After what seems like the worst winter ever, my garden has started to wake up. In the past week, temperatures in my backyard have fluctuated between the low 60s and the high teens with gusty winds, thanks to yet another blast of Arctic air.
Swings like this are naturally frustrating for gardeners (and non-gardeners as well), but for the plants in my zone 6 garden these temperature changes are all part of a normal spring awakening process. A few days of warmth followed by a few days of cold ensures plants emerge from dormancy slowly. From a plant’s perspective, growing too quickly during a spell of warm weather could be dangerous. Tender new growth or precious newly forming flower buds might easily be damaged by sudden drops in temperature.
Slowly emerging from dormancy is a much safer strategy for most plants. There are exceptions to this rule. Some of the plants blooming now in my garden, despite the ups and downs of the thermometer’s mercury, are so perfectly adapted to temperature fluctuations that they seem not to notice.
While the popular small bulb Galanthus nivialus, commonly called snow drops, are often the first spring flowers to appear in many gardens, they are not the first in mine. Before my snow drops begin their long-awaited March show with cheery displays of green-tipped white flowers, small drifts of bright yellow winter aconites, Eranthis cilicica, have already covered my woodland garden with their buttercup shaped flowers for over a week.
Another early bulb, Crocus tommasinianus, also makes its late winter debut in my garden before most other plants have even started to stir. The flowers of this prolific little bulb may be smaller in size than their larger hybrid cousins which bloom in another month or so, but what they lack in size they more than make up for in numbers. When sited properly in a location that is both well drained and sunny, this little crocus with its slender lavender flowers will rapidly reseed to form colonies that produce hundreds of flowers.
This year perhaps more than most, these early bloomers are a welcomed sight. Fortunately, they are as tough as they are pretty. The day after hundreds of crocus began blooming in my front garden, temperatures dropped into the teens and were accompanied by an inch and a half of snow. The crocuses, the snow drops and the aconites seemed not to care; they simply folded up their flowers and waited. Two days later, when temperatures rose into the low 40s, they reopened.
Along with the bulbs, one of my favorite deciduous shrubs is also an early bloomer. Lonicera fragrantissima is a medium- to large-sized shrub native to China and hardy into zone 4. Its flowers begin opening as soon as temperatures rise slightly above freezing. Its small, highly fragrant flowers are an important food source for honey bees foraging for food on days warm enough for them to leave their hives.
The kick off to spring in my garden actually begins in late winter. Although there are not a lot of plants waking up early, the ones that do make this season one of the most anticipated of all. Carefully selecting plants for your garden that are adapted to a variety of conditions will ensure you have something interesting to look at all year long.