Spring can be very wintry here in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, with snow lying on the ground sometimes until Easter and a chill wind blowing from the North. But the sun shines more brightly, when it shines, and the barnyard geese get fussy, a sure harbinger of spring. Squawky geese are always the first sign, even before the pussy willow blooms, or whatever it is that pussy willows do. This sign of spring makes me think of other annual observances, such as my battle with cows. In winter I give them little thought, but in spring they’re the enemy.
March is usually the first month when gardeners can get their hands into the earth and plant something, like those first rows of peas, often put in with cold fingers right before a rain. The rains come so closely together there may only be a day or two when the soil is workable before it’s too wet again. Veteran gardeners watch the sky and feel the earth, wrinkled pea seed in readiness, and when it’s all systems go, there’s a mad scramble for the garden as the gray clouds roll in. I have yet to beat the clouds this year.
Along with the peas, a bit of lettuce, spinach, and radish seeds are scattered in short rows, then back to the house for a hot cup of tea and toasting of numbed extremities by the wood stove, the contentment of a spring rite observed. There’s something of a one-upmanship among country folk about who gets their peas in the earliest. “Got your peas in yet?” is apt to be a seemingly casual conversation opener, but only for the one who has, of course.
Spring is also the time of year when I regard the cows on our farm with a deep wariness. Inevitably, the cows will get out. I don’t know exactly when they’ll time their visit, but their attraction for newly planted gardens and flower beds is their annual spring rite. They particularly like a newly planted garden just after an April shower, because they can really sink their hooves in and churn up the earth. The fence my father installed around the vegetable garden has helped deter them, unless someone forgets to close the gate. However, my flower/herb beds and borders are unprotected. And cows enjoy a freshly re-seeded lawn, which needs doing again after their last rampage. Cows are also fond of shrubbery. We have a side of the house called “Cow corner” where the bushes appear to have been strangely pruned by a mad gardener.
I don’t know of any plant that doesn’t attract them except maybe thistles, which we battle in the meadow. I once threw myself in front of a stampeding young heifer as she made her way for my newly planted raspberry bushes––bushes I was in the midst of planting when she and several others escaped from the pen my husband was cleaning. He’d left the gate unbolted for a second––that second cows live for. Yelling “No!” I hurled myself in her path. He came running just in time to see me prepared to be martyred for my cause, stalwart gardener that I am.
Not so the heifer, a coward at heart, who veered at the last moment and leapt off the small wall at one end of the garden. I later heard some discussion about the value of the raspberries compared to the cow if she’d broken her leg. There’s no comparison in my mind, but I’m relieved to add that she didn’t and there was some concern for my safety, had I disappeared under her charge.
I’ve watched in horror as bovines of all ages have frisked their way through tender young snapdragons, newly emerging peas, and dozens of other cherished plantings. Later in the season when the weeds get thick and the weather grows hot and dry, my enthusiasm for the garden wanes. As does the cows. They prefer to make their pilgrimages while the earth is fresh and new, the plants carefully chosen and special.