Early spring turns everything brown with promise of growth
“Are you going a different way?” my daughter asked as I drove the usual back roads to her friend’s house about two weeks ago.
“No,” I said. “It’s just a very ugly time of year. Everything looks like mud.”
She looked more closely, and began to recognize landmarks. “You’re right,” she said. “It’s hideous.”
People wax poetic about the beauty of spring but the start of the season, pre-spring you might call it, is nothing but ugly. The snow and ice — yes, we still have some up north where I live — have turned brown. The exposed earth is the same color. Driveways are deep trenches of mud and the yards smell like dog turds.
Even the houses look like they’ve been coated in grime, dingy and dull, surrounded by mud in a barren landscape of sticks.
But it doesn’t last long. Soon the dun-colored world starts greening up and the fresh smells of spring cover up the musty old smells that emerged from under the ice.
And that ice is going fast. On Monday we watched eagles and crows feast on a deer carcass — road kill that someone slides onto the ice-covered lake for the birds every winter. Two days later it was gone, along with the ice that had held it up. “Deer sinking season,” the daughter calls it.
No more free buffets for the eagles. But with the water open, they can resume their fishing.
Two weeks ago, March was nothing but a promise, that warmth and green and flowers would follow. A week later it was hot, and the kids dug out their summer clothes. “What happened to my shorts?” my son asked, surprised that they had somehow become a lot smaller over the winter.
Through the brown patches and road sand on the edge of a neighbor’s lawn, purple, white and yellow crocuses popped up, so bright they looked fake. Another neighbor’s yard sprang forth daffodils, not yet in bloom, but green and budding. Friends farther south already have magnolias and tulips. Not us. We have ice in the flower garden. But not for much longer.
The vegetable gardens are clear, and the chickens have been doing their early season soil turning, scratching and pecking for bugs, worms and anything that sprouts and tastes green. The yolks of their eggs will soon turn from yellow to orange as they get that good, wild food into their systems.
There’s no ice at all in the ground, unusual for this early in the season. That means this week should find us planting peas and early greens, and scouting for dandelion sprouts and wild garlic ramps. Like the chickens, we’re longing for fresh greens.
Indoors, on the shelves by the windows, seeds are starting to come up, another promise. My son wants the seed shelf moved away from the window, so he can climb out it onto a small piece of roof he likes to read on. “Do you want to eat this year or not?” I ask him. “The shelf will only be there another month.”
By then, we can start moving plants outside, into hot frames and cold frames, and a couple of shelving units that have their own zippered plastic wraps that turn them into mini-greenhouses.
The heat-loving plants — tomatoes and peppers, which can’t be planted for real before Memorial Day — will go into the hot frames. We dig a deep trench by the stone wall near the garden, put in a layer of composting (and heating) manure, cover that with a layer of dirt, and set the seedling pots on top. The trench gets covered by old windows, and it’s amazing how warm it gets. We’ll start our melons there.
More cold-tolerant plants can go in the cold frames, which are just old wooden beehives set on top of the ground. They make small frames, about 10 inches high, to put plants inside of; we cover the top with a sheet of plastic and let everything grow.
The frames let the plants get the full benefit of the sun, and the glass or plastic holds in moisture. Sometimes we have to lift the lid to prevent it from getting too hot inside.
NOT OVER YET
But I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s still only March, and that means there’ll still be nights when we have to throw a blanket or a tarp over the whole frame so our plants don’t freeze. Because we will have more frozen nights, and plenty of them, before spring fully takes hold.
Someone even told me we’re expecting snow by the end of this week. March is just like that.
Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Send questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.