Down To Earth

Enjoying every sign of spring

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I walked the dog a few blocks out of our usual way today to check for signs of spring. The weather was mild — it has been for days, and for days ahead too the forecast looks promising. Even though patches of snow and ice linger like scabs in the shadows, there’s no mistaking the sweet-earth scent of thaw. Nonetheless, I braced myself for disappointment — it’s only February/March. (I know some who call these months “Farch” and this season “mud.”) But just where I went looking, as I do every year, along some south facing house foundations next to a sunny sidewalk on a street near the water, I spotted it. Spring! Its arrival can no longer be doubted because right there, crocus and snowdrops — the first in town, always weeks before mine — were up and budded. A little more sun (the sky was overcast) and they’d have been open.

These particular bulbs are some of spring’s most iconic icons. They serve as cultivated confirmation of what we’ve already learned from the dandelions. I’ve noticed dandelions blooming, stemless at ground level, on warmish days all winter as if to mock those of us bundled in winter coats and hats. Skunk cabbage too are snouts-out in the vernal pools and runoff trickles, and along the banks of brooks. They’re never put off by a little snow; this is their time.
I’ve had it on good authority that forsythia is beginning to bloom in some places. (Or did my friend see the yellow flash of ‘Arnold’s Promise’ witch hazel and jump the identification gun?) My pussy willow is definitely blooming. Did I mention that already? Actually it’s still only budded. The caps are off the kitten-soft catkins and they’ve puffed up, but the flower parts — the anthers on my male plant (pussy willows are dioecious) — aren’t showing yet. When they do, honeybees will load up on protein-rich pollen to feed new brood.

From a distance, winter honeysuckle, also known as sweet-breath-of-spring (Lonicera fragrantissima), is a tatty mess of arching canes and old foliage. To understand why anyone would plant such a ragamuffin, it’s best to close your eyes. Only a couple of translucent pinky fingernail-sized flowers have opened on mine but a few more warm days and nights should have the neighborhood smelling like candy.

Such sure signs will have started pulling even the most cautious of us outside to tidy up. I’ve been burned before by pruning things like roses and buddleia too early — we could still get a polar vortex (perish the thought!) — but it’s the right time to finish dormant pruning. My pear tree’s water shoots are number one on the hit list. It would be a tedious chore any other time of year but I’m desperate to get my body moving again. Strange to look forward to aching shoulders.

Pruners in hand are the best reminder to bring branches inside for forcing. My husband raised an eyebrow at the fistful of sticks I stuck in a vase but he probably won’t give them another thought until they sprout flowers. Forsythia should bring almost instant gratification at this point, and star magnolia (Magnolia stellata) will be well worth whatever wait. Their heavy flowers won’t last long in a vase but there’s no twig more elegant in bloom. Quince, cherries, crabapples, red maples, and pretty much any other spring blooming shrub or tree is fair game for forcing. Just give the stems a fresh angled cut under hot water, and periodically refill the vase with warm water.

Even though all signs point to an early spring, I can’t help being skeptical. Maybe I put too much faith in the ground hog. Or maybe my memory of past spring teases is too vivid. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get out there and enjoy every breath of it.

Kristin Green is the horticulturist at Mount Hope Farm and author of 'Plantiful: Start Small, Grow Big with 150 Plants that Spread, Self-Sow, and Overwinter'. Follow her blog at trenchmanicure.com.

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.