Countdown to Spring

Crocus emerging.                                                            Ineke Heesterbeek/Flickr

Crocus emerging.                                                            Ineke Heesterbeek/Flickr

T.S. Eliot called April the cruelest month, but he was no gardener. Fickle March is far more likely to break your heart.

Once you turn the calendar from February to March, you have the sense you're leaving winter behind. There it is in black and white: "first day of spring," officially arriving less than two weeks from today.

This is purely a tease, since spring-like weather can flirt with you long before the season's official start or hide behind storm clouds until May, as it does some years. As everyone knows, there's a big difference between the first day of spring and the first spring day.

Just when we think we’re through the worst, along come back-to-back March nor’easters with snow, wind and flooding. March is still more than half winter, after all. You can count on the lion, but never the lamb when it comes to this month's traditionally erratic weather.

It doesn't help that in the tag-end of winter, the landscape is at its dreary worst. The dry, brown grass, the matted leaves, the stained and derelict mounds of snow, the branch-littered lawns — everywhere you look there's something grimy and unkempt. It's hard to imagine the magical transformation that will soon turn a frumpy and sleep-addled Mother Nature into a radiant debutante.

We may not be done with snow since there’s another chance of it Monday and in the following week. Still, it's hard to resist a mental leap forward into the new season, hard to resist looking for omens and portents.

You know spring is near when you set the garden catalogs aside and finally place your orders. You sense it's on the wing when you spot the first red-winged blackbird, the first robin, the first yellow feather on a winter-drab goldfinch. You finally see some point in looking eagerly, every day, for signs of new life in the garden.

Forsythia under snow.                                               sigckgc/Flickr

Forsythia under snow.                                               sigckgc/Flickr

I see the new season stirring along the path to my back door, where patches of crocuses are beginning to bloom like handfuls of jewels cast on the ground. No bigger than a thumbnail, their tiny silken chalices open to the warming sun and clench themselves against night's dark and cold. The miniature spring irises will join them any day now.

Down in the boggy spots near the stream, the weird, mottled-brown spathes of skunk cabbages are emerging. Sometimes a sharply pointed cone, occasionally spiraled at the tip, always gnome-like, the spathe eventually will part to reveal a round, spongy golf ball (technically a spadix) studded with small spikes. The whole thing looks like an alien life form left behind in the terrestrial woodlands by visitors from another planet.

At the woodland’s edge, I’m astonished to see ranks and ranks of daffodil "noses" poking through the damp soil. These are largely self-sown, thriving in wet soil where most daffodils won’t. Soon a wave of gold will ripple along the treeline like breaking surf tossing in the wind.

Elsewhere in the garden beds, perennials are committing themselves to spring with tiny new shoots and leaves. The daylilies and the Montauk daisies, the Jupiter's beard and the low-growing veronicas are showing green. It's a cheerful thing, this vegetation bubbling up from below.

As I drive around, I'm always scanning the tree line for that faint tint of red or russet that tells me the buds are swelling. I watch the orchards for signs that spring pruning has begun. When I see the trimmings lying in long rows between the trees, I know the froth of rosy flowers can't be far behind.

Even the hateful cat briar, tangled in the roadside trees, is an indicator of imminent spring. When those slender stems turn green, sap is on the rise. All it takes is the briefest warmth to shake glossy new leaves from their tightly-wound buds. Funny how we all — plants and animals and people — respond to the sweet kiss of the warming sun.

This year Daylight Savings Time returns on Sunday, weeks earlier than once was the case. I always think of this as another landmark, the point when days last longer and twilight lingers, pushing back the night in the same way that spring is pushing back the winter. Let it come and soon, I say. Let it all begin again.