Flowers, Forsythia and Fiddleheads: Embracing The Shoulder Season


We are smack in the season I like to call “Not Quite Summer.”  

Do you know how I knew for sure?  I was in the city the other day and everyone’s ankles were out.  Everyone’s!  Tan ones, brown ones, hairy ones (note to self on grooming) and yes even my pink freckled ones.  I guess it’s the part of our bodies that we are willing to first expose to our fickle New England weather.  I exposed mine for a client meeting the other morning and they just kept screaming up, “We’re freezing!!! We’re not ready!”  So I covered them up for my next appointment.  But the sun came out and, “We’re boiling down here!! Let us out!”  After that, I pretty much changed into my sweatpants.  

Not Quite Summer can be a little exhausting for me.

But I know I’m alone.  Most of you LOVE the muddy ground and the forsythia and crocuses and daffodils popping out.  (It occurs to me, that those plants are sort of the ankles of mother nature.)  And even I am not immune to their charms.  They are such great harbingers of the promising summer before us that they can warm even my crotchety soul.

So what do I do to embrace this shoulder season?  Well, for one, I celebrate an old friend: the humble, ever-cheerful, frost-resistant pansy.  For me they pack a punch for a small price tag.   Yes, they get straggly by the end of June, but honestly, who cares?  You’ve still gotten maybe six good weeks of good cheer out of them (with a little deadheading) and that’s a pretty good return on investment.  And when they are past their prime, I just shift them to a back corner and give some other showy annual the center stage for those summer months.  They don’t seem to mind.  They all get a turn.

Pansy’s I don’t re-pot.  (Their life span is so short -- I try to not to get too emotionally invested.)  But I do re-pot every other flowery annual that I grab from a garden store, or HomeDepot or even the supermarket.  I break up that root ball and let them soak up some water, then let them spread out in a larger pot.  They’ve all been over-fertilized at the store, so to me it’s like loosening their belts a notch after a big meal.  It lets them settle in and encourages growth.  With the right conditions they will double in size really quickly.

The overall look for container gardens seems to go one of two ways.  If you’re feeling creative, you can look for unusual flower and color combinations and strive for a creative balance of different heights, densities, and foliage.  The results are stunning even though, to be honest, I’m not the best at it.  But I have friends who really are -- and I’m a big appreciator of what they can pull off.  I do notice that this method requires some extra maintenance, however.  Certain plants do better than others, and my talented friends pop in a little of this and fill in with a little of that to keep their window boxes looking robust throughout the summer. 

But me?  I’m a salty, practical, busy New Englander.  So, I tend to get the hardiest plants I can find and maybe just in one color.  Even boring old white.  Lots of white run-of-the-mill geraniums, super petunias, impatiens or verbenas -- nothing fancy here.  I’m after the ones that are hard to kill.  I might break it up a little with some colorful foliage from a potato plant or coleus.  But all of it is easy peasy.  I do take the time to re-pot, and deadhead, and fertilize, and water regularly.  But those plants?  Some of them last until the first hard frost without much fussing.  And I love the overall look, so for me that approach is a big win.

How about bringing some of that outside in?  It’s past the time when we can force the forsythia and azalea into blooming inside, but truth be told, I try to force just about anything.  I have the best luck taking cuttings from skinny little growths that are just starting to reveal their leaves.  Inside I put them in water and if I hit it right, I get to watch the leaves come out.  No blossoms here.  But honestly, anything green and growing makes me pretty happy this time of year.  I was at the pet store the other day and bought three little pots of grass.  It’s supposed to be for your cats to eat, but I shoo mine away.  Those cheerful little pots of optimism are gracing my windowsill and they are all mine.

If you get out in the woods at all you’ll notice the ferns starting to unfurl.  They are sort of amazing to watch because they start out as these tight little spirals, and then get taller as they start to uncurl, and finally spread out into what will be a large fern leaf with all its little sub-leaves in there.  It’s just a miracle of nature, I think.  They call them fiddleheads (which is fun to say) and sometimes you see them all curled up in the produce section, but I can’t bring myself to eat those baby ferns.  It just doesn’t seem right.

Additionally, I know there is a lot of internet pressure to give your whole house a “Spring Refresh.”  Something about those postings bring out my sullen and uncooperative side.  I guess I don’t like being told what to do, and honestly who has the time to refresh their whole house in such a thorough manner?   So, I dig my heels in a little on that, but I will admit to a swap-out of a few key accessories.  I choose just a few places with high visibility.  Your places may be different, but I bring out some linen pillows for my couch and maybe a new dining table display, or some cuttings for my windowsill.  All the spots that bring me joy.  So go ahead and do it.  But do it for you, not because you’ve been guilted into some weirdly competitive game of Spring Refresh.

Ok, so here’s one last thing.  (But to be clear, I’m not guilting you into anything.)  Get your hose and broom out and give your seasonal spaces a thorough welcome back shower.  Hose down those corners and walls and get rid of your residual pinecones and (heaven forbid) Christmas wreaths.  It’s Not Quite Summer, but be ready, because Summer is Coming!  (Which actually might be a nicer name for this season.)  So, hose off everything.  Hose off your back patio.  Hose off your lawn furniture.  Hose off last fall’s cobwebs. Hose off last winter’s COVID. Hose off your ex-husband.  Hose off your cat.  Heck, hose ME off.  And if you did, I thank you for it.  

Turns out I actually did need that spring refresh.

Jen Coles is a professional home designer and mother of four who lives in Manchester.

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