the recently awakened flowers and what would remain of what lies beneath when the next movement came, and the snow melted?

But gardening is not opera, and plants and nature have a resilience that is not celebrated as much in art as death is. These plants, having evolved over the years to accommodate the drama of their time on the stage, understand that no one should die in Act One. These beauties know that they are not the tragediennes of great opera, but are rather the showgirls going all out at the end of Act One in a Rodgers and Hart musical. They are expected to shine and inspire us to come back for the next act.

Hepatica nobilis blooms early in the season at Bartholomew's Cobble and has a musical quality as its flowers dance in the wind.
Hepatica nobilis blooms early in the season at Bartholomew’s Cobble and has a musical quality as its flowers dance in the wind.

 

Although I lack the language to describe the musical movements that match the emergence of brilliant blue blossoms of hepatica, the simple white flowers of bloodroot with its showgirl fans of foliage, and the Busby Berkley blooms of Dutchman’s breeches dancing amongst their ferny leaves, each of which captures the light in the deciduous woods before the tree canopy emerges and casts the area into dense shade, I can hear the melody. It is soft, filled with the delicate sound of woodwinds, and filled with a sense of hope and promise. These plants, which are followed by trilliums, blue cohosh, and toothwort, remind me of great symphonies, in that each seems to understand its role in the composition, and their timing and emergence is as precise as if they were being conducted by Bernstein himself.

With three leaves and three petaled flowers, red trillium seem like part of at three part harmony.
With three leaves and three petaled flowers, red trillium seem like part of at three part harmony.

 

Botanically, these plants also understand their role in the composition of the woodlands. They emerge as spring snows melt, and take advantage of the moisture and spring light in the understory of the woods to complete their reproductive cycle. They emerge, flower and set seed before they quietly exit the stage, moments before the basso voce of the tree canopy drowns them out. Like any great musician, these plants know their part, play it to perfection but, unlike many musicians that I have known, exit the stage as their foliage quietly goes dormant, without taking a grandiose bow.

 

The flowers of bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis, emerge early in the season and are followed shortly by the emergence of fanlike leaves. Both will be dormant by summer after the woodland canopy has fully emerged.
The flowers of bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis, emerge early in the season and are followed shortly by the emergence of fanlike leaves. Both will be dormant by summer after the woodland canopy has fully emerged.

And as I visit the Cobble again and again over the coming weeks and months, as ferns and the dark greens of midsummer foliage replace the brilliance of early spring, I will remember not just to look, but to listen for the music of the woods. And to remember the performers who gave their all in the first act of the season.

Spring peepers come out at night at the Cobble and the Trustees have planned an event to celebrate their song, which is sung in unison with the spring flower display.
Spring peepers come out at night at the Cobble and the Trustees have planned an event to celebrate their song, which is sung in unison with the spring flower display.

 Event note: The Trustees celebrate first annual Spring Wildflower Festival at Bartholomew’s Cobble

Experience the beauty of one of North America’s most abundant and diverse displays of spring wildflowers and ferns at this National Natural Landmark April 16 – May 6, 2016. For more information about the Spring Wildflower Festival at Bartholomew’s Cobble and a full list of activities, visit The Trustees of Reservations web site and calendar: https://www.thetrustees.org/things-to-do/berkshires/event-23223.html. You can also contact Carrieanne at 413.298.3239 x3013 or email cpetrikhuff@thetrustees.org.

______________

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.