What follows is a collection of stories submitted by readers in response to the theme of “signs of spring.”
Years ago, when our sons were still very young, we walked into the woods on a quiet spring morning. Two magical things happened. The first made me stop in my tracks and listen, listen, listen. The boys did the same, wondering what I was doing. Then I heard it, the beautiful song of the hermit thrush. Even better, the look in my boys’ eyes lighting up as they realized what I was waiting for. After soaking that moment up, we continued to walk, staying present to the wonders around us. The next magical moment came as I spotted something at the base of a large oak tree. It was an acorn that had been split by a brilliant green tendril, making its way out of the acorn and into the rich soil around it. I’ve never witnessed this magical moment, and once again the boys were as fascinated as I was. We looked up at the oak tree, talking about how someday this acorn could grow to the same size. I watched their faces, the wheels turning, looking at the acorn then the oak tree. Yup, it still blows my mind too. All these years later, I think back to that spring day, and I haven’t found another acorn doing its magic since. But that’s ok, it’s still tucked away in my memories, and the hermit thrush reminds me to keep looking when spring comes again.
Apartment living didn’t limit my capacity for dreaming of a luscious, robust garden. The only real sunshine in my tiny second-story garage apartment came from the roof skylights where each day bright beams of light moved across the living room floor from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. Chasing sunbeams did not deter this green thumb. Lacking the proper supplies for starting my seeds inside, I lovingly filled two cardboard egg cartons with soil and placed tomato seeds in them before covering them in plastic wrap. I put the egg cartons on the living room floor and as the day progressed I would carefully slide them to stay centered in the sunbeam.
I watched as they sprouted. The first sight of greenery made my heart skip a beat. When they were three-quarters of an inch tall I was patting myself on the back. At 2 inches I was in party mode.
My husband, always the one to play along, would help move the cartons into the warmest place on the living room carpet. He smiled as I smiled and whispered to “the girls” growing in the egg cartons, “Come on, you can do this.”
The 700 square feet of living space kept us shoulder to shoulder and our dear golden retriever was careful with our seedlings too. The tight fit of the apartment kept us dreaming of warmer days. Each night we’d crawl into bed knowing soon the snow would melt and we’d get to dig in the dirt. Ahh, springtime in Maine.
One night in mid-March, I stumbled from my bed and headed toward the bathroom at the other end of the apartment. I made my way out of the bedroom without turning on the light. It was on my second stride into the living room that my toe caught the first egg carton and sent it, and its sister carton, tomato seedlings and all, flying across the room.
My husband heard the dull, soft thud of my well-placed kick and scrambled to help me recover the seedlings and soil. We gingerly placed them back into their egg-shaped holding place, wiped my tears, and returned to bed.
I nurtured the heck out of those seedlings for another 10 weeks before putting them into a garden where they flourished into delicious Fourth of July, Big Boy, Sun Gold and Cherokee tomatoes.
We’ve since moved from the studio apartment where we chased sunbeams and gloriously own acres that we garden. But, each year since then, in February or March when I plant my seedlings, my jokester husband asks me, “Would you prefer to kick these across the living room now, or wait a few weeks?”
I’ve walked down to my pond for over 60 years now, at different times of the year, but late winter/early spring is one of my favorite times. Then the ice on the northern edge is slowly receding, returning on cold nights but retreating further away on sunny days.
Tiny mosquito larvae appear near the shallow shore — I spotted them and learned what they were when I was very young. I need my reading glasses to really see them clearly at this stage of the game. In the nearby wet woods, I often jump woodcock (or they jump me), returning now from warmer climates along with red-winged blackbirds. It always seems that I hear the male redwings announcing their arrival before I see them surveying my pond. In a few weeks, the ice will have mostly disappeared, and the chorus of wood frogs and spring peepers will fill the air.
The small vernal stream, which drains the pond, is beginning to thaw and its current swells and deepens. There’s some of the still-green leaves of the cardinal flower showing under the remnant ice. Further down in a sunny opening, one of the hard to identify (for me) sedges is already sending up green blades to begin the year. And beside it, half under water, its buds swelling and ready to open to bright yellow blossoms is the marsh marigold, one of my grandmother’s favorite spring vegetables (cowslip greens).
Working my way back to my gardens, I spot the fluttering wings of a mourning cloak butterfly, one of the few species that overwinter here as adults, hibernating behind some loose piece of bark. A broken sugar maple branch is dripping sap on to the ground — I taste its subtle sweetness.
In the vegetable garden, I wait for the ground to thaw to dig parsnips. Planting peas and spinach … not far off.
In my flower beds, I start digging and potting perennials around the first of April, beginning in those well-drained sunny beds where the snow and frost has left the ground. Johnny jump-ups are practically in bloom even now. I look toward the shade gardens where the hellebores are beginning to flower, still surrounded by a blanket of snow.
A few perennials are evergreen, but most are herbaceous, dying completely back to the ground for the winter. I have my garden plan book with me — until they start to sprout a leaf or two, it’s not that easy to differentiate an aster from a kalimeris just by their roots; it’s sometimes impossible to do the same for cultivars and varieties of a species even with their leaves visible. The voice of a returning phoebe interrupts my concentration, but that’s ok — they only eat insects and such, so I know winter is over.
It is and has been one of the great pleasures of my life to work and play outside in my gardens and welcome back spring.
North Saco, Maine
Signs of spring:
The snow melts back from trunks of trees, and grass peeps through beneath the evergreens.
Maple sap dripping into pails. And the wood ducks will fly back to the old dead tree by the sugar house.
A robin appears and chirrups and you hear the sounds of red-winged black birds, “conkloreee.”
Buds swell on the tamaracks.
The melted snow forming ice in potholes; melted by late day sun.
Hints of red buds appear on top of red maples.
Chipmunks reappear and the wooly bears thaw.
Lilac buds with hints of green,
And the coltsfoot’s bright yellow blossoms line the edges of the sandy road.
These are the signs that spring is on its way to me.
Stockton Springs, Maine, and Craftsbury Common, Vermont
Five quarts of syrup
left. Looks like we’ll make it ’til
March. Sweet Dreams.
The signs of spring seem to have changed here over the past few decades. Once upon a time, the harbingers were the flocks of robins that spread out across the lawn, vernal search parties tracking down the lost worms of autumn. Now they sit in the apple tree in January, their red breasts catching my eye in the falling snow as the winter Macouns sprout wings and fly away.
For many years the clusters of purple and white crocus in the front garden were reliable reminders that the earth was warming again, their slender green spears and creamy blossoms a gift left at the bank by a friend on the day we signed our construction loan into a mortgage all those years ago. In the many iterations of the garden over the decades, the bulbs have been lost to time and soil and blooms no longer find their way.
Even the spring quickening of the trees has changed in our tiny woods. The poplars and birches that barely survived the ice storm of 1998 are all but gone now, old soldiers falling in every subsequent storm, the haze of their first unfurling tips now missing in the canopy of pine and fir.
What returns here without variation when the calendar unexpectedly bows towards spring is the softening of frozen staccatos. There is the smell of frost rising through mud. The air becomes buoyant again, holding sound in all directions at once. Water moves with defiant jubilation. And the sun begins to light the way to the chicken coop once more.
It must have been about 2002 or 2003, when my mother, a long time journal-keeper herself, gave me a small leatherbound notebook and told me I should keep a journal. It took a year or so for me to get into the routine of daily entries, but eventually I started jotting down a line or so each morning while eating breakfast.
The first dated entries are from 2004 and relate to the arrival of spring: on the 11th, the first phoebe returned to the yard and on the 15th we heard the first peepers. On April 17 of that year, we noted the first woodcocks were mating (heard — not seen) and that the daffodils along the south side of the house were “well along with nice buds, but nothing open yet.”
The journal is well into its fifth volume at this point, and perhaps the one most consistent item — noted year after year — is the date on which the first daffodil bloom opens on the south side of the house. It’s varied throughout the month of April, coming as early as April 1 (in 2010) and as late as the 30th (in 2015).
Of course, the journal has many notes about the garden, the orchard and, this being Maine, the weather in general. It gets referred to often, as, especially in the depths of winter, one wants to remember sunny July mornings in the garden, picking the first of the string beans and waiting anxiously on the tomatoes.
I would encourage anyone who likes to remain in touch with the seasons to keep a journal — if only to be able to remind yourself on what date spring really arrived last year.
Garlic is a very special crop at Whitehill Farm. We grow for our own use, for customers at our local farmers’ market, for value-added products and, of course, for planting stock. There’s nothing much tastier than a crisp dill pickle: cucumbers grown right here, seasoned with dill and fresh sliced garlic. And pickled garlic scapes are a unique and delightful treat! At the end of the season putting the garden to bed for the winter is a necessary job, but it also means planting the next year’s garlic crop. That planting is my harbinger of spring … The garlic will sprout right along with the first crocuses next spring, thus bringing the gardening seasons around full circle!
Amy LeBlanc, East Wilton, Maine