Few things lift the spirit of a winter-weary New Englander like the first warm breezes of spring, the sight of budding tree branches, and signs of life at local nurseries. To help put you in a spring frame of mind, here’s a sampling of some of our favorite New England garden centers and simple advice for common flowering signs of spring.
Dubbed “one of the most magical places in Maine” by a Yankee editor who stopped by a few years ago, Snug Harbor is a beautifully put-together nursery/garden center/farm stand/menagerie (miniature horses are only the beginning). Topiaries are a specialty, filling two of the five greenhouses; among the array of plants, trees, and shrubs are examples of the elegant art of espalier.
This welcoming nursery has been a southern New Hampshire mainstay since 1971. It offers a deep selection of water garden plants, annuals, and cacti, as well as a lineup of homegrown perennials that numbers well into the hundreds. Pear, apple, and plum saplings are just a taste of the trees and shrubs found here. And bring the family: There are indoor and outdoor ponds with turtles, koi, and goldfish for the kiddos to ogle, plus free hot coffee for parents.
Dubbed “the smallest nursery in the smallest state,” Issima has an appeal that belies its size. Founded by veteran plant experts Ed Bowen and Taylor Johnston (a onetime horticulturist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum), this intimate coastal nursery is a treasure trove of rare and uncommon plants, including under-the-radar hydrangea and delphinium varieties.
The farm at the heart of Ballek’s Garden Center has been in the family since the 1660s, and this solar-powered, green-thinking business prides itself on old-fashioned values and service. From trees and shrubs to houseplants and orchids — and pretty much everything in between — Ballek’s is a great one-stop shop, whether you are doing some routine spring freshening or planning an offbeat accent garden.
Bay State hits a particular sweet spot among nurseries: small enough to offer excellent customer service but large enough to maintain a diverse collection of proven and rare cultivars. Owner Peter Flynn offers a rainbow of spring hellebores and a riot of summer hydrangeas, attracting customers from all over New England.
Named the SBA’s 2019 Vermont Woman-Owned Business of the Year, Red Wagon was founded by Julie Rubaud in 2005 as a small wholesale operation. Today it’s a beloved gardeners’ resource that’s open to the public and staffed by some 25 knowledgeable employees who help oversee the growing of 500-plus kinds of annuals, 200-plus perennial varieties, fruit trees and bushes, herbs, and so forth.
If you planted tulip and daffodil bulbs in the fall, spring is when your efforts are rewarded with much-anticipated color. If you can keep the deer and other furry neighborhood visitors from nibbling, that is. Once established, tulips and daffodils will multiply annually, which allows gardeners to dig up the bulbs in the fall to separate and share with friends or to plant in another gardening area. Plant once, enjoy twice, then thrice (and so on) is a pretty good deal.
It doesn’t feel like it’s really spring until the forsythia blooms, bathing the neighborhood in swaths of yellow that turn ordinary hedges and house fronts into cheerful welcome flags. If you’re adding forsythia to your yard, make sure to dig a hole at least twice as wide as the root ball. Forsythia is hardy and can withstand a lot, but it does best with full sun and a yearly prune. If left to run wild, their branches snake and wave, sometimes reaching up to 10 feet in height and 12 feet in diameter. So keep the pruning shears handy.
Lilacs are powerhouse shrubs. They can live with minimal care for more than a century, and few things in spring smell as heavenly as their fragrance on a warm breeze or spilling from a vase. Most often found in pale to dark shades of purple, lilacs bloom on old wood, so make sure to prune them in the spring right after they’ve bloomed. You can find new lilac shrubs at your local garden center, but if you don’t mind being patient, it’s also fun to ask around for suckers (aka offshoots) from friends. If you dig a hole and stick the sucker in, you should have blooms in a few years.