In “One Man’s Garden” Henry Mitchell wrote: “What we loosely call spring, meaning the season in which plants grow vigorously and come to flower in a time of nice skies and warm airs is partly imaginary.”
But we’ve had a few days of “warm airs,” Mitchell’s mythical spring moments, without wind, when it really is mild and fragrant, and birds sing, sun shines. Spring, as we dream it, is upon the land. When the afternoon thermometer rises over 70° in the sun, I sit in the shade of the little cherry tree, and can practically feel the soil warming up and plants growing.
Perennials are those growing plants. Washington offers many evergreen varieties – but I’m thinking of the completely-gone-in-winter-plants. Plants with lives so different from ours – each year is a new beginning, no matter the death in the fall. That’s known in some parts as a miracle, and the ability to go winter dormant and then resurrect into new life, even bigger and stronger does seem miraculous.
Returning perennials change the character of the garden for the coming season. Just in time their growth covers what’s often called “unsightly foliage” – bulb leaves completing their cycle for next year’s flowering. Beginnings of asters and rudbeckia reveal enough to say, “I’m alive!” And this month the real workhorses like nepeta and geranium grew from nothing to 18 inches of encouragement.
This garden is mostly about ordinary plants, but I have a few perennials from Far Reaches Farm that lift my heart in spring. (Far Reaches is a specialty nursery nearby, owned by two intrepid modern-day plant hunters who search the world over for unusual perennials. They raise plants from seed, and then offer them for sale, with the most literate and entertaining labels in plantdom. http://www.farreaches.com)
Seasonally damp and mostly shady spots present particular garden problems – or opportunities. In one corner of the courtyard a white skunk cabbage from Far Reaches – an Asian version of our familiar plant, but smelling good rather than bad – blooms in spite of a soaking for months on end in winter.
In the opposite corner, waterlogged from a downspout, the tall spear-shaped leaves of a variegated iris reappear next to Cardiocrinum giganteum – leaves already six inches wide and a foot long foretell the Jack-and-the-Beanstalk future of this lily.
Perennials returning is not a miracle gardeners take for granted (as if one could take a miracle for granted), survival is not guaranteed. Perennial plants re-emerging in the spring signal happiness with location, a willing acceptance of place.