Wake up and smell the season

Wow, it’s spring already! Where did winter go? And what happened to those cozy days of reading seed catalogs by the fire?

Well it doesn’t matter now, because there’s no holding back the exuberant show: the spring greens of grass and foliage, the Easter-egg pinks and yellows of bulbs and flowering shrubs. So I guess it’s time to put down the ax and take up the shovel and the pruners once again.

If you’re like me, you probably still have unfinished remnants of those well-laid plans for fall and winter: shrubs to be pruned, perennials to be cut back, leaves to be gathered. But that’s OK — there’s still time, and even if not all those tasks get done, the garden will survive and the plants will live on.

What’s really in peril, in fact, is our own sanity and ability to enjoy this luscious season, rather than drowning in work and worry. This is a perennial problem for gardeners, and to avoid it, you need to get your priorities straight. Determine where your focus should be, what most needs to be done — and how you can allocate your time while still enjoying the work. If you find this difficult, The North Carolina Arboretum can help you explore the many opportunities available.

First and foremost, it’s absolutely imperative that you get outside. Take time with your family to watch the new season emerge. Here in these mountains, the transition into spring is incredible — unlike anything many people around the world ever get to experience. Don’t take it for granted!

Leave the field guide at home, put down the binoculars and turn off your chattering mind. Walk slowly, or simply sit and look, smell and listen. Take it all in, and begin to feel with your whole body the sap rising and the growth unfolding around you. Besides helping you connect with the rhythms of the natural world, this can also fill you with the sustaining energy you need to see you through this busy season.

Pick up a “Garden and Trails” map at the Arboretum; it can steer you to a solitary rock overlooking a rushing stream, or a bench tucked amid the forest. Wildflowers, fresh foliage and wildlife abound.

And if exploring on your own is your preferred mode for dreaming and seeking inspiration, don’t miss the new Bonsai Exhibition Garden. Although it will take years to really come into its own, this gem (which just opened last fall) enables visitors to view the Arboretum’s bonsai collection at its best while learning about the use of plants and stone in the landscape.

Expect this year’s seasonal-color exhibits to display their customary excellence, mixing award-winning plants with those new to the market. Whether lodged in a container, a basket or planted in the “quilt,” they’ll give you an eyeful of color, texture and exciting combinations. The new quilt pattern, “log cabin,” is a popular, traditional block design that features a central square surrounded by rectangular strips.

And if you spy a plant during your walks that you’d like to add to your own garden, no problem: Just pick up a “Plant and Garden Sources” brochure at the information desk. Compiled with the help of the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service, it lists more than 80 small retail centers and nurseries in 22 Western North Carolina counties. Besides supporting local businesses, you can forge relationships thay may prove invaluable down the road.

If you’d like more structure for your rambles, consider one of the many free informal or self-guided programs at the Arboretum. Beginning in April, staff and volunteer guides will offer weekly walks in the gardens or along the trails while providing in-depth information about birds, wildflowers, container and landscape plants. Volunteers will also be available to answer questions in the bonsai garden. Another brochure highlights plants of seasonal interest in the gardens.

The Arboretum is also a great place for families. On weekends there are puzzles, self-guided scavenger hunts and nature craft activities for kids. And camps of all kinds provide rich learning experiences grounded in the natural world. An exciting new offering this year is Discovery Camp for Kids. Combining the sciences, art, ecology and heritage, the camp serves up diverse educational adventures for ages pre-K to adult. The Wee Naturalist program (for pre-K kids with a parent) explores nature themes via classes like “Curious Critters” and “Little Nature Nuts.” Typical sessions will include a mix of physical activity, puppets, songs, art time and/or short nature walks. Spring-break and summer day camps are also available for your older budding biologist or naturalist.

For those seeking more formal instruction in the ins and outs of gardening in this region, any number of classes are being offered this spring. With topics ranging from late-winter pruning to exploring “intimate horticulture” to bonsai, spring-wildflower identification, birding 101, watercolor journaling and aromatherapy, there are varied opportunities for all levels of interest. The monthly “Gardening in the Mountains” series, presented in partnership with the Buncombe County Cooperative Extension Service and regional Master Gardeners, will be back again this year. Topics range from landscape gardening to beekeeping.

People wanting to step deeper into the wild world of plants should mark these dates on the calendar now. The WNC Orchid Society and Plant Show happens March 25-26, and Arboretum friend Dick Bir will give an April 29 talk on hydrangeas that survive and thrive in WNC. That same day, the Blue Ridge Hydrangea Society will host a plant sale, and both events overlap with this year’s Arbor Day celebration (April 29-30). Finally, there’s the American Rhododendron Society SE chapter Annual Show and Plant Sale (May 6-7).

The Arboretum is still a work in progress, however, so be prepared for a little dirt and some rough edges. A teaching shelter/outdoor kitchen is being built in the Heritage Garden, and the Baker Exhibit Center, now under construction, will feature information on visitor services as well as both indoor and outdoor exhibit space. Another new project, called Canopy Walk, will build on our tree collections, providing a great place to study native and introduced trees and their various forms.

In the coming months, countless other outdoor events and activities designed to help you savor this glorious season will be offered around the region. So follow your heart, and go for what inspires you. Remember: Spring comes only once a year.

[Alison Arnold is director of horticulture at The North Carolina Arboretum. She can be reached at 665-2492, or at aarnold@ncarboretum.org.]

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