A Practically Perfect Spring

But There is a Catch

It’s late May when I begin this piece, and it’s been windy and rainy for seven or eight days. Last I checked we had seven-going-on eight inches in the rain gauge, with more coming in, remnants of Bertha. Water is so high in the canal it slips under the old bulkheaded dock and laps at roots, pirating invisible crumbs of soil.

Some old, established plants decide to check out for good. Azaleas, mounded up in an already raised bed are sitting in puddles up to their ankles.

Garden beds look like the morning after mad merry-making. Plants are tousled, crumpled, lounging, flopping, high on hangovers and needing one big stake-up. Jackmanni clematis pictured here was battered and spirea shibori, heavy with blooms was flattened.

Axiom (mine): When foxgloves bloom proud and tall, look for storm winds to blow and hard rains to fall.

These foxgloves, here shown casually staked, would bow and break to weather. Hopefully I can gather seed and try again next year.

By early June the sun has cut through. Leaves should be basking in warmth and revving up. Instead, they are drooping, in a sulk. Roots below are still sluggish in cold, super-soaked ground and resent being woke by demands from the cheeky penthouse. Soon enough, they’ll all get over their snits.

But none of this matters. None of this takes away from the Practically Perfect Spring this year. I want to remember every detail, so I grab my camera and I can’t stop taking photos.

Always the gardener, I am also thinking poles and string for the totterers and leaners that I meet. But plants are quickly straightening up, as if they know what I am thinking and do not want to be straitjacketed.

Frankly, I am more interested in photographing plants, not straitjacketing them. Maybe, if I had an obedient little garden elf whom I could command by pointing a perfectly manicured finger at a weedy bed or a toppling plant. . . .But I have neither elf nor perfectly manicured fingers. . .

Instead, despite the weather’s roughhousing these past few days, I am reveling in this, the best of springs. Wisps of a breeze carry potpourri through moist air. Florida anise is pungent as I brush by. The tang of a briny seashore floats in; are otters teasing fresh-water mussels again? Will I find a stash of shells in broken down hurricane slag?

I bend to inhale the subtle sweetness of peonies (festiva maxima) bunched against poppies that outdid themselves this year.

Fragrant, slender blooms of mock orange greet me, reminder of my mother-in-law’s gift from her garden.

I embrace faint musky clove from sweet william, though I try to avoid cat’s pee of salvia guaranitica.

And perhaps a whiff of japanese honeysuckle? Early gardenia? A rich earthiness underlies it all, sometimes sour, sometimes rotten. From soggy, anaerobic decomposition? Or a stinkhorn fungus lurking in detritus and expecting visits from flies?

And then I remember, This is a Practically Perfect Spring.

It is the shrubs and trees, vines and perennials that deserve a fanfare. Beautybush, with exquisite shell-pink blooms.

Native flame azaleas with eye-popping orange blooms.

Our native wisteria, ‘Amethyst Falls,’ blooming even though I’ve chopped it unmercifully. (It wasn’t supposed to be so aggressive.) Looks like a pine cone with polished nails, doesn’t it?

Those sunny bands of irises, Japanese, swamp, Louisiana, that bloom and pollinate happily in wet soil and years ago captured my heart after bearded irises balked.

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Clematis bounds up and about, flouncy, carefree. Even the native clematis, whose cup-shaped bloom is tiny, probably only an inch or so deep, is romping over its neighbors and blooming with gusto this year.

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Pendulous white flowers of deutzia Rochester, a slip years ago from a manicured plant on a college campus, cascade over spirea shibori and bright yellow oenothera.

Hot pink carpet rose, vanished years ago?, a wisp last winter, sprouted and bloomed passionately, though shy of camera. Creeping St. Johnswort (Hypericum calycinum) a meandery forgettable in previous years, has become bold this year.

Swamp dogwood wrapping round the gazebo, a diminutive competitor in southern swamps, becomes a lavish specimen on its own, dripping with hundreds of blooms, upstaging the nearby male holly, whose tiny flower petals cover walkways like chaff.

Native amelanchier, or Juneberry, a cloud of white this spring, first to bloom and first to berry, gives first feast to robins and squirrels. I’ve managed to catch the last few.

Striking, tall elderberry, grown up from a wayfaring seed, with large white clusters that bring bees in spring, then birds in late summer for the dark berries — if the mockingbird allows them a nip or two.

And, earlier in the season, our faithful bank of George Tabor azaleas, mature now, from cuttings years ago, practically carefree, and partnered with variegated Solomon’s Seal.

No matter the parade of weeds, no matter the endless mulching, no matter the tiresome staking, I am thankful that after thirty years and mountains of compost ground from millions of leaves laid thick on sticky clay soil, we have lived this Practically Perfect Spring.

Moderate temperatures kept blooms hanging on a little longer with richer, more intense color, unbleached by heat. Sun and rain played equally in the garden. No blasts of heat shriveled new growth and no tongues of cold blackened ripe buds.

It’s time now to stop my royal ramblings and take my turn at being the Handmaiden of our Garden. (The handmaiden with grimy fingernails, that is.) I am thankful that I can partner with a Royal Steward in grimy jeans who is willing to grind leaves or ferry truckloads of garden cast-offs.

For there is a price to pay for this Practically Perfect Spring. And that is — A Summer of Practically Nonstop Pruning.

Here, George Tabor takes over the bench.

But before I get out the shears, let’s dilly dally and take a look at what the garden is giving us in June . . .late azaleas, hydrangeas, daylilies, hosta.

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8 Responses to A Practically Perfect Spring

  1. tonytomeo says:

    You got some excellent natives! Neither Juneberry nor black elderberry grow wild here, although one of the species of blue eldeberry is more than satisfactory. I had to purchase my American wisteria online. I know it is nothing to compare to the common Japanese wisteria, but I got it because it is so docile.

    • When we moved here thirty-five years ago I made a promise to plant as many natives as would grow here (and lots of other plants, too). My American wisteria (amethyst falls, I think it is called) is anything but tame here, sending runners fifteen feet from the mother plant and needing vigorous pruning twice a year. I have some lovely pictures of it but in my opinion it should be called amethyst dumplings. Blossoms don’t have the grace of the Japanese which I dug up and planted in the woods. They are just barely holding their own but are pretty in spring and haven’t broken any trees down. My elderberry arrived here via a bird, I guess, and tries to take over the yard. The black elderberry is apparently too snooty for our garden. Juneberry has been a cliff hanger but manages to perform each year and the birds love it.

      • tonytomeo says:

        I would not expect that of American wisteria. Mine barely gets ten feet tall. I planted a pair on a small arbor because I did not expect one to go up, over and down the other side.

  2. lisalebduska says:

    I love the entire feel of this post, including the kicker about summer pruning towards the end. The sweet william and St Johns are so intense in your photos. Steven is going to send you a photo of our/your mock orange before it undergoes the Big Prune.

    • Nice to know the mock orange is thriving. It comes from Grandma’s garden on Long Island, way more than half a century ago. It is good stock. Down here the plant needs pretty rich soil, moisture, full sun and no competition from trees. We’ve had checkered success moving ours around, so that’s how I know. Our mock orange grows nothing like yours.

  3. KDKH says:

    I’m jealous! We live in a semi-arid area and plant life here is not as prolific or dense. And it is very expensive to water it constantly. I’ve enjoyed your lovely garden!

    • Don’t be jealous! You are seeing the garden here at its most luscious and most behaved. Come back in summer when vines smother and plants fight for territory and I don’t know where to begin. That’s when I yearn for a little order and a little empty space. I do feel your pain because watering is so expensive and time consuming and you feel like you should always be out there pampering some lonely plant. When it hasn’t rained in August the same pretty garden can look like a dishrag unless I drag hoses. Ah me, a gardener’s work is never done.

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