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Comparing seasons in the Northeast garden

by Timber Press on April 8, 2015

in Gardening

Tulips and hyacinths bloom in Central Park, New York. All images: Kerry Michaels

Tulips and hyacinths bloom in Central Park, New York. All images: Kerry Michaels

The author of Growing the Northeast Garden reflects on a region well-known for its seasons and takes us through one of its many beautiful gardens.

You’ll often hear that the Northeast “has” seasons. Most every place does, but given our place on the map, this speaks to how the differences between ours are more pronounced. Each season promises joys and headaches of its very own, but one thing’s for sure: there’s never a dull moment. Let’s consider the Northeast’s seasons in the garden.


Most people think winter is the season that makes us come undone here in the Northeast, but my money’s on spring. An average spring brings gradually warming temps and rain, the better to break bud. However, spring in the Northeast is also the most unpredictable of seasons, so a seasoned gardener knows to be ready for anything. Whereas the Northeast’s other seasons tend to be relatively stable (“relatively,” because our home is notorious for wild swings in weather), spring is the mood ring of seasons. Rather than a gradual warm-up, some springs jump ahead to 80 degrees and sunny, then plummet back to 40-degree gloom just in time for the weekend. Some springs see flooding from an overabundance of rain and snowmelt, while the occasional spring sees little rain at all. Hot or cold, wet or dry, spring isn’t just a wakeup call to your garden from Mother Nature—it’s a rallying cry to you, fellow gardener, to hop to it after a long, restless winter.

Lilies in Chanticleer Garden, Wayne, Pennsylvania.

Lilies in Chanticleer Garden, Wayne, Pennsylvania.

In places where the ground freezes tight, an integral part of spring is referred to as “mud season,” because of the soil’s sponginess after it thaws and then swells with spring rain.

Some of the best plants of spring are equally capricious. Bulbs are best known, and some of the first to bring bright color to the garden. They go hand in hand with plants we call spring ephemerals, a cast of characters that does all its blooming and growing before summer begins. Spring also sees most flowering trees do their thing for the year, as well as some popular seasonal shrubs.

Since it’s the starting pistol for most plants to get growing, spring in the Northeast is a great season to plant new plants. Newcomers stimulated by rain and warming air and soil will be more likely to set down good roots.


Summer in the Northeast is our personal horticultural reward for the hard work of making it through frigid winter and fickle spring. Thanks to our place on the map, we’re fortunate enough to escape the more extreme heat much of the rest of North America sees—the stickiest humidity of summer in the South; the searing, drought- and fire-prone heat of the West. Summer in the Northeast usually means stretches of long, warm, sunny days, punctuated by periodic rainfall as humidity builds thunderstorms.

If spring is what kicks growing plants into gear, summer is when they hit their stride, and it’s the time many an ornamental garden comes into its own. A menagerie of flowering shrubs and perennials blooms in the first half of summer, and warm-season annuals and tropicals can be added to instantly brighten gardens after frost dates have passed. Houseplants in containers head outside for a much needed “vacation.”

Many blooming plants peak in the first half of summer, so a flower-focused ornamental garden can be a dog when the dog days hit. That’s one reason you’ll see many plants in this book recognized for their long season of interest, and why gardens that emphasize great foliage have gained in popularity.


Changing foliage of Japanese maple in the garden of Penny O’Sullivan, New Hampshire.

Changing foliage of Japanese maple in the garden of Penny O’Sullivan, New Hampshire.

A Northeast summer reaches its zenith near July’s end. The solstice has passed, and come August, those long days, though still hot, become noticeably shorter. Many ornamental gardens quiet down during this period, as if resting up for the beauty bonanza of fall. As the mercury peaks, the floral parade gives way to a simpler but more robust palette. Smoldering shades that foreshadow fall are the order of the day for late summer flowers (that’s why I’ve grouped them with plants from that season), and late summer to autumn in these parts is the last hurrah for most flowering perennials. Rain and cooler temps prompt a new flush for some, while a small but forceful group waits to bloom, improbably, at the onset of fall. If conditions are just right, the first autumn foliage aligns with the last flowers in a magic hour that’s almost unrivaled.

When fall does arrive, foliage is the order of the day, and deciduous woody plants are the true stars of that season. The Northeast is legendary for the fall color of its trees, and autumnal sweeps of red and yellow, gold and orange are synonymous with the idea of our scenery. While a maple forest in October is truly stunning, there’s a fall foliage plant for any size of garden, and the wise northern gardener fully partakes of this seasonal feature. Early autumn is also an excellent time to plant, as temperatures have cooled, rain is more frequent, and the soil is still warm.

After the raucous fall flush comes the most subtly beautiful botanical moment: a brief period characterized by an unmistakable stillness, after the last leaf has fluttered away, but before the first snow. The garden’s bones take the stage for winter, the season we need them most.


Cold, unforgiving, even brutal—these are words humans use to describe winter in the Northeast. The same holds true for plants, and the plants that survive here are remarkable in their hardiness. Winter varies wildly across the region: inland and northerly areas may well see a thick, consistent blanket of snow; those closer to the coast get swings from deep snow to near nothing; snow melts most quickly in the “heat islands” of Northeast cities.

Osier dogwoods brighten the winter landscape in Maine.

Osier dogwoods brighten the winter landscape in Maine.

All see frigid temperatures and winds to match. Snow is forever advertised as an excellent insulator for plants, and this is true—when the bottom falls out of the thermometer, a layer of snow is far better than bare ground. Snow becomes problematic when a thick layer begins to melt, refreezes, and becomes icy. Beware this freeze/thaw cycle, as it can mean burn for more tender evergreens and rot for plants that require sharp drainage. Wind makes itself known in winter more than other seasons as well, especially at coastal and high altitude sites. While winter wet can melt plants, winter winds can dry them to a crisp. Combat winter weather foes by getting to know your microclimates and siting plants carefully within them.

Conifers and a sturdy group of broadleaf evergreens are the belles of the winter ball, followed by leafless trees and shrubs with brightly colored bark, pretty berries, and intriguing form. The northeastern gardener’s plant palette just for winter may seem slim, but in fact many plants that tend to be interesting over multiple seasons (see the Framework chapter) count winter as a time to shine.


Berkshire Hills
Sheffield, Massachusetts
Owner: Maria Nation

Nestled among the granite knuckles of the Berkshires, this garden makes for a fascinating study between formal and informal, traditional and whimsical. The gardener who lives here employs color, shape, and texture to create a theatrical style all her own.

Complements of color and a hierarchy of shapes and textures create a harmonious vignette. Containers of tender plants that have to come in for winter are one example of how gardens can be ephemeral, and change with the seasons.


Vertical form is on display in white-blooming culver’s root (Veronicastrum) at top and the flanking shrubs, as well as flowers of blue fescue (Festuca). These make for great contrast with the rounded plant forms below.


Complementary colors cool blue and bright yellow accentuate this path.


A study in order, a white-flecked dappled willow draws attention through an arbor to a white umbrella and dining set—all with the blessing of the house, also white, and clearly in charge, as evidenced by the bold red of the climbing rose (Rosa) that grows up its side.


Bright red Astilbe contrasts perfectly with a sea of blue-green leaves below. This planting naturally prompts your eye to follow the sinuous line it guides. An upright Ilex ‘Sky Pencil’ acts as a signpost along the way.


keys_aAndrew Keys is a writer, lifelong gardener, and author of Why Grow That When You Can Grow This?. Andrew’s writing has appeared in This Old House Magazine and Fine Gardening, and he’s produced podcasts for Fine Gardening and Horticulture Magazine. Andrew has lectured at the Philadelphia Flower Show, Boston Flower Show, Northwest Flower & Garden Show in Seattle, and others. He’s trained as an organic land care professional by the Northeast Organic Farming Association. You may also be interested in the author’s own Web site, GardenSmackdown.com.

michaels_kKerry Michaels is a photographer, writer, and multimedia producer. Her garden photographs have been seen in many books, magazines, and websites. She is a contributing photographer and writer for Coastal Home magazine, and is the writer and photographer for the popular website containergardening.about.com. Kerry was the co-producer/director of the award-winning documentary film River of Steel. Kerry runs Flying Point Photography and lives in Maine with her family.


Click image for a look inside this book.


“I can’t recall a book that takes such an in-depth look at gardening in our region.…An inspirational resource, with an exciting array of real-world examples.”—Steve Aitken, editor, Fine Gardening


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