Growing Wild: Enjoying a season on the cusp

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  • Smith College junior Bridget MacNiell ties supports to blooming hyacinths in the Lyman Plant House in preparation for the Spring Bulb Show that will run March 7 to 22. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Daffodils are being kept in one of the cooler rooms of the Smith College Lyman Plant House until the start of the Spring Bulb Show on March 7. Photographed on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Some of the scores of bulbs waiting in the Smith College Lyman Plant House on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020, nine days before the start of the Spring Bulb Show on March 7. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Scores of bulbs wait in the Smith College Lyman Plant House on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020, nine days before the start of the Spring Bulb Show on March 7. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • At right, Smith College junior Bridget MacNiell ties supports to blooming hyacinths in the Lyman Plant House in preparation for the Spring Bulb Show.

  • Some of the scores of bulbs waiting in the Smith College Lyman Plant House on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020, nine days before the start of the Spring Bulb Show on March 7. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jen Smith at Amherst College, 2019. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Collecting sap in Westhampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS 

  • Collecting sap in Westhampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS 

  • Collecting sap in Westhampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

For the Gazette
Published: 2/27/2020 3:48:59 PM

It has been a warmer winter than most, and even though there is still snow covering my yard in Leeds, the farm fields in Hadley and Sunderland are mostly clear, the birds are singing, and a few bright days in the 50s could easily sway a person into believing that spring has firmly arrived. This is, of course, still New England, where in my almost 14 years, I have seen it snow in April more than once. We are still officially in winter, but this moment on the cusp of change — when the maple sap starts flowing but before the bulbs and buds announce themselves — holds a unique space, with a texture all its own.

On a recent drive up to the Montague Bookmill, I passed a small pond in the center of which a solitary man sat on an overturned orange bucket, ice fishing. His wintry activity and faith in the ice struck me as, just an hour later on a walk on the Montague roads, I almost immediately needed to strip off my winter coat, the bright February sun quickly warming me past comfort. On that same walk, the birds were noticeable, darting around and singing and chirping, clearly gearing up for the season ahead.

When I lived for a year on a garden in California, the textures of late winter were certainly different than they are here, but the memory of this time of transition still stays with me. Winter days there often brought drenching rains, and we spent this slower time milking our small herd of goats; tending and repairing garden tools and beekeeping equipment; pruning the many fruit trees lining the garden and planning for spring. Around this time of year, we began sowing seeds in the old glass greenhouse for the season ahead and turning many of the hand-built compost piles scattered around the edges of the garden to prep them for use in the spring. Early March is a deeply green and lush time on California’s Central Coast after months of seasonal rains, and fruit trees and other early bulbs begin to start budding and flowering. Even now, years later on the other side of the country, I still have a small part of that California seasonality programmed into me, my eyes searching for green and flowers on warm February New England days.

After gardening in California, I returned to Massachusetts and worked for several years at the Farm School in Athol, where I was again lucky enough to be able to work and spend time on the farm through the winter and early spring. Being able to be present on a farm during the off-season has always felt like a privilege; there is an intimacy you have with the land that comes from tending the cycles of the year when most things are at rest. One of the first signs of the transition from deep winter into early spring at the Farm School was the beginning of lambing season. We kept a mid-sized flock of sheep that spent the winter in and around our main animal barn. By late February, our student farmers would take turns checking on the sheep throughout the nights and days, as sheep more often run into complications with labor and delivery and need to be carefully watched to ensure the safety of mother and lambs.

During this time, I witnessed one lamb’s birth over the course of several hours, with much-attempted intervention from both students and staff; the mother sheep at some point mid-delivery seemed to give up on her labor’s completion and wander around the barnyard apparently unfazed by her half-delivered lamb. Halfway through the mother’s struggle, we all began to accept that the lamb had likely passed and spent what felt like a good hour in the space of that loss trying to facilitate the completion of labor for the safety of the mother. We were all then completely surprised when the lamb sprang back to life the instant she was delivered, moving around on her wobbly legs within minutes of her birth. It felt like a miracle, or a resurrection, but it was also so grounded and so ordinary, a reminder that animals and plants want to live and that that force is strong enough to withstand transitions as profound as birth or as common as spring.

One of my favorite jobs at this time of year at the Farm School was cutting woody flowering branches to bring inside to force into early bloom. We had rows of forsythia and quince bushes, and each year at this time, with the help of student farmers, I would harvest buckets of branches, some of which we would sell in Boston but many of which would be placed into jars and vases around the farmhouse. More often than not, they would turn into boughs full of blooms weeks before we saw any outside. This is something you can do yourself if you have flowering or decorative fruit trees, pussy willow or forsythia in your own yard. Branches brought inside and put into water should bloom within a few weeks, and the architectural beauty of the branches themselves is a nice decoration in the meantime.

Lastly, this is also the time of maple sugaring, and steam has started to rise from many sugar shacks in the Hilltowns and in the Valley. This annual practice for both professional and backyard maple sugarers most distinctly marks this time of transition for us in New England, out of winter into what is not quite spring, but still a time of imminent growth, longer days, brighter sunshine and the promise of what is just around the corner.

Events

Smith Spring Bulb Show

Saturday, March 7 to Sunday, March 22, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily, Lyman Conservatory, Smith College. This annual tradition opens the first weekend in March, with a spectacular display of blossoming crocuses, hyacinths, narcissi, irises, lilies and tulips for an early glimpse of spring.

Grow Food Northampton’s Garden Day

Saturday, March 7, 12:30-4 p.m. at Forbes Library. This is a free event for gardeners and garden-lovers of all ages to celebrate the start of the growing season. The event will include the annual Seed Swap, workshops on Guerrilla Gardening and Pollinator Gardens, kids activities, educational displays, inspiring books and more.

Hadley Garden Center Winter Clinic: Container Gardening with Dottie Caron

Saturday, March 7, 1 p.m., free.

Western Mass Master Gardener Association Spring Gardening Symposium

“Gardening in Changing Times” with Conner Stedman of Appleseed Permaculture, Saturday, March 21,, 8:45-2:15 p.m., at Frontier Regional High School, South Deerfield. To learn more, visit wmmga.org.




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