This winter, earth didn't stand hard as iron, not as much as usual, anyway. Still, even with higher-than-normal temperatures, we've had our portion of darkness, gloom, and bareness—what Dickens called "a view in India ink." Last fall, U.S. nurseries pushed winter color like crazy: red twig dogwoods, yellow twig dogwoods, and a flamboyant "winter flame" dogwood with red and yellow combined. Bright-colored stems are pleasing. And it was good to notice the birches gorgeously visible through the woods, and to let the conifers have their season. But enough. I'm tired of my boots.
We gaze at bare branches, and we're hungry for green. The amazing thing is that the green is in there—literally in there. It has been since before the tree dropped its leaves last fall. If you took a razor blade and sliced open the ends of the bare branches of a deciduous tree, you would see tiny buds. Slice those and you would find tightly packed leaves, ready to expand when water starts flowing up the trunk and out along the branch. That little bundle represents spring, waiting in a state of compressed origami.
Dormancy is complex and, to a great degree, "poorly understood" (a phrase you hear apologetically over and over in botany class). Human beings have traditionally found themselves, and by extension other mammals, more worthy of study than plants. But we know that, faced with cold and diminished light, plants slow every process down, way down. There's really no equivalent in human experience. It's a bit like a coma. But barring disaster, the tree is guaranteed to come out of it.
Plants take care when they're waking up. First they tick off the days of cold during their chilling period. Then they read the cues of length of day, temperature, and moisture. If they unfold their leaves or flowers too early, they run the risk of getting whacked. They have spares waiting to grow, further back in the branch, but they'd rather use those for growth than for maintaining the status quo.
Spring is probably going to come a few weeks earlier than usual this year, according to my informal poll of arboretum directors. (Perhaps spring will be even earlier next year: The very grand British magazine Gardens Illustrated reports that the Royal Parks Agency has decided to replace some native species in London parks with tropical varieties.) When spring starts, it's going to move fast, so pay attention. Here's one emphatic suggestion: Everyone near Dumbarton Oaks in Washington should get out in early March to see the earliest spring bulbs there. There are sweeps of blue scilla and miniature daffodils that go almost unvisited and unnoticed. Winter jasmine, whose flowers on bare stems are yellow and fragrant, cascades over walls. This was planned about 70 years ago by garden designer Beatrix Farrand (who was, by the way, the niece of novelist Edith Wharton.)
I'm not going to list 25 things you should do in your yard this month. Go to England's Royal Horticultural Society Web site for that. A few thoughts, though: You might want to cast a critical eye on your garden while it's bare. This is the chance to see your design as a sharp etching rather than as a soft oil painting. You might want to think about early-flowering plants for February and March of next year. Some of that yellow jasmine over a wall? Maybe an early-blooming Japanese apricot, prunus mume, the most trouble-free of all the flowering fruit trees? Make a note of a warm place, where snow melts, for hellebores, scilla, crocuses, and snowdrops next year.
But you don't have to toil. Just, as I said, pay a little attention. Notice that the trees and shrubs that have flowers before they have leaves—forsythia, deciduous magnolia, dogwood—already have visible buds. In fact, the flower buds were formed in the fall. (That's why you shouldn't prune forsythia, magnolia, and dogwoods in autumn.) The fuzzy kitten-paw buds of the deciduous magnolias will pop open to spectacular white, pink, and sometimes yellow flowers.
The shrubs and trees that bloom in summer—roses and hydrangeas, for example—have leaf buds now but not flower buds. In a scrupulously maintained garden, you can see that they've been cut back to a few major stems. Their flowers will develop in the spring to bloom in June.
The force of spring—Dylan Thomas' "force that through the green fuse drives the flower"—is not only survival but also competition. Plants have to get their leaves out into the sunlight in a hurry to reap the benefits of photosynthesis as fast as possible and to establish dominance in their niche. The dormancy that precedes all this is a strategic retreat—the recourse of living things that can't walk or fly away from cold. Our deciduous trees and plants have adapted so that they really need winter. In response to environmental factors, they practiced evidence-based decision-making. Their actions are predetermined, not premeditated. The trees that made foolish errors are gone.