Get Growing: Seeing emerging beauty with fresh eyes


For the Recorder

Published: 05-08-2023 1:54 PM

Earlier this week my friend Lisa, a demon flower-designer, mentioned to me that she had agreed to provide the floral decorations for her cousin’s birthday party in New York. She lamented that there weren’t many flowers for sale at this time of year except for the standard stuff available at supermarkets and Trader Joe’s.

Mums and baby carnations are good for filler, she said, but she needed some special elements to make her creations really pop.

I surveyed my garden beds for things that Lisa might use in her arrangements. I have to admit that this time of year I’m so busy pulling up ground ivy and spreading compost and mulch that I don’t have much time to really see what’s happening in my garden.

As I examined the garden with Lisa’s dilemma in mind, I saw each plant in a new light. How could various perennials and shrubs in their current state of emergence be put to use in a flower arrangement? The possibilities surprised me.

A climbing hydrangea that’s growing out of control on the back fence immediately caught my eye. Its shiny green leaves and tightly clustered buds are visually arresting, even in their immature state. Its branches reach up and out, some straight, others curved, offering all kinds of structural possibilities. I suddenly gained a newfound appreciation for a vine that I fight with every summer as it threatens to tear down the fence that keeps our dog from heading for the hills.

Of course, the volunteer crabapple in the backyard is a slam dunk. It’s a cloud of dusky red buds that are slowly opening into brilliant pink blossoms. Is it my imagination, or are the flowering spring trees, including crabapples, unusually lush this year?

Solomon’s seal should be the star of every spring bouquet. Every phase of its unfurling is magical. It starts as an upright column of green leaves wrapped tightly around each other, and gradually opens into an arching wand hung with pairs of bell-shaped white flowers that lasts for several days as a cut flower.

A vase filled with crabapple branches and Solomon’s seal — no arrangement necessary — has brought spring to my dining room table.

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My husband sometimes teases me by proposing that I call my column “The Depressive Gardener,” for all the occasions when I come in from the garden announcing that I have just killed a favorite plant. I do my best to stay upbeat, even when things don’t go well in the garden. But this week when I was inspecting my garden for Lisa, I had a truly sad moment. I discovered that the three beautiful “Little King” river birches that I had planted four years ago behind the house were dead as doornails, victims of last summer’s drought.

I had assumed that the trees were well enough along to withstand the dry spell. When their leaves turned yellow and began dropping in late August, I figured they were just packing it in early for the season in an act of self-preservation, as I’d seen other trees do. Alas, they were packing it in for good.

I shared my tale of woe with my gardening guru, Lilian Jackman of Wilder Hill Gardens in Conway. She consoled me with the suggestion that the trees might still be able to send up shoots from their primordial tissue. As she explained, primordial tissue is composed of undifferentiated cells that lie in wait for a time when they are needed and can grow into different plant structures.

“They are an essential part of the normal growth and development of a plant,” she said, “and also act as an insurance policy against any type of injury or weather event. Think of how vulnerable a rooted plant is, subject to insects, animals, and storms all while not being able to walk away.”

Lilian urged me to leave the birches be for a year to see if any life might emerge from them. It will be difficult for me to resist inspecting them every day for signs of life. Gardening demands patience, a lesson I never seem to learn.

There are many gardening-related activities going on this month. Lilian is giving a workshop titled “Pruning Demystified” at Wilder Hill Gardens on Saturday, May 20, from 9 a.m. to noon. If you struggle to remember how, when and where to prune what, I heartily recommend this workshop. Lilian is a brilliant instructor who has many years of experience in the field. And her wonderful nursery is well worth a visit. For more information, go to

Anyone seeking inspiration this time of year should take a tour of Carol Pope’s garden in Amherst. It’s bursting with color: pink and white azaleas, redbuds, golden-leaved hydrangeas and red Japanese maples, to mention just a few of her treasures.

The garden will be open to the public for two tours this spring that will benefit a couple of local organizations. The first, on May 7 (rain date May 8), will offer information about Amherst Neighbors, a local group that provides caring assistance to senior citizens, including errands and rides to medical appointments.

The second, on May 13 (rain date May 14), will raise awareness about the important work being done by Kestrel Land Trust, the land conservation organization that preserves hundreds of precious acres of land in the Valley every year. The garden, at 119 High St. in Amherst, will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. both days.

Another event that always gets gardeners digging is the Garden Club of Amherst’s annual plant sale. It will be held on Saturday, May 20, from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on the south end of the Town Common.

The sale offers hundreds of woodland plants and natives, choice perennials, shrubs and trees, and plants that thrive in sun and shade, all dug from members’ gardens. The plants are sometimes not as large as their nursery counterparts, which get a jump on the growing season in greenhouses. But they are locally grown so that buyers can be sure that they are suited to our climate. And they are priced well below nursery rates.

Proceeds from the sale will go to several local organizations including Kestrel Land Trust, Hitchcock Center for the Environment and Nasami Farm Nursery Native Plant Trust.

There’s a lot happening in our gardens and the greater outdoors this time of year. Spring goes by in the blink of an eye, so don’t miss the chance to take a good look around before it’s over.

Mickey Rathbun, an Amherst-based lawyer turned journalist, has written the “Get Growing” column since 2016.