This is going to be a busy gardening season. It already has been. My wife, Nancy, and I began working outside in mid-March.

My work was planting some lettuce under protection, pruning some shrubs and small trees and fixing the places where the arborists who pruned the big trees left dents and divots in the lawn and gardens.

Nancy has been doing the real work. She has adjusted the rock wall that was on our property when we arrived 45 years ago. The wall now includes a passageway, with two rock steps, going from our somewhat formal yard to a more informal area where a couple of years ago we started planting shade-tolerant native plants. She called me in to consult occasionally and to move the larger, heavier rocks to where she wanted them. I’m the brawn, and she’s the brain.

We were really looking forward to getting outside this year. Even though the pandemic restrictions are less strict than they were a year ago and we are fully vaccinated, we still don’t feel comfortable mixing with the world at large – just family and a few friends.

Gardening always was our favorite hobby, and now more than ever we use it to get away from the electronic screens that seem to dominate our life.

The ornamental gardens are going to get most of my creativity this year, if not most of my time. I’m going to plant and eat all of our usual vegetables. I’ve already planted both the new Super Sugar Snap and the traditional Sugar Snap peas that I wrote about in January, shortly after the catalogs came out. I promised to tell you which I prefer. Along with those we will have shelling peas, onions, garlic, potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, many kinds of carrots, beans, squash and more lettuce. I have been growing those for years, and my methods are ingrained in my psyche.

Developing onions in Atwell’s garden in 2020. This growing season, while he’ll plant the usual vegetables, Atwell intends to focus on ornamentals. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

I expect it to be a dry summer. We have had some level of drought for the past five years, and nothing that has happened during this already dry spring has convinced me it will change, so I will be especially vigilant about watering.

While we don’t need more food, we do want more beauty. In fact, we’re already headed down that path. We have had more crocuses and irises blooming in our yard this year, and they made us happy for a month beginning in March. Those early bulb plants have been followed by daffodils and hyacinths and will be followed by many others.

For starters, we want a ground cover or other low-growing plants for the soil underneath the azaleas, magnolias, willow and other shrubs that grow in our shady back yard. Yes, we have nice blossoms for a good part of the season, but we are sick of looking at the brown of the soil and mulch beneath them. Give us some green at least, and maybe other colors as well.

So far I am considering bunchberry, checkerberry and a variety of ferns, but I’m not sold on any of them yet. Vinca (we have it in blue and white bloom varieties) has done well for use in the past. I will peruse the plant list for Maine Audubon’s sale and nursery catalogs for other options.

Another area, under a red maple next to the driveway, is home to hosta for the summer and fall. And while it used to be covered with snow for most of the winter, this past year, because we had so little snow, it was a bare and ugly brown. We planted one red-leaved ‘Midnight Ruby’ rhododendron in that spot last September, but I think it needs company. Again, I am hoping to find more small, evergreen shrubs.

We also want more tall evergreen shrubs at the edge of our property, both to give us more privacy and to block our view.

And OK, maybe it’s counterintuitive to plan to be spontaneous, but that’s what I’m going to do. If I see something I like, I am going to buy it and plant it. I will be wandering through all the nurseries in the Portland area looking for plants that speak to me. I’ll worry about finding a spot for them when I get home. And no, this is not the way professional landscapers design gardens.

Nancy and I have decided that we deserve to splurge now and then, and this summer we plan to splurge on plants.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

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