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.


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…


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.


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 ( 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.

Elke’s Terrace: Made in the Shade


THIS SPRING, IF YOU SPOT A WOMAN in a flower-covered hat pushing a red shopping cart full of plants around downtown Brooklyn, it’s probably my friend Elke.


A true gardener like Elke, whose outdoor space is a 15’x25′ terrace behind her second-floor apartment in Brooklyn Heights, doesn’t let a few obstacles stop her.

No car? No worries. She does her plant-shopping on foot at the Borough Hall Greenmarket and local stores like GRDN on Hoyt Street, takes the bus to Gowanus Nursery in Red Hook, and relies on Bruno’s Housewares on Court Street to deliver clay pots (never plastic), soil, and other heavy supplies. (The cast iron urns came from Restoration Hardware.)

No direct sun? Elke makes the most of every ray that penetrates the ailanthus canopy around her north-facing terrace: a single hour in the morning and a couple more at midday. By choosing the right plants and coddling them — even shifting them around from time to time to give each a piece of the limited sun — she has wrought a lush green miracle, don’t you agree? (These pictures were taken last June.)


Among Elke’s shade-lovers: vines and climbers like moonflower and morning glory on tuteurs, rosemary topiaries (in the sunniest corner), jasmine, hibiscus, ferns, caladiums, an amazing purple and white ‘corkscrew’ plant (below), coleus, hostas, spotted begonias, passionflower.  “I don’t do impatiens,” she says.


Here are Elke’s tips for terrace-garden design and healthy container plants, even if you don’t have a ton of sun:

  • Use 4’x8′ sheets of wood lattice to obscure an unattractive fence but still let in light and air
  • Make the terrace feel like an outdoor living room with chair cushions, mirrors on the exterior wall (also good for capturing extra rays), chandeliers and sconces
  • Completely change the soil in each container every season, don’t just ‘top off’ with a fresh inch or two. “Nutrients in containers get used up very quickly, and roots completely fill the pot” by the end of the growing season, she says. She doesn’t have room for a compost heap, so she tosses it all and starts anew each spring.
  • Feed with fish emulsion; it’s better for the environment, the cats (who sometimes nibble on the plants), and it seems to work wonders on the plants themselves
  • Don’t set out plants before Memorial Day; these are mostly tender, heat-loving plants
  • Water daily
  • If you go away for a weekend, pull pots into even deeper shade so they don’t dry out in the heat

What makes Elke’s terrace garden so out-of-the-ordinary?  I think it has something to do with exotic foliage and unusual color combinations. A multi-disciplinary artist/designer, her favorites are gray/silver (e.g. dusty miller) with chartreuse and burgundy (e.g. sweet potato vine) — and splashes of pink from “as many flowers as I can get.”