Mud season

Spring arrives in South Turkey Creek on the bottom of my husband’s and children’s boots. Long before I see my Spanish bluebells, I see mud.

Wipe your feet: Mud is a family problem at Cinthia Milner’s Leicester home. Photo By Cinthia Milner

“Mud is spring and spring is mud,” I so vividly remember my grandfather saying—a Haywood County man who never missed a gardening season in his 70-plus years. A glance at my kitchen floor reveals the timelessness of his observation. Spring is coming, and my floor is proof of it.

These days, “Take off your boots!” has become as much a cry of anticipation as of annoyance for me. I wonder why my family members don’t use the handy garden bench—but then I remember that it’s buried under garden catalogs, backpacks and muddy soccer shoes.

Another clear sign of spring around here is plant clutter. I’m sure mine must be the only family that keeps its school-age kids’ science projects. Our latest one is growing in the sole remaining free spot in the house: a corner of the kitchen counter.

“Squash plants?” I kept repeating to my husband awhile back. “You want to keep a science project of squash plants?”

I can already picture myself come mid-August, surreptitiously tossing squash over the garden fence into the creek (a secret known only to my children and me). By that time, my husband will be just as sick as I am of the superabundance of squash, but he’s the kind that never wastes anything.

Adding insult to clutter, he wasn’t content to keep only the test group—the ones grown under “continual light.” He wanted to keep the control group, too—the ones that saw light for maybe 15 minutes a day. These poor, deprived plants are now drooping so far down over their Styrofoam cups that the cat jumps up at them and bats them around.

And then there are the hydrangeas, which reside in my husband’s office. There are two of these shrubs, parked right in front of the French doors. Our bird feeders are on that porch, and every time we go to feed the birds, we have to slide these huge—and I do mean huge—plants around on the carpet, revealing the water stains beneath, and scoot our way past.

I bought the hydrangeas three springs ago and still can’t decide where to put them. They do well in pots on the back porch, though, and that’s exactly where they’ll be again when spring arrives.

Soon, however, it’ll be time for the poppies and sweet peas to go out, and that should clear out some space. Both need to be planted in February or March. All the gardening books suggest St. Patrick’s Day, but here along South Turkey Creek, I find that’s already too late. If they aren’t in the ground by early March, the weather gets too hot too quickly for them, and I end up with lots of plant and little bloom. I panic at the thought. Sweet peas are a must, and poppies too.

Spring may bring mud, but it also brings space. All winter long, our house is home to porch plants, seedlings and houseplants. And as a family of four with a dog and a cat, it gets a little crowded. Spring beckons, and I’m dying for all these plants and seedlings to be released to my yard, where I can better tend to them. I look forward, too, to my family’s natural migration outdoors as the weather warms.

Still, desperate for some other sign of spring, I walk outside to look for my glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa luciliae)—beautiful small, blue flowers that are the first blooms in my garden. One year, I got carried away and planted 500 of them. But I’m forever grateful to my much younger self’s extreme behavior in the garden: They cover the perennial bed in a mass of blue, pushing up through leaves and twigs that haven’t been swept yet. The sight makes me want to weep for the sheer joy of spring—and of course, as I walk back inside, I forget to remove my own shoes.

But I’m so eager for spring that I’ll accept this annual mud-track through my house as the stamp of the season. It’s my first whiff of lilacs—that first paused moment out-of-doors—and my reminder to start looking soon for the bloodroot in the mountains around me and the crocus in my yard.

After all, behind the mud lies the spring.

[Cinthia Milner lives in Leicester with her family and pets, her experimental squash and her implacable hydrangeas.]

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