I Begin Each Gardening Season By Simply Taking A Deep Breath

It’s the simple things that can get you through a long New England winter.  Like a row of colorful plants on a window sill, each nestled in a favorite clay pot. 

Or, on a dreary day, the way a shaft of sunlight suddenly bursts through the clouds and illuminates the almost iridescent leaves of a "stitched leaf" begonia sitting near a window.  It’s amazing what can serve as entertainment for gardeners during the long winter. 

We keep a clay pot full of thyme on a windowsill in the kitchen for seasoning foods and I love the way the tiny leaves are often backlit by the bright sunlight that’s reflected off a huge snow bank just outside the window. A snow bank that’s now so high that you can use it to walk right onto the roof.  

And, at this time of year, when I think I won’t be able to take one more day of being shut inside, there’s this Lemon Cypress topiary (Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Goldcrest’) to remind me that it’s time to point the car in a northeast direction and head out for my first seasonal visit to Snug Harbor Farm in Kennebunk, Maine.  That might seem like a huge leap in reasoning but, you see, Snug Harbor specializes in topiary like this one.  As a matter of fact, it’s where this one came from.  But, the plants are not the only reason I go there. Just like the birds, who can’t wait to start their trip north, and the grubs, who can’t wait to wiggle their way toward the surface of the soil, it’s right about now that I can’t wait to stick my head in a greenhouse and inhale the aroma of fresh earth.

Scientists have a name for the scent that permeates a greenhouse in the Spring, that smell of fresh earth.  It’s called “petrichor” and the smell is caused by certain chemicals that are released into the air when water meets dry soil.  Chief among those chemicals is geosmin, which is a metabolic by-product of microscopic organisms that inhabit the soil. Geosmin is also the same chemical responsible for the scent that we identify as the smell of rain and it’s theorized that our attraction to it may, in fact, be hardwired into our human genetics because of the importance that rain plays in our survival.

But, whatever the scientific explanation...luckily for me, the seasonal impulse that propels me to take some kind of action right around the first of March coincides nicely with the time of year that Tony Elliot and his team at Snug Harbor are abuzz in their greenhouses, getting ready for the seasonal flower shows and growing on all those specialties that keep plant enthusiasts returning year after year. And so, very soon I will get in my car and drive to Snug Harbor Farm.  I will enter the first greenhouse, take a deep breath, inhale a whiff of petrichor (now that I know what to call it), and it will be at that moment that the gardening season will officially begin for me.