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Winter aconite is one of the earliest signs of spring, but it’s rarely noticed. It emerges about the same time as those delicate and highly regarded snowdrops, while a thin blanket of snow still covers the ground. Winter aconite is a hardy plant, thriving and spreading with no gardener to care for it, and when the blossoms are gone the leaves grow ever larger, making a thick green bed. This flowering plant is a member of the same family as the common buttercup, and like the buttercup it’s just there, not much noticed, disregarded and rarely found in flower beds.
For the flower gardener, crocuses are the first sign of spring. Gardeners are by nature optimists, planting seeds and nurturing seedlings in the happy expectation of a thriving, colorful flower bed. And those hopes are often fulfilled — sometimes fully, more often a bit less. But to have crocuses emerge at the end of winter you have to plant bulbs in the fall, and that takes real optimism, for by fall the garden is a hopeless mess and every despairing day is colder and darker than the day before. And you don’t get those masses of delicate blossoms unless you plant masses of bulbs and just the right depth, not so shallow they’ll be torn up by squirrels and not so deep they’ll never grow to sunny daylight.
And for the vegetable gardener, the first sign of spring is a green shoot of garlic. Like the optimistic flower lover, the vegetable gardener was busy the previous fall, planting rows of garlic cloves, covering them with a blanket of leaves and anchoring the leaves against the winter wind with twigs or light branches. The garlic grows a bit in the fall, takes a winter vacation, then starts up vigorously as the days lengthen and grow slightly warmer. Garlic has a flower but that comes later, meanwhile it puts its energy into growing tall — and, of course, there’s that subterranean garlic bulb that’s growing a bit bigger every day. If you like garlic, you ought to plant some, it takes little or no talent and the reward is great.
As we said in an earlier post, the first sign of spring is often winter aconite, not crocuses. And that’s good for winter aconite, because if it came to blossom later, it wouldn’t really be looked at or cared about, because it’s a rather meager flower, a kind of small version of a butter cup. But even before the aconite has melted away, crocuses appear, delicate chalices of color that steal the show. Here are some crocuses
The only way to have crocuses in the spring is to plant crocus bulbs in the fall. Now, planting in the grimness of fall when the garden is a bedraggled mess, when the days are short and chill, and the nights long and cold, requires faith. But in this instance, halleluiah! The saints and angels will dance and your faith will be rewarded! Unless you’ve planted the bulbs in soggy soil, so they rot, or planted them where squirrels can eat them for lunch. We know this sounds like theology but it’s really just gardening. Now relax — your test of faith doesn’t come until the fall. For now, enjoy the display. It’s transient. Like a lot of things.