Mud Season Gardening in
New England

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The Heart of New England
Gardening Begins After Mud Season
By Jeanne Sable

This might well prove to be one of the worst
"mud seasons" on record—if such
a record is kept. At least that’s how it’s looking as I write this in early April,
after the week’s heavy rains have sculpted our dirt road into an obstacle course.
Of course, a week of warm sunshine could reverse all that, making conditions
ideal for planting the garden. But the truth is, we always like to push the season
a bit. This year’s peas were already in the ground by March 26, along with other
cool-weather crops, spinach, turnip greens, and parsnips. It was a bit of a
gamble, I’ll admit. Who knew how much snowy, cold, or wet weather lay
ahead?  But a window of opportunity presented itself, and I opened it—letting
the early spring air stream in as I worked fresh soil, already ripe for planting.

Our garden often attains that happy state earlier than many, for a couple of
reasons. One is sheer topography—it  sits relatively high and dry. But I believe
the twenty or so south facing raised bed boxes that contain it are a major
contributing factor.

When to Plant?

How can you tell when the soil is dry enough for sowing seeds? When a
handful sifted through your fingers feels more like a scoop of fresh brown sugar
than a glob of brownie batter, you know the ground is tillable. When the soil
reaches that stage prior to black fly season,  we northern New England
gardeners have real cause for celebration.

Here’s how we started our raised bed gardens. Rather than try to scrape the
scant native topsoil away from the riot of roots and rocks that binds it, we
decided to start our garden from scratch. We began by spreading a six to eight-
inch layer of gravel over the intended garden site. This gave a foundation of
excellent drainage material on which to build the boxes.

Then we selected two-by-ten foot rough-cut hemlock boards from the local
sawmill. The hemlock repels many insects and holds up for several seasons. We
nailed them together into rectangular eight by four-foot frames. Every year we
added a new box or two.

When we finish building a box, it's time to start building the soil. We start with
cow manure. We are fortunate to have a good nearby source (cows, of course!).
We haul it in from the dairy farm next door, sometimes a wheelbarrow at a time
or by the truckload. We layer it in the box with dead oak leaves, compost, green
organic material as it becomes available, and any other organic matter we may
happen upon. We’ve been known to use dried up corn cobs and old saw dust.
Then we apply lime, adding a little green sand to boost the potassium content,
which tends to be deficient in these parts. Every year we add more manure or

The first year this new "soil" is lumpy and marginal for growing anything more
exacting than tomato plants or zucchini. But by the second year, with the help of
a few earthworms, the dirt is broken down into finer particles in which a variety
of vegetables can thrive. Last year the soil in our older boxes was so fine and
loamy it produced enough long, straight carrots to eat fresh from late summer
through autumn, with enough left over for Charlie to can a couple dozen jars.  

Another advantage of the boxes is that we rarely have to set foot in them, so the
soil remains loose and easier to weed. Also, anything that does venture into the
garden often leaves very incriminating footprints. And lately we've come to
appreciate the jump these raised beds give us on the growing season.

Our peas are often planted by March 31. They have weathered extended spells
of cool, wet weather, in years when peas planted in ground-level gardens have
rotted away. We celebrate the appearance of those first bright green leaves
above the soil, exclaiming,  "Ayup! Looks like we’ll be eatin’ peas for the Fourth
of July," or something like that. One year those boxes did us one better. They
put fresh peas on the table in time for my son's birthday—on the summer
solstice. So with any luck, just maybe our first meal of fresh peas will herald in
another summer. Stay tuned.

About the author

Jeanne Prevett Sable is an organic gardener, editor, and freelance writer
specializing in farming and environmental issues, with hundreds of articles
published in local, regional, and national publications. She has written
environmental scripts for children's television, live puppet theater, and the
Web. She is also the author of
Seed Keepers of Crescentville, her first novel.
Ever get that sinking feeling?  Jeanne Sable took this photo of her neighbors knee-deep in the joys of mud season.
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