Thoughts of “Big Night” Start a New Garden Year

“The beginnings of spring, the true beginnings, are quite unlike the springtides of which poets and musicians sing.  The artists become conscious of spring in late April, or May, when it is not too much to say that the village idiot would observe that birds are singing and nesting, that fields bear up their freight of flowering and ants return to their proverbial industry.
    “But the first vernal days are younger.  Spring steals in shyly, a tall naked child in her pale gold hair, amidst us the un-innocent, skeptics in wool mufflers, prudes in gumshoes and Grundies with head-colds.  Very secretly the old field cedars sow the wind with the freight of their ancient pollen.  A grackle in the willow croaks and sings in the uncertain, ragged voice of a boy.  The marshes brim, and walking is a muddy business.  Oaks still are barren and secretive.  On the lilac tree only the twin buds suggest her coming maturity and flowering.  But there in the pond float the inky masses of those frog’s eggs, visibly life in all its rawness, its elemental shape and purpose.  Now is the moment when the secret of life could be discovered, yet no one finds it.”

– Donald Culross Peattie (An Almanac for Moderns, 1935)

A wood frog on its trek to a vernal pool.

A wood frog on its trek to a vernal pool.

As I sit at my office desk, trying to come up with an appropriate topic for this column, snowmelt drips from the eaves just beyond the near window and suddenly it dawns on me, soon will come the first warm rain of a new spring, an all-night rain after a day with temperatures above 50 ºF.  Soon it will be Big Night!

I remember my first Big Night, standing in the dark aside a roadside ditch filled with snowmelt and rainwater, my feet surrounded by scores of salamanders and wood frogs on the last leg of their journey from woods to vernal pool.  It would have

A yellow-spotted salamander slinking toward a vernal pool.

A yellow-spotted salamander slinking toward a vernal pool.

been a perilous trek if not for the small clusters of people, mostly children, stopping traffic from both directions, allowing the amphibians to reach their mating pool in safety.  Flashlights and car headlights illuminated yellow spots on some of the salamanders.

Big Night or not (the ice may not be out of that roadside ditch, and somehow the batrachian brain will know), the first warm rain of April is a gardener’s assurance that the ice will soon be out of the garden beds, that the brown mats of oats sown last fall will begin to dry in the sun, that bright green garlic shoots will soon push through

Garlic shoots emerging from warming soil after a long winter.

Garlic shoots emerging from warming soil after a long winter.

straw mulch to begin their march toward late August harvest.

A warm rain in April shifts garden planning into high gear.  Seedlings of broccoli, cabbage, and kohlrabi are ready for hardening in cold frames, the tops of the frames closed on chilly nights, open on sunny days.  In a week or two, we will sow seeds of the summer crops, starting with tomatoes and peppers, aiming for transplanting on the first of June, or thereabouts.  Onion plants and seed potatoes have been ordered.

As the snow recedes, I can uncover the

Composted nannyberries

Composted nannyberries

tarp-covered berm at the back of the garden for the first time in many weeks, five pick-up loads of composted manure collected in October from the local goat farmer.  Nannyberries they’re called, and they do wonders for life in the soil.  We make a little compost of our own every year, mixing vegetable scraps from the kitchen and garden with grass clippings, composted manure, and autumn leaves (the entrance to our basement is blocked by bags of leaves raked last fall and shredded with the lawn mower), but these efforts are not nearly enough for the garden’s total need.

The source of nannyberries, an excellent garden compost.

The source of nannyberries, an excellent garden compost.

I’ve met many of these goat that supply the bulk of our compost, scratched their ears, and know them as happy animals.  When I top-dress the garden beds, trees, and shrubs with nannyberries, I feel connected to a local farm where animals are treated with respect.  I like the idea of linking my need for garden compost with sustainable farming practices that have minimal environmental impact.  As gardeners, the choices we make can have far-reaching impact.

The most important choice is to abandon use of synthetic fertilizers, which sterilize the soil, and rely on healthy compost in its many forms to feed the soil.  This is the gardener’s task, to nourish life in the soil, to tread lightly through the garden, to feed the bacteria, fungi, earthworms, and other creatures that create healthy soil.  For Marjorie and I, it all begins in April with the first warm rain.

May the first warm rain of spring find you outdoors after dark, sharing your enthusiasm for the season to come with wood frogs and salamanders.

“Grow It Right” On-line Plant Sale and Educational Program

The University of Maine Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener Volunteers are offering a “Grow it Right!” on-line plant sale in 2015 to raise funds for its Master Gardener Volunteers program. The educational aspect of this special project sets it apart from other plant sales.

The Master Gardener program has been active in Maine for more than 30 years. UMaine Extension Master Gardener Volunteers have assisted dozens of community gardens across the state, grown food for the Maine Harvest for Hunger program and conducted many other community-based volunteer efforts. Money raised will support those projects and provide scholarships to those who cannot afford the Master Gardener Volunteers training fee.

Gardeners in Maine and bordering states can support these projects and scholarships by ordering any of the following:

Raspberries – var. Killarney (early)
Blackberries – var. Chester
Rhubarb – var. MacDonald
Highbush Blueberries – var. Patriot, Blueray, Northland, & Jersey
Strawberries – var. Brunswick, Sparkle, & Wendy
Asparagus – var. Jersey Supreme

These varieties were selected by Extension Specialists with a focus on growing trials to determine the best variety of New England gardens.  The selection criteria included hardiness, disease resistance, yield, and flavor quality.

Participants in this program will be directed to a website where they can find videos by Extension Specialists on how to grow each crop (planting, pruning, etc.) and Extension bulletins written by UMaine faculty, record-keeping sheets, cultural timelines, and answers to frequently-asked questions.  When you pick up your order at one of the designated locations, you will also receive an information packet on each crop.

For more information, including quantities, prices, and order pick-up dates and locations, visit

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About Reeser Manley

I was born in Laramie Wyoming but moved to the southeast at an early age. I was educated through my B.S. in Biology in the Columbus, Georgia area, then crossed the Chattahoochee River to earn my M.S. in Botany at Auburn University. For the next ten years, I worked as Horticultural Manager for the George W. Park Seed Co. in Greenwood, S.C. At 40 years of age, I decided to return to graduate school and in 1994, I earned a Ph.D. in Horticultural Science from Washington State University, Pullman, Washington. Fast forward through 10 years at university (7 at UMaine, Orono) and you find me teaching high school science in Eastport, Maine, the edge of the world, and writing a weekly garden column for the Bangor Daily News. My new book, The New England Gardener's Year, a Month-by-Month Guide for Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Upstate New York”, will be published later this year by Cadent Publishing. You can learn more about the book by visiting its Facebook page: