Deborah Needleman

At this time of year, so much is changing, so rapidly, in the woods and in the garden. Gardening is a way of trying to get in on the action, of trying to stake a little claim in the cycle of nature. It’s sort of sweet, and a tad pathetic, given that nature basically goes on about its business oblivious to us. I hate that all this beauty and interesting stuff goes on without me, that the trees will leaf out in the forest even if I’m not there to see them.

Across the Hudson, the trees on top of the mountains are just waking up, and the patterns of the still see-through branches remind me of the bristly hairs on a buffalo’s chin. On our side of the river, the leafless woods are sprinkled pale yellow from the blooming spicebush (Lindera), a small, delicate tree with tiny flower clusters along its bare branches. This little-known native, whose common name comes from the fresh smell emitted when a bit of branch is broken, should be a more popular woodland plant, because it lights everything up so early and gracefully. Yesterday, the shadbush (Amelanchier) opened its white, starlike flowers, and with it came the shad flies flitting about my face, and, I imagine, the spawning shad running down the Hudson, for whom this tree takes its common name.

The roadsides are thick with loud and cheery forsythia–a wise plant for coming so early in the season, when its rather brassy yellow color is such a welcome sight. Later in the season we might not look upon it so kindly. Its wild branching does look great along dirt roads and fences and at the edge of the woods, but I think it wears out its welcome the closer it gets to the house. Driving past a neighbor’s planting of matching yellow daffodils at the base of their forsythia hedgerow, I recall how last year I made fun of the whole thing, with its sweater-set sensibility. This year, though, I’m struck by the reliable patterns of nature, grateful this duo has returned and will return again next spring, and the spring after that.

This early in the season, I even watch with affection the return of my own pitiful pattern of plotting and planning. Every spring I tell myself I will order my bulbs early, prune the spring flowering shrubs right after they bloom, cut back the huge wild rose that threatens to kill the spicebush at the edge of the woods, etc., etc. This year I am determined to be a neater gardener, one who does not leave her tools out, buried under the brush piles of unfinished projects left all over the yard. There is no reason to think I will do any of it.

I am finally bringing flowers cut from the ground into the house, instead of relying on fall berries and forced bulbs and branches. My trash is once again an under-the-counter bastion of virtue because it will make its way onto the compost pile to make sweet, black mulch for my plants. The tender potted plants, such as the night-blooming daturas that spent the winter dormant in the basement, have come upstairs and are stirring by the window. My friend Grace tells me, as we pull fallen leaves out of some lavender, that the flat-leafed seedlings sprouting all through my new holding beds are maples, which makes perfect sense, as the beds are near an ancient sugar maple. Catherine brings us some black viola seedlings she has grown, and we pluck some self-sown Salvia scleria seedlings from a gravel walk in order to plant them out in our gardens.

Driving the hour or so south, back into the city, is like seeing the previews for spring. In Riverside Park, the new leaves are already unfurling on the trees, daffodils are everywhere, and the blossoming cherry trees are spraying their petals in the wind. I want to go back up north, so I can have it all again.