The Rite(s) of Spring

Mainers will tell you they hate the winter. And some of us do. But what we really hate is the spring.

The problem isn’t necessarily the weather itself, though the manic teasing of sunny warmth pulled back with a whip-crack of snow flurries does wear thin at times. Nor is the issue the omnipresent mud that manifests from the thawing of the ground and the frequent rains of the season.

No, the real issue is that spring is fleeting, and it’s full of work. It’s a cruel hourglass, full of stolen weekends and unpleasant tasks (more on that later). By way of example, these two photographs are of the exact same chunk of the property. The first is April 18, 2020, just after melting off the last snowfall:

And this next photograph was from late June 2019, when we first moved in:

Yeah.

Less than sixty (60) days from frozen ground to exploded verdance. It’s beautiful, to be sure, but it’s also a juggernaut of an ecosystem headed your way, and there’s a lot to do to prepare.

The long list of obnoxious post-winter tasks largely involves clean-up: picking up the windfall branches and dead limbs from the winter; rounding up the festival of litter that has surely blown in over six months; and dealing with the comical amount of gravel the local municipality gleefully put on the roads and then plowed into your yard.

(Side note: when I returned to Maine full-time after my decade of exile, I was shocked – and I mean to the core – to see people using a special spinning brush attachment for their weed-whackers specifically designed to get gravel out of grass and back into the culvert. I cannot tell you how many calloused hands and burning shoulders I had in my youth from attempting the same thing with a flaccid leaf rake and a lot of foul language.)

But the big task, the one that looms large over everything else, and the one whose jungle-drum beats the loudest in the early morning hours of a cold April, is the preparation of the summer garden.

Maine has a very short growing season, in terms of number of days. Planting means getting clear of the danger for hard frosts, which can last well into May. There are few things as defeating as losing two (2) whole months of work nurturing fragile seedlings to a freak mid-May hard frost. And, for many of us, the summer garden isn’t a novelty – it’s a very substantial portion of yearly food.

The real irony, however, is that the native grasses laugh a hearty laugh at the cold, and start growing almost immediately after the snow is gone. So, the race to the garden beds becomes a dance of preparing them to take plants and retain moisture and soil composition/nutrients, while keeping the damn grass and weeds away.

You can start see why Mainers hate the spring.

Anyway, our own journey starts here. We took possession of this property in late June of last year, meaning we weren’t in place for a full growing season. Further, the prior owners (understandably) didn’t plan a garden for that summer, so we were out of luck for anything other than some hands-on-hips sighing at overgrown impossibilities.

Our eventual garden space lay just the other side of this lush web. Don’t worry, it’s still intact. What’s hard to see from the photo is the hip-high patch of grasses just behind.

Well, we used Old Man Winter to our advantage, and in more ways than one.

With the grass dead, and the snow melted, we were able to survey and outline a preliminary garden footprint:

The mess at the far end there is our ramshackle compost bin we compiled from some downed limbs and green reeds. Anyway, we’d had our eyes on this spot for our first garden since the late fall, and you can see we’d been hitting it with some ash leftover from the wood stove all winter, and had moved the visible rocks from it before the first snow. That said, it was still a well-woven grass-mat in need of turning:

We’re trying to take a permaculture approach to gardening, one of the tenants being an aversion to tilling or significant digging. And, as we’ll update in some future posts, we are trying those methods with some other beds this summer that will hopefully be ready next spring (2021). For this year, however, we didn’t really have a choice. So, I made it hurt, and did it by hand.

Following the turning, we covered the bed with hay and straw to help retain moisture and keep the soil from blowing away dust-bowl style:

Aaaaaand, then it snowed:

If this perspective looks familiar, it’s because it’s the same as the first two photos on this post

Well, from the storms (as well as several others throughout the winter) we had a lot of wind-fallen birch trees. Waiting for the ground to thaw seemed like a good time to make some fence posts, so out came the axe and the saw:

Small birch trees, still with limbs
Limbs taken off with the hatchet
Sized to five (5) feet with a saws-all

Why a fence? Well, between the deer and the wild rabbits, nothing edible lasts for long without some sort of barrier.

From here, we sank the posts about eighteen (18) inches into the ground, and secured with compacted dirt and stones:

Next up: chicken wire with a staple gun, and forming up our mound-beds with some room to move.

We’ll close that gap with a gate once we’re planted, but for now, the heavy lifting of spring is done. We also covered our planting mounds with hay to try and keep ahead of that pesky grass I was talking about earlier.

So what do we do until planting? Well, I’m working on getting some rocks around the exterior base as both a pest repellent, a snake habitat (love predators in my garden), and a thermal barrier (the rocks heat up all day in the sun, and release their heat at night):

Maine is full of rocks, but it’s slow and dirty work. Luckily, a sentinel stands watch, ready to eat the first tomato so that the thieves can’t.

Next up: seedling preparation, and planting. Coming soon!

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