The Glory of Spring
Flowers lead the way to this bountiful garden season
Illustration by Becky Heavner
This is the season for which gardeners have been yearning, the time when all the down-and-dirty drudgery of last fall’s turf-tinkering pays off in springtime splendor, causing the heart to swell, the spirits to soar (and the aching rhomboids to become re-acquainted with analgesics).
May and June are the most magical months in the horticultural calendar. Flowerbeds burst with luminous blooms; honeyed scents perfume the mild air; and winter’s dreary dormancy at last gives way to lush new life. Indeed, spring can be looked upon as the early childhood of the growing season, to be sweetly savored before the young things romp into unruly adolescence (requiring limit-setting in the form of dead-heading), then acquisitive adulthood (with plants duking it out for nutrients and sunlight, best dealt with by division), and finally retirement (with seeds dropping to impregnate the earth for another chilly confinement).
The sequence of springtime flowering is a wonder to behold, beginning with the bulbs. The earliest are the Snowdrops and dwarf Iris (March), followed by large Crocus, Daffodils, and Grape Hyacinth (April). But the bulbous lineup in May is an eye-popping corker, with English Iris, Giant Allium, Parrot Tulips, and Turk’s-Cap Lilies lording it over their half-pint (albeit adorable) cousins, such as the petite Triandrus Narcissus ‘Hawera’.
Bulbs are tough customers, unimpressed by cold snaps and able to bloom in the face of flurries. Likewise, most established flowering shrubs can be counted on to produce a dazzling springtime display, no matter what the weather report. Rhododendrons, with melon-size blooms, are your basic knockouts, especially such glamorous cultivars as ‘Janet Blair’ (the poshest are pale pink with maroon “eyes”); the smaller-leafed Azaleas—technically rhodies—are charming when suffused with coral or white blooms.
As for fragrance, Lilacs, which by Connecticut tradition are used as foundation plants, are irresistibly come-hither when in bloom; ditto for Viburnum ‘Carlesii,’ which can be nasally detected from 50 feet. And for sheer seductiveness, nothing matches Chinese Tree Peonies, with voluptuous flowers that can span 12 inches.
Then there are the flowering trees, such as Crabapple (best in show is the cultivar ‘Donald Wyman’; such elegant bones), Kousa Dogwood (later-flowering and more disease-resistant than its sickly sibling, Cornus florida), Kwanzan Cherry (famous for its vivid pink flowers; think Washington, D.C., in spring), and Japanese Styrax (of all the flowering trees, this is the one to bring home to mama because of its profuse bell-shape tiny white flowers and satiny gray bark).
But when it comes to tender annuals and perennials in this neighborhood, May, even June, are not to be taken for granted, weather-wise. Agronomists who track such things note that in 1967, it snowed in New England on May 26, with the record for such meteorological mood-killers being set back in 1816, when, no lie, the fluffy stuff came to town in June. Clever are the gardeners who know how to curb their propagational enthusiasm by waiting until Memorial Day—the average last frost date in Zone 5 is May 15—to usher fragile newcomers into their borders, lest the darlings be zapped in the bud.
Withal, June’s climate hereabouts is just about perfect—neither too hot nor too cold, neither too wet nor too dry—a time when, if you happen to be a flower, you possess the power to make grown men wobbly in the knees.
Of course, it would be useful at this point to provide a list of such horticultural hubba-hubbas, but oh God, where to start in the June-blooming pageant? I mean, herbaceous Peonies, for a start. Can you think of a more ravishing flower, no less one that also happens to smell sublime? And tell me a more over-the-top number than the Oriental Poppy, in torrid pinks and smoldering reds, with big black centers and strange, whiskered stems.
Not to be resisted are trembling Bleeding Hearts, in pink or virginal white, or Lady’s Mantle, or Jacob’s Ladder, or Dictamnus (gas plant), Bachelor Button, Scabiosa (pincushion flower), Geranium ‘Rozanne,’ Foxglove, Goat’s Beard, Hollyhock, and shrub-like Baptisia with blue, white, or pale yellow blossoms. And I’m not even warmed up yet.
Ah! Let me not omit the aristocratic spring-flowering vines that envelop trellises and clamber up walls. Swoon material is to be found in Clematis Montana ‘Rubens’ and climbing Hydrangea, although years may pass before they squeeze out a single bloom—still, oh so worth the wait. (Forget the ruthless wisteria; it’ll tear your roof off at warp speed and can be florally withholding.)
Speaking of time, a word to the impatient gardening fledgling: Most flowering plants, whether woody or herbaceous, require a period of adjustment before they produce flowers in sufficient numbers to brag about, as this well-worn but useful agricultural homily illustrates: The first year they sleep, the second year they creep, the third year they leap. Well. Maybe not the climbing Hydrangea, a plant which gives new meaning to the term late bloomer—try seven years at my place; also the Tree Peony, another slow-poke, which should be purchased in five-gallon pots so that there is a chance in hell that they may actually bloom somewhere in the vicinity of your lifetime. But when these beauties finally come of age and enthusiastically provide armloads of bouquets, what joy they impart, year after glorious year.
Given all this enchanting floral plentitude, it comes as no surprise that most gardeners can’t bear to be far from home at this time of year. Rather, to borrow from Algernon Swinburne, they prefer to be on their own lovingly cultivated soil, where they can simply watch, transfixed, as “blossom by blossom,” the spring unfolds.