The Anna Karenina Principle

Tolstoy, in the beginning of Anna Karenina, says “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

I do not know if he was a gardener, but in terms of weather, it certainly applies.

I know exactly how I would like the seasons to go in my garden—the gentle, frequent rains, the early warmth that does not turn immediately into blazing sun, all the plants sprouting in their proper orders, starting with bloodroot and trillium and ending with milkweed and Joe Pye Weed. The peas are ready for harvest as the beans are starting to sprout, and by the time the peas are completely spent and ready to be chopped at the roots, the beans are taking over the trellises and the tomatoes are flowering.

And indeed, some years it does this.

Every other year, it fails, and it fails spectacularly in a new way every time.*

There was the year that it never froze so that the asters were still going in late January and I was planting onions in a warm rain on Valentine’s Day. It was summer by April and the spring ephemerals emerged into already-leafed out woodlands.

And there was the year it frosted late and froze the buds on the magnolia and the peas wouldn’t sprout at all.

And last year it rained and rained and rained, almost daily, and I never turned on a hose in the garden and some people’s gardens were actually washed away. Plants rotted in the ground. I did not get any peas that year either, and the tomatoes got ten feet tall and had to be trained on trellises and then suddenly it stopped raining and all those shallow root systems stopped working and the garden went brown and crackly by late June.

This year, of course, the weather is bizarre and it is different than any prior year, because spring and summer are happening simultaneously, which is not usual. It was cold until well after the last frost date, and then suddenly everything had to flower all at once. Bees starved and now are faced with a ridiculous feast.

The peas and the beans both are covered in pods. Peas and tomatoes, at the same time? These two do not coexist in my world, particularly not when the cucumbers are still putting out their second sets of leaves. I had spring ephemerals going at the same time as coneflower and holly. The Carolina allspice, which is usually done fairly early, is going and going setting weird ugly fruits and going some more. The first sowing of beets is only now ready for harvest, but the daikons have already bolted. The blueberries aren’t even ripe and the raspberries are already coming in as tiny, dusty magenta balls.

I blinked and missed the strawberries, but then, I always do.

It is as if the garden is determined to have both spring and summer, but since winter overran the allotted springtime, they just threw spring in on top of summer.  Purple milkweed came out and bloomed while butterfly-weed is still barely above ground. My carpet of Green-and-Gold “Eco-Lacquered Spider” (a weird, aggressive native ground cover, but good for where I wanted it) went through its usual spring madness and then died suddenly down, as if it were already high summer.

There are fledglings everywhere, and the tadpoles have their first set of legs. The whippoorwills are calling madly from the woods, and a chuck-widows-will joins in now and again. The moths that had swarmed the porch lights have suddenly all gone off somewhere else and there are only a handful of species showing up, where there used to be a dozen or more a night.

It is all very strange.

Perhaps the day will come, when I’ve been a gardener for many years, when I will see seasons piled on top of each other like this, and I will go “Aha! This is like the spring of ’14! I remember that!”

And then, presumably, some young gardener will look at me with vague dislike and say “Yes, but what do I DO about it?”

It seems unlikely—though not impossible—that my future self will know the answer.



*The Anna Karenina Principle, incidentally, is an actual thing used to describe, among other things, why so few animals can actually be domesticated—to be a good candidate, an animal must meet every single criterion. Throw in one monkey wrench–failure to breed well in captivity, a weird mating ritual that can’t be done on the farm, a difficult dietary requirement—and boom, no domestic zebra or moose or whatever for you.


© 2014, Ursula Vernon. All rights reserved. This article is the property of We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

Related Posts with Thumbnails

Join the Wren Song Community

Wren Winter Singing crop

Free Exclusive Content and Member's Forum

Sign up for a free membership in the Wren Song Community and you'll have access to a lot more valuable information published exclusively for our members.

Meet other passionate wildlife gardeners from around the country. Share your successes. Learn from your failures. Discover the best resources to help you create welcoming habitat for wildlife in your gardens with native plants so that you will attract more birds, butterflies, native pollinators, and other wildlife to your garden.

Learn more about the Wren Song Community


  1. Karen says

    Over a month ago I had a round of tadpoles in the dogs’ water bucket. The dogs drank them, but they were there. This morning there was a fresh round of frog eggs in both of the horse troughs (bathtubs), but not in the mule trough (black rubber trough). Not sure if it’s because of the temperature of the water, or because the mule water gets changed more frequently. The wading pools for the ducks never seem to get frogs, but I’m guessing that is mainly because the ducks eat them.

    The weather has, indeed, been strange.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge