I lived high up on a mountain once where spring came slow.
It came creeping north from the river first, through the divide, climbing slowly up each creek and brook, painting the mountain half green, until one cold May day, at last, at long and lonely last, wild onion curled along the cow path to my coop and tender buds broke through the gnarly maple limbs that scratched the roof.
But every year when April came, still numb with gray, I looked way down the valley, searching hard for the first pale shade of green, the first bare trace of white from apple trees, a golden speck of forsythia blooming by a distant barn.
I never saw it soon enough. And I could never tell where spring began.
Sometimes, though, my mind went tumbling back down the streams with the mountain rains, out of the valley to where the rivers meet with rivers, past foothills, prairies, pinelands and plowed cotton fields, falling farther and farther back in time for that first glimpse of spring. And after one particularly dull, frozen April, my mind traveled so far south that I remembered where the rivers spit the chewed up remnants of the mountains into the Gulf, just beyond the swamps I knew when I was a boy, beside the beaches and the dunes, where red maples burst their bark on Valentine’s, and wildflowers broke the ground by Mardi Gras. And I knew I had come as close as I would ever get to where spring began.
Spring breaks your heart anytime it comes, everywhere it opens. It’s the year’s first love, slender and supple like the new year’s colts, with flowers so white and bright you have no fear of summer briars. Spring makes brave and happy gardeners of us all. Miss it, and it’s like missing childhood’s innocence and joy.
But here on the Gulf Coast, we wait until some far-off television potentate unfurls the scroll that says that spring must start in April. We act as if our spring was handed down in May from some high Appalachian mountain. And that’s why so many claim we have no spring at all.
Spring on the Gulf Coast lasts as long as any spring that I’ve enjoyed, two months or more. It’s as mild and sweet as I remember anywhere. It may be more beautiful than most.
But I can tell you, having seen it here and from a far-off mountaintop, spring on the Gulf Coast begins in mid-February and ends before the first hot April days. It always has.
Don’t wait for some TV personality who can’t see beyond the Brooklyn Bridge to tell you when to start enjoying your spring. You’ll know it’s spring the same way gardeners and woods walkers do, wherever spring may come.
The Season Unfolds
Before the first floats of Mardi Gras roll down Dauphin Street, sparks of red will spread across the branches of the maples in the swamp and then explode in bright red stars. On the bluffs, green fingers of the buckeye leaves claw out of brown winter buds, preparing floral flares to steer the hummingbirds for their first flight in. Down by the tracks, the syrup sweet of jonquils muffles the grease and cinders of the rails.
Day by day, the frozen grays of winter melt into the mists of spring. Rarely, but often enough, we may, on some late February days, endure another frost. But that doesn’t halt the spread of Gulf Coast spring, any more than a May Day Appalachian frost stops spring along the mountaintops.
What’s different about spring on the Gulf Coast is that it’s not just the releafing of the gardening year. It’s our last luxury of mild days before the lettuce is overcome with bitterness at the blast of Easter heat, our last opportunity to take advantage of regular rainfall before late April’s drought, our only chance to get our young tomatoes ready to produce in May and June, before they melt in the heat and wet of July.
Starting Feb. 15 (or a few days later for those farther from the Bay), you’ll need every moment of the two months of our Gulf Coast spring. It will be packed with azaleas from start to finish, from the Taiwan cherry’s first carnal flush to the Grandsire Graybeard’s ghostly veil of white. Before it’s done, bluebells and daffodils will make way for iris and amaryllis. You can smell the scent of sweet olive and sweet peas half a block, and the green peas we call sugar snaps will swell until they’re just about to pop — right up until that blistering noon of late April shouts that spring is done, and our first bout of summer has begun.
Spring is ours, but only ours to borrow until it’s ready to move on. When we’re half done with it, we’ll share it with Montgomery in the middle of March, and a week or two later, Montgomery will pass it on to Birmingham. From there, it’ll make its way sure-footed as a goat from rock to rock up steep hillsides, until some day in May the palest shade of green at last breaks from the gnarled old maples on the farthest mountaintops.
But don’t look off too far. The only spring that matters is the one where you are. And spring starts here and now.
Gulf Coast Almanac
Bloom of the Month
They call this jonquil Grand Primo in most of the world. Down here on the Gulf Coast, I call it our Mardi Gras lily, because the blaring fragrance of its blooms is the first loud note of the Carnival season. No telling where it’s from, perhaps some Spanish coast or Turkish mountaintop, but it has taken to the Gulf Coast and has bloomed untended in Old Mobile yards for generations.
Signs of the Season
The mists of Mardi Gras are a sure sign spring has come. In the pale moonlight of Old Mobile, flambeau is waved far off in the evening fog, until the entourage emerges, mules and maskers leading a spring passion play: Folly chasing death, spring beating back the winter frosts. For Midtown Mobile, the last average frost is Feb. 25. Dauphin Island and Gulf Shores will have likely seen their last frost by Feb. 10. And even Citronelle and Bay Minette won’t be far behind, with last average frosts the first week in March.
Oh my goodness, what a busy month you have ahead. Last call for lettuce, turnips and quick-growing winter greens. Carrot seeds and onion sets, now or never! Forget the pansies. Plant your petunias right away. Your bed should be made, and your tomatoes should be ready to go in the ground the first of March. There’s not a minute to spare if you want your new lawns, trees, shrubs and perennials to take advantage of the mild temperatures and heavy rains of spring.
Now is the time to start the new year’s pruning. Prune figs to manageable bushes and reduce the sprawling muscadines to a few strong vines and spurs just before the leaves emerge. Prune peaches and blueberries when flower buds show the first signs of white. But wait until the flowers are done to prune azaleas, gardenias and hydrangeas.
February 28: Tomatopalooza
Mobile Botanical Gardens • 5151 Museum Drive. 342-0555.
9 a.m. – 1 p.m. If you want to make the best of the Gulf Coast’s extra-early tomato season, not just any tomato will do. Thank goodness for this annual event, where you can find the very best tomatoes for Gulf Coast seasons, just in time for planting. Pre-order yours now by calling the Mobile Botanical Gardens or checking out their catalog online.
Bill Finch has been the voice of authority on Gulf Coast gardening and the environment for more than two decades. Talk to him every Sunday morning, from 9 a.m. until 11 a.m. on the Gulf Coast Sunday Morning show on Talk Radio 106.5 FM. Don’t miss him and WKRG weatherman John Nodar cutting up in the garden every Friday on News 5 at noon.
Text and photos by Bill Finch