Looking at the art of gardening from a purely pragmatic and dispassionate point of view, we might conclude that gardening consists mostly of planting, growing and maintaining plants that are not native to the area.

On the other hand, we all live in a garden that no one planted. The wild trees, shrubs, annuals and perennials growing all around us comprise what I refer to as “nature’s garden.” And long before our beloved cultivated plants even consider blossoming, the plants in nature’s garden have already put on new growth. One wildflower has already begun blooming, lending bright color to an otherwise drab landscape.

Coltsfoot, Tussilago farfara, like so many of our “weeds,” arrived in this country with the earliest European settlers. The plant was, and is, used to treat several medical conditions. Since then it has become naturalized and now lives in large colonies wherever it finds disturbed ground. Roadside colonies of coltsfoot are common, especially along dirt roads.

A relative of the dandelion, coltsfoot has smaller, more tightly packed blossoms. While coltsfoot reproduces just fine on its own, those wishing for late-winter color can harvest seeds in summer and hand-distribute them in a sunny location with poor soil. In my case, the edges of a gravel drive made for perfect coltsfoot habitat. Hand-sowing the fluffy seeds will result in flowers the following year and for years to come. Coltsfoot self-seeds readily, making future plantings unnecessary. Coltsfoot ranks among the first wildflowers to bloom, even as snow sweeps across Maine and ice on lakes and ponds has yet to melt.

Spring pastels

If fall resonates in the hearts of poets because of its brightly colored leaves, then the pastel greens of spring come in a close second for serene beauty. The difference between the two seasons is that autumn is a time of dying. The plant world goes underground, so to speak, for the winter. But spring stands as a time of resurrection and new life.

Trees stand stark and bare in winter, but now, in March, new life courses through their vascular systems. Some trees bear colorful flowers, but these flowers rarely get the recognition that they deserve. Members of the maple family bear delicate, yet colorful, flowers.

Long before leaves unfold, maples present us with spring color. When viewed from afar, blooming maples brighten the landscape in a gentle and comforting manner. A close inspection reveals that trees are covered with red flowers. A vase of maple twigs in flower make for a delightful springtime arrangement.

One of my favorite springtime sights is of poplar trees on a distant hill. Poplar buds swell in early spring and when the leaves unfold sometime in early April, the hill becomes swathed in a delightful lime green.

And then we have the willows. In early March, willow twigs acquire a yellowish cast. And soon, catkins will follow. While pussy willows, with their silvery-gray catkins, are the signature willow of spring, all willows, and there are numerous species, develop catkins.

Here, too, nature provides us with the makings of springtime bouquets. A vase filled with pussy willows tells us that spring has arrived. But take care not to fill the vase with water, otherwise the catkin-laden twigs will continue growing and eventually become encrusted with pollen,which is quite messy. A bunch of pussy willow twigs with their fuzzy catkins, when dried, will last at least for years. The only reason to replace them is that they collect dust. And how do we dust pussy willows?

Obviously, we don’t, so when last year’s pussy willows become dull and dust-covered, it’s time to go out and pick a new bunch. And that’s OK, since each spring carries its own rewards and picking a bouquet of pussy willows ranks among the best of them.

Also by late March and into early April, grass, especially on damp or perennially wet lawns, turns emerald green. This dazzling green contrasts nicely with the red flowers of red and sugar maples and the dull green of poplars. It’s a scene that only lasts for a few weeks, however. All the more reason to embrace it.

Wild veggies

While our cultivated vegetables are yet to be planted, nature’s garden offers us wholesome and nutritious alternatives. Some wild edibles persist through winter and despite ice and snow, come alive as soon as snow cover melts. One of these is common chickweed, Stellaria media, a garden weed that most people despise. But others, aware of its culinary value, treasure it. Count me in the latter category.

Chickweed has a rather prostrate growth habit and the slender stems can reach to 16 inches. Leaves are ovate, meaning they are somewhat egg-shaped. One clump of chickweed can give us enough for several meals. Very young, tender leaves can mate with other salad ingredients, but my favorite use is to briefly steam the greens until they change color. These make a very palatable cooked green. The best part of chickweed is that it ranks among the very first edible wild plants of the season.

Another early green, dame’s rocket, Hesperis matronalis, like chickweed, persists over the winter and becomes available as soon as snow melts. The leaves offer a somewhat spicy taste (dame’s rocket belongs in the mustard family and has a slight “mustardy” aspect). These need boiling for about three to five minutes, or until tender. After that, just drain and serve. And know that with this oft-overlooked wild green, you are getting a heaping dose of vitamin C, along with sulphenes and trace minerals.

Tom’s tips

For a great addition to any salad, wild or otherwise, nature’s garden offers us a special springtime treat. The shoots of common cattail, which at this time are still underwater, become available as soon as ice melts in shallow ponds and wet areas where cattails grow.

To harvest, just don rubber boots and wade out to the dry cattail stubble from last year. Grab the dried tops and slowly pull upward until the entire root mass pops out of the muck. With luck, the roots will have new shoots developing. These run about one inch long and are pure white. Just rinse and chop before adding to salads.