Yet another wet, cold morning. I button my flannel shirt, layer on two sweatshirts and a vest, grab my coffee, and head out into a spitting rain. Despite the chill, birdsong fills the air. Everywhere I look (the maple, the ash, the powerlines crossing the yard, the cattails by the pond), male Red-winged Blackbirds perch and sing exuberantly, staking their claims to the nesting ground that is the field behind my house, wooing their females with trilled notes.
I pass the strawberry bed. Earlier in the week, I raked off the heaviest of the winter mulch and now tiny strawberry leaves push up through the remaining straw. I imagine popping the first strawberry of the season into my mouth, sun-warmed and sweet. Patience, I tell myself. But I am not patient.
Most years, I have salad greens, radishes, and turnips planted by mid-March at the very latest, sometimes planting less than a week after snowmelt. This year, because of our plan to expand and reconfigure the garden beds behind the house, I knew we wouldn’t hit those earliest planting dates, but in order to reach our goal of having salad mix, radishes, turnips and peas for our CSA and market customers by the first of June, we’re going to need to have seed in the ground by mid-April. I squeeze a handful of dark soil inside my fist. It clumps together, wet and cold. To work this soil now would make a muddy mess. We’ll have to wait, pray for warmth and sunlight.
I head north into the field. Two mallards lift off the pond, quacking quietly in flight. A Great Blue Heron crosses above them, winging east towards the rookery in the woods that marks the eastern boundary of my parents’ land. I turn my eyes from the sky, cast my gaze downward.
For some, this time of year means morel-hunting. But it’s mantis egg hunting that excites me. I scan the wet hummocks of last year’s field grass, bent and matted from the weight of snow. And in a few minutes I find one. Grass-colored, oblong, the egg case is approximately an inch long, and made of a ridged, foam-like material so lightweight it’s hard to believe that it may contain two hundred or more praying mantis eggs. I cup it in my palm. I’ll carry it back to the garden, where, once warmed, it will spill an army of voracious insect predators, hungry for the cucumber beetles, cabbage worms, and other bugs that would like to eat our tender young plants.
As I pass back through the garden, I scoop up another handful of soil and bring it to my nose. It smells sweet and fresh. I imagine the new beds, larger, longer, filled with every shade of red and green lettuces. Tender, mild Bronze Arrow; frilly, dark red Lollo Rossa; crisp, juicy Buttercrunch, Ben Shemen, and Paris White Cos. I say their names like promises, though the sun still hides behind its blanket of thick, wet clouds.