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April is not too late to start a veggie garden

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In April, the blossoms and bulbs distract the gardener from what’s really going on: a profound seasonal shift from sweater weather to the first of many hot, clammy afternoons. The month’s metamorphosis also awakens an urgent need by many to run out and plant a vegetable garden.

This is easier said than done, as this reader’s plaintive note suggests: “When is the best time to start from scratch? My husband would like to give it a go this year, but I have no energy and think by the time we get started, it would be too late.”

The writer, one infers, knows all about the rigors of garden building: the tenacity of turf against the skimming shovel and the way a tool handle likes to rub raw the web of skin between the thumb and forefinger. She knows about sinking into a hot bath on a Sunday night and hoping to die. She knows about getting up the next morning and pouring Advil on her corn flakes. He is thinking of picking a Brandywine tomato.

Should she scramble now to meet the growing season? Yes. Carving a few square feet of growing bed out of a lawn or, better yet, in an old, cleared ornamental bed, may not constitute the perfect veggie garden, but it’s a start. Just pick an area that is reasonably flat, that drains and is in a sunny spot.

Our native clay soil is a beast, but it can be tamed, initially with large quantities of compost, leaf mold, well-rotted manure, mineral soil conditioners and even sand. Raw sand thrown into clay holes is not much use, but I find it of value thoroughly mixed first with all that organic matter and then incorporated into the soil. A digging fork is the best tool for this. Rototillers fluff up the soil down to about seven inches and then leave you with hardpan beneath.

Would this be a better project for March, or even February? Of course. The ground should be prepped by now and planted. The window on the spring garden is closing. The plodding, diligent gardener will have planted kale and broccoli transplants; sown radishes, beets and lettuce; and put in the peas and the potatoes. But don’t despair: The summer garden can be planted until Memorial Day, with transplants of tomatoes, eggplants and peppers, and sowings of cucumbers, beans and squash.

If you are on the fence, I’d say do it, if only because we are due for a kind growing season after a few that have been too hot or too dry or too something else.

But fundamentally, to the folks struck by what I call April syndrome, I would say: Snap out of it. Gardening, even vegetable gardening, is not a sprint; it’s a marathon. It’s a long-term, cyclical enterprise. April is a key moment, but it is only one in the year.

This was driven home to me last year when I got a community garden plot in mid-March and had to hustle to ready it for the season ahead. Though small, it needed a lot of work: I had to shore up a hill and put in little terraces. I had to build wooden bed frames and rip out the old, ugly fence and build a new one. I wanted to paint the fence before sheathing it in wire mesh.

I struggled and failed to meet the initial spring planting and then saw the rest of the planting period begin to slip from my grasp. One frenetic morning, I looked up to the neighbor’s plot to see the first lone sunflower of the year looking down on me. What was I racing to accomplish, the flower asked, that couldn’t wait until the garden was ready? Suddenly, this self-imposed burden lifted, my blood pressure went down, bliss overcame the angst, and I and the sunflower deemed that this little plot would be completed in its own time.

Sometimes, when we try to seize the day, it seizes us. I’d rather embrace the process.

Follow @adrian_higgins on Twitter for updates on gardening and other cosmic events.

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