August 04, 2020

For gardeners, spring is the season of patience

Last weekend, I sat on the stoop, staring at my perennial bed and the brittle sedum that reached up from the ground like a dying man’s hands.

Tulip foliage broke through the leaf-littered mulch, and a sole yellow crocus opened its petals to soak up the sun. From the look of it, spring had finally arrived, so I put on my gloves, grabbed my pruning shears and a small rake and got to work clearing out the bed.

When I pulled away the withered sedum, I saw green nubs at the base of the plants that were ready to grow. The leaves were easy to clean up, but I took special care to gather the “helicopters” because, as I thought to myself, the last thing I needed was more Norway maple saplings.

But I was wrong.

The last thing I needed was more snow.

I should’ve known better. I’ve lived here long enough to expect an early April storm. Still, when I woke up Thursday morning, I felt like I had the wind knocked out of me.

Sure, the tulips were still there. Underneath a foot of the white stuff. The magnolia and forsythia buds were buried. And my spring mood?

It was enough to make me throw in the trowel.

Then I remembered the Jiffy trays on top of my gas fireplace. Warmed by the pilot light, my onions had sprouted. So, too, had my leeks. A week before, one of my gardening friends and I had traded seed-starting tips – this year, she used an abandoned 20-gallon aquarium: “The warmer light intended for the fish has been a wonderful asset,” she wrote in an e-mail.

When I replied that my fireplace really did the trick, she suggested I write about “the many ways we frustrated Maine gardeners goose spring into our planting season.”

Instead, I’m writing this piece. About the small and miraculous ways we find solace in this too-short growing season.

I grew up in a place that had spring – not just mud season, but spring. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept (I’m beginning to forget, actually), we had warm, sunny days in which you could wear short sleeves and – if you were brave – shorts. We even wore skirts without stockings.

Our tulips and daffodils bloomed in stages – not all at once – and the air held a distinctive smell of thawing ground and fresh growth. Yes, it occasionally snowed. But then it melted. Immediately.

I have to believe that this thing called spring still exists somewhere. But April in eastern Maine is neither the time nor the place.

So I start seeds. And I coddle my orchids. And I fertilize my houseplants religiously. I set up grow lights in a spare bedroom so my seedlings won’t get leggy. And I scribble down notes in my garden journal, a small, fabric-bound book with abstract blades of grass on the cover. The irony is grass refuses to grow well in my yard.

But a girl can dream. Of a garden unsullied with snow. Of towering sunflowers and tomatoes ripening on the vine. Of pepper sprouts on the fireplace.

Gardening, by its very nature, requires optimism and faith. I have to believe that my beets will thrive beneath the soil. And I need to trust that my peas will pop, even if I’ve planted them in a cold, muddy row.

Every time I look out the window at my snowy yard, I remind myself of the onions and the leeks. Every time I pass the fireplace, I assure myself that the peppers will, in fact, sprout.

Hope springs eternal. Even if spring doesn’t.

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