Spring is in the air

Spring is in the air

Korean Spice Viburnum, a cultivar introduced by the Hoogendorns of Middletown, opens in early May.

Korean Spice Viburnum, a cultivar introduced by the Hoogendorns of Middletown, opens in early May.
Korean Spice Viburnum, a cultivar introduced by the Hoogendorns of Middletown, opens in early May.
Out of all the months, May has to be the most optimistic. It’s as fecund with the season’s potential as it is lush and fragrant. Even the word “may” is a verb used to express the possibilities. I am powerless to resist its pull and I actually can’t imagine not wanting to be outside this minute with my fingers in the soil and my nose to a flower. In fact, if it wasn’t —finally—a grey, rainy evening, I’d have a hard time choosing between being out in the garden now and at my desk writing to you.
There is so much I want to do outside. Weeding for one—a big one, despite a run of dry weeks that should have slowed them down. Weeding in May is like a Zen practice and as gratifying as it gets. Planting new perennials and shrubs has also topped my list. Not that my garden really needs more… but it always seems to have extra room for wants in May. And soon—by the end of the month if not sooner—it will be time to start tucking in annuals and tender perennials too.
It’s not just the to-do list that sends me outside though. It’s the warmth of the sun tempered by delicious breezes that blow the confectionary scents of spring right up my nose. The first to reach me back in April was citrusy and is still wafting from tiny translucent flowers of winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima), otherwise aptly known as sweet-breath-of-spring. My shrub was started last year from a layered branch of another and is still petite but by this time next year it could be 6-feet tall and wide and in need of post-bloom trim to keep its gangly arms from making a boarding school reach across my garden. But because of its delicious fragrance I might never mind its cheeky disregard for etiquette.
My Korean spice viburnum (Viburnum carlesii ‘Compactum’, a 4-by 4-foot cultivar introduced to the world by the Hoogendoorns of Middletown, RI) started opening its pink tinged buds on May Day and instantly filled my garden like an over-perfumed lady in an elevator. Its heavy scent doesn’t make me sneeze or my eyes water but is powerful enough to overwhelm some of my garden’s subtler colognes. Like that of my ‘Prairiefire’ crabapple. Up close, its loud raspberry-pink blossoms only smell freshly clean, like line-dried laundry.
I practically need to stick the fuzzy greenish-white Q-tip flowers of my Fothergilla × intermedia ‘Blue Shadow’ up my nose to catch a whiff of their sweet honey-ish-ness. But whatever fothergilla lacks in heady fragrance, it more than makes up for with powder-blue foliage all summer, and by turning an eye-popping yellow, orange, red, purple in fall. That’s one May-flowering shrub with a lot to look forward to.
Shrubs and trees aren’t the only scent bearers in my garden. Woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata ‘Blue Moon’) spreading a deep-green groundcover through a shady bed is worth a hamstring stretch to place nostrils somewhere near foot-tall French-blue, cinnamony pinwheels. Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum), another more ubiquitous groundcover for shade, is reportedly evocative of freshly mown hay particularly if its foliage is either crushed or dried. This city girl just thinks it smells spring-sweet, and strong enough on a warm day to detect from a distance.
Nepeta foliage emits an even stronger, mint-spicy aroma when its foliage is touched or abused so I have made a point of planting clumps of catmint all along the front of my sunniest, weediest border where I have every excuse to lean into and over them. I also cut them back by half this week — a pleasant task and optimistic too. Although their flush of bloom will be delayed by a couple of weeks, the clumps won’t be as likely to splay open under the weight of summer.
And that right there is a perfect example of what makes this time of year so great. May offers gardeners all sorts of opportunities to enjoy the moment—breathe it deeply in—while we prepare for and look forward to what’s next.

Kristin Green is the interpretive horticulturist at Blithewold Mansion, Gardens & Arboretum in Bristol, where she’s worked since 2003. Follow her garden blog at http://blog.blithewold.org.