Iris reticulata in bloom are a sure sign of spring. These bloom in the Atwell’s garden. Photo by Tom Atwell

Finally! This is the weekend where I can begin gardening for the season and pretend to know what I am doing. It is Patriots Day weekend when – if it is comfortable outside – you can plant peas, lettuce, carrots and beets while listening to news of the Red Sox and the Boston Marathon on a portable radio (or, to modernize, your phone).

What I have been doing so far over a mostly snowless two-and-a-half months is wandering around the yard, picking up branches and twigs blown down by frequent high winds – and dreaming of the future. The past month has been better; I’ve been enjoying the crocuses and Iris reticulata that started blossoming in mid-March, a sign that spring is really underway.

Our big dream this year is to get more flowers all summer long in our back yard, which my wife Nancy and I have finally admitted is now in full shade. The northern edge of it, next to a wooded area, has always been mostly shade, but it still looks good in May and June, with lots of blooming rhododendrons and azaleas. The rest of the yard used to be sunny until a neighbor’s three Norway maples reached 60 feet tall. The sun-loving plants we planted way back when haven’t all died because of the shade. They just don’t blossom enough to please us.

Azaleas blossom in the Atwell’s garden. Photo by Tom Atwell

We probably won’t plant more rhododendrons and azaleas because we have enough. Instead, we want to mix small trees and shrubs with herbaceous perennials, giving us blossoms throughout the seasons. I am lobbying for at least one striped maple, a native with large leaves and attractive green and white striped bark. A drawback? It doesn’t have showy flowers. Another possibility is sassafras, which is said to have a lovely fragrance, yellow flowers and excellent fall foliage. Nancy and I will wander the nurseries, hoping to be inspired.

The vegetable garden is going to require work. I spread lime around the garden in early March to counteract the leaf mold I have been adding each summer to provide more organic matter. When I did it, I believed that oak leaves make the soil more acidic, and I hadn’t done anything to offset that – or get a soil test done. The soil test would have been more scientific, not to mention accurate. With further research, I learned that while fresh oak leaves are acidic, as they decompose, they lose their acidity.

The lettuce I planted in a cold frame in mid-March has sprouted. Lettuce that I planted last fall (also in a cold fame) stayed alive despite some sub-zero weather, but never grew much. I am hoping those lettuces will revive now that outside temperatures are above freezing. I’d like to be harvesting that in a couple of weeks.


Potatoes are going to be getting a lot more attention this spring for a couple of reasons. First, Pinetree Garden Seeds sold Clancy potato seeds this year. Last summer when some of our potatoes produced potato berries, I wrote in my column that only hybridizers would bother to plant potatoes by seed. But when I saw this offering at Pinetree, I had to attempt it in the interest of science. The seeds have been planted, have sprouted, and are now growing in our south-facing dining room window. I guess I have to eat my words.

In addition, as a result of bad luck and just plain forgetfulness, we lost our seed potatoes this winter. We have kept them for a couple of decades in a root cellar that I created in our bulkhead. It keeps the crops from freezing as long as I open the doors leading to the cellar’s interior if we hear temperatures will drop below minus-5 degrees. I heard the weather forecast for the frigid temperatures last winter, but forgot to open the doors, and all of the potatoes and leeks turned to mush. Fortunately, Fedco still had the Red Thumb potatoes that are our early season favorite, as well as several other good keeper (storage) varieties, so we’ll be able to replace them.

I have kept a close eye on the Red Astrachan apple tree that we planted last spring. Its leaf buds are plumping up nicely. I expect it won’t flower this year, and if it does, I won’t let it produce fruit – I’ll pinch off any tiny fruits to let the tree store up its energy to grow. I planted the tree for future generations, not immediate gratification.

Mostly, though, I am looking forward to spending time in the yard and enjoying what happens in our gardens.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at:

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