The Vernal Equinox, which fell on Monday, March 20, occurs when winter’s shrinking nights reach a moment of alignment with the lengthening days. Each is precisely twelve hours. From this point on, the days will grow longer and warmer as the 23.5 degree tilt of the earth on its access brings the Northern Hemisphere increasingly closer to the sun.
Warmth and sunlight trigger dormant cells in seeds, bulbs, and buds to froth and ferment. Shoots break the soil. Petals spiral open.
“Spring changes almost daily,” says Peggy Bowers, horticulturalist of The American Horticultural Society’s River Farm. “The gardens are constantly changing and evolving.” This profusion of new life is linked to astronomy, but plants, like people, alter their living cycles with little regard to precise stellar alignments.
Witch hazel begins to bloom in February. Compact crocus shoots follow close behind. scilla, helleborous, jonquils, pieris, star magnolia all are leaders in the vanguard that may begin, and even end, their period of blooming before the official first day of Spring.
River Farm is poised between the seasons. Gardeners rake last year’s refuse around beds of jonquils and crocuses and drag gray leaf litter from underneath sweet-smelling daphne bushes in full bloom.
The gardening staff’s winter began in November, when they planted 17,000 bulbs. These new bulbs will not have their first bloom until later in the season, although many of their older cousins have already come up. Pruning back rose bushes and fruit trees, cleaning up the gardens, and maintaining the tools are all duties the staff, most of whom are volunteers, perform in winter.
“You really have to have a winter in order to fully appreciate the welcomeness of spring,” says Bowers.
Amy Bolton, a gardening volunteer, helps River Farm prepare for spring and summer by removing dead annuals, cleaning perennials, and mulching the flowerbeds. “I don’ think ahead,” before coming to work, she says. “The gardens are so vast, there’s always going to be something to do.”
WHEN ASKED WHAT she’ll be doing one month from now, she thinks for a moment, then says, “There’s always dead-heading.” Amidst the urgent increase of life, the gardeners must hustle to keep up with the resulting death by pruning back wilted blossoms.
“This is a demonstration garden, so we always want to show people the best that their own garden could be,” says Bowers.
What is the best time in spring to come to River Farm?
“Every week,” says Bowers. If you don’t come often, you will miss most of the “well-orchestrated show” that unfolds in quick movements throughout the two and a half month season.
Viveka Neveln, media contact and assistant editor of the Horticultural Society’s bi-monthly publication, “The American Gardener,” says that she welcomes the appearance of the crocuses. “I use to live in Illinois, so when I saw the crocuses I’d think, ‘Oh yes, spring is coming!’”
For the people at River Farm, spring is a time of urgent activity. A month of events entitled “Washington Blooms!” will run each weekend of April, including garden tours, a plant sale, flower shows, and a Family Day.
The professionals and volunteers at River Farm help the spring season progress as efficiently as possible, but Bowers advises home gardeners not too feel guilty if they never seem to be able to catch up to the changes their gardens are undergoing in this busiest of seasons. “In general, a gardener’s never ahead of her game. It just never happens. Even with professionals there is always something that didn’t get attended to that will have to wait until next winter.”
As she spoke she was attending to a twelve-foot dogwood tree that lay on the asphalt of a parking lot, its rootball wrapped in burlap. She was carefully pouring about ten liters of water into the base of the tree. She explained that it had been carved out of the ground in the winter of last year and had spent one year in a green house, being “pushed” so that it would be in bloom for The Philadelphia Flower Show, the largest in the country, held on the first week of March. The dogwood’s spring occurred months in advance and was dictated by human schedules rather than orbits and sunlight, but it returned to the cycle on this first week of spring, when it was unwrapped from its sack and returned to the soil.