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From the garden: Rites of spring

Posted: May 24, 2013 - 12:02am

In our region, the forested- and glacier-crowned coasts of Southeast Alaska, Memorial Day Weekend marks the beginning of the flower season. The early and hardiest perennials have opened the show, golden carpets of “Tete-a Tete” daffodils and pioneering crocus have been with us for a few weeks, and we have all been thrilled to see the first fluorescent primroses as they push their clustered flowers up before their leaves emerge.

But the season of full on flower power waits until the days are a little warmer and the nights frost free.

Memorial Day is a combination of life history, society bonding and horticultural time keeping. Some years we are already awash in color by now, but this season we are still holding our breath, so to speak. Clear weather means cool nights and the landscape is full of frost-damaged specimens — Japanese Maples that began to emerge from dormancy just in time to meet killing temperatures and marginal evergreens that survive, but suffered significant damage.

The social history side of the holiday calls forth our appreciation for those who worked, fought and, for many, died for our country. We go to cemeteries and join together in ceremonies remembering the dead. Speeches, marches and memorial salutes are in order all over the land. Bouquets of flowers fill the vases by the graves of family members and stories of wartime are repeated as family heirlooms. When we look up, the world will be different. Springtime emerges as we reminisce and in a week, we see the return of the foliage.

Winter views through the bare trunks fade, the roadside fills in and the shores of the lakes get closer and softer. Ferns, grasses and the first devil’s club leaves show up, bright yellow skunk cabbage spathes hint at the lushness that will fill those wet spaces and the cute crinkley leaves of the alders look like teddy bear ears sprinkled over the branches. Blueberry flowers swing like tiny lanterns and their delicate, incredibly soft leaves unroll from their sleeping bags, stretching into the light like butterfly wings. Pale green flakes of foliage catch the eye as the hazy, ticklish, delightful filling in of the forest understory sweeps into view. Fireweed sprouts its reddish lily-like fronds and golden thread’s filigreed carpet begins to cover the verges.

Garden life goes on, too. The next wave of perennials is already emerging. Peony leaves push up. Those scarlet fingers reach out of the ground, feeling around for something to hold. The firm balls that will be their flowers are still a while away, but we can imagine them like baby hands that pat the air. Astilbes unfold ferny leaves so delicate and soft, delphiniums in pale, pale, green, their leaves so close together that they look stacked before the stem sections stretch and they begin to climb skyward. Their vigorous, rotund cousins — the extremely social globeflowers — are already chuckling to themselves as they mound up, getting ready for the burst of gold that they portend. Irises slant up from their exposed rhizomes, always a surprise. They look so exposed and vulnerable, just lying on top of the ground like that.

Vegetable gardeners too are emerging from winter’s torpor, filling beds with new soil, renovating their vegetable patches and burying their potatoes in expectation of the miraculous multiplication that will turn one potato into dozens over the course of the summer. Cold frames and temporary plastic shelters sprout in yards, seedlings that were nurtured in windows or selected from the abundance of local greenhouses are separated and tenderly slipped into their new homes. Cabbages, kale and broccoli, brussels sprouts, chard and lettuce, chives, parsley and oregano, all tenderly tucked into fluffy soil beds for a vigorous spring season of vegetative growth. Peas are being set by trellises or among the more rustic settings, being encouraged to scramble up alder poles, and early seedings of carrots and radishes are being sown.

Fruiting shrubs, those workhorses of horticulture in our zone, are being inspected, the ground around them being turned and fertilized, old canes being removed and damaged or broken ones trimmed out. Gooseberries, currants and raspberries are inspected, as well. Serviceberries are marveled at, as their early-blooming flower clusters have already begun to form. And the apples and cherries are certainly searched for signs of emerging life.

Late spring, cool nights and slowly emerging leaves mark a season still beginning, but no matter what it all begins again.

• David Lendrum is a Juneau resident and longtime local gardener.

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