by Rose Blessing
PICTURES: The author has posted 30 dazzling photos to accompany this story in an “album” called “Looking Forward to Spring” at http://flickr.com/photos/bilderontheweb/albums
Enduring winter in New Jersey is like living in an unstable household. On any given day the temperature might plummet to the 20s or rise to the 60s. Spring and winter jackets wait uncertainly side by side in closets with the snow shovels, windshield scrapers, sand and driveway salt that stand at the ready for the governor’s declaration of a state of emergency for a 30-inch blizzard or something weirder, like January 2018’s oddball “bomb cyclone” snowstorm.
But after that shortest day of sunlight – the winter solstice on December 21 – North Jersey residents can rely on the greys and browns of winter yielding to greens. As soon as January the process begins, with snowdrops driving emerald shoots and white cups through cold soil, if necessary pushing aside blankets of snow to say hello.
The weather influences when each plant variety has collected enough energy from sun and soil to unfurl its blooms. Location matters, too: Residents of Bloomfield, much of which is east of and downhill from Montclair (and Glen Ridge), may see their first daffodils earlier than will residents living near areas of higher elevation in Montclair, such as Highland Avenue or Upper Mountain Avenue.
But regardless of start dates, the varieties of blooms will arrive in roughly predictable order. As winter wanes, residents of Montclair and nearby areas can look forward to what will soon flourish in amazing local gardens, public and private. As bloom times approach, dedicated photographers will watch weather forecasts, anticipating the lighting conditions (bright sun or overcast) and taking opportunities to catch the finest details of flowers in pristine condition before a spring storm or a harsh wind batters them.
In March, crocuses, taller than snowdrops, shorter than tulips, spike up, their leaves like sharp stripey grass. Their clusters of flowers – often in intense amethyst, but also in delicate whites or pastels – look up cheerfully from hay-colored lawns and dark beds of soil.
Landscapes continue to brighten as, encouraged by lengthening days, buds wrap tree branches in a wispy, enchanting greenness. The cotton-candy-colored, cup-shaped buds of the magnolia tree, from a distance, appear to float as they bob in the wind. This overall fairytale effect is supported by the many classic old homes of the area, with their steeply pitched roofs, half-timbered architecture, or Victorian wrap-around porches.
Then poof, lemon explosions. The green buds of the forsythia shrubs have shattered themselves open; walls of psychedelic yellow shimmer in the wind. A walk to treasure is one in late March with the sun beaming down from a brilliant blue sky. The stretching yellow branches shout yes, yes, spring is here, despite the bit of wind that still bites at wrists and ears.
April! April! April! The forsythia’s yellow buds yield to green leaves, but now yellow daffodils beam like little suns from garden edges.
Screaming hot pink flowers plaster select bushes in neighbors’ yards, so brightly they could have been drawn in magenta crayon by six-year-olds. Those are the blooms of azaleas, just one of many plants that make up the growing season’s pageantry.
The Van Vleck House and Gardens in the west side of Montclair offers much for lovers of horticulture in general, and is known especially for its azaleas and rhododendrons (and for sponsoring community events year round). In April, dogwood trees’ upturned flat flowers seem suspended in air, and these, along with hosts of daffodils, greet visitors. Visitors will also find many specialized garden areas, and – if they return in May or June – lovely hanging purple wisteria.
But back to April. Cherry trees! Pink scrunchy blooms crowd branches; frilled-out trees line up or cluster like bridesmaids at a wedding party. Cherry trees inspire festivals the world over. Washington, D.C., hosts a famous cherry blossom festival (as do cities in Japan, the country that gave the United States the starting set of the cherry trees now in Washington, D.C.), but North Jersey has its own festival at Essex County’s Branch Brook Park, which stretches across both Belleville and Newark and has more than 5,000 cherry trees (which began with a gift from China!). The 2018 festival has been scheduled for April 7-15. However, this date is decided on well ahead of the start of spring, so prospective visitors can watch local news sources as April approaches for confirmation of when full splendor is expected.
Hyacinths! Such forceful plants. Saucy grapey-blue short hyacinths exemplify the color poets intend when they say “cerulean blue.” The larger hyacinths, like aunts visiting for spring holidays, adorn themselves in bright pastels – often happy tones of pink and blue – and saturate the air with their lavish perfume.
Tulips! Everywhere, tulips! In pots on porches or in kitchens, lining walkways outside, massed around tree trunks. Lined up for sale at Home Depot, at the grocery store. They seem animate, opening when it’s sunny and closing their cups when it’s dark or rainy. How do they know?
Concentrated collections of well-cared for tulips glow at the Avis Campbell Gardens next door to the Montclair Public Library on Fullerton Avenue (where the Montclair Write Group meets). The Garden Club of Montclair tends these tulips (and other plants, like the roses and daisies that bloom later). The sheltered location of the garden – behind the United Way building – makes it easy to overlook, but adds to the meditative feel of the place. Visitors are welcome to hang out back there; it’s free to the public and has a few benches.
And lilacs! Fortunate is the resident of a household where a lilac bush planted by a thoughtful gardener years ago sends its delicate, old-fashioned scent into the porch or family room. Other walkers in our community must simply treasure the spots in town where kind gardeners planted lilac bushes near sidewalks, so passersby can breathe in the blooms’ light perfume, too.
Now, wow! In late May or early June, the irises come. This is an event in Montclair.
Really, as in visitors come from out of town come to see the Presby Memorial Iris Garden, a conservancy on an open hillside that hosts approximately 1,500 varieties of iris. Begun in 1927 with a few plants as a memorial to Montclair resident Frank H. Presby, the garden today features an extravagant collection of irises that flow across the hillside. Following the lines of iris beds, people in floppy sun hats or baseball caps drink in the frilly pinks, whites, yellows, blue, purples and various stripes of the flowers and comment according to their gardening expertise, maybe just admiring the colors, maybe appreciating the care that has gone into their cultivation. Artists and photographers set up easels and tripods to try to capture the plants’ fleeting glory. The garden sells plants and bulbs, though on specified dates only, which may be the source of at least some of the irises in area yards.
Iris blooming times may vary from year to year. So the web site, http://presbyirisgardens.org, posts the gardeners’ best guess each year as the bloom time gets closer. Bring a little cash, if you can: The web site (as of February 2018) suggests that visitors donate $8. Street parking on Upper Mountain Avenue is closest to the garden entrance. When that’s crowded, a less-used area, Highland Avenue, may have more spaces available. Highland Avenue is uphill from and “behind” the garden, and visitors who park should be prepared to walk down the grassy hill. This garden is solely dedicated to irises and is only open in May and June.
Area splendor continues in early June. In neighbors’ gardens, not only are daisies are springing up, but the soft petals and romantic swirls of delicate roses and of heavy-headed peonies have bloomed.
Now Brookdale Park takes center stage with its simply named Brookdale Park Rose Garden, which is set aside from this expansive park’s other amenities (dog park, jogging and walking track, lively children’s playground, sports fields and more, encompassed within the northern ends of Montclair and Bloomfield). The rose garden is free to visit, and the more than 100 types of roses have such varied blooming times that this garden can be enjoyed for a large part of the summer.
Summer marches on. As the area buzzes with lawnmowers, even more color pours forth: bright orange day lilies reach out to the full summer sun; wide-eyed clematis vines in whites and purples and many other colors climb in gardens; sturdy yet delicate-looking pink-accented hexagonal blooms of the mountain laurel shelter in the shade of their own leafy bushes; fat pastel-colored hydrangea blooms spill over sidewalks. Annual plants such as marigolds and impatiens add to the riot of growth. (Annual plants are the type that gardeners must replant each year since they have only one season, but whose tradeoff is that they are typically bright and bloom all summer long.)
Front yard cottage gardens attract notice with their crowds of tall perennials (the flowers that return each year on their own and must be thinned out rather than replanted each year). These yards, as romantic as Monet paintings, may reflect the gardeners’ participation (sometimes announced with a little sign) in the nationwide movement towards building garden habitats that support important or endangered birds, butterflies, and other wildlife.
Eventually, fall arrives. Chlorophyll ebbs from the trees’ leaves, so they blaze gold and red like the fireplaces soon to be lit in residents’ homes. The acorns bang down on sidewalks around town, particularly on Ridgewood Avenue in the northern part of Glen Ridge, where oaks planted in the early 1900s have grown so large that sidewalks have yielded the right of way to their roots. Days grow shorter; the landscape loses its color, but underground, even as the first snows fall, the bulbs await the coming of warm days again.
GARDENS MENTIONED IN THIS STORY:
Avis Campbell Memorial Gardens
Branch Brook Park
Presby Memorial Iris Gardens
Van Vleck House and Gardens
OTHER PLACES TO CATCH THE CHERRY TREES IN BLOOM
Central Park in New York City