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Early Spring Chores

Spring finally seems to be coming to Cornish Flat — about a month late this year. My snowdrops are just starting to bloom and large patches of snow are still on the lawn and garden, though there are bare spots. I really want to get outside and start cleaning up the yard and garden beds, but will try to hold myself back until things have dried out.

Why is it important to wait before doing much gardening? It’s all about soil structure. Soil is made up of ground rock, organic matter and air spaces. The mineral component is about 45 percent, organic matter can be from 1 percent to 10 percent or more, and the rest consists of air spaces. That last component is as important as the first two.

Plant roots that we can see when we dig up a weed or plant a shrub are only a part of the entire root. The parts of the root that absorb water, oxygen and minerals are so fine that we cannot see them. They are called root hairs, but they are even finer than human hair, microscopically fine. And there are lots of them. Most plants have branch roots that spread out and branch again and again. Root hairs are short protuberances attached to those branching roots. But fine roots cannot push through packed soil as easily as through fluffy soil. The total length of root tissues in a single rye plant is around 380 miles.

If you walk on a soggy lawn you leave foot prints. That means that you have squeezed air out of the soil and compacted it — making it all the harder for roots and root hairs to extend and thrive. Green plants get their oxygen from the soil via their roots. If the oxygen is squeezed out, plants can’t get it.

So what can a gardener do? Wait. Don’t walk on your lawn if you see footprints or hear a squish. Don’t rake winter debris from the lawn while the lawn is still dormant. If you do, you risk pulling up the grass, roots and all. And stay out of flower beds even later into the spring — they are probably much more susceptible to compaction than your lawn.

So what can you do in early April? Clean and sharpen your tools, including the handles. I have a potato hoe, a five-tined rake-like tool that has been in my family for more than 50 years. It has its original wood handle, which is still in perfect condition, even though I use it every week, often every day, all summer. How is that possible? I try to oil the handle every year either in the fall or early spring. And I don’t leave the tool outside in the sun or rain. No matter how tired I am at the end of the day, I walk the potato hoe back to the barn before I go to the house.

To clean up a wooden handle, first I use fine steel wool (or a green scrubbie) to polish up the handle and remove any rough spots. Then I apply a coat of boiled linseed oil with a brush or rag. I let it soak in for a few hours, then rub off any excess. Or if the oil soaks right in, I might apply a second coat. I clean the steel tines with steel wool and apply a light coat of sewing machine oil.

This year I need to oil the wood on my wooden wheel barrow and tighten up all the bolts. One of my first memories is of my Grampy picking me up, plunking me down on a pile of weeds in his wooden wheelbarrow, and racing us back to the barn ahead of a fast-approaching thunderstorm. I might have been just 2 years old. The ride was bumpy — there was a steel-rimmed wooden wheel — but it was exciting.

Unfortunately, that wooden wheelbarrow disappeared after Grampy passed away. But many years later I tracked down an Amish woodworker in Pennsylvania, Ike Lapp, who still makes wooden wheelbarrows, and got myself one. It’s pretty much the same wheelbarrow I remember my grandfather using. When I finished assembling it I pushed it across the lawn for a test drive and it made the same squeak that my grandfather’s wheelbarrow did.

I called Lapp at his home in Gordonville, Pa., recently. He is Old Order Amish, so does not have a phone in his house or workshop. Instead, he has a phone and answering machine in a separate four-foot-square building in a field. (He checks messages once a day and calls customers back. He’s at 717-355-9366.) He told me he is still making the wheelbarrows and in addition to mine, a large premium grade wheelbarrow for around $300, he has smaller ones, and some in “rustic grade.” He does not have a website, but you can see his wheelbarrows at www.lehmans.com.

Later, when your ground has dried out and you are raking and weeding flower beds, try to reach in with your rake, keeping your feet out of the beds. If you must walk in flower beds, bring along a couple of short planks. Place them in the flower bed and step on the boards to distribute your weight. Or if you are not worried about what the neighbors will say, you could wear your snowshoes. After the winter we’ve had, that seems appropriate.

Henry Homeyer is a gardening consultant and the author of four gardening books. His web site is www.gardening-guy.com.