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THE SELF-TAUGHT GARDENER: Spring fling

My flirtation with an early spring leaves me wanting to come home to experience what we have here in all its glory. Like love found at long last, it is worth waiting for.
A woodland scene created by Gerald Simcoe greets visitors as they enter the Galanthus Gala.

Just a week ago, I was in Philadelphia for the Galanthus Gala –yes, only in the city of brotherly love is there an event celebrating the emergence of the earliest harbinger of spring, the snowdrop. I love excursions that dip south at this time of the year, as they remind us of what is to come. They are like a flirtation at a party that reignites our passion for life. Along with the scads of galanthophiles that attended the event, I also saw some of the first green of the season.  David Culp, the creator of the event and the owner of Brandywine Cottage, was there, making all of us northern gardeners jealous about the array of hellebores already in bloom (and for sale) in the horticopia of Pennsylvania. The event celebrates the snowdrop but what is really at its center is our desire to feel spring pushing forth in all its forms. From David’s snowdrops and hellebores to Jon Lonsdale’s trillium and woodland peonies, the Quaker Meeting House was filled with young plants, and people like me, trying to remember the glory of spring and youth.

Snowdrops are beautiful reminders of the delicate beauty of late winter and spring. Their delicate markings remind us how green is the color we are most hungry for after a long winter.

Early blooming plants are like an IV of saline in the arm after a long night at a party; they give us just what we need at the moment we need it most. The crowd at this event (it had gone online for the pandemic and was one of the last events I attended in the world before COVID) pulsated with excitement about being in the throes of it all once again. Even spring itself, perhaps because it had not been properly celebrated for a few years, was waiting as the doors opened.  Daffodils were pushing forth a few weeks ahead of schedule, and even a few magnolias were beginning to break bud, with the shyness that certain delicate spring blooming plants seem to have. I am never sure if it is shyness or simply a reticence to put themselves at risk of being frosted out, as some of the early magnolias risk their flowers being destroyed by a quick cold spell.  But this year, even the magnolias seem to have shed their reticence and spring was coming on full tilt.

A magnolia at the Scott Arboretum at Swarthmore College comes into bloom just as the season begins.

 

A flowering cherry at the Scott Arboretum at Swarthmore foretells the spring to come for us up north, a few months before we will experience it.

My flirtation with spring gave me a rush of energy but, as the day progressed, I started to experience a case of zone envy. I wanted these plants to be in bloom for me at home. I was tired of snow and gray skies. The next morning I visited the Scott Arboretum at Swarthmore College where I found myself lost in a sea of budding magnolias and a vast array of witch hazels, cornelian cherries, and flowering apricots. I wondered why I chose to live some place where the season did not come on earlier. As I walked about, I sampled the fragrance of the witch hazels, confirming my preference for the scent and color of the variety ‘Angelly’, which has a softness of color and mellowness of fragrance that I wanted to add to my garden back home. I was also able to see it in its mature form, with a tighter vase shape than many of the other witch hazels, a habit that was well-suited to a place in my garden where I hoped to add it.This selection helped me turn the page on my envy. I realized that heading south allowed me to see things for my own garden and acquire them in time to add them into my garden this season. I was excited to go home, seek out this cultivar at a local nursery, and plant it in the months ahead.

‘Angelly’ has a heavenly scent and flowers the color of butter. Its narrow, vase-shaped habit makes it an ideal witch hazel for a smaller garden.

 

Henry enlivens a winter walk as he takes in the scent of a witch hazel in bloom.

I headed north, thinking of spring, only to land home days before a northeaster covered my newly unearthed garden with a fresh layer of snow. As I walked about with Henry after the storm, I came across a witch hazel, in bloom, covered in snow. It was a sight that no Philadephian was experiencing.  Upon inhaling its incredible scent and taking in its ephemeral beauty, I knew I was exactly where I wanted to be. It was in this moment that I realized that the flirtation with an early spring leaves me wanting to come home to experience what we have here in all its glory. Like love found at long last, it is worth waiting for.

This witch hazel at home plays a different role in my garden from the ones at bloom in the Scott Arboretum at Swarthmore, where spring has already sprung.

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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.

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