Cutting pussy willow branches from the bush in the back is the first sign of spring at our house. We wait until furry gray and white seeds (the pussy toes) split the watertight reddish-brown seed cover that has kept them safe and warm from unseasonable cold nights.
A couple of years ago, I may not have made that observation. I wouldn’t have had the time. Like most working couples, we squeezed our garden chores into after-work and weekend timeslots. Was the garden early or late this year? Was it raining outside? Was there still snow on the ground? Didn’t matter. We had only so much time to do what needed to be done. Mid-March we needed to push, push, push in order to complete our garden do-list by Memorial Day, the official start of the summer season. Pause, observe, and actually reflect on the buds and flowering of a plant? Are you kidding me?
We have a different mindset now. One of many advantages to retirement, I have found, is the time and patience to be mindful of things around me, including the small treasures showing a change of season. For the last couple of weeks, we watched these pussy willows from the kitchen window and gauged the progress of the seed pods every morning over coffee and orange juice. Did you know the pods spiral clockwise around the green branches and open from the top of the branch down? Cut too soon and the fuzzy toes do not come out. Wait too long and the seeds mature into yellowish seed pods, not at all attractive as an indoor decoration. It's the Goldilocks of the spring yard.
The act of cutting the pussy willow, not some date circled with a green marker on the calendar, signals the start of spring garden work. You can never trust a calendar date. In some years, according to past garden journal entries, the ground was covered by half a foot of snow at this time. In other years, narcissus and crocus were in bloom. This year, we are somewhere in between. The snow is gone everywhere but the deep woods, but average temperatures are still in the 30s. This year, most of my garden prep has been restricted to looking at online sales from White Flower Farm and the Royal Horticultural Society. Outside, perennials are happily snug under leaf mulch weeks past the solstice, waiting for average temperatures to reach the 40s and 50s. Perennials have always had more patience than me at this time of the year.
Some may complain, of course you’re patient about the start of the growing season, you’re retired: you have seven days to do your work, not just two and some change like the rest of us. That’s true, though I also know of some retired friends who are no more efficient with garden work now than when they were punching a time clock. I don't think retirement or busyness is the issue here. I think it's more an acceptance of the pace of the seasons and the recognition that you can't push what won't be shoved.
This bloom of garden wisdom is not a direct result of hours behind a shovel, I think, but the accumulated experience of killing a variety of plants in a variety plots in a variety of yards. Seriously, there are only three things I know about gardening. First, there is always work to do. Starting in March or starting in May doesn't change this rule. Second, the work that needs to get done gets done. What you chose to do is up to you. Third, if the work doesn’t get done, Mother Nature is perfectly capable of carrying on alone. You still have her permission to touch the soft, fuzzy buds of the early season pussy willow.