Whether Robert Frost originally coined the term or not I do not know, but ‘mud time’ must be the simplest and most accurate expression to describe the period from the last snow melt to the first tulip blush. It has arrived, and each day is a new adventure in negotiating paths, roads, chicken coops and garden beds.
Mud time is a period of frustration for the gardener, who, feeling the sun on his back after months of ice and snow, is anxious to get outside and tidy up winter debris without further delay. Instead he finds himself in a soupy mess that repels all attempts at order, and tacks an extra fifteen minutes to each hour’s worth of outside work.
In fact, mud time is frustrating for most people other than New England poets with an enviable sense of patience and a flair for colloquial verse. My husband’s muttered curses as he spins out the back-end of the trailer are hardly poetic; and I find that without discipline, my thoughts run not to the emerging daffodils or the sight of reddening maples, but to the likelihood that I’m going to end up face down in the chicken coop when I try and catch a broody hen.
Could we but leave everything alone out there for a few weeks, there would be less gnashing of teeth and renting of garments, but this is not the gardener’s way [see above]. There are time-sensitive tasks to be undertaken and we must negotiate with our mud. So, in the interests of promoting the joy of spring, the love of outside and the serene outlook of Frost, I give you my list of guiding principles for the next few weeks as you begin to gear up in the garden:
If it’s not important, don’t do it – The harm you may do by compacting soil around roots, creating deep tracks in lawns, and quite frankly, frustrating yourself to a point of madness, means that jobs should be absolutely critical to be attempted right now. A broken fence – critical. A pond excavation – not so critical. It’s actually clinically insane.
Have a back-up plan – If it’s a particularly long or cold mud time, consider starting direct-sown seeds (such as peas) indoors and planting out when the earth is a bit more friable. Otherwise you may be re-sowing seeds to replace ones that have rotted.
Clean up around outside pots – Sitting in two inches of accumulated mud is no way to start the spring, and most plants won’t survive it. Make sure your pot ghetto is free from winter debris that could block drainage and contribute to sudden plant death syndrome.
Tend to your inside gardening – If the promise of spring is pushing you, but the realities of spring are hindering you, finish up the inside jobs that I know you haven’t finished (because I haven’t either). Sharpen tools, organize sheds, plan beds, transplant seedlings. That’s more than enough work for itchy green thumbs.
Assess drainage issues – There is almost no better time to take a good hard look at your garden and decide if you need to make some grading changes over the summer. If it’s a big enough job, it’s also the perfect time for you to bring a professional set of eyes to the scene.
Most importantly, buy a pair of Wellies – Overshoes, rubber boots, gumboots…whatever you call them – get some. For no matter how firm you think the ground, and how light you believe your step to be, neither ever is. I always find it surprising when I meet a gardener or lover of the outdoors who hasn’t made this very cheap investment in footwear.
The good news about mud time is that it signals a change. It’s a release of frozen soil and pent-up thunderstorms, and in many ways, a gardener’s spirit. Though I may spin my wheels on a muddy lane or groan heavily as I pull boots out of mucky trenches, like Frost I am exquisitely aware of standing poised between two seasons – a warm, sunny sky melting the earth at our feet and propelling us forward into May, a cold wind freezing it and sending us hurtling back to late February. How can one grow resentful of the former when the latter grants us such perspective?
We have waited all winter to play in this mud. Grab your boots and enjoy it.