New beginnings: Thoughts on an early-spring garden

Thoughts on an early-spring garden

  • Schivereckia podolica grows in long-lasting drifts with abundant small white flowers. DAN LITTLE

  • Purple trillium (Trillium erectum) Vasey’s Wake-robin in Nancy D'Amato's garden in Shutesbury DAN LITTLE

  • Double bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis floraplena) DAN LITTLE

  • Single bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis multiplex) is among the early delights in D’Amato’s garden. DAN LITTLE

  • Sessile Bellwort (Uvularia sessifolia) grows in D'Amato's garden. DAN LITTLE

  • Nancy D'Amato's garden in Shutesbury. —DAN LITTLE

  • Nancy D'Amato works in garden Shutesbury. —DAN LITTLE

  • Nancy D'Amato's garden supplies many plants for the Garden Club of Amherst’s annual sale, this year on May 21. DAN LITTLE

  • D'Amato says her emotional connection to her garden in early spring is especially strong. DAN LITTLE

  • Nancy D'Amato's garden in Shutesbury. —DAN LITTLE

  • Nancy D'Amato's garden in Shutesbury. —DAN LITTLE

  • Nancy D'Amato's garden in Shutesbury. —DAN LITTLE

  • Nancy D'Amato's garden in Shutesbury. —DAN LITTLE

  • Nancy D'Amato's garden in Shutesbury. —DAN LITTLE

  • Nancy D'Amato's garden in Shutesbury. —DAN LITTLE

  • Nancy D'Amato's garden in Shutesbury. —DAN LITTLE

  • Nancy D'Amato's garden in Shutesbury. —DAN LITTLE

  • Nancy D'Amato's garden in Shutesbury. —DAN LITTLE

  • Nancy D'Amato's garden in Shutesbury. —DAN LITTLE

  • Nancy D'Amato's garden in Shutesbury. —DAN LITTLE

  • Nancy D'Amato's garden in Shutesbury. —DAN LITTLE

For the Bulletin
Wednesday, May 04, 2016

New England gardeners can readily appreciate the poet William Carlos Williams’ poignant description of nature’s spring awakening:

All along the road the reddish

purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy

stuff of bushes and small trees

with dead, brown leaves under them

leafless vines —

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish

dazed spring approaches —

They enter the new world naked,

cold, uncertain of all

save that they enter.

It's just barely May, and New England gardens are still “sluggish” and “dazed” as they shake off winter’s slumber. Many prized plants have not yet poked through the earth, and there’s much tidying up to be done. Few gardeners would consider this prime time for displaying their borders and beds.

But veteran gardener Nancy D’Amato is happy to show visitors the emerging delights of the large, woodland garden that she has created surrounding her house in Shutesbury. For D’Amato, early spring is a time to savor new beginnings.

“My first thought about beginning the gardening season is, ‘Good god, it’s chilly outside and the garden looks awful.’ But when I do take that first walk out through the garden, there are such wonderful surprises. I get sucked in and start working again. This time of year my emotional connection to the garden is especially strong.”

D’Amato, 78, a Master Gardener, has been gardening for most of her life. She and her late husband, Michael, moved to Shutesbury in 1992, and she joined the Garden Club of Amherst in 1997. One of her primary tasks is digging, potting and labeling plants for the GCA spring plant sale, which will take place May 21 on the Town Common. Her garden supplies many of the plants offered at the sale, particularly exotic woodland plants such as Astilboides and Jeffersonia diphylla.

She also tends the garden at the North Amherst Library, a project she initiated six years ago, seeking donations of plants and materials from local nurseries. She said she appreciates the opportunity to work in a sunny garden, very different from her garden at home.

“There’s something extremely nice about providing pleasure to the community,” she says. “People are so gracious and grateful for it.” She adds, “But I do it because I love gardening. It’s the closest thing I have to meditation.”

The garden path

At home, mature maples and white pines surround her loosely structured garden. As she strolls along the pebbled path that winds through her many beds, she points out some of her favorite early bloomers that brighten the shade-dappled space. One of her favorites is Schivereckia podolica; it grows in long-lasting drifts with abundant small white flowers.

Nearby are clumps of Sanguinaria canadensis, or bloodroot, a wildflower with white, daisy-like flowers rising a few inches above wide, lobed green leaves. D’Amato points to several unusual double-flowered bloodroots. “These are especially lovely,” she said.

Throughout the garden are patches of white Trillium grandiflorum and the red Trillium erectum, other prized wildflowers that thrive in shade. Their simple three-petalled flowers provide a quiet counterpoint to buttercup-yellow primula, another early riser.

D’Amato has several varieties of Primula — “one of the harbingers of spring,” she says — including the purple “Wanda” and a common white one that came from the grocery store. “I just stuck it in the garden and there it is!” she said.

D’Amato takes particular pleasure in watching the tiny arched necks of Cimicifuga racemosa, commonly known as bugbane or snakeroot, push up through the ground.

“Look at their funny, crinkled heads,” she said. “And then, they spread their wings like butterflies. They have such elegant growing patterns, the process is extremely interesting to watch.”

She points to a patch of emerging Cimicifuga, barely four inches tall. “These will grow to be this tall by mid-summer,” she said, gesturing about five feet from the ground. The native plant produces wavy plumes of tiny, star-shaped flowers and is sometimes called “fairy candles.”

Newly emerging Christmas ferns are another captivating spectacle in D’Amato’s garden. The tightly coiled, downy silver heads poke up, soon to be airy green fronds. She advises cutting back the previous year’s foliage to give the new shoots a tidier bed to grow from.

Be still my heart

“Early spring is a time when you see things you had forgotten,” she said. “Or something you planted but weren’t certain it would come back in the spring.”

She spied an unusual Corydalis, ‘Panda Blue’, a delicate but long-lasting, front-of-the-garden plant that is more commonly yellow or white.

“I’m happy to see it, and I’m thrilled that I am getting a bunch of new ones,” she said, pointing to the tiny shoots springing up around the larger plant. “I guess it’s not as exciting as watching a murderer being taken off to jail. But there are heart-palpitating moments of discovery and recognition that can really encourage a gardener this time of year.”

D’Amato also takes pleasure in the yearly arrival of old friends in the garden, like the Paeonia Japonica, or Japanese woodland peony, one of the only peonies that tolerates shade. It has already grown a dense mound of rich, blue-green foliage and fat green buds ready to burst into pure white flowers.

Early spring is a good time to redesign your garden, D’Amato says, because you can see spaces more clearly before the plants fill in.

“Maybe there’s a plant that’s grown a lot and needs to be divided,” she said. “Or you might have a plant that’s in the wrong place.”

She mentions a Baptisia at the North Amherst Library that she needs to move because it has grown so tall it blocks the library’s sign.

“You can ‘move the furniture’ this time of year, if you’re careful,” she said, but cautions against stepping or digging without looking carefully. “If you trample a tiny plant, that’s it for the year.”

Enjoy the process

D’Amato’s many years of gardening have given her an appreciation of gardening as a process rather than a finished spectacle.

“Some contemporary gardeners think of gardening as decorating and improving the image of their property” she said. “If you take that point of view, spring can be disappointing because the garden isn’t full of attractive stuff. But if you see it as an experiential thing, it’s very satisfying.” She adds, “Like all the things we do in life generally, it’s best to look at the process.”

D’Amato says she believes that enjoying the process is especially important in gardening because results are so uncertain.

“Nature isn’t terribly cooperative,” she said. “It can be too hot too soon, too dry, or too wet. The voles can show up and destroy things. Or you settle on a good design for a group of plants, but then plants A, C, and F disappear. All kinds of disasters can befall you and you’re back to square one. I have to accept the small rewards gardening offers.”

D’Amato is even philosophical about the occasional bears that come to her garden. She points to a couple of metal poles meant to hold birdfeeders.

“I had a bear recently,” she said. “He was very gentle, but I had to bring the feeders inside.”

For D’Amato, early spring is a time to “look up close at things. I’m much more interested in doing that than in admiring the view from the porch.”

Mickey Rathbun can be reached at foxglover8@gmail.com.