How Early?

If there’s one common theme among my gardening friends right now, it’s the question of just how early spring will arrive this year. That mid-Atlantic groundhog may have predicted six more weeks of winter, but spring is fully underway in some parts of the country. With daffodils blooming in Seattle and Forsythia brightening up Alabama, the evidence certainly points to winter being over in some areas. Here in my central Illinois garden (zone 5b), it’s hard to believe we’re just past Valentine’s Day when judging by the plants.

Narcissus

Of the bulbs, the daffodils are always the first to pop through the mulch. Although it wouldn’t be spring without the cheer of Narcissus blooms, I think my favorite growing stage is this point where the bright green tips emerge through the leaf litter in the garden.

Hamamelis vernalis

The witch hazel has been blooming since late January. The flowers have survived several nights near single digits and two light snowfalls so far. The petals seem to shrivel in the cold, only to come back bright and strong once the air warms up. During today’s walk through the garden, the scent of the witch hazel filled the backyard air.

Hamamelis vernalis shadow

The sun is still far in the southern sky, casting long shadows in the garden. In late morning, the shadow of the witch hazel branches and flowers casts a flowing pose along the back fence. Because the witch hazel bark is similar in color to the fence, it doesn’t contrast much with its surroundings. Its shadow, however, becomes a focal point this time of year.

Iris germanica

The tender tips of bearded iris are greening up throughout the landscape. When backlit, they become nearly translucent and edged in white — garden candles twice a day as the sun shines through them.

Tulipa

In a few protected places, tulips have taken our warm February as a signal to sprout. Thankfully, it’s only a random bulb here and there, because even in March, tulips are usually a rare sight. The foliage can likely take colder temperatures, but I hope the flower buds stay wrapped underground for quite a while longer. These early-emerging leaves will likely end up a late winter treat for our resident rabbits.

Crocus

Crocus bulbs have emerged in the last few days. The border along the driveway benefits from the sun warming the concreted driveway, but it also has very little protection from the wind. It’s one of the few areas of our property where daffodils haven’t emerged.

Clematis ‘Jackmanii’

Bulbs aren’t the only new growth that’s showing up in the garden. Last year’s vines of our Jackmanii Clematis remain intertwined around our front yard light pole. I’ll need to cut it back this weekend, as new leaf buds have already started to swell. I cut back the vines to the healthy main stems, just above the new buds (usually 18-24 inches off the ground). This is such a vigorous Clematis, the new vines will cover our six-foot pole in a matter of weeks in the spring.

Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Snow Queen’

I admit it. I’ve got a thing for woody buds. Trees and shrubs create the foundation of a garden, put on an incredible show when flowering, and provide much needed shade in the summer. But if there’s one characteristic of these woody plants I can’t live without, it has to be the buds — especially when they’re as unique and beautiful as those on oakleaf hydrangea. These buds have always reminded me of some sort of fuzzy antlers.

Lonicera ciliosa

The honeysuckle that climbs along the back fence adjacent to our vegetable garden looks dormant from afar, but new leaf buds can be found along some of the vines. This plant actually belongs to our neighbor, but grows mostly on our side of the fence. Each year, I give it a hard pruning in spring. Otherwise, we might find ourselves strangled in our living room by mid-summer. Even beauty needs to be restrained at times.

Galanthus elwesii

The snowdrops planted in the deck border are being mowed off by the bunnies as quickly as they emerge. Last year, we has a sporadic bloom; I’m not sure what to expect in their second year.

Aronia arbutifolia ‘Brilliantisima’

The chokeberry in the driveway border stands as a visual reminder of winter’s transition into spring. The berries that have been so beautiful throughout the winter have slowly begun to desiccate, as  red-orange buds enlarge along the twigs.

How early will spring arrive this year? We’ll find out soon enough, but if the daffodils are any indication, we’re about three weeks ahead of schedule.

Perhaps the fine residents of Punxsatawney, Pennsylvania should give that groundhog a multiple choice quiz in the future.

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