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Greeting the Garden

Published in a Spring Home & Garden supplement to the Nashoba Publishing papers and the Fitchburg Sentinel, under the additional title "After the long winter, it's time to get planting" Appeared in the six Nashoba Publishing papers on 26 April 2001.

The snow is receding fast, and I’ve been walking around the yard to see what’s happening in my garden. It feels like seeing dear friends after many months. A lot of Johnny Jump-up plants (Viola cornuta)have survived from last year: on old, leggy stems I see new green leaves. These plants are perennial, but not very cold-hardy. It doesn’t really matter, though: they’re so prolific I’m convinced they got their common name from the fact that they will colonize your whole yard so that each spring, you will find new baby plants jumping up everywhere. This spring, however, more than usual of last year’s plants have made it through the cold: I bet it was because they had such a good blanket of snow over them. Snow is a great mulch, very good insulation.

In my opinion, there are never too many of this little plant. They don’t try to take over in the garden, but creep around into the space other plants aren’t using. They grow almost anywhere, and bloom in almost any weather — in the snow, sometimes. I’m surprised not to see any flowers yet, but I’m sure it will only take a few days of sun before I see their miniature pansy-faces.

The evergreen ground covers are a blessing right now, when not much new green has grown yet. My favorite is a dwarf periwinkle, Vinca minor ‘Miss Jekyll’. There’s something about small leaves that appeals to me: the texture of the whole mass is finer. This plant is as hardy as the ordinary, larger periwinkle, and blooms at the same time, in May — but its little flowers are white.

My ‘Thorndale’ Ivy (Hedera helix) has done well this winter, too: on the vines that have emerged from the snow on the north side of the house, the leaves are deep purplish-green, almost what horticulturalists call “bronze” — with the pale, almost white veins that are characteristic of this extremely hardy variety. As the summer warms up the leaves will get greener, and lose some of the contrast in the veins, but it still makes a handsome spread over the ground under the lilac where not much will grow. One stem has even found its way into a crack in a basement window, and is exploring the dim light available inside. The gradient in temperature between the outside and the basement doesn’t seem to bother it at all.

There’s so much needs doing, as soon as the snow is really gone. But getting caught by the pressure of the work defeats the purpose of a garden. So after walking around to see what was happening, I sat down in the big, comfortable, blue-painted wooden Adirondack chair that sits in the middle of a flowerbed (with a little rock path leading to it).

This was the first time it’s been warm enough to sit there and relax, and just gaze around. There’s snow still on the shadier half of the back yard, but back where I’m sitting, I look at what it has left behind: a layer of pine cones and needles, oak and maple leaves, and not a few dead branches. In addition, on the perennials, last year’s dead flower stems that didn’t get cut down now stick up brown and tattered.

Under all this plant debris, I know there are tiny sprouts coming up green and fresh. I look forward to clearing off the litter and finding them, but I’ll wait til the snow is farther gone. Right now I’m contemplating the dead layer: the collage of shapes and textures — and even different kinds of brown — which the garden is now.

It’s too easy to be impatient with the brown. Too simple to think of a garden as a place for beauty, and to dismiss the dead layer as ugly. Since I have had this chair here, I have learned that a garden is for more than beauty. It is also for stopping my busyness, for sitting down, relaxing, and taking some time to just contemplate nature. The beauty is important, we have an innate hunger for natural beauty. But the act of being present is equally important: the slowing down, giving myself permission to rest, to just look around, and to really see what’s here. So now I am just looking at all the brown. Just saying hello to everything that’s here: hello to my garden after a long snowy winter.

Companion article on organic fertilizer, published in the same special section.

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© Copyright 2001 Catherine Holmes Clark