• David Buckton

The Arrival of Spring at Turaida Forest Garden

Updated: May 22, 2019

In this up and coming article, we shall explore the season of Spring. We offer tips and commentary on small scale forest gardening, the art of gardening and gardening in general.

Springing into Spring is perhaps a great way to begin our discussion. We will explore how to prepare for what many regard to be the start to the gardening year. It's like a mechanical spring, that expands quickly as the force of the season draws the plants from the ground. Like mechanical springs, their expansion and ability to break through the surface will depend on what base the soil provides for resistance, like a sprinter that rises from the starting blocks. Plants function as time-bound genetically coded, old fashioned wind up clock, that continues to open up much later towards the peak of the summer season. While we see the growth above ground, it is essential to keep in mind all the changes happening below ground. The roots need moisture, drainage, and the temperature minimums of the soil that operate somewhat independent of air temperatures. Cloud cover can play a role in how the plants break their critical dormancy.

We begin with a quote from the book But is it Art? (2001), from the chapter titled Cultural Crossings on Gardens and Rock, by the philosopher Cynthia Freeland. Her insights parallel many of the cross-disciplinary issues that surround the Turaida Forest Garden project. This is clear as she explains: "...But some arts of the past seem alien. The complex symbolic gardens of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France have few parallels in the West today. Stained glass, so essential to Chartres' splendour, is now more associated with craft than art; and landscape gardening seems a hobby or design practice rather than 'Art'. Perhaps we should examine our assumptions about the differences between craft and art, as about the relation of art to the natural landscape" ( from But is it Art?, 2001, p 60). With this sense of questioning our assumptions about our preconceptions and strict definitions, we can learn from the rules, in order to be able to understand the exceptions. In But is it Art? (2001), Freeland includes several references to John Dewey's approach to examining art from his popular, pragmatist oriented book Art as Experience (Berkley Publishing, reprinted in 2005).

There are those who begin to prepare for the Spring much earlier in late winter, but the wheels only turn still once gardening can be applied outside in the real world. This can place undue pressure on gardeners from the fear of missing out. The late Thalassa Cruso explained in her book To Everything there is a Season (1973) how much timing matters across the seasons and how we can plan wisely to accommodate our needs in the forest garden. There are so many useful, personal tips in this classic book. She emphasizes to us the importance of keeping records in her Chapter on March ( To Everything There is a Season, p 41-61). In the April chapter, she discusses her revisiting of an old water garden and in The Pond (p 80-85). She recounts how the cement bottom was demolished and the area was made into a bird sanctuary. She reminds us of the importance of the frog population to manage mosquitoes that breed in stagnant water (see the chapter April, p 84).

Sweet Peas in Flower, Photo M White

As with most things in life, aim for a sense of balance and keep the purpose in mind. For the gardener, many gardening strategies, new designs, connections and thoughts come to mind during dormancy. As Louis Pasteur famously said 'chance favours the prepared mind'; we can see the connection between chance and skill when planning for gardening. Every Spring, it's helpful to see gardeners at Springtime who are ready to leap ahead themselves (like daylight savings) so that we can help the plants out on their way forward. To bridge the gap between the seasons carefully, it is important to try and spread out the work over a period where possible, rather than delay too far into the season and struggle to establish quickly what otherwise takes time to develop. Time does appear to speed up when things get growing, and we can either get ahead of ourselves relative to the plant growth, and the weather or fall behind. Neither is fun, especially when there's more at stake than a few small plants of little value.

At Springtime, it is helpful to recall that development of plants and people have lots in common in terms of how to one manages each life. As Erich Fromm explains in The Art of Being (1993) on human nature, when compared to a rosebush: "This is indeed well understood by any gardener. The aim of the life of a rosebush is to be all that is inherent as potentiality as a rosebush: that its leaves are well developed and that its flower is the most perfect rose that can grow out of this seed. The gardener knows, then, in order to reach this aim he must follow certain norms that have been empirically found. The rosebush needs a specific kind of soil, of moisture, of temperature, of sun and shade. It is up to the gardener to provide these things if he wants to have beautiful roses. ...Why would this not hold true the same for the human species?"( The Art of Being, p 4)

In Niagara, April and May appear as a quintessential Spring gardening months, while March is often too old still, and late May can at times have summer-like conditions (with less rain) depending on the year. The Spring can seem very short at times inside the continent, even around the Great Lakes, especially if winter conditions persist into the Calendar solar date of Spring, at the vernal equinox. Alternatively, the heat can intensify earlier in May, driving the rain away and creating a stunted Spring as the early Summer takes over. Sometimes both can happen, making it very difficult on the plants, and the gardeners under limited timing and conditions. Using the sheltered spots in the garden, with the help of protective coverings and adequate air flow, sun and water keeps most plants happy.

While we can explain about April in the gardening year, the rains often limit the accessibility to our garden spaces. Rooting and April seem to go together, in part because of the plant life cycle and the temperatures, coupled with a rising height of the sun, day lengths, and moisture. Another critical point is to observe the behaviour of animals that act as scouts in the garden. The reptiles and birds show up on the scene in a timely way, telling us indirectly about the weather and the plants we grow. It seems as though there is a lifting process that entails as the warm air dominates as the cold air retreats.

Without the risk of overstating here, some consider Spring to be the most heavily weighted season of the growing year. Certainly, this will depend on what we're planting and the process involved. Perhaps it isn't surprising it comes with a bit of stress and strain. A forest gardening researcher from Guelph pointed out to us at an Open House last fall on our approach to Winter how critical dormancy is part of the process and lifecycle. The dormant period is a period of rest for perennial plants, as many activities still happen over that time. While it's important not to undervalue the importance of the Spring, with its moisture and warming trends that allow plants to break dormancy, we can see that every season connects to another. Together, we develop a yearly cyclical, and evolving perennial process.

Our abilities in Spring pose challenges as they provide opportunities. The extra work outside in the wet weather pays off later on. The personal physical conditioning begins with a sense of growing pains as the muscles get used to the added physical workout.

As a Niagara based nut tree grower pointed out years ago when asking for advice on planting, he stressed 'the earlier, the better.' This is so reminiscent of the early bird getting the worm. We can understand how important the timing remains when we are speaking about plant growth cycles. While there are tricks and mimicry that can allow for exceptions, the general rules on gardening still hold in a timeless fashion. Observing bud swelling is perhaps one of the easiest markers to note but will of course depend on the plant.

The stillness of late winter gets interrupted by Spring winds and rainy downpours. The event of the Spring seems happen often the first or second warm day. This year it occurred between ten days when temperatures warmed up quickly, and overnight lows stopped dipping below the freezing mark. The repetition of double-digit temperatures - especially when the numbers rise well above the weather predictions - are important indicators of changes in the seasons. This stillness gets interrupted by a burst of growth begins to need the care of a gardener. If prepared for properly, the Spring can be an enlivening process that wakens up the gardener and the plants for the season. As usual, the mix of resources, skill, ability, interest, with effort is what makes all the difference. Otherwise the arrival of Spring can become a daunting task that might not be as physically and mentally enjoyable as it could (and perhaps should) be.

We will continue our coverage of Spring topics in the next article Growing Variety for Vertical Gardening.


Cruso, Thalassa.

1973. To Everything There is a Season. Knopf, New York. pgs 41-61, 80-85.

Dewey, John.

2005 (reprint). Art As Experience. Perigee (Penguin Publishing).

Freeland, Cynthia.

2001. But is it Art? Oxford University Press, New York, p 60.

Fromm, Erich

1993. The Art of Being. Constable, London, p 4.


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