Spring is coming to eastern Long Island. After the roller coaster of a winter we’ve had, which included some of the coldest weather in years, along with some of the mildest, it’s hard to predict when it will actually feel like spring. But the days are steadily getting longer, and it’s time to start getting your garden and landscape ready for a new season of growth and greenery and blossom. Instead of relying on the calendar, watch for signs that your landscape is ready for a new season. Spring weather can be erratic on the North Fork, and it varies from year to year. Your landscape can tell you when spring is here.
First, clean up the garden and grounds, whether you do it yourself or hire a professional. It’s time to clear away winter’s debris – old fallen leaves that came down after the last Town collection or fall cleanup by your landscaper. When the weather starts to moderate, it’s time to remove burlap wrappings from boxwoods and other sensitive plants that needed protection from drying winter winds. Remove winter mulches from garden beds and borders. Prune winter-damaged growth from trees and shrubs, and roses. When the forsythias bloom it’s generally safe to prune roses. Hybrid tea roses in particular benefit from a good pruning every year to keep the plants vigorous. And all roses need to have dead and damaged growth removed. If the severe cold we had in January killed some of the stems on your plants, this is a good time to cut them back to healthy, firm green growth.
When the ground is no longer frozen (which can vary, depending on where you are and what your soil is like – sandy soil thaws sooner than richer soils like Bridgehampton loam), you can get ready for spring planting. Dig garden beds, add compost and organic fertilizers to renew the soil.
In the flower garden the earliest bloomers of all are hellebores. These miraculous plants generally set their buds in fall and open their flowers in shades of pink-flushed cream, chartreuse, maroon and dramatic black in winter, when snow is still on the ground. In 2017 mine bloomed in February. Watch for sweet little species crocuses (the better-known Dutch crocuses, with their larger chalice-shaped flowers of golden yellow, white and purple, come a little bit later), Siberian squills (a rare true blue flower) and small species narcissus – tiny versions of the daffodils that grace many gardens in spring.
The most rewarding part of spring, if you take the time to notice, is to watch for the landscape to come alive again. Look for signs of new growth in your garden and landscape – early crocuses and daffodils sending up their first shoots, spring perennials beginning to emerge above the soil. Among shrubs, witch hazel, if you grow it, will send out its ribbony yellow flowers very early in spring, and so will some viburnums and pussy willows. Every spring is different on the North Fork. Average frost dates don’t so much apply here. Some years the weather warms in April. Some years we get a late frost close to Memorial Day. Wise gardeners will be observant, and let nature be their guide.
This year why not treat yourself to a shot of early color by planting some pansies and sweet alyssum? Both these plants can tolerate a fair amount of chill, and both are widely available at local nurseries in early spring. The tiny, frothy white or purple flowers of the alyssum are a nice companion for the broad-petaled pansies, which you can find in shades of purple, blue, orange, golden yellow and white, along with some reds and bronzes and even pink, with or without the dark markings that make them seem to have little faces.
And if you’re out in the garden now, you can listen for the calls and trills of returning songbirds coming back from their winter locales to build new nests and raise new families here. As the days grow steadily longer, the world turns green and the songs of birds begin to fill the air, spring is back at last, and summer’s just around the corner.