Down To Earth

The swinging pendulum of spring in New England


Last weekend when the wind-chill temperatures registered in single digits I found things to do inside. Any other winter day I’d have been happy for the excuse to curl up with a book but I suddenly desperately had to start something. Do stuff. Get growing again. Spring has that effect on gardeners. Plants too.

We can hardly blame trees and shrubs for jumping the gun, beginning to break dormancy when the temperatures rose April-like a few weeks into February. Daffodils reached foliage and buds out of the leaf litter; crocus and tiny Iris reticulata put on a preview. Didn’t some of us try on summer clothes too and dust off our bikes? I got my booster shot of vitamin D by lightly tidying fallen stems and shattered grasses. But as usual, we were right to resist gardening too hard too soon. The pendulum swung.

We can’t be blamed for worrying now about frigid cold and snow ruining everything’s enthusiasm. I remember the year magnolia flowers were torched to brown blobs by an unkind frost. So disappointing! And Heaven help us all if mophead hydrangeas go another summer without blooming. If only we could throw blankets over every temperature-sensitive opportunist in the yard. Worst case scenario, nothing blooms ever again. Perish the thought. Best case scenario, come April or May all’s well pretty much mostly, and anyway, we re-learn to appreciate the things that hold out for more reliable cues like long days and warm soil below the surface.

Inside, protected from March’s inconstancy, growth may be encouraged. For those of you who treat your houseplants with loving kindness, it’s time to start fertilizing again. I’m not sure how they knew it but even plants I stuck down cellar last fall to go dormant in the dark, woke up. Without benefit of daylight to encourage chlorophyll production, albino shoots broke, evidently overnight, from the woody stems of Fuchsia ‘Gartenmeister Bonstedt’ and a potted toon tree (Toona sinensis ‘Pink Flamingo’). The light of day will turn the fuchsia foliage olive green again and the toon’s new shoots will take on its remarkable namesake color. I’ll have to keep an eye on my figs and with any luck, by the time they break, it will be warm enough to throw some of these things outside. Because space is tight along windowsills and in my plantry.

I’ve tried to save room for seeds. Cool season crops and any seeds that take their time germinating can be sowed indoors now. Fitting a flat of sweet peas into an already over-full plantry has been like solving a tile puzzle. Light is a precious commodity in rooms without glass ceilings; the trick is to prevent one plant from casting too much shade on another. It’s also essential not to block watering access by placing big containers in the way of smaller ones. I never manage to work it out quite right. The sweet peas germinated in a week — a record for me, not that I had anything to do with it — and want all the sun they can get.
Last year I purchased a cheap clear plastic “greenhouselet” and set it up in the driveway to accommodate plantry overflow. Sweet peas can take low, but not freezing, temperatures so as soon as March’s lion takes a hike, I’ll move them out along with the toon tree, fuchsia, figs, and sundry other temperate zone beauties. That should leave adequate space for the succession of seeds I’m starting under a grow-light in my office. Snow or no, since spring flipped that switch and got me growing again, I can’t stop.

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

Kristin Green


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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.