Springtime Gardening in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia


Spring can be very wintry here, with snow lying on the ground sometimes until Easter and a brisk wind blowing from the North. But the sun shines brighter, when it shines, and the geese begin to fuss, a sure harbinger of spring. Squawky geese are always the first sign, even before the pussy willow blooms, or whatever it is that pussy willows do.

This annual sign of spring makes me think of other spring observances. March is usually the first month when gardeners can really get their hands into the earth and plant something, like those first rows of peas, often put in with cold fingers right before a rain. The rains are so close that there may only be a day or two when the soil is workable before it’s too wet again. Veteran gardeners watch the sky and feel the earth, wrinkled pea seed in readiness, and when it’s all systems go, there’s a mad scramble for the garden as the gray clouds roll in.

A bit of lettuce, spinach and radish seeds are scattered in short rows, then back to the house for a hot cup of tea and the toasting of numbed extremities by the wood stove, the contentment of a spring rite observed. There’s something of a one-upmanship among country folk about who gets their peas in the earliest. “Got your peas in yet?” is apt to be a seemingly casual conversation opener, but only for the one who has, of course.

Spring is also the time of year when I regard the cows with a deep wariness. Inevitably, the cows will get out. I never know exactly when they’ll time their visit, but their attraction for newly planted gardens and flower beds is their annual spring rite. Around here, in the spring, cows are the enemy. They particularly like a newly planted garden just after a spring shower, because they can really sink their hooves in and churn up the earth. A freshly re-seeded lawn will do in a pinch, even shrubbery if all else fails. We have a side of the house called ‘Cow corner’ where the bushes appear to have been strangely pruned by a mad gardener.

I once threw myself in front of a stampeding young heifer as she made her way for my very newly planted raspberries. I was in the midst of planting them when she and several others escaped from the calf pen my husband was cleaning. He had left the gate unbolted for a second–that second cows live for. Yelling “No!” I hurled myself in her path. He came running just in time to see me prepared to be martyred for my cause.

The heifer, a coward at heart, veered at the last moment and leapt off the small wall at one end of the garden. I heard some discussion later about the price tag value of the raspberries compared to the cow had she broken her leg. I’m relieved to add that she didn’t, and there was some concern for my safety had I disappeared under her charge.

I’ve watched in horror as bovines of all ages have frisked their way through tender young snapdragons, newly emerging peas and dozens of other cherished plantings. Later in the season when the weeds get thick and the weather grows hot and dry, I begin to lose my earlier enthusiasm for my garden and so do the cows. They prefer to make their pilgrimages while the earth is fresh and new and the plants are carefully chosen and special. Don’t we all?

Have any gardening stories of your own? Please post them under the comments section!

Pics are of our farm, and my daughter’s soft coated Wheaton terrier Grady when he encountered his first cow.

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