Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Spring Fever

It happens every year about this time. The soil warms and roots begin to stir. The slant of light from my window grows a bit longer. A few subtle shifts—a few degrees of warmth, a few minutes more of light—and I erupt into a fit of howling lunacy.

When the earth shifts, it is like some enzyme gets triggered in my brain that tips everything off balance. I become plant obsessed, soil obsessed, garden obsessed. Yes, I am fully aware that when it comes to plants, I am already borderline obsessive. Already I write, teach, speak, and make my livelihood with horticulture and landscape. But in spring, my seemingly controlled curiosities turn into wild hysteria.

Remember how Bruce Banner transforms into the Hulk, right? It feels exactly like that, except without the muscles (could have used those . . .) Mild mannered landscape architect turns into raving plant lunatic. The other night, I awoke at four in the morning thinking about the soil in my garden. Did it have too much organic matter? Should I move some leaf mulch over against the house? Which edging should I use for the path I’m planning in the border? Fieldstone? Can I get it square enough? How would I set that so that it looks crisp? And what plant would work best with those brown colors in the stone? It needs to pop, so maybe orangish—no, that won’t work next to all those red blooming plants.

The next thing I know, I’m outside under the streetlight with a shovel, transplanting a perennial. If the cops come by, they’ll think I’m burying a body.

Two nights ago, I awoke at 3:30 am and decided I had to buy 5 burgandy Eucomis for the garden. By 3:45 am, I had placed my order online.

Other times—even during the day—I have this half dream about dissolving into soil. Surely, I need to be medicated, right?

Several years ago, The Los Angeles Times ran a story that looked at the scientific causes of spring fever. Apparently, the body’s internal chemistry is affected by changes in light. Melatonin drops, causing more wakefulness, seratonin rises, causing more giddiness. But my favorite part of the article was not the more scientific descriptions of shifts in neurotransmitters, it was the more romantic speculation of why spring fever occurs:

"Anthropologists have suggested that spring fever may have developed over the course of human evolution. They point out that early humans often spent winter in a state of near-hibernation. Then, when spring arrived, they would enter an active period of intense hunting, gathering and procreating."

That’s it! I’m not crazy; I’m just more in sync with my primordial self. In harmony with my inner caveman.

My spring fever reminds me of what I love most about gardening: the mysterious pull to the earth. We pull weeds, mow our yards, and plant pansies, but we’re really scratching some ancient itch designed to help us survive.


  1. So we are not is all scientific!

    That's good to know as I get over taken in a similar way. However, before I get that real burst of energy, I must go through a somewhat depressed state due to how terrible everything looks after the winter.

    Once that is all taken care of (and it usually takes awhile since I discover this long before it can be addressed), then I can go forth with my obsessive behavior.

    Very enjoyable post.

  2. Thomas, what a wonderful post, - I reflect on every word, describing "the symptoms" and happy with the final diagnosis. I know I'll LIVE! Glad to see others with the same crazy shine in the eye.

  3. Thomas, this is so perfect and timely! I write this bleary eyed after a terrible night of sleep, due to the fact that I was lying in bed planning gardens in my head at 3 a.m. I have yet to get up and start digging at 3 a.m., but have been known to try to do it at 6 a.m. The only problem is that this year, with the mild winter, we didn't get our adequate season of hibernation!

  4. This had me laughing out loud! What a fun post to read.

  5. Thank goodness there is no cure for Spring Fever- think of all the fun we would miss! Happy Spring Thomas!

  6. Susan,

    Yes, I was quite relieved to know I'm not turning into a werewolf. There is a reason. And YES, the depression over how the garden looks now is defintiely a part of it. It's what motivates me to change EVERYTHING (again ;)).

  7. Olga,

    That's exactly why I get such comfort from being around other gardeners. Not just because I enjoy their company. But also because it confirms that I'm not the only foaming-at-the-mouth plant nut.

  8. Brookems,

    Maybe we should have a support group. And we should meet at 3:30 in the morning, since that's when we need it the most!

  9. Mario,

    You sound like you're having too much fun with your spring fever. Mine is too exhausting. But a very happy spring to you as well!

  10. So happy to hear I am not the only way who has plant-induced insomnia! But, I daresay some of my greatest moments of design clarity come at 4am.
    The forsythia is blooming here in Minnesota earlier than ever and it is hard not to jump the gun and want to get started. Alas, last frost is still 6 weeks away! At least that means I have 6 more weeks to plot and scheme about what I want to get done in the yard this summer.

  11. Dear Thomas, your writing is stellar. But that special skill does not in any way cover up, or muddy up your voice. I can count on anything you write to be heartfelt. Many thanks for this. Deborah

  12. Thomas, I had never thought of the Incredible Hulk as a gardening metaphor -- but didn't he turn green as his muscles bulged and his shirt ripped? With the recent warm temperatures, my plants are acting hulk-like; today, I noticed new growth of hostas and platycodon already up. (This is in my Gettysburg garden, but still -- in March??) I enjoyed the biochemical explanations for spring fever. -Jean

  13. Great post! I too have been known for ordering bulbs at 4am...your not alone.

  14. I find this utterly charming. Thankfully, I'm too deep of a sleeper for midnight plant shopping.


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