The Healing Garden in Early Spring: A good time for planning

Crocuses and an early pollinator. Photo courtesy of Chiot's Run,

Photo courtesy of Chiot's Run,

Just a little green
Like the color when the spring is born.
There’ll be crocuses to bring to school tomorrow.

– Joni Mitchell, ‘Little Green’

Every year at this time, I kick myself for not having planted spring-blooming bulbs last fall. Other people are mooning about their snowdrops and crocuses, and I spy them blooming gayly, in spite of the cold, from gardens all over town. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s crocuses…

So don’t follow my example. In other words, do as I say, not as I do: Now is the time to look at your (or your clients’) garden – as depressing a sight as it may be if you live in northern climes – and think about what and where you might like to see things that will tide you over until everything starts going gangbusters in April or May. Take notes so that when fall rolls around, you will remember what to buy and where to plant. Write yourself a letter or a poem pleading with your future self to follow through with your plans. Take pictures of the barren ground from which, in your mind’s eye, you see brilliant sparks of hope waving to you like little beacons, and attach them to your letter/poem. I would (will!) plant crocuses and other early bloomers where I could see them from my kitchen window, which is the window that I most often gaze out of all year long. Perhaps also near the front door and outside my office window.

Crocuses, March. Photo by Philomena Kiernan

Crocuses, March. Photo by Philomena Kiernan

Also think about other plants, like evergreens – where could they be placed, as large statements or as small whispers tucked in here and there to provide green relief from the monotony of winter’s browns and greys?

These, too, are best employed where we can see them from indoors.

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Jelena' (witch hazel). Photo by Naomi Sachs

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Jelena' (witch hazel). Photo by Naomi Sachs

I do, at least, have my two witch hazels (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’ and ‘Arnold’s Promise’) one in the front garden that I can, indeed, see from my kitchen window and that I can smell as I walk past from the car to the front door. And one outside my office that I am seeing right now out of the corner of my eye as I type this post. I cannot sing witch hazels’ praises enough. They bloom for a long time – often for months – and earlier than any other shrub in those dark days of January and February (especially February) when we start to lose hope that spring will ever come. And the scent! Oh, my goodness. I can never quite describe it, but it’s sort of a mix of citrus and spice, and especially on warmer days, or if you bring a branch indoors, the perfume is intoxicating.

Tulip shoots, March 30. Photo by Naomi Sachs

Tulip shoots, March 30. Photo by Naomi Sachs

Yesterday I stole an hour from doing my taxes to work in my (Zone 5) garden – just clean-up, really. It was heartening to see many green shoots emerging: In addition to daffodils (a paltry few, planted under the oak tree by the last person who lived here) and tulips (which don’t even bloom anymore but have beautiful foliage right now), I also spied daylilies, mint, columbine, violet, creeping Jenny, chives, sorrel, iris, sedum, and lady’s mantle. Working under the witch hazels was especially gratifying as the heady scent wafted around me.

The March 2011 issue of Garden Design magazine had a nice piece on witch hazel (“Witch Hazel: A natural remedy for the wintertime blues,”) by Michele Owens with illustrations by Gianluca Foli, pp. 27-29. “The flowers–delicate bits of yellow, copper, or red ribbon–blow outward from bare branches like streamers from a party cracker…Winter, says witch hazel, is not death but merely slumber: let’s see if we can’t get a little loud and wake the world up.”

And of course, witch hazel is used as a medicinal plant as well, so it is a perfect plant for the healing garden. Historically, its astringent qualities made it ideal as a household remedy for burns, scalds, and inflammatory conditions of the skin, as well as for insect bites (from And witch hazel is still sold as an astringent skin toner – you’ll find it in almost any drugstore. For me, as with most medicinal plants in the garden, the healing nature is mostly symbolic. I like knowing that my Echinacea and witch hazel have medicinal properties, but I don’t harvest for tinctures or poultices. Nevertheless, here’s a good website about the plant’s uses, both historically and now:

Oh, and did I mention the stunning fall foliage? This is one of those ideal “multi-tasking” shrubs. Next fall, remind me to plant some crocuses underneath its beautiful boughs.