Anything spring would be beautiful right
now, on the cusp of February. We've had minus eighteen degree nights
much above zero days, snow off and on all for weeks, then yesterday,
inexplicably, rain, and a gale force wind that blew all night and on
into the morning. Later, of course, it snowed, and my neighbor tells me
that we have approximately two feet of snow in the fields. At these
times I look outside and wonder again how
anything that was alive last fall can come back again in two short
And yet plants do, year after year, for the fifty or more years that
I've been planting things in the ground. I was kept awake last night
worrying not only about the feral cats that shelter on our back deck in
the winter but also the 400 crocus bulbs we put in the ground around a
recently felled tree last fall. They're small corms and planted only
two to three inches deep. And, though we spread a layer of mulch over
top of them,
those tiny things seem vulnerable in the extreme lying so close to the
soil line in Cache
We planted these in an asymmetrically shaped mat about eight by twelve
feet and they're all in shades of lavender. The ad for
these came in via my email from White
Flower Farm. They were hard to resist. I've always had a few
crocus scattered around but never sweeps of them that I read about so
often and saw, pictured. And I especially liked the lavender ones among
the ones I have already (a closeup
to the right, taken by Larry Cannon). We also planted them closer than
the three to four inches recommended. I'm too old at this time of my
life to wait until they fill in by multiplying.
So the seduction of White Flower
Farm's "Crocus in lavender shades"occurred in the blink of an eye late
last summer, the box of bulbs duly appeared,
and the planting, I'm happy to report, was accomplished immediately.
I'm already looking forward to the time that the number is increased to
This planting efficiency was more than I'd expected – both of myself
and my helpers. I'd had my daughter, Melanie, to help me, and
also Dillon, one of our landscape manager's crew. And so it took only a
couple of hours to get them in the ground and covered with mulch.
Although, I'd managed to buy so very many bulbs of all kinds to be
last fall that I was afraid (not realized, thank heavens) that I was
going to have a mass resignation among the garden help.
We placed this swath in and around plants already in the ground. There
were several low mounding Corydalis
lutea in there that I'd
planted in an attempt to disguise the long gangling legs of a crowd of
lilies out there. Corydalis lutea is a lovely little plant with
leaves like bleeding heart (Dicentra,
to which it's related) and with golden yellow flowers that bloom all
summer. The flowers are probably why the common name some nurseries use
for this plant is golden ear drops, a slightly ridiculous term that I'm
a little ashamed to mention, but there you are. By far the best thing
about it is its masses of delicate leaves that spread a foot or more
and stays around a foot high. Best of all, it self seeds prolifically,
though it does need part shade to thrive.
Aside from the Corydalis
there are peonies, a 'Little Lamb' dwarf hydrangea, and an 'Endless
Summer' hydrangea, rather compact itself, along with daffodils, tulips,
Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis),
peonies, wood hyacinths, some very difficult to control perennial corn
flower (Centaurea cyanus)
and, of course some really towering Aurelian hybrid lilies already
This type of planting is called layering, and I've read down through
the years that some gardeners who know
what they're doing plan
layering like this. But any layering that goes on around here has grown
more like an algae bloom
with the additional layers added impetuously as the years went by.
Inspecting the beds during spring walkabouts, for instance, I start
wringing my hands about the bareness of certain beds. "Not
enough daffodils!" I mutter. "And we need more grape hyacinths!"
Bulb marketers know this gardeners' syndrome well. That's why emails
offering specials on bulbs start shooting into our inbox during bloom
time to underline any lack we may notice. And they never fail with me.
But planting impetuously is not the way to do things, we're told,
because in the absence of a plan carefully laid out on
graph paper you're in danger of digging up other bulbs, their foliage
gone by fall, their locations a mystery.
Alas, I've done this many times, digging up established bulbs, that is.
But I've found that, even with a bit
of their sides sliced off with the shovel, wounded bulbs manage to pop
up once more the next spring with their blooms intact. I've
recently read the writing of a gardener who agrees with me on this
which pleased me immensely. It was in her recently published book, Down to Earth With Helen Dillon.
In it she has
a delightful page (also) describing "unsettling" remarks she's heard on
tours and in
her own garden, and I include here the one I felt, personally, was the
In a garden north of London and west of
Oxford (Helen Dillon gardens in Ireland), I overheard the comment "Of
she throws money at her garden" – and then, after a long pause, "But
she does it impeccably." However flattering the afterthought, by then
the wasp had already stung.
reading that paragraph I wondered how many people, looking at
DragonGoose Farm's garden, might
have also felt that I "throw money at" my garden (I know already that
my family feels that way) but would they even bother adding that I do
so impeccably – that's the
more important question.
Other Early Spring
with the crocus, and even before they start their main bloom, we have
the yellow mats of winter
aconite (Eranthis hyemalis)
pictured left. There's a small patch confined in a square in the brick
herb garden, Melanie has a patch in the front of her house, The Granary
close by, and we have quite an extensive swath in the oval bed
in the middle of the front drive.
These are charming little plants, not taller than two to four inches,
with flowers that look like buttercups sitting on a green neck ruff.
They arise from tiny corms and (incidentally) are the very devil to
plant. Each spring I beg the girls who work around them to allow them
to seed and the foliage to dry up, to let the seeds lie, and
to please not rake too cleanly so that the seeds can root.
The corms that result from these seeds, and that come ready to plant
from the nurseries, are tiny enough to simply sow like corn or peas,
but the instructions say, naturally enough, to plant them three inches
deep and four inches apart. I thought I'd never finish getting the
first batch in, years ago, and then five or six years later, one of the
garden crew was wedded to the soil for hours as she planted some more.
I keep hoping they'll magically
reproduce to cover the
entire oval bed with yellow before any of us will be faced with
any more, but it's been difficult going.
the bed in front of the parlor we have batches of common snow drops (Galanthus nivalis), too, which
bloom with the winter aconite and crocus, and which are slightly less
tedious to plant. We also have many of these in the brick herb garden
and Melanie has some, too. They're very sweet, their white flowers
drooping down rather shyly, and while they're blooming, the Cyclamineus
narcissi ('Jenny') are
showing their leaves. Between the old row of common lilac there are
clumps of grape hyacinth, and clumps of early dwarf iris in
the brick herb garden. The iris comprise a planting of Melanie's
when she was
younger (shown left above). They always surprise me, appearing almost
my back is turned, bursting into bloom from tight little buds forming
while the winter aconite and snow drops are putting on their big show.
The Lenten Rose
in much of the long west bed, not far away, and around and between an
extensive hosta planting are masses of the lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis) blooming
their hearts out. Many years ago when Melanie was in her teens she
bought a lenten rose and put it in her garden – a
single lenten rose. The many patches and sweeps of this plant
that grace the garden now come from this one plant of Melanie's.
You see, under and around each plant in the early summer are many tiny
which are terrifically robust and don't mind being transplanted. The
large planting in the big hosta bed was done by Melanie five or
six years ago. In fact, it was a planting and a half, with about half
the plants weeded out by one of the gardening crew who mistook them for
weeds and Melanie's efforts, after that, to replace them all. I'd
glanced out the study window and saw the massacre before it
was complete, rushed out waving my arms or it might have been worse.
The boy recovered and turned
out to be a pretty good gardener. However, it was back to gently
digging up more hellebore seedlings for Melanie. She has since
times to that planting with more seedlings, making a really impressive
The wonderful thing about the lenten rose is its ability not only to
bloom while the snow is still lying in patches all over the garden, but
also to hang on to its blooms all summer and into the fall. They just
turn from purple and mauve shades to green. The leaves are leathery and
attractive, too, and the stems are strong, staying upright in the
heaviest onslaught of summer rains and sprinkler water (which
admittedly is often worse than a downpour). The
seedlings from this one plant that Melanie planted so long ago –
unlike many other hellebore types – appear to stay true to the parent's
form and color.
Then come the dwarf daffodils under the river birch (Betula nigra) which are always a
cheery sight. These tiny plants will quickly be covered with common
odorata) still underground at that point, as are the
tulips, and liliy-of-the-valley (Convallaria
area which is in the shade of several lilac and honeysuckle shrubs and
trees both large and small is a true shade garden that gets little sun
once the trees leaf out.
To the east in the photo below, across the brick walk, is a thick
bishop's weed (Aegopodium podagraria)
that covers that entire area growing finally to six or eight
inches high. Weeds have a difficult time penetrating it, thank heavens,
though it's considered a weed itself, proliferating wildly
given any kind of a chance.
We've dug up mats of it in various beds. And we still are surprised at
patches of it appearing, then taking over, various parts of the garden.
I planted it everywhere when we first moved here forty years ago, just
to cover the bare earth all around us. A colleague from USU had a huge
planting of it in her own garden and put several shovels full of it in
a black bag for me to take home. Little did I know that some thirty-odd
years later I'd be digging it up and throwing it away.
I had intended tilling this patch of it under a decade ago but one of
helping to care of the place was very upset. She thought it made a
lovely picture under the trees. And she was right. I'm glad I let it
alone, letting it line the walk with its variegated leaves. I do have
to go over it every once in a while during the summer with the lawn
mower, though, to keep it back where it belongs on the east side of the
Well, we're a week or two less from spring, so keep the faith.
Joan Katherine Shaw
by Joan Shaw
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