All right, I’m calling it. We’ve had the last hard frost of the season. It happened about a week ago. I should have made a note -- let’s call it April 15th, for ease of memory.
The forecast was dire for last night. The sky was icy clear and temperatures were expected to fall well into the twenties. I quit trusting outdoor thermometers a while ago. No doubt I’ve simply never owned a good one. What I do is, I keep a shallow bowl of water out on the back deck, where I can see it from the door. If there’s been any kind of freeze, you can see a little skim of ice on the water there. This morning, nothing.
It’s supposed to warm up through the rest of the week. Which gets us to the magic date of April 25th ...more about which anon.
That’s it, then: the growing season has begun. At least at Lincolnville Beach it has. If I hear that a few miles inland, at what we call the Center, last night’s temperature plunged to 25°, I shall be very smug. This is their payback for all those glorious sunny days when we at the coast are locked in some kind of miasmal fog.
About April 25th, though. The greatest deal I ever got at a library book sale was a 1925 edition of Taylor’s gardening encyclopedia (it was called The Complete Garden back then), for which I laid down, if memory serves, one dollar. It is a wealth of curiosities: detailed advice for constructing the kind of garden nobody has wanted for decades, since the head gardener ran off with the coachman’s wife. But other things too, including very practical lists of plants for every conceivable habitat or horticultural stratagem. Are you interested in plants “producing fruit of particularly interesting form or size”? We have a list for you.
A great believer in lists, was Dr. Taylor. Under TREES AND SHRUBS FOR DIFFERENT FLOWERING EFFECTS, we find subcategories like Producing flowers in early spring after the leaves appear and Producing flowers in shades of red and pink. At the end of this, as though sensing your brain getting soft, the good doctor just comes out and tells you what to grow: Continuous bloom from twelve shrubs. Order, plant, and be quiet.
There was no USDA zone system back then — no systematized map of the whole country showing how cold your winters are likely to get. So you couldn’t just glance at a nursery catalog and say, “Well, it’s hopeless growing crape myrtle here. That’s Zone 7 plant, and we live in Zone 5. Oh, life!” No — you’d just order the crape myrtle and have the head gardener tuck it in somewhere, then wonder why you never heard from it again.
Faced with the confusing and varied climate of our nation, Dr. Taylor decided to simplify. He wrote his book on the convenient assumption that everyone in America lives in what we now call the Northeast Rail Corridor. To account for minor exceptions, he prepared chapters dealing with four alternative living arrangements: Florida, Minnesota, the South Atlantic States, and the Oregon and Washington Coastal Plain. You there in Maine? Decide where you belong, and good luck to you!
He took a similar approach to judging the hardiness of individual plants and — aha, here’s my point — the length of the growing season. Lacking any scheme (or apparently any conception) of embracing all gardeners everywhere, he compiled data on the average “opening” and “closing” dates of the gardening season in — need it be said? — an odd smattering of places.
Words can hardly express how strange this list is — like that famous New Yorker cartoon showing the view from Manhattan, in which vast stretches of the planet are reduced to bumps on the horizon. Long Island, for instance, merits its own entry, as do Boston, Buffalo, and (don’t ask why) Jacksonville, Florida. Northern New York State is lumped together, like the New Jersey Coastal Plain — there may be people living out there, we aren’t sure. The existence of Canada is noted by an entry for Toronto and Upper Ontario.
Ah, but here’s the thing. One of the treasured slots on Dr. Taylor’s list — out of fewer than two dozen total — goes to “Camden and Belfast, Maine.” Which is as much as to say, Lincolnville. My backyard, in fact. And I see here that according to Taylor, my garden year “opens” on April 25th.
I am so far ahead of the game.