Unlocking

Sunrise at Hayefield

Text and photos ©Nancy J. Ondra

The idea of having four seasons may make sense to some people, but we gardeners know that’s a woefully inadequate framework for what actually goes on outdoors. Dividing each of those seasons into early, mid-, and late helps somewhat, but something’s still lacking, particularly at this time of year, when spells of mild days alternate with freezing, snowy conditions. It’s not winter, and it’s not spring. It’s not even late winter or early spring. It’s unlocking.

I first learned about the seasons of locking and unlocking as a teenager, while reading Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. I won’t even try to explain the plot, because it’s been over 20 years since I read it last. (Gee, I thought I was getting old when I started reckoning time in decades. Now it’s in 20-year increments. Sigh.)

Even though I wasn’t then obsessed by gardening, his concept of six seasons (winter, unlocking, spring, summer, fall, locking, and winter) made perfect sense. And now, there seem no better words to describe the periods of gradually freezing and gradually warming conditions.

Galanthus nivalis

Just a few days ago, I’d have said it was definitely still winter here. But after two mild days, spring seems to be springing everywhere. I’d swear that these snowdrops weren’t up last weekend, yet they must have been, since it appears that one flower is already finished.

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Arnold Promise'

At the farm, ‘Arnold Promise’ witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia), shown above, is tentatively unfurling its yellow streamers. Even ‘Golden Starlet’ heath (Erica carnea) – who is not looking very golden at the moment – is sprinkled with a few tiny flowers.

Erica carnea 'Golden Starlet'

I took advantage of the milder weather and later sunset to cut the leaves off of all my hellebore clumps last evening. Most are still in bud, but this white one always opens a week or two before the others, during unlocking. As a result, it’s the one most likely to get damaged by the inevitable freezing that follows these blissfully springy days. Still, I like it for its dark nectaries (the ring of small structures around the base of the stamens).

Helleborus x hybridus with dark nectaries

I also wandered down to the corner of the garden I call The Orchard, where I haven’t been since locking. I’d apparently forgotten to finish harvesting the late crop of kohlrabi, and I was surprised to see that many seem to have survived, even though they’re well above ground. I wonder if they’re still worth harvesting.

Kohlrabi 'Vienna Mix'

Unfortunately, not all of the surprises were happy ones. I picked up the blue glass cloche to move it over by the snowdrops, and I found that the voles enjoy ‘Angelina’ sedum as much as I do.

Vole tunnel through Sedum rupestre 'Angelina'

Well, it wont hurt her to be thinned out a bit, so the damage could have been much worse. I’m not inclined to be upset about it – unless I find that the little buggers have caused more serious damage elsewhere. I guess I’d better get busy on cleaning up to see what I find, but maybe not just yet. I think we still have another two or three weeks of unlocking to go.

18 responses to this post.

  1. Hi Nancy
    Beautiful pictures !
    YES ! I read that story too some years ago (scifi fan) .. and yes .. the 6 season theory is perfectly logical to me as well. I only wish we were at the unlocking stage now. At the moment it is a winter storm warning in affect until late tomorrow .. I’m getting a bit low … will Spring really come out from hiding ? LOL
    Joy

    Hi Joy! We’re getting mega-rain here tonight, so my little bloomers will probably float away. I think you’re almost better off with the snow. But I have every confidence that spring will be here for you before you know it!
    -Nan

  2. Yes, Nan, I think you’re right. Yesterday’s bare ground patches are covered in white once again after a mix of sleet and snow here this morning.
    Still, it’s encouraging to see the signs of spring, isn’t it, and to know we’re on the home stretch? Thanks for sharing these lovely photos.
    We have plenty of voles here too. They can be annoying little critters!

    Oh, yes, Kerri: Spring seemed ages away, and now, there’s suddenly hope!
    -Nan

  3. “Unlocking” is a great concept. Spring is definitely breaking the lock that winter has had on us here in the Midwest. My Snowdrops are visible, but all the Hellebores are still firmly encased in snow & ice.

    Oh, yes, you’re clearly at the start of unlocking. I hope it proceeds steadily for you!
    -Nan

  4. I too have snowdrops open in front of the house–and yes, they finally opened while I still had snow on the ground!–though the larger clumps in back are still in bud. At the moment, it’s all competing with a vast “snow” of snow geese–those incredibly beautiful, incredibly primal harbingers of both winter and spring–which is blanketing the field directly behind the greenhouse. Talk about spring ephemerals!

    Hmmm, you cut off your hellebore leaves. Advantage? Mine have always simply merged with the floor of my shady creekside garden as the new leaves rose.

    And of course I have to ask: How do you use your kohlrabi? I understand that some folks eat them raw like apples, but as in “tastes just like chicken,” somehow I suspect that kohlrabi “tastes just like cabbage,” and while I enjoy raw cabbage in slaw and salads, I wouldn’t just grab a head of cabbage and start eating it…

    Oh, yes, Elly – I saw lots of snow geese flying yesterday! I cut off the hellebore leaves because they’re so winter-tattered; it makes the clumps look tidier and the blooms show off better. And need you ask how I eat the kohlrabi? Raw, of course! (Well, peeled first, then sliced into chips or smaller pieces for salads.) The texture is like a crisp apple, maybe a little harder. I don’t consider the taste cabbagey; again, it is something like a not-cloyingly-sweet apple.
    -Nan

  5. Nancy, your garden seems to be at the exact same unlocking point as my garden. We’re expecting rain now but as soon as it dries up a bit I think I’ll get out there and cut those Hellebore leaves too.

    Oh dear, you’re going to be water-logged too? “Dry” seems a long way away. I wish we’d get rain like this around the end of July!
    -Nan

  6. That makes a lot of sense. It does seem rather limited to describe the seasons in only 4 increments. Sorry to hear about the “Attack of the Voles.” Sedums are great, our ‘Blue Spruce’ has been very hardy.

    I’m not going to whine about the voles – yet, anyway. ‘Angelina’ is tough enough to withstand just about anything! I have the ‘Blue Spruce’ too, but it’s not nearly as happy with me!
    -Nan

  7. Wonderful post! Those kohlrabi are too pretty to eat, they look extremely ornamental, that dark one, I will have to look for that, it is something you grow from seed, sown when? It could be said that we are mid unlocking here in TN, early daffs, quince, hellebores, daphnes, primroses, iris reticulata, all open, but lots of cold left to go. Those things that are open have to tough it out when the cold snaps come in, it’s just the way it is here. Don’t you think snow gives a good protection to the plants, rather than them being exposed to the cold dry wind?

    Frances at Faire Garden

    You want ‘Kolibri’ kohlrabi for that purple, Frances. I sow the seed now (indoors) for summer harvest and in early August (outdoors) for fall harvest. And yes, definitely, snow makes a fantastic mulch. We’ve hardly had any this winter, though: just rain, rain, and more rain.
    -Nan

  8. We’re getting 1″ of ice tonight. I can’t relate to unlocking unfortunately. I can however, relate to starting to think back in increments of 20 years. That sucks worse than locking or NOT unlocking.

    Your time will come too, Jim! (Er, for unlocking, I mean….)
    -Nan

  9. Just found your blog thru Blotanical. What lovely pictures! I had forgotten all about Vonnegut’s “unlocking.” Funny coincidence: I know his daughter and she and her family have an awesome garden! Her husband is a painter and their garden appears in many of his fabulous landscapes.
    I’ll be checking back! Stop by for a visit,
    Carol
    http://terranovadesign.blogspot.com/

    Welcome, Carol! Wow, that would be his daughter Nanette, I think? That’s so cool.

    I’ll be over for a visit soon!
    -Nan

  10. Unlocking? Sounds about right although I haven’t read Vonnegut. How did I miss reading his books? I have a few vole tunnels here and there but they are nothing compared to the bites the deer have been taking out of everything! Nice post!

    Thanks, Layanee! Sorry to hear about your deer woes. Underground, above ground: It’s always something!
    -Nan

  11. Hi Nan!
    Here in Sweden we have the same weather, for the moment it is cold whith frost in the ground.
    But when it is warmer days the plant grow wery fast and we have a lot of spring flowers who had commes up anyway, as Crokus Helleborus and Hepatica.
    I now that my gardenfrends who lives by the coast in Sweden have big problem in ther garden beacouse the plants have commes a lot more than us, so the cold clemate do a lot of damage.
    We are Helleborus freaks so must say that you have a beautiful pick on ones.
    Regards Ken & Carina

    Hi there, Ken and Carina! You raise a good point: The milder the weather, the more damage possible during the cold snaps. Here’s hoping for a great hellebore season!
    -Nan

  12. Hi, stopping by from Blotanical. Have enjoyed the visit to your blog, and seeing your spring lovelies.

    Welcome, Connie. Thanks for visiting!
    -Nan

  13. Gorgeous photos! I love the hellebores. We’re awaiting the emergence of just about anything here in Ohio, but especially the hellebores!

    Hi Kylee! I too am eagerly awaiting the main batch of hellebores. Hopefully, just another week or two!
    -Nan

  14. Posted by Sylvia on March 6, 2008 at 5:08 am

    Locking – Winter – Unlocking mm.. I think here in the south of England I may not get any winter or very little! But frosts in the ‘unlocking’ can do a lot of damage to the more delicate plants. The best colour on my hellebores are over, but I love them because the seed heads look lovely for so long. I have one odd white double hellebore that doesn’t understand seasons – it has flowered constantly for two years now!

    Best wishes Sylvia

    It’s surprising to think of hellebores being almost over for you, Sylvia, when ours have barely begun. How interesting about your repeat-blooming double white!
    -Nan

  15. I like the concept of “unlocking”. But I believe Nature tossed away the key when she locked down Nova Scotia this winter. :) The change of seasons is gradual on purpose — it gives us all the more time to savor each moment.

    You’re quite right, Nancy: Each day of progress is all the much sweeter after each wintery episode. I’ll wish you some of the milder temperatures were having here in PA today.
    -Nan

  16. What you call unlocking I call mud season. I guess that’s what New Englanders in general call it. Technically I’m not in New England, but have a similar climate.

    Hi Kathy! Goodness, yes, “mud season” is certainly appropriate right about now. I’m *almost* looking forward to it getting cold again this weekend, just to firm up the muck for a day or two.
    -Nan

  17. What a great post. I never thought of this time as “unlocking,” but I suppose it is.~~Dee

    Hi, Dee! Whether you call it “unlocking” or “mud season,” it seems many of us need a special word for this transition time in the garden.
    -Nan

  18. The old Japanese calendar divides the year approximately into 24 fortnights. (I believe the system was originally Chinese). I love some of the names: Insects Awaken, Pure Brightness, Grain Rain, White Dew, Cold Dew.

    We are in the period of “Insects Awaken” and that is certainly true down here in Austin. Although, I might call this week, “Leaf Buds Unfurl”.

    Thanks, mss; I had forgotten about that system. Yes, that could work excellently for the garden calendar, though we’d have to allow for regional variation. Here in PA, I believe we are still in the Fortnight of the Brown Muck. Leaf Buds Unfurl seems a distant hope.
    -Nan

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