April is a fine month, but it is not my ideal time for writing. I have found myself in the midst of yet another springtime rush, the 2011 version slightly tempered by bouts of inclement – even by Midwestern standards – weather. Since the first day of spring we have had a few, and only a few, really fine days. We flirted with temps in the 80’s a couple times only to be later sleeted and snowed upon. None of this surprises me, and the work carries on in spite of intemperate days.

And what work it is. The gardens I work in are slow to awaken (see above) which isn’t all bad. This time of year I spend most of my time pruning, mainly removing winter damage caused by cold or animals. As the temps warm safely beyond freezing I work my way into the tribes of evergreens, shaping them without making them look shaped. I received a really nice compliment the other day from a landscape architect I work with. I had taken on a stately old hedge of Pfitzer junipers that was starting to get out hand – a little wild you could say. Anyway, I was told that one couldn’t even tell they had been pruned. This is the sort of thing that makes my day. It’s not easy getting these plants to look natural, yet keep them in the bounds of a garden. If 2010 was my rose year then 2011 seems to be shaping up to be my juniper year.

But it’s not all pruning. I have, as tradition holds, found beds to turn, soils to be spaded. E’s garden is shaping up well. Nothing improves lousy clay Illinois soil like a ton of autumn leaves plowed in before winter. Of course these beds have now been thrice turned in twelve months, which ought to beat any prospective tomato bed into submission. And in another couple weeks I will make a fourth time, just for good measure.

Of course whenever I take spade to soil I think fondly about Ed and Helen, elderly neighbors of ours when I was growing up. I worked in their garden, and it was among my first experiences with spades and roses. Obviously something then got through my thick teenage skull, as here I am in my fifties going on still about these old garden rituals. Ed and Helen were good friends to me for too short a time, and so when I do this work, I feel it honors their memory. I hope I do it well.

Speaking of good friends I rediscovered a favored garden hoe that I thought for sure was lost. This is an uncommonly heavy hoe, and apart from a little rust it looks as good as ever. It doesn’t know it yet but it will soon be sharing the balance of this intemperate April at my side. Together we have some damp soils to attack, some rituals to uphold.

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Dave Coulter

I have been a horticulturist for thirty years working in the Chicago area and beyond. I have lived in Oak Park for over thirteen years. My writing has recently appeared in the journal Ecological Restoration...