Politicians promise that “everything changes on day 1.” They don’t mean it, and it never does. For gardeners, however, there really is a day when everything changes. That is the day we begin our gardening season.
For me, that day is April 1. I get up early and organize my tools. I call Hudson Valley Organics and order compost; I call Robinson’s and order mulch. Unless it is snowing hard or pouring rain, I will go outside to work for the first time since November 30, the day I officially end my garden season. I edge, I rake, I deadhead, I weed. Each year I wonder, how can there be weeds already? Then, as always, I remember that coming up first and fast and plentiful is usually what makes a plant a weed.
Perhaps I transplant, perhaps I prune, perhaps I even move mulch left over from last year, and after a few hours, I have transformed myself from indoor winter reader and writer to outdoor gardener. Every year on that first day out, I fear that I will have forgotten how to garden or that my body will fail me. Every year I am astonished that I remember and can do.
Early April can be cold in the Northeast, but its delights compensate for the chilled-to-the-bone fingers. There are robins on the lawn in broad daylight yanking worms. There are geese, honest migrating geese, who fly south in the fall and north in the spring, tiny dots way up in the sky but making a great big honk. The dirt in my garden has a deliciously fresh smell that only comes as it begins to dry out from the winter sog. Transplanting, I thrust my hands into the wet, still-chilled soil, grab a soggy plant by its soggy, soggy roots, stick my nose in the dirt that clings to those roots for a whiff of spring, then carry the plant, half asleep, to its new home, satisfied that this early move maximizes its chances for survival.
As I rake the leaves from my garden beds, I imagine I am scratching the scalp of the earth, waking it up with a stimulating comb job. When I have raked and edged the beds, cleaned out all the dead plant material, and covered the beds with a 1-inch layer of compost, I thrill to their tidy, finished look. I want to command them to “stay,” but I know they won’t, and, of course, I really don’t want the season to stop here.
Sometimes in the April garden, there is blood. I have three hemlocks, each of which wants to be 50 feet tall. They must be kept at 10 feet, however, in order to fit their suburban space and do the job of providing an attractive and manageable screen between my property and my neighbors’. They need restraining. Every other year I prune them back in early spring, severely. I work fast; it is the only way to manage a large garden with little help. But rapid pruning can be dangerous. With acutely sharpened clippers, I attack, snipping here, snipping there, snipping me. I take a break, clean the cut, put on a band-aid, and get back to work.
I don’t mind my wounds. My trees “bleed” a bit where I have pruned them, and I bleed a bit where they have scratched me or I have cut myself. I pretend we have signed a covenant to flourish this season, each with our own blood, each in our own way. But one spring, raking out dead leaves from under the ‘Annabelle’ Hydrangeas, I felt something move, just a little, under my rake. I got down on my knees and gently sifted through the leaves. A large toad, exactly the color of the leaves I was raking, sat there looking up at me. I picked her up, then noticed she was bleeding. I had cut her with my rake. The sight of her blood filled me with remorse. If there were an Urgent Care facility for toads, I would have dropped my rake and taken her there.
Listen, a toad in your garden is something to celebrate. Her presence tells you that your efforts to avoid contamination from the pesticides and herbicides spewed by the companies that your neighbors hire to “care” for their lawns are succeeding. Toads are highly susceptible to environmental toxins. Their skin readily absorbs pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and other pollutants. If exposed to unhealthy levels of these things, amphibians can’t survive. So, if you find a toad in your garden, it means your environment is relatively “clean.” I shout when I see a toad in my garden. I know I can’t ask for a better friend. She will eat my beetles and caterpillars and cutworms, my grubs, my slugs, and even, if she is a really big toad, the occasional small rodent. Though a lesbian, I do like princes, but if I thought a kiss might convert a prince to a toad, I could be induced to try it—as long, of course, as another kiss in December would return him to princehood.
I couldn’t put a band-aid on my toad, so instead, I covered her up with leaves and said a prayer for her forgiveness: “Oh, toad, just waking up from your long winter sleep, forgive me for hurting you. Please, please survive this wound and live to eat the insects in my garden on a summer’s day.” I do not know if she did survive. But now, when I rake out under my shrubs in April, I work first with my hands. If I find a toad still half asleep, I put her in a safe place before I pick up my rake. I don’t want any more toad blood on my hands.
Judith Fetterley lives, writes, and gardens in upstate New York. She is the owner and manager of Perennial Wisdom, a small perennial garden design consultancy, and a Master Gardener with Albany County Cornell Cooperative Extension. She has been a gardener for over 35 years, and she writes and talks about her experiences of gardening as a way of telling stories about what it means to be human.