This may be my favorite time of the year to work in a vegetable garden.
The growing season is spread out before us, and it's too soon to tell whether this will be a good year or one that taxes a gardener's wits.
As we set tomato plants into the ground, we envision them full of big, ripe, juicy beefsteaks. Even the Roma plants are going to produce whoppers. The bean and corn seed we sow into rows promise bumper crops. In our mind's eye, the melons are already oozing syrup. The possibilities seem limitless. No matter if we haven't been to the county fair in years, every crop we plant will win a blue ribbon.
Even in a relatively dry spring, we still have showers, usually on an intermittent basis, and the garden hose lies curled up near the garden, feigning obsolesce. It's easy to forget that this is not the way it will be all summer long, that the rain clouds that so easily spill precipitation now may be less generous, even scarce, a few months hence.
These spring showers are their own little miracle. When the first sprinkles hit dry soil, you can smell the rain through an open window, minutes before you hear it on the roof. That musky aroma, which is unlike any other smell I know of, contains all the earth's raw fertility, pent up and renewed during its dormancy over the winter. It's an urgent smell, a true harbinger of spring and the bounty to come.
The only thing we humans have to compare it to is the season's first bead of sweat on the lip, salty like a tear but joyous in its intent.
With spring rains come earthworms, washed up out of the ground and doing their bit to aerate and fertilize the soil. Turn a handful of fertile soil and it springs to life, a thriving microcosm of nature. Small insects scurry about and the beetle larva wiggle in place, begging for a return to darkness.
The lawn fertilizer salesmen on TV, who want you to turn your lawn into a putting green, consider this sort of activity in the dirt to be a nuisance. Gardeners, on the other hand, know it means they have fertile soil that will support life and be nourished in return.
The lady bugs are already hard at work, too. As gardening omens go, lady bugs in early spring are the best there is. They feast on aphids and are a mainstay of organic pest control. They also are among the first victims of pesticides.
It's still too early for most of the pollinating bees, as well as mosquitos, horseflies and other insects that try a gardener's patience at the height of summer, and this adds something to the calm of the early gardening season. There's nothing to swat at now, no buzzing at the ear, and the garden snakes are all small and temporarily charming. When we disturb a ringneck snake, now just six inches long, we're likely to beg his pardon rather than shriek in alarm.
This time of year the sun is mild, but deceptively so. It invites us out of doors and warmly chafes the face and back of the neck, like a heated Turkish towel. But the burn, which creeps up silently and gently, feels right and quickly turns to tan.
That same Vitamin D-packed sunshine warms the soil and spurs germination and growth. It's hard to imagine that in a few months we'll be hiding from it at midday, taking a reprieve inside our air-conditioned homes.
When that time arrives, vegetable gardeners will be carrying a bit of the soil with them, far under their nails where bristles and soap won't reach. By then, a gardener's handshake, a gesture betraying calluses and scraped knuckles, will tell a story all its own.