Smile and Adapt: Gardening the Unexpected


A dry hot April, a wet cold May.  What is the world coming to?  Late April freezes have nixed the wisteria show for gardeners, yet month long May rains would have made the whole thing fairly pointless anyway. Ye Gods!

I am in turns content with a forced respite from the garden as I finish up the last pieces of a book project, and annoyed when I finally get out there only to find calibrachoa and strawberries covered in mold.

The equisetum is happy.  Ecstatic even. Chard and lettuces have put on enormous growth and all of the potted winter-dug cannas are up and ready for forever homes.  Meanwhile, the grasses are stunted, the succulents are sodden and the squash and peppers cry softly at night and won’t be cajoled.

Much like our local nursery owners.

One of them tells me that this is the toughest season she’s ever been faced with.  She’s simply never had to work so hard to produce a decent product.

When customers buy perennials based on the amount of bloom present in the pot (delayed satisfaction be damned) – and you have a precious two to three week bloom period in which to market the heck out of them – the last thing you need as a grower is cold, petal-saturating rain.  Particularly as you’ve already had to cope with plunging temperatures in late April.



Gardening with foliage over flowers comes in handy when heavy rains dominate the season.


Sunshine is the ultimate aphrodisiac when administered to gardeners searching for new green love affairs during the lusty month of May. Sales are high and credit card companies rub collective hands together with shrieks of delight.

But cold fronts that hang around drearily have quite the opposite effect on an industry that relies heavily on its spring season. Mid-Atlantic customers are a fickle lot.  They simply don’t like to shop with umbrellas clutched in cold hands.  Such activities are for hardier peoples who garden with moss and rhododendrons.

Nevertheless, summer will come and the fickle gardener may miss out on his favorite varieties if a Saturday afternoon movie holds more appeal than a chilly wander past dripping nursery racks.  Summer may even arrive this week, with bells on.  Which of course means more adaptation on the part of the gardener.



Terracotta helps a great deal with keeping succulents on the dry side during periods of heavy rain.


Over the years I have found that my tolerance for difficult seasons increases exponentially if I simply think of them as training exercises.  With every devilish winter, every sodden spring, I add to my knowledge base and become a better gardener.

I learn that it’s not about ice, it’s about wind. I discover which buds need to be protected during surprise freezes and which ones I can totally ignore.  I don’t spend time in worry over heat lovers that languish during cold spells, and learn to take advantage of environmental conditions that favor weeding or shed cleaning over planting.  I take notes when plants surprise me (ostrich ferns rising from the ashes after an April blackening), and just as carefully take notes when they don’t (calibracohas succumbing to rot during May rains).

Basically, I learn the folly in following the rules too strictly and hone my instincts instead.  Whatever skill we pursue on this earth, be it brain surgery or timing alfalfa harvests, how on earth can we get better without being challenged in our craft?


Spring is the season for succulent, spicy salads – and this spring is no exception.


So look at it that way my friends.  Adapt to the cold rain this month, adapt to the punishing ninety degree days this week.  The more seasons you encounter, the wiser you become.

Of course, the more seasons you encounter, the less energy you have to implement the wisdom you have gained, but that’s a timeless irony that is best laughed about with good friends over good wine. If they too are gardeners, so much the better.

Reprinted with permission from the Frederick News Post

By | 2018-02-20T20:41:05+00:00 May 27th, 2016|

About the Author:

Marianne is the mother of two, wife of one and the voice of The Small Town Gardener. She gardens and writes from her home in the scenic (and exceptionally convenient) heart of Virginia's wine country.


  1. DC Tropics May 29, 2016 at 12:47 am - Reply

    After a very busy spring that was mostly cold and drizzly, today was the first free weekend day I’ve had that was warm and sunny, but between high 80’s, humidity and bugs, I got nothing at all done in the garden.

    • Marianne Willburn June 7, 2016 at 12:22 pm - Reply

      The humidity is killing me lately John. Ugh. Summer in late May.

  2. rusty duck May 30, 2016 at 7:58 am - Reply

    There has been no shortage of learning experiences over the last few years. And many more to come no doubt. I just hope we can keep up!

    • Marianne Willburn June 7, 2016 at 11:49 am - Reply

      So true Jessica.

Leave A Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.