The start of a new season approaches

Posted: Wednesday, March 01, 2000

Margaret and I walked through the nursery this week looking at our collection of trees and shrubs, pulling primrose plants out of pots and checking roots, kicking frozen soil and making plans. This is a very hopeful time of the year; the overwintered stock looks great, all budded up and ready for a burst into spring.

Roses have thick layers of thorns, so closely set that they look like fur, growing tips shining pink in the clear morning light and the few remaining hips shriveled almost to nothing. Looking below the ground, pulling the root ball out of the container, new white tips are visible everywhere, the roots are already growing.

Lilacs hold up plump promises, a warm April and we will have bouquets galore. Early blooming Golden Currants and their stinky cultivated cousins show their mettle, they are flexible, even whippy in these still frozen days. Purple stemmed Arctic Willows are even pumping up a little, as if they are daring winter to return.

Tough herb plants hold onto green leaves, Thyme and Oregano, and dark silver gray Sage. Aromas fill our faces as we look at these survivors, feeling woody trunks and enjoying the wash of fragrance.

Strawberries are emerging. Last year's leaves cover the new tips like a coat, but their ruddy glow gives them away. They are waiting for a couple weeks of warmth and they will rush to bloom and fruit. The kids will compete with the birds and slugs for the title ``Grandmaster Strawberry Eater,'' and new tendrils will stretch out with tiny baby plants on their tips.

Strawberries are one of the most attractive cultivated plants; they excel in shape, aroma and hardiness. They also arouse desire in humans from 3 to 93. It is no wonder that they are the most popular fruiting plants on the planet.

We turn from this clump of promise to another avenue, digging out a rooted willow twig. This is one of the experiments that a gardener is always trying, a cast into the darkness to see what will bite. These willow twigs are ones that we cut and set into sawdust and gravel bed to see what percentage would root with no special care. Once we know the unaided response, we can test various methods to tell which give the best results. The ones that rooted well have grown two or three new branches, others are still green but have only single stems, and many have turned black.

This season we will use hormones and basal heat and plastic coverings. The rate of rooting will rise, I hope, and then we will have a good source for the huge number of willow stems that streambank stabilization efforts will require. Willow has been called the ``Doctor of the Earth'' for its ability to root all along its length and hold together soil and rocks at the river edges.

I was playing at the beach with my kids last weekend and we crawled into a washed out gully, marveling at the hundreds of roots that laced back and forth across the wound in the bank. These fibers of the plant world are the reinforcement in the mixture of sand, gravel and decayed leaves that we call soil. People with slopes in danger of washing out, or road cuts that won't take grass, have been using willow or dogwood stems for hundreds of years. If we can come up with a method to have them on hand in quantity, we may be able to help stabilize some of these moving soils.

Seed starting, vegetable varieties for our climate, overwintering plants indoors, spring pruning, transplanting evergreens, development plans, entry gardens, water features, bulbs and groundcovers have all been topics of this week's phone calls. The feeling of the season progressing into the next phase is so strong that we are all swept up in its glow. Conversations in the grocery store aisles, at the indoor soccer games and in the post office lobby all focus on plans for the new growing cycle.

Last year was a slow starter. We had so much snow still piled up everywhere that the thaw was set back a month or more. It eventually worked out, but the sense of frustration felt by local gardeners was so strong that it is as if we have been waiting for years. The image of the White Witch of Narnia, and it always being winter was overwhelming. I, too, am really ready for spring.

David Lendrum is a master gardener and, along with Margaret Tharp, owns Landscape Alaska. Any responses or questions can be sent to

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