Bright and Early

Bright and Early

You’re not imagining things. Spring weather is arriving early—by about two weeks, says Abigail Maynard, associate agricultural scientist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station. Sprays of yellow forsythia (some of them pictured above) are already a common sight, and some daffodils—typically an April flower in coastal Connecticut—have already opened their frilled cups to the rain.

But don’t get too comfortable. “There’s no way you can predict what our spring is going to be like,” Maynard says. “We can get a frost through mid-May, and it just takes one night to wipe things out.” In other words, it’s not time to put your tomatoes in the ground. Not even close.

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By gardener Nancy DuBrule-Clemente’s reckoning, the weather may be as much as three weeks ahead of schedule. The owner of Natureworks garden center in North Branford literally wrote the book on when plants bloom in Connecticut. Her volume Succession of Bloom in the Perennial Garden catalogs hundreds of plants with bar graphs charting their expected bloom times. But DuBrule-Clemente also has a less scientific yardstick for spring: a weeping white cherry tree that bloomed the day she and her husband were married, April 18. They cut sprigs from it that day, and “we filled buckets with it,” she recalls. They call it their “wedding tree.” When we spoke on March 18, a full month early, the wedding tree’s buds were cracking. DuBrule-Clemente expected it would bloom that day or the next if the weather stayed warm.

Maynard, too, has a favorite plant that tells her the story of the weather: globe artichokes. She’s waiting to see how they’ll judge our unusually warm winter. Globe artichokes are biennials—producing on a second year’s growth—in their warmer, native climes, but Maynard forces an early bloom and grows them as annuals. “Normally, they don’t survive our winters,” she says, though she leaves the plants in the ground out of curiosity. She’s been growing them since the 1980s; one year, about two decades ago, they resprouted in the spring. She’s waiting to see what they’ll do this season.

She’s not the only one waiting and seeing. Should we be worried about the warm, nearly snowless winter we’ve just had and the unseasonably early arrival of spring? Or should we just go out and enjoy it?

Climate scientists will have their own answers, but from a planting perspective both DuBrule-Clemente and Maynard say the only things home gardeners should be putting in the ground right now are cold-weather crops like carrots, radishes, kale and beets. An old rule of thumb to plant your peas on St. Patrick’s Day was actually true this year for the first time in decades, DuBrule-Clemente notes.

The biggest concern in an early spring like this one is for fruit trees, whose buds are ready to burst, Maynard says. If they open and then freeze, an entire crop can be lost. Peaches and plums, which bloom on the early side, are the most vulnerable. The other worry? Bugs. The mild winter may have allowed some pests and diseases to survive, and insects—as well as ticks—may be emerging sooner.

Nevertheless, DuBrule-Clemente says this is a great year for first-time gardeners. Those hit hard by the COVID-19 shutdowns can save some money on food by growing their own. “I grow a ton of food because I want to know where my food comes from,” she says. “I don’t do it to save money, although I save a ton of money.” Even urban dwellers can grow their own food, she adds. Just a couple of pots on a balcony will work. For first-timers, she suggests growing greens—lettuce, kale, mustard, broccoli rabe, escarole—”simply because they’re fast, they’re easy, they’re nutritious.” Tomatoes are the most popular garden plant, but they’re not the most practical for gardeners without a plot of land, DuBrule-Clemente adds. If you don’t have a lot of space but you must have tomatoes, try a cherry variety or a determinant, which will grow more like a bush than a vine and top out at a manageable height. “There’s really nothing you can’t grow in a container as long as you have good soil and some light,” she says.

DuBrule-Clemente hopes federal and local governments will allow garden centers to stay open as essential businesses during the current health crisis. “We feel that people should be given the opportunity to grow as much food as they want,” she says. “It makes you think really hard about where does my food come from, and how does it grow?” School closures just as spring begins also offer an opportunity to teach kids firsthand about growing their own food, she adds.

For the time being, Natureworks has paused its usual customer-facing activities except for landscaping deliveries. In-person classes have been moved online, and the garden center’s YouTube channel offers some free gardening information. “I haven’t slept much,” DuBrule-Clemente admits. Instead, she’s been trying to decide which shipments to take and how to serve customers in creative new ways. She floats one middle-of-the-night idea: How about driving around with a truck full of pansies, kind of like the ice cream guy?

On a more serious note, DuBrule-Clemente recalls another national crisis and the advice she gave to customers and friends alike at the time. “Remember September 11, how stunned we were, and remember how everyone was just glued to the TV?” she asks. “I said OK, stop and turn it off and go outside, even if it’s for an hour… The one gift we all have is the ability to go outside and breathe fresh air.”

Best case scenario—because that’s what she’s aiming for—DuBrule-Clemente hopes this season will sow a whole new generation of gardeners. “This could be your chance to really appreciate the world more,” she says.

You don’t have to start big. Just take it one seed at a time.

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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