Am I getting gaga, or is this one of the most beautiful spring seasons we have had recently? The soft green haze, interrupted by bursts of white and pink from our cherry and magnolia trees, seems to fill the air with hope. The sense of renewal is palpable.

On the ground level, our tulips look like brightly colored Easter eggs, while the intense yellow daffodils bring poetry to mind along with a knowing smile. So often, our spring bulbs are smashed to the ground by gale-force March winds and rain. Those snarly storms have been mostly absent this year, after wreaking some terrible damage late last year.

Or was it all the rain in March that caused this huge set of blooms this year?

I have specie rhododendrons that are covered with blooms and small, newer rhododendrons that have bloomed long before the proposed seven-year wait for blooms. Specie rhododendrons are the parents of our hybrid rhododendrons that are noted for their huge and brightly colored blooms.

If you are interested in the specie type of rhododendrons, then you must visit the Rhododendron Specie Foundation (RSF) Garden in Federal Way. Even if your summer and fall houseguests/visitors arrive past the main bloom period, the plants themselves are quite special, even without their flowers.

Specie rhododendrons have a striking number of different foliage types so that, in many ways, the flowers themselves become less important. The hybrid rhododendrons, due to standard hybridization techniques, have basically dull-green, somewhat-narrow foliage. They have become ubiquitous due to their very showy and wide-ranging colorful blooms.

Most people, when they talk about wanting dramatic foliage in their gardens, look to the tender banana plants, or the Phormiums, which soon become impenetrable thugs in our small gardens.

A journey to the RSF garden is a visual delight at any time of the year. Yes, they sell plants. Also at the garden, the staff is able to educate us about many, many companion plants. 

Special ferns

Having turned my back on the common hybrid rhododendrons, I have, however, fully embraced the native sword fern, Polystichum munitum. You have seen it holding up our hillsides, with its old green and brown fronds smashed down to the ground. It is a very useful plant for stopping hillside soil erosion. Its unique beauty is lost out in the wild, but in our gardens, one can make that beauty visible.

 The old fronds need to be cut back to the core. Then, at this time of the year, the fat and fuzzy, bronze fiddleheads unfurl at a great pace. They are fascinating to watch in the spring garden and are quickly followed by tender, green, luxuriant fronds. Once established, these ferns can exist with no additional summer water. Think it through: Our “native” hillsides are not irrigated during the summer months.

I use these ferns to soften all the uninteresting edges of my garden. The steep slope by the garage, for example, is not where I want to spend “gardening” time. The ferns thrive and get their “haircut” once a year.

Once you have seen the beauty in ferns, then your next step is to familiarize yourself with Judith Jones’ fern emporium Fancy Fronds in Gold Bar, Wash. She has been at this collecting, propagating, selling gig for many, many years. Her list of Dryopteris ferns makes me salivate.

Start with Dryopteris wallichiana: Its fronds are 3 feet high, with great articulation along the fronds.

Or her description of a smaller, special fern: “Sunset Fern (Dryopteris lepidopoda) — This has become one of my favorite Dryopteris, with its brilliant orangey-red, new, unfurling fronds, which slowly evolve into a sheeny olive-green.… I first saw this in Martin Rickard’s Shropshire garden in 1991 and [was] able to bring spores back so I was able to introduce it into the U.S. market in my 1993 catalog. The species names translates as ‘scaly foot,’ so I opted to dub this with the common name of ‘Sunset Fern,’ in reference to its brilliant spring color so reminiscent of an Arizona sunset.”

More than gardening tasks

Enough reading and writing — it is time to run to the garden. The sun is out, and the list of tasks is long.

They say that spring is when everything happens at once in the garden. There is some truth to that, but, oh, the joys that all this unfurling brings to the soul. Gardens are more than just a list of tasks. They are strong visual reminders about continuity and renewal.

MADELEINE WILDE is a longtime Queen Anne resident. To comment on this column, write to