Too-Early Spring

BROOKLYN’S BUSTING OUT ALL OVER. This is not what St. Patrick’s Day is supposed to look like. The unseasonably warm winter has turned into an unnaturally early spring, and I find it unsettling.

I could take the forsythia being a couple of weeks ahead of schedule, but they’ve been quickly followed by daffodils, hyacinth, magnolias, redbud, and all the other flowers and trees that should by rights belong to April.

When I caught sight yesterday of some purple irises already in bloom — I’m pretty sure those usually bloom in May — I let out an involuntary shriek. “No! Not you too, irises!

I’m trying to be here now and enjoy it, but I can’t help wondering… what will be left for the rest of the season?

Signs of Spring

I’M BACK IN EAST HAMPTON, where daffodil foliage is pushing up, forsythia buds are swelling, and I’ve discovered a few amazing patches of snowdrops, below. I moved here just last May, so whatever blooms in March and April will be a revelation to me.

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The snowdrops are thick on the ground in the woods at the back of my property; that may be because I took down a couple of big trees there last fall and they’re getting a lot of sunlight. Anyway, they’re welcome.

Raring to go with my gardening activities, but it’s a bit soon to plant up my vast patches of bare dirt. I contented myself yesterday with starting to edge my new gravel path with large stones found on the property, and quickly ran out of them. I’ll have to scavenge more, or even buy them at the local stoneyard. My edging doesn’t look like much so far, but picture it with chartreuse ladies mantel and purple catmint spilling over…

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Then I took loppers to the Rose of Sharon hedge along my front deck railing (half-hacked, below). I went at it with gusto last night around 7PM,  in the rays of the setting sun, removing a good four feet from the top. Now I have a bunch of hacked-off sticks, and if I’m not mistaken, Rose of Sharon is late to green up. Sometimes, in gardening as in renovation, it has to get worse before it gets better.

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Lots of Spring-y emails coming. Gowanus Nursery is opening this weekend in Brooklyn, making me miss Brooklyn and its familiar, deer-free gardening challenges. Dianne B sent an email with 10 opinionated garden tips for spring, below in an annotated version. I love “get rid of something you hate,” but would go a step further: De-clutter your garden! Get rid of something you hate, and maybe don’t replace it!

Divide. Divide.  Divide.  Choose at least 3 plants in your garden that look lusty and are ready for division.  You will be surprised how they take to it and it is the best way to multiply your garden.  Cut a hosta in half, chop off the edges of an epimedium and move them elsewhere, dig up 1/3 of your Solomon’s seal and start a new colony, move some moss….your perennials will love you for it.

Order summer-blooming bulbs now to plant in May.  Try calla lilies, Hymenocallis (spider lily) and Galtonia (summer hyacinths)… Dahlias too and leafy Caladiums and Colocasias….

If not already an avid pruner, take a pruning class or buy a pruning book – the best is Pruning and Training from the Royal Horticultural Society, Christopher Brickell.  Its snip-by-snip illustrations and sophisticated choice of plants make it the best – $45 on Amazon.  Pruning is better than yoga. [Wish I could think of it that way – I find pruning way more intimidating than yoga.]

Plant a Japanese maple.  Preferably a weeper or one with a coral bark. They are especially great for marking special occasions and enhance every garden.

See at least one Botanical, Public or another’s wonderful Garden this spring.  Nothing is better for inspiration.  The Garden Conservancy, which is the nearest thing we have in America to England’s National Trust, has Open Days all across the country from early spring to deep autumn.  Go to their website (www.gardenconservancy.org) and get the catalogue.  Dianne’s own garden in East Hampton, NY will be Open on May 1st and September 11th. [I’ll be there!]

Add a garden “accessory”.  Don’t be too serious.  It doesn’t have to be ‘sculpture’ or ‘furniture’…it can be anything that personalizes your garden.  Just as casually as you wear your favorite scarf,  adorn your garden with a bird cage maybe, a lovely gate that leads to nowhere, shells can be very nice and sundials, of course. [Not too many tchotchkes, please!]

Do not wait another season.  Make replacing your least favorite plant, tree or shrub the first thing you do this season.  Everyone makes mistakes in the garden but for some reason – one doesn’t want to admit defeat.  Go to your favorite nursery and buy something new.  Just rip out the thing you don’t like and get something you love.  Do it.

Paint a tree.  I had a Corylus contorta – the twisty-branched Harry Lauder’s walking stick tree –  which died.  It seemed so sad to get rid of all those artistic branches – so I spray painted it Cotswoldian blue.

Early spring is the exact time to cut back your grasses, Buddleia (butterfly bushes), summer blooming clematis, anything that is sprawling and looks dead…Early spring is the time before the new buds set.

The Waiting Game

Backyard Community Garden, Red Hook

Soon: Backyard Community Garden, Red Hook, Brooklyn

SNOW IS STILL BLANKETING THE GROUND — another few inches yesterday — but it’s getting nearer the day we can start gardening in earnest. I intended to do a whole planning thing with graph paper and templates this winter, as I did two years ago in Nigel Rollings‘ garden-design class at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, but frankly, I can’t be bothered. I’ve got in my head what I want to do – must do – and when the time comes (next month, God willing) I’ll just get out there and do it.

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Soon: Sissinghurst, Kent, England

There are so many steps to accomplish before I can put new plants in. The soil must be improved, first of all – it’s just sandy dirt at the moment, with a layer of oak leaves – and that will involve much purchasing of compost and manure and back-straining labor  – and then I have to move about 300 square feet’s worth of old ferns and astilbes, along with daffodil bulbs I put in rather thoughtlessly last fall (after they bloom and fade, in early May probably) to make room for a new deck.

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Soon: Sissinghurst, Kent, England

Right now, I’m reading a lot. Garden books, naturally. I continue to mine the library and occasionally order something from half.com. My latest discovery is The Country Garden by Josephine Nuese, published in 1970. Sydney Eddison, another wonderful garden writer, put me on to her. Nuese wrote from Zone 5 in northwestern Connecticut, near where I used to garden, so the plants she speaks of all feel very familiar. Some of what she says is dated; painting tree wounds (cuts) after pruning is now discredited, for example.  What I wouldn’t have expected from either of these ladies is the conversational, chuckle-out-loud quality of their writing.

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Soon: GRDN, Brooklyn

Nuese’s book is divided into chapters by month. February is all about seed-starting, for which I have neither the room nor the patience — not this year, anyway. So I’ve moved onto March, with its long list of “Don’ts.” In March, Nuese writes, “After months of mostly sitting, punctuated by purposeless walks, you have the figure of a woodchuck and the mentality of a stuffed owl; you can’t wait to get out into the spring and employ your mind and muscles in some meaningful work.” See how she understands me? It’s as if she’s been reading my blog…

Don’t whip off winter protection (mulches, burlap) too early, she warns; don’t attempt to work wet earth that still has frost on it. Do rake the lawn of twigs and branches; prune shrubs and small trees of storm-damaged wood; spread wood ash to add alkalinity to soil, which most perennials enjoy.

Meanwhile, tantalizing catalogues and e-mails continue to arrive from nurseries and gardening websites, the best of all being Margaret Roach’s A Way to Garden. She’s got an ambitious calendar of events planned for 2010, some in conjunction with Loomis Creek Nursery, all making me wish I lived a little closer to the Hudson Valley.

Guest Room Re-Do

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THIS COMING WEEK, I’M SLIPPING IN A RENOVATION PROJECT that wasn’t even on my priority list. The roofer remains elusive, and I can’t do the parking court until he’s done. I can’t do the deck/outdoor shower until April at least, because the area beneath which I plan to put the 400-square-foot deck is filled with ferns that were the most satisfying part of the landscape when I got here last May, as well as 75 daffodil bulbs, chelone (turtlehead), and astilbes. (I’ll move all that elsewhere, but can’t do it until the ground is good and unfrozen.)

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Like a shark, I’ve got to keep moving forward or else I’ll die. Or so it feels. So on Tuesday, a contractor is coming to fix up the 2nd bedroom, or guest room, in my East Hampton cottage. He’ll install a new window I happen to have in the basement, above (custom-made for another house and never used), along the longer wall, which I expect will make the 7-foot-wide room feel much more pleasant. He’ll remove cruddy molding, a damaged ceiling from a long-ago roof leak, and replace the old, wallpapered-over sheetrock and baseboard.

It will also make the house look a whole lot more interesting from the outside.

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I’m kind of dreading the whole operation, to tell ya the truth. It’ll last most of the week. It’s been very cold here, and the exterior wall in that room will be open for at least a few hours. And then there’s the dust. But hopefully the satisfaction of accomplishment will trump the inconvenience.

And now the roofer is saying he may also come this week. Chaos!

A Loose Schedule and a Tight Budget

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Above: Eric Ernst, Tree Man of Montauk, thinning out my overgrown forest so I stand a chance of growing something other than ferns

I’M ALL OVER THE PLACE HERE. I still have so much to do pull this house and garden together, I’ve hit another impasse of indecision. So I’m planting daffodils. (Though everywhere I dig, I hit inch-thick wisteria vine, and spend more time pulling and cutting wisteria than digging holes for the bulbs.)

I’ve accomplished a lot in the four months since I bought this cottage in May. But I have so much further to go. Not knowing whether this is a long-term home or a flipper makes it that much harder to proceed. If I knew for sure it was the former, I would take my time and spend more freely. But if it’s going to be a flipper, I just want to get it done.

Perhaps I should buy the Zen mindset my friend is trying to sell me. “You’re here now,” she says. “When you decide you don’t want to be here anymore, you’ll go somewhere else.” Yeah, but how exactly do I proceed with my renovation on that basis?

This I know: as soon as possible, I’d like to feel “Oh, how charming” pulling into my driveway, instead of “Eeewwww. Ugh.” That driveway — broken asphalt studded with weeds — is part of the problem. As is the house itself, with its discolored cedar shingles. And a front yard more brown than green. What’s the opposite of curb appeal?

The deer fence and patio have fallen off the top of my priorities list. I’m thinking of letting the deer have one last winter of ravaging the evergreens and rhododendrons, and spending that money indoors instead, on a fireplace, new bathroom, new kitchen counter, and a paint job. I also need a whole new roof. I’m gathering quotes from tradespeople: two roofers so far, two bathroom contractors, and a housepainter.

Viburnum plicatum tomentosum

In the meantime, I’ve been canvassing the nurseries for shrubs on sale. I’ve fallen for a viburnum tomentosa plicata, or doublefile viburnum, above, eight feet across and flaming red, at Spielberg’s in Amagansett (the picture shows it in spring). At 40% off, it’s under $100, plus another $100 to plant (it’s very heavy). Deer don’t like it, but it needs a good sunny spot, and those are still in short supply on my lot. I also want a river birch somewhere; I love the peeling bark and delicate leaves. And dogwoods.

The truth is, I’m not in that much of a rush. I keep reminding myself that this is not a HGTV project done in a weekend. It’s real life, on a loose schedule and a tight budget.