My least favorite part of gardening is the late winter/early spring clean up. After four or five months of neglect, my garden is sad and depressing, and just looking at it makes me want to pretend it doesn’t exist. It has been hibernating just as we have, and it is slow to come back to life, just as we are. It is overrun with leaves and other junk, and what’s left of the plants are mostly dry brown leafless sticks. It looks as hopeless as I feel.
And yet, every year I drag myself out there into the despair, with a tiny sliver of faith that someday it will once again be the abundant thriving garden that I love so much.
So here’s how the first foray of the season usually works in my garden:
First, I wait until the weather is bearable — i.e., no snow on the ground, and temperatures somewhere above freezing (this year this didn’t happen until late March). At this point, I venture outside with some gloves, a rake or broom, and a trash bag. I sweep up leaves, pull out anything that I know for sure won’t be coming back to life, and I throw away the junk. This year, in addition to the usual leaves and prickly things, there is actual garbage in our back yard. I have no idea where it came from, but it’s gross.
For a brief moment, I thought this was a snakeskin. Then I remembered we have no snakes in our garden — thank goodness, because I don’t think my heart is ready for that — and I was grateful that it was just “normal trash.”
Our winter was so brutal this year that even our rosemary didn’t survive — and rosemary survives everything. Ugh. That’s about all I can stand to do at this point, and so I call it a day.
A few weeks later, when the weather gets a little warmer, I head back out into the garden for Clean-Up: Round II (this year it was early April, which is later than usual). I trim back shrubs, throw away more junk, and start turning over the soil (I use a hoe for this, but you could also use a sturdy rake or shovel). I glance at the ramshackle pile of garden equipment in the corner, but I’m just not ready to tackle it yet.
Fortunately, as I’m about to throw in the towel, some magical stuff starts to happen. Just as I’m beginning to doubt that the garden was ever living or will ever live again, I see tiny signs of life emerging from the ground. I pull the cold frames off a bed, and there buried under the dead leaves is a small green spinach plant who has survived the winter. Shock and awe! A hint of hope flickers through my mind, and I feel a wave of admiration for this tiny yet hardy little life who sustained itself through the dark days of winter.
And over there, protruding from the nearly-frozen soil are three green sprouts — what in the world are those, I wonder?
Then I remember I planted garlic back in the fall, and there it is, to my great surprise. (The upside to a less-than-perfect memory is that it makes for lots of lovely surprises in life. Silver linings.)
And over here are my two hydrangeas that I butchered down to the ground and transplanted to a new place in the garden (to clear space for more veggies). They look deader than a doornail.
And yet, upon closer inspection, I see a tiny leaf at the base of the dead wood. Is it possible that I didn’t kill the hydrangeas, and they’re going to make it in their new locations? I actually let out a hardy WOOHOO at this, wherein my son comes running and I have to explain to him that I’m cheering about a leaf. Simple pleasures.
The most surprising of all is this plant I bought at the farmer’s market back in October. It looked so promising at the time, though the farmer admitted that he didn’t know if it would make it through the winter. But I bought it anyway — hopeful and naive — and put it in the ground. And sure enough, it died at the first frost.
But because I strongly dislike doing anything in the garden in the winter, I just left the dead wreckage out there through the snow, figuring I’d pull it out in the spring clean up. So fast forward to spring clean up, and here I am preparing to pull it out. But lo and behold, there are several tiny green buds at the base of the vine. It’s not dead! It hibernated like the rest of us, and now it’s coming back. In this case, my procrastination has paid off, and I’ve learned my lesson about giving life the time it needs to complete its cycles.
So I gently pack some fresh soil around it, and give thanks for rebirth. Funny thing is, I had given up on it so quickly that I can’t even remember what kind of plant it is. I think it’s a kiwi, but I could be wrong. So this will be the mystery plant in our garden this year, and we’ll look forward to seeing what kind of fruit it produces come summer.
Now the worst is behind us, and I’m once again feeling hopeful about the season ahead. Like life, the garden is cyclical. And I’m thankful for that.