As February winds down and temperatures here in Philadelphia swing between the 60s and the 20s, this past month has felt like a whole year rolled into one, or like March a month early. Still, I'm looking forward to warmer days—and trying not to think about the rising temperatures that summer will inevitably bring. That's still a season away, or a few weeks at least.
One early harbinger of spring in our area is the PHS Philadelphia Flower Show. Billed as the world's longest-running horticultural event, it provides excellent garden inspiration. This year it returns indoors, opening to the public on March 4 and running through March 12 at the Philadelphia Convention Center. I recommend it especially during cold snaps — there's something reassuring about wandering among the plants, flowers, and spring vibes.
Put on by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, PHS, the Flower Show organizers are working to create a zero-waste event where one can find educational programming, dine, listen to live music, and support green vendors. One of my favorites, City Totes, offers beautifully hand-crafted tote bags made from reclaimed materials. If you attend, check them out.
Far removed from the show's curated gardens, my own front yard is not looking its best. Last week a few crazy warm days had me itching to put my hands in the dirt. I figured cleaning up leaf litter would be a good place to begin. I had a plan: clear out the dead leaves, mulch everything, and replace the organic material before the tender shoots push through. I had just gotten started as I was researching this post and discovered that, per usual, I was doing it all wrong.
According to numerous garden blogs, one should go carefully with leaf cleanup until temperatures consistently hit the 50s during the day. Because many pollinators and other beneficial insects overwinter in leaf litter and hollow plant stems, it's best not to disturb them until they're safe from colder temperatures. Okay, no digging in the dirt just yet.
Shopping for weed killers is another thing we should strike from our spring to-do lists. I discovered that if you put dandelions in a Google search, the results splice neatly between ways to toxify them and ways to eat them. James Highland, a climate activist friend, recommends we leave them alone because they offer early nutrition for bees. I personally have always loved dandelions and have never understood why folks are so bent on getting rid of them.
However, some bee-keepers say that dandelions don't offer sufficient protein and instead we should sow natives like: coneflowers or butterfly weed (not to be confused with the invasive Butterfly Bush—which I can't bring myself to dig up.)
But I have good news; this issue has been resolved by the scientists at Penn State's Center for Pollinator Research, who perhaps having a realistic understanding of human nature, advocate for a lazy approach to lawn care.
While some of us would like to see our neighbors eradicate lawns altogether and replace them with pollinator gardens; it's probably not going to happen. But lazier lawns could be a thing. Known as "bee lawns," the idea is to let the grass be taller, forgo the herbicides and pesticides, and allow friendly weeds like dandelions, wild violets, and clover have their run of the place. Basically, this is the lawn I grew up with, and it will help protect the pollinators that our food-supply depends on.
Since I'm really starting to buy into this lazy approach to spring—no raking, no spraying, no mowing, and absolutely no leaf blowing, I have more time to think about what to plant this year. Milkweed is at the top of my list. I recently had the pleasure of meeting Noah Raven, the young founder of Monarch Defenders, and learned of his campaign to convince folks to plant milkweed.
The monarchs, like many pollinators, are experiencing an alarming drop in numbers, and in addition to the loss of habitat and harm caused by toxic sprays, these butterflies face a special challenge. Monarchs lay eggs on milkweed because it's the only thing monarch caterpillars eat, so milkweed is critical to their survival.
I have tried planting milkweed in the past, but in my first attempt I ordered the Swamp Pink variety. I was surprised to learn I needed to refrigerate the seeds for 30-60 days before planting, which I did. They didn't take. This variety needs full sun, and trees dominate our property. I will try again, but this time around, I'll be armed with better information.
On the Monarch Defenders website, I used the regional planting guides and discovered that common milkweed tolerates some shade. In addition, I found a local native plant nursery that will have seedlings, which means I won't have to refrigerate the seeds—one more way to indulge in laziness.
So now for the bad news, when it comes to spring cleaning, I do not have any lazy hacks to offer. I'm really not so big into spring cleaning, as my husband will attest—unless we're talking about recycling. Recently, on a rainy recycling day, I noticed a lot of folks put out boxes for collection. It made me think that perhaps our township had a special process for the wet cardboard, so I called our local waste management center to ask.
The fellow I spoke to said he'd been working there for 34 years, and he told me that contrary to what I previously learned, that it's not a problem to collect wet cardboard. And it turns out that he was right; collection is not an issue, but that doesn't mean the wet materials actually get recycled. According to a different source, the staff at Revolution Recovery in Philadelphia, wet materials generally end up in the landfill.
I kept trying to get in touch with haulers used by our township. I landed on the WM Recycling Resource website, which advises that customers flatten cardboard boxes and keep them inside on rainy days as wet cardboard and paper is difficult to process. Okay—case closed. This suggestion might not help with the spring cleaning, but since we've saved so much energy on lawn care, I think we can do it. Maybe even tell your neighbors.
Do you have any springtime rituals? Please share. I want to hear about them.