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Great Gardening by Sally Cunningham: spring has sprung

What sight, sound or scent tells you it’s spring? Surely it’s different signs for different people, but I’m guessing the calendar has little to do with it. In the Northeast, March 21 may or may not feel springlike, and even if it does we must know that we’ll still experience snow, wind storms and cold, muddy soil. Late April, on the other hand, does bring credible signs of spring from the world of plants, animals and even from people. Here are a few:

Plants showing life

I went to Florida for eight days. When I left home on a cold blustery day, I could see the green nubs and leaves of spring flowering bulbs, a patch of snowdrops in flower and hellebores beginning to unfurl. One week later: The daffodils are flowering everywhere! Great clusters of purple and white hyacinths fill the air with fragrance. White violets in the shady garden are flowering prolifically (reminding me that I should never have started them there, however adorable they are momentarily). Also too much of a good thing, the giant alliums have sprung up 12 inches in one week. It’s spring for sure.

In the shrub bed, a few plants are the season’s harbingers. The first to show leaves – pink- and lime-colored already – are the Sorbaria cultivars called ‘Sem.’ In the right place this 4-foot shrub is a beauty, from the ferny rainbowlike leaves to the large white butterfly-attracting flowers (rather like butterfly bushes) in summer. The species (original) plant lacks the pink leaves and grows about 7 feet tall, but is otherwise similar. The plant succors generously, which is a great thing if you want a patch or a hedge and a bad thing if you want one tidy plant to remain 4-feet wide.

Other trees or shrubs that “break bud” or start to open and show leaf color are the willows – pussy willows having already had their fuzzy little show. My Japanese willow (Salix integra ‘Hakuro-Nishiki’) already looked fluffy with pink leaves last week, and now they are cream and lime green. Larches are showing soft green tufts on top of their branches. Amelanchiers (serviceberries) – the quintessential native beauty – will soon open their small leaves and tiny white flowers.

Meanwhile, as you wait for leaves and flowers, take the time to look at the buds on trees and shrubs. These often go entirely unnoticed, but each species has bud shapes and markings so distinct that CNLPs-in-training must identify dozens of twigs and buds in winter in order to pass their exam. Even if you’ll never take such a test, the effort to observe twig and bud characteristics is a great visual exercise that well may increase your sense of wonder at the diversity and complexity of plants.

Then be patient. New homeowners or gardeners worry lots about whether their shrubs or trees survived the winter. Many people already assume some plants are dead, but know this: Plants respond to nature’s signals (light, moisture, accumulative heat) in their own time. The times vary greatly among species; some don’t give you a hint of life until late May or early June. So don’t write them off (or dig them out) unless you have absolute evidence of death such as entirely girdled stems or trunks.

Animal sightings

Did you clean out or put up the bluebird boxes yet? Birders tell me that March is the best time, but I think the males are still scouting for the perfect abode for their ladies. I saw my first bluebirds two weeks ago. Be sure to place boxes near an open field, in pairs (so that territorial swallows will take one box and chase other birds away from box two, leaving it for bluebirds). Later it will help the fledglings to have a shrub or fence post within about 12 feet of their homes. (For more info see: nysbs.org)

In the country there is one sound that says we have turned the corner into the new season: the chorus of the spring peepers. The peepers are small frogs (less than 1½-inch body length) with big vocal sacs that expand and shrink like balloons to produce the sound. The males begin this trilling, to attract mates, often just after the snow recedes in wetland areas. I’ve only occasionally seen these tiny singers – various shades of brown to green – typically under leaves or bark, or around shrubs, near my farm pond. The peepers eat many kinds of insects and spiders, and are themselves eaten by snakes, rodents or (as tadpoles) by larger frogs.

Insects are the irreplaceable foundation of natural ecosystems, although they are the least popular of all the groups in the animal kingdom. In direct relation to the spring warm-up, insects will be emerging from the soil, from under bark, or from other winter hiding places. Some have spent the winter as eggs, some as larvae or grubs, some as pupae or adults. As you discover them, please don’t assume you’re seeing the enemy. Most insects are beneficial in the big picture as well as specifically in your garden or landscape. Even insects commonly known as pests are usually food for another creature. This may seem counterintuitive, especially because our culture is brainwashed by the barrage of advertising urging you to buy pesticides to kill-kill-kill. While indeed a few specific pests wreak havoc among some of our favorite plants, try to keep your perspective. As the season progresses, let us take on pest management the IPM way – prevention first – and analyze each challenge as it comes along.

Meanwhile, hello spiders, hello lady beetles, hello wasps, bees and flies! They, too, mean that spring is upon us.

As for the people ...

I doubt there’s a better city for festivals than Buffalo, and one of our first is one of our most beautiful. Don’t miss Buffalo’s Cherry Blossom Festival, May 2-9, with activities surrounding the Japanese Garden in Delaware Park. From pink boat rides to picnics under the cherry trees, you’ll know what season has arrived. (See buffalocherryblossomfestival.org).

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.