Mastering the art of observation

Emerging Polygonatum odoratum. Photo by Kit Flynn.


By Kit Flynn

About fifteen years ago, as if by magic, I suddenly found mysterious plants emerging from the ground that obviously belonged to the asparagus family. I had not planted them, but I was secretly delighted, regaling all my friends that soon I would be feasting on my own asparagus. When I realized that it is verboten to pick asparagus during its first year, I mentally began planning my dinner party for two years hence.

Several weeks later it became very apparent that my asparagus patch really consisted of two baptisias emerging from their winter slumber, ones that I had planted several years ago. The misrepresentation occurred because I had failed to (1) mark them; and (2) to observe previously their appearance into the world of spring. And, of course, it also displayed my ignorance as asparagus doesn’t magically appear – it must first be planted. I felt like an idiot.

This also taught me that if I were going to become a decent gardener, I had to work on my power of observation. I can well remember when one of my neighbors offered condolences as my dogwood, Cornus florida, had died; the awful truth was that because I gardened with my head fixated towards the soil, I simply hadn’t noticed its demise.

Realizing that it was time for a change, I had to teach myself the fine art of observance. By “observing,” I am not talking about the admiring looks I habitually gave my plants. I had to notice such things as growing patterns and signs that plants were doing well or were on the downside of the slippery slope. In other words, I had to get to know my plants. Now plants don’t talk, of course, but they do give hints as to how they’re faring.

Now is the time to begin the schedule of observance as plants are not only waking up from their winter slumber, they are also seemingly growing in leaps and bounds. And, bear in mind that emerging plants do not necessarily resemble their appearance in maturity. Early baptisia resembles asparagus far more than it looks like a full-grown baptisia.

Winter gardens have a lot of vacancies because many perennials disappear for their winter sleep. This is where photos come into play with the garden, as a quick look will refresh your memory. If you are like me, you either haven’t marked every plant or you have inadvertently mangled your marker so you forget what fills the vacancies; sometimes you might have mistakenly placed another plant on top of the slumbering one – remember, all perennials do not surface at the same time. Should this happen to you, remember that peaceful coexistence rarely occurs in this situation. Eventually, you’ll have to determine which plant remains and which one has to go.

Paeonia ‘Pink Double Dandy’ emerging. Photo by Kit Flynn.

I’ve told the story before of an Itoh (intersectional) peony that gives up the ghost every August, only to spring back to life in March. This is the only Itoh peony in my garden to behave like this, and it was only through observation (and sheer inertia that prevented me from plucking it out of the ground) that I accustomed myself to its rather weird growing habits. The moral of this story is to wait before deciding whether a plant has really died.

I have lots of Polygonatum odoratum in the garden and now instantly recognize the plants as they begin to spring into action – but it wasn’t always this way. Because they don’t resemble the mature plants, originally, I couldn’t imagine what these strange emerging plants were. When I finally recognized them, I never forgot what the developing specimens looked like.

Last, observe all the redbuds that are delightfully in bloom right now. Recently, I saw one on Erwin Road that was situated as though it were a specimen tree – and shuddered. Redbuds dwell on the edge of the woods for a reason. When the leaves are off the adjoining trees in January and February, the sun reaches the redbuds, giving them the necessary energy to bloom in mid-March. The leaves on the adjoining trees subsequently reappear, providing the redbuds the protection they need from the strong late spring and summer sun.  To place a redbud in the middle of the yard is to be charged with redbud abuse.

While observing all the redbuds in bloom, try to figure out which ones are American (Cercis canadensis) and which are Chinese (Cercis chinensis). It isn’t always easy to determine the difference, although the paler magenta ones paired with intriguing shapes tend to be American. The Cercis genus has a number of species with many cultivars, so it’s easy to be fooled.

Part of gardening success features the fine art of observation. Take a camera and take pictures. Note which plants emerge first, which ones are the slow ones to wake up and which ones are the first to flower. Now that you know your garden more intimately, you have taken a positive step into the world of gardening.

After being an active member of the Durham County Extension Master Gardeners for 13 years, Kit Flynn now holds emeritus status. For five years she was the gardening correspondent for “Senior Correspondent” and shared “The Absentee Gardener” column with fellow Master Gardener Lise Jenkins. She has given numerous presentations on various gardening topics to Triangle organizations and can be reached at
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