The weather will change unexpectedly in late winter and early spring. Freezing rain will follow unusual warmth, or drying winds will come behind early, warm rain that coaxed delicate shoots from the earth. Learn to garden right through these atmospheric mood swings, which are probably here to stay as one consequence of global warming and the heat island effect of big cities. Applaud plants that bounce back. Move those that can't take it into more protected positions.
When the weather changes for the worse, you will find yourself carrying on conversations with your landscape. It will involve such things as reassuring a magnolia that it will survive despite losing all its flower buds to frost, or asking a favorite flower to ignore the early warmth, slow down and save some blossoms for the party you're hosting in a few weeks. Be sure to face away from buildings as you speak, so that neighbors will not see you "talking to yourself."
You will buy or grow too many plants. You will unpack mail order purchases and place them with treasures carted home from local garden centers, all to grow on in their pots and flats until planting time. If you start from seed, you will be so awed by the miracle of growth that you will prick out and pot up every single seedling. Only on planting day will you realize you have too much.
Your relatives and friends will begin to find sudden indoor interests when you approach them with plants in hand. They don't have room for your excess plants, either.
As you clean up the yard in early spring you will discover strange species growing in the garden, and decide they are weeds. However, once you pull them you will see the roots have a core of potting soil. Only then will you recognize them as plants you bought and placed there. Replant them. They'll forgive you.
You are right to suspect those unidentified plants, however. Chances are good that a new weed will appear in your garden, one you have never dealt with before. It came in as seed on your shoes or in mulch, was blown in by the wind, dropped in by a bird, or sneaked in within the roots of a new plant.
Keep in mind when you find a new weed that it is always more powerful to curse a thing by its proper name. To learn that name, begin by digging out the weed, root and all, and pressing it flat between sections of newspaper. Take it to a garden center's information desk, or keep it in your car trunk so you can ask about it at plant swaps and other gatherings of gardeners.
The favorite pruners that went missing last year will turn up right after you buy a replacement pair. The lost clippers are out under a shrub, half covered in mulch. Don't go looking for them, though. You will not find them until you give them up and buy new. A bit of cleaning with fine sand paper, sharpening and oiling will make them good as new.
Some of your gloves that pulled disappearing acts last year will reappear. At first you will be very happy to see them, until you find that they create a collection of right-hand gloves but no lefts, or vice versa.
A tree, shrub or vine that you planted in 2003 which has been disappointing up until now, will come into its own this year. You will be stunned by its beautiful bloom or great vigor. This is according to the rule that says new plants sleep their first year, creep the second and leap in the third.
During my years of gardening and writing these columns, I've come across a number of insoluble situations. I call these "stumpers." Although there are no good answers to stumpers, there is solace in knowing such situations exist and that we're not alone when we come up against them. So this year, I present a stumper per week for your edification.
I enjoy answering the questions you mail to me, or post on my school's website. However, some problems have no solution or explanation. Don't expect much or any help from me if you pose a "stumper" such as:
Why is it that when I choose a place to plant a big, beautiful understory shrub or perennial in my shady garden, my digging will reveal that the biggest tree root in the whole area already occupies that exact spot?
to perennials left standing over winter, so we can enjoy the sparkle of hoarfrost or freezing rain on stems and pods that cannot be hurt by the cold or weight of ice.
to taking yourself, or me, too seriously!
Originally published 1/1/05