With spring comes the desire to dig, head to a nursery

April 02, 2005|By ROB KASPER

ALL IT TAKES is a few brave crocus plants to poke their heads through the sodden soil and my urge to scratch the ground, to plant something, is overwhelming.

This weekend, rainy though it may be, does promise an hour more daylight (daylight-saving time starts tomorrow) and that alone will make a lot of us gardeners anxious to get ourselves out of winter storage.

Eventually, it will get warmer and those first nice days of spring can, I have learned, be a dangerous time to wander into your friendly garden-supply store. If you happen to find yourself situated between a pack of feverish gardeners and flats of perennials on sale, there is not much society can do to save you. Moreover, anytime you spot a vehicle loaded with mulch and pansies moving in your general direction, you should head for high ground.

Every spring I crave to muck things up. Perhaps it is because a plot of ground, so cold, so gray, so seemingly lifeless, can, with a few strokes of nature's hand, be transformed into something green, growing and full of promise. Such a shift makes you think there is a chance to improve the other gray areas of your life. There probably isn't, but spring is a season flush with hope.

At the first sound of the cardinal's call, memories of the failures of years past wash away like the winter's road salt. Gone are the thoughts of the squirrel that ate the tulip bulbs, or the voles that devoured the watermelons, tunneling in from the bottom of the fruit, leaving only the bright shell and the false impression that soon you would enjoy sweet melons. Forgotten are the failed, buggy turnips.

As soon as the sun comes out, so do the shovels, and the firm purposes of amendment. I was all set to roll around in the dirt this week until I spoke with Dave Martin, an agent with the Maryland Cooperative Extension Service in Baltimore County.

In a word, he told me "Whoa!"

Despite what the stirrings of my soul or my bunions might suggest, it is too early, he said, to do any serious digging.

The ground is too wet, Martin explained, reminding me that working saturated soil compresses it, making it behave more like concrete than the loose, loamy mixture that plant roots love.

A good way to test the ground, he said, is to grab a handful of soil in your fist. If the soil forms a ball, if it sticks together, it is too wet to work. Until it is as loose and airy as, say, the deductions your boastful neighbor says he claimed on his income tax, then, I gather, you can't plant.

Since March was especially soggy - depositing more than an inch more rain than the normal 3.9 inches of moisture seen in the state - I figure chances are good that nine of every 10 fistfuls of dirt grabbed around Maryland this weekend will be mud balls.

Besides being damp, March had some shivering days that felt like they had sneaked across the border from February. All this means that things are sprouting a little later than normal. Even the crocuses have been a little late, said Martin, who as an agricultural agent of some standing, has close ties to the crocus-watchers of the region.

Instead of a full-fledged revel in the dirt, folks can, when the weather clears, deal with their pent-up gardening urges by clearing out winter kill, Martin told me.

Trimming dead branches and raking up leaves benefits both the soil and the gardener, he said. The clean-up prepares the ground for the warmer, drier days ahead. It also prepares the gardener and his winter-weary muscles for the more intense-digging days on the horizon. That made sense to me. Every year after I dig my vegetable garden, I am amazed how much work it is, and how good the beer tastes when I am finished. A little warm-up workout with the rake might get me in better shape for heavy shoveling later.

My calls to other extension service offices around the state did not yield much additional gardening advice. In Dorchester County, folks reported they were grateful they could see the ground, when it wasn't covered with rainwater. In Garrett County, reports were that residents were also happy to see the soil now that the snow was finally melting.

I think it is safe to say that despite the exciting appearance of the crocus, and the itchy enthusiasm of spring gardeners, this will be another weekend devoted to garden planning, rather than a planting.

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