T. S. Eliot got it right. April is the cruelest month. This is the month that Mother Nature takes her revenge on me. I write this knowing my newly planted plants need to be covered and that those I haven’t gotten around to sticking in the ground need to be brought inside. The reason? The temperature is projected to fall to 27° tonight.
The last frost of the season, here in the Carolina Piedmont, was estimated to be April 15. Of course, that date was not set in stone. I can remember past years when the last frost was April 18, or as early as March 29. Every year we have a few glorious March days. This year, I had to turn on the air conditioning at one point. Then I began haunting my favorite nurseries, itching to get plants into the garden. Now, I can be heedless, but I’m not so reckless that I will put annuals in before April 15. My real problem is with perennials, as I know they want to be planted right now.
When it comes to the weather, I lack the imagination to plan for any conditions but those of the present. If it’s warm outside, it is very hard to pack for a ski trip, as I cannot envision being cold. Likewise, if it’s cold outside, I’ll pack too many sweaters for a Caribbean vacation. Consequently, when we get a stretch of warm weather in March and early April, with nighttime temperatures hovering around 50°, I am always confident that the last frost has come and gone.
The garden catalogue companies know the tricks, so when I indicate I want my order delivered the first week in April, they will inevitably send an e-mail asking me if I really mean this. Aiming to please, I lose my resolve under this questioning and, inevitably, adjust my order to arrive on the date dictated by nature's soothsayers, April 15.
This year has been especially stressful because plants began to return to my garden early, by a good month. My hostas appeared in March, as did the leaves on my Japanese maples. Crinum ‘Super Ellen’, which normally lazily awakens from her winter slumber, was bright and merry by late March, as were my hardy amaryllises. Begonia grandis, always a plant that awaits the heat, popped up on April Fool’s Day. The rose ‘Old Blush’ began to blossom while my Camellia sasanqua ‘Jacks’ was still in full bloom. The timing of growth and the turn of the weather this year was such that I could begin to plant and work the warmish soil.
And, of course, the weather was too good to last. It’s getting cold again. The air conditioning is off and the heat is on. I’m madly collecting buckets to cover those hapless plants already in the ground—one being a Lady Banks rose. This zone 8 plant will survive in our zone 7 gardens, provided we plant her in the spring, giving her roots plenty of time to grow, thrive, and mature. In an early fit of exuberance over unseasonable 80° weather, I went ahead and planted her. What was I thinking?
I cannot worry about the returning plants, as they know the foibles of Mother Nature better than I do. Can hosta leaves survive temperatures in the high twenties? I have no idea. Were they foolish creatures to return so early? I have to trust their judgment. As I’m learning, however, I cannot trust mine. Every year I fall into this trap. I believe that next year, and the following, I can merrily begin planting during our first spell of warm weather, telling myself it’s global warming, telling myself that this year will be different.
There are two reasons that newly planted perennials are vulnerable, even in a light freeze: their roots systems are not very big and they have been coddled in greenhouses or cold frames, so they haven’t hardened. Ill equipped to fight off freezing temperatures, these pampered youngsters need extra protection.
My advice to other gardeners is to do what I say and not what I do. Remember Eliot’s opening line of “The Wasteland Land.” April is the cruelest month. Heed your local frost date and know that soon you’ll be looking back on these cool temperatures wistfully, wishing you could find a comforting breeze. By the time the temperature drops again, these young plants will have hardened up and will be ready to brave the next April.