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Time to appreciate, dig, and divide spring’s tinies

By   /   April 17, 2013  /   Be the first to comment

Col—DowntoEarth—4.17.13As much as enjoy a wide angle view of daffodils on parade, and trees beginning to leaf out in colors that echo fall, I prefer to look at spring up close. My magnolia has even burst into a thousand supernova stars, but I find myself focusing on spring’s tinies instead. My flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) in particular. Tiny knobs at every twig tip have cracked open like pistachio shells to reveal the tiny petals (bracts actually) surrounding a cluster of flowers, and they’ll simply grow larger by the day. It is exquisite in its minutest detail.
So are trout lilies, also known as dogtooth violet and Erythronium americanum. These native wildflowers carpet forest floors, and more and more of my garden—their tiny canine-shaped bubs naturalize rhizomatously—with a pair of pointed olive green leaves splotched with burgundy, and will probably be in full bloom by the time you read this. I have to get down on my knees to truly appreciate the golden yellow flowers dangling like peeled banana skins from a gracefully curved four-inch tall stem. And even though their leaves would make the prettiest year-round ground cover, they’ll disappear with a sigh soon after the flowers fade. A true spring ephemeral.
I have also gotten down on my knees to watch bees work cobalt blue Siberian squill (Scilla siberica) but only just learned that the pollen they collect is blue too. So I will look even closer next time. I’m glad I remembered to look for native and European ginger flowers (Asarum canadense and A. Europaeum) that emerge right alongside tiny new leaves, but aren’t exactly showoffs. Those flowers must be pollinated by ants or the tiniest of fairies instead of honeybees, because to see them almost requires a magnifier, and they’re such a dark red that they’re practically brown and well camouflaged by soil. But even invisible flowers are gorgeous in spring when the sun is out and warm on your back.
I get down on my knees to see my garden’s future too. Plants look so innocent in spring, and are almost unrecognizable, when they’re small. May’s spires of Honesty (Lunaria annua) are still silvery carpets of seedlings (the smallest are next year’s flowers). And there’s certainly no indication that butterbur (Petasites japonicus) leaves, which are no bigger than saucers today, emerging near their salad bowls of low green flowers, will be as big as dinner plates by the time you read this, and the size of tea tables about week after that. It’s almost hard to believe that (other more ordinary) perennials, such as Shasta daisies, nepeta, rudbeckia, and asters, waking from dormancy from tiny clumps and low mats of foliage will grow in a few weeks time to take up three times their space, if not more.
In fact, now, before trees and shrubs have leafed out and while perennials are still deceptively tiny, is the best time to dig, divide and move plants — especially any that bloom after the summer solstice. Spring’s rains and mild temperatures, if they continue, will help everything settle in quickly and grow as if you never interfered. So give your plants some breathing room even if, like me, you don’t mind them mingling together over the summer like party goers in a crowded room. They at least shouldn’t be allowed to step on each other’s toes now.
My plan for the next couple of weekends is to dig almost every plant out of my front garden, divide most and replace smaller pieces in new combinations. (An intention I’ll keep at least until my spade hits the first or second subterranean boulder.) It will be the best way to reacquaint myself with the garden (and my dreams for it) and it will be like shopping without spending any money. Only sweat. But if the sun is out and warm on my back when I’m down on my knees, my new garden will be worth every drop.

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.

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