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In the Garden

Season Previews From Spring's Beguiling Early Bloomers

Gardens are stirring in the wake of late-winter rains, with sweet olive, irises and daffodils putting in an appearance.

March 02, 2000|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

My still-dripping garden had "spring" stamped all over it, following one of those recent storms. The day had dawned clear and sunny, and it looked and smelled like spring. Not spring full-blown, but early spring, when the garden is awaking and full of promise.

Against a clearing sky, I could see the first roses of the year--droplet-covered blossoms high overhead. I've coaxed this apricot-colored climber into a small eucalyptus. The rose is a 1904 Noisette named 'Crepuscule.' In one rose catalog, it has been described as "far superior to most roses sold today as repeating climbers," and it always has a smattering of blooms in my coastal garden.

Mind you, it's never covered with blooms like some climbers, and some might be disappointed by the rather small, informal and floppy flowers--this is no hybrid tea--but they have a soft charm that has all but disappeared from modern roses.

Also overhead, on a simple wood entry trellis, is another early spring bloomer, Jasminum polyanthum. I think this is one plant whose slender rose-colored buds are prettier than the open flowers. Fortunately, the buds are on the plant a long time before finally opening into simple white flowers that are powerfully fragrant. I have the variegated variety with cream-splashed leaves that are decorative in any season.

After this jasmine blooms, it can look quite messy. So I get out the hedge shears and trim off all the dead flowers and some of the leaves, to reduce its size and lessen the tangle. It's like shearing a sheep.

Right by the front door grows another early bloomer, Osmanthus fragrans, also known as sweet olive for some mysterious reason. Though it is in the olive family, it certainly doesn't look like an olive, nor does it smell like one. It smells like apricots, if you can smell it at all.

Some people can--it practically bowls my wife over--and some people can't. Much to my disappointment, I can only smell it up close, though others catch the scent several yards away.

Unlike the unruly jasmine, the osmanthus is a joy to trim and tidy up, which was the task I assigned myself on that wonderful crisp morning, when it was still too wet to do much else in the garden.

For almost 20 years, I've managed to keep the osmanthus to about 5 feet wide and a little more than 6 feet tall (it can grow to 10), without it looking the least bit hedge-like. This osmanthus is still a graceful, open bush, and I love getting out the shears and working on it. I should add that it grew quickly to fill its appointed spot by the front door.

After all the recent rain, the foliage was again glossy, cleansed of dust. So was the rest of the foliage in the garden, which made it glisten. I don't know why rainfall is so much better than a garden hose at cleansing leaves, but it sure is.

In sharp contrast to all this freshly scrubbed foliage, the soil was a deep, matte brown. Plants that live close to the ground, such as the Antique Shades pansies I had planted back in the fall or the tiny daffodils that were blooming, look so much brighter and, well, better, when the ground is dark and moist.

The dark soil certainly made the shocking chartreuse flowers on the 3-foot Corsican hellebore stand out. This stunning perennial--Helleborus corsicus--begins blooming in the middle of winter and peaks now, never failing to draw stares.

Even the vegetables looked pretty against the dark soil, if spinach can be said to look "pretty." All of our vegetables had been struggling along in the cold and drought of December and January. It didn't seem to matter if we watered them, or even if the sun was shining. The sun was so low they were in almost constant shadow. Now, the sun warms them for at least part of the day and the soil in the raised beds is perfectly moist thanks to the rain.

A mesclun mix of exotic salad greens somehow thrived while the others struggled, but it never looks like much, since as soon as the leaves get 3 to 4 inches tall, they are snipped off for that night's salad.

But after the rain, the baby leeks, spinach, endive, carrots, and even turnips looked handsome. Of course, vegetables can't be counted on to look good for long because they get harvested, which leaves gaps or reduces whole rows to stubble. One wonders how magazines get those picture-perfect shots of mature vegetable gardens--does anyone actually eat the vegetables?

The weeds in the garden even looked bright and crisp, even "happy," perhaps because they had gone unnoticed by this gardener and had really thrived in the rain. But, as soon as the soil dried a little, I got down on my knees and pulled them out, a job made easy by the moist soil.

Weeding by hand with the warm sun on your back is one way to get close to your garden without drawing undue attention. You can admire the healthy soil you've put so much effort into, and stare at the amazing patterns on some flowers. Have you really looked at a pansy's face recently?

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