King of Spades
Unearthing the delights of spring
By Jim Dodson
Being a true son of winter, yet an increasingly obsessed gardener, I’m always of two minds with the arrival of spring.
On the one hand, I’m always sad to see the crisp days and clear Arctic nights of star-spangled heavens — not to mention the beauty of fresh snowfall upon the leafless architecture of my nodding garden — vanish down the rabbit hole for another year.
On the other, the sudden appearance of daffodils and wild onions sprouting in the perennial border, and a noticeable amping up of birdsong announces a new growing season is upon us — so sleepers awake!
During the years I built and looked after a large faux English garden in the deep woods of Coastal Maine, March and April were never much of a factor. “James,” my late Scots mother-in-law always had to remind me, “best to remember that March is a full winter month in Maine, and April is called the cruelest month for good reason, dear, gray and cold with lots of mud and only teasing bits of sun.”
She was right, of course, at least about the frozen North Country. Some years “ice out” in local ponds failed to occur until Mother’s Day, and many was the Easter when snowflakes or sleet filled the air on the way to church
Though I’ve been back home in the middle South for a dozen years, time enough to thin my blood and get semi-accustomed to a spring that seemingly arrives weeks earlier year after year, the suddenness of the season and its attendant To-Do list always seem to catch me by surprise.
Up North, my wife, Wendy, used to joke the first true sign of spring coming to Maine was when a large shrub or young tree suddenly moseyed past the kitchen window where she happened to be standing, seemingly on its own willpower. In fact, the phenomenon was merely her itchy, Carolina-raised, garden-starved husband moving a shrub or young tree to a sunnier spot on our thawing hilltop estate in the woods, hoping to encourage the return of spring that never fully committed itself until May Day, whereupon the blackflies swarmed in celebration.
Nowadays by mid-April — or is it now late February? — I’m in full operational gardening mode, perpetually dirty, blissfully oblivious to anything else happening in the world beyond my garden gate, lost in thte ambitious planting schemes and brilliant ideas that seeped into my dozy off-season brain during the cold, gray days of deep winter.
For Christmas this year, knowing that which maketh her husband tick, my summer-loving bride (we are, alas, your classic mixed seasonal marriage) thoughtfully presented me a handsome, handmade, imported and insanely expensive English planting spade by the house of Spear & Jackson.
As garden implements go, this garden tool is almost too dang pretty to get dirty — or so I briefly thought until I took it outside during middle February’s alarmingly wet and warm afternoons and gave it a full workout transplanting a pair of young Japanese maples from terrace urns to my side garden. After that I moved awakening hosta plants and transplanted three hydrangeas.
In a word, the tool performed magnificently, making its owner feel like the King of Spades.
As you read this, Good Lord willing and the lower back holds up, I’ll have ruthlessly cleaned out the wretched ivy that’s plagued the blueberry hedge forever, trimmed the ornamental grasses back and tidied up my lavender and Indian sage plants along the entry walk. I’ll have seeded the yard with fescue and begun construction of the new wooden side fences and iron gates that I spent far too many (but quite pleasant) hours this winter on Pinterest, combing for ideas, whereupon I shall commence a full-frontal assault on the so-called “Wild Corner” of our suburban backyard.
Half the yard out yonder resembles something vaguely akin to a promising new Japanese shade garden while the other half resembles an abandoned nursery where elderly azaleas, horrible mahonias, half-dead dogwoods, insidious wisteria vines, leggy alders, shaggy buckeyes and unattended-to thorns have ruled at whim for at least a decade.
(Permit me to pause in this spring exegesis and declare that if there’s anything more rewarding in this life than digging out perilously mean-spirited mahonia bushes-gone-wild and yanking out wisteria vines by the hairy root, well, I simply haven’t discovered it yet.)
Once the area is cleared and a fresh canvas of soil and semi-shade awaits, the King of Spades will get down to work installing a new garden of azaleas and dogwoods, new stone pathways girded by lush oakleaf and mophead hydrangeas, hellebores, bleeding heart, woodland phlox and at least a dozen kinds of hosta.
By end of Carolina spring, with a little luck and a consciously blind eye to what I’m spending at the garden centers round town, my winter garden dreams will have more or less taken shape just in time for summer.
Between us, I’m always a little sad when full-throated summer arrives on my patch of Earth. Like a first date with a beautiful girl, springtime’s high expectations and nervous infatuation must yield to the task of daily maintenance and weeding — which, I suppose, is not unlike marrying the summer-loving girl of your dreams and finding her to be the perfect companion in any season or garden.
Last spring, mindful of summers that seem more Mediterranean than Mid-Atlantic, per her clever suggestion, I replaced all of the dusty and ancient frontyard shrubs (installed decades ago by our home’s previous matron) with beds of French and English lavender, Indian sage and ornamental grasses that grew rewardingly full and stayed lush all the way into the holidays. They even looked starkly elegant beneath the surprise snowfall that came in January.
As of this moment, it’s perhaps too early to say for sure whether they survived the puny fortnight of old-fashioned winter that accompanied the snow, dropping temps to the single digits.
But a garden-nut by nature is nothing if not an optimist at heart. Hard weather makes good timber, as they say up in Maine, and whatever doesn’t kill your tender English and French lavender beds, to borrow a phrase, only makes them — and you — stronger in the end.
The King of Spades can live with such thrilling uncertainty. Part of the fun of making a garden in any season or place, after all, is the life-and-death drama that plays out daily/weekly/yearly at your fingertips and in your head.
I joke to friends who know of my garden affliction — a verdure of blood I inherited from generations of farming kin in these parts — that like more than one of my garden-mad forebears, the day may well come when some kindly visitor to my garden discovers its keeper serenely face-down in the hostas or flowering verbena, permanently at rest and, horticulturally speaking, not a bad way to go at all.
Besides, don’t they say one is closer to God’s heart in a garden? I’ll just consider that a shortcut to gardening heaven.
And that fancy, well-made English spade of mine? I suspect it will outlive its current owner by at least a decade and could come in quite handy for assisting someone else’s garden dreams — or at least spreading a few memorial ashes among the hellebores or Verbena bonariensis.