Early March is about when I ought to be perking up and getting out in the garden a little. I should be cutting back the dead hosta flower stalks and all the other debris I didn’t get cleared away in fall. I should be chopping ornamental grasses off at a couple of inches to make way for the new growth. I should be getting seedlings going under lights or in a greenhouse. I should be thinking about which perennials I want to divide this spring. There should be little green sprouts of snowdrops poking up through the mulch.
This year, though, both the debris and the snowdrops are still buried in half a foot of frozen dirty snow. We had a fleeting couple of days in the 30s, which made the snow slushy so it turned to hard ice when the cold came slamming back. Just to find my garden now, I’d need a pickaxe.
My plants are probably suffering less from this historically harsh winter than I am. There’s been snow on the ground since before Thanksgiving, insulating and protecting the plants’ root zones from the weeks of subzero air. While I drive hesitantly along icy streets, trying not to lose a second tire to potholes, or totter timidly along a slippery sidewalk, hoping to avoid yet another bruising fall, my plants are snugly dormant. They don’t need to go anywhere. They don’t get cabin fever.
Gardenwise, all I can do right now is worry at the arithmetic of seed starting. The rule for deciding when to sow the seeds is to count back from the average date of the last frost—May 15 around here—when it will be safe to plant them out in the garden. Different plants need different amounts of time to germinate and sprout, but in each case you want the seedlings to have time to get several leaves and a nice set of roots by the time they go outside. If they stay too long indoors, they can get leggy.
There’s always a measure of uncertainty in this, because weather varies and the frost-free date anyplace is just an average. Sometimes you need to hold off on transplanting for a week or two while the soil warms up, or protect young plants with floating row covers against late licks of frost.
This year, it’s especially hard to place a bet on when spring will come. Staring down the barrel of a March with nighttime lows in the negative numbers, I find it really hard to imagine that the ground will have thawed, much less warmed up, in two and a half months. So I’m inclined to delay starting seeds by at least a couple of weeks.
Yet there’s evidence that winter is not eternal after all. There are leaf buds starting, ever so slightly, to swell on trees and shrubs. I’m sure that under the snow, where it’s warmer than inside my boots, root hormones are starting to stir and sap is considering rising in the maple trees. Someday spring will come. I’m almost sure.