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The Portland Garden Dispatch – Spring Equinox 2023

Early Spring in the Portland Garden

As the ground thaws, we welcome a new season of life into the garden. Consider some of these backyard chores to get started on the right foot. 

Just as the snowpiles around our neighborhood begin to melt, and the mid-morning sun feels warm in a way we had all but forgotten, I want to welcome you to the Portland Garden Dispatch: a seasonal conversation on the state of gardening here in Portland. I plan to share horticultural happenings around town, divulge a few tips learned from my own Portland garden, and hopefully encourage a neighbor or two to take up the trowel along the way. 

We’ve had a few false-springs this year in Portland. We always do. The week of fifty-degree temperatures in early January tricked a few bulbs into action well before their due-date. The mini mud season of mid-February filled the trails around Evergreen Cemetery with early maple buds and a parade of neighborhood dogs, happily ruining their families’ new rugs and then promptly dismayed when they heard the words ‘bath time’ in a month so strangely unseasonable. 

But it seems we’re really on the cusp this time. Any new snow melts in a day or two, and the daffodils are finally starting to tease us in Portland’s parks and behind neighbors’ fences. The robins are sure of it too, pulling worms out of the softened soil and hauling left-over lawn clippings from one side of the yard to the other building this year’s nests. I’ve even begun the annual garage change-up: snow shovels and skis to the back; wheelbarrows and hoses to the front, at attention. 

As we arrive at the vernal equinox—the first day of spring—it’s easy to forget how much less daylight we had months, even weeks, ago. We now have as much day as night, and the garden is responding with a perennial vigor. 

Before this transition to long summer days sneaks up on us, here are a few things to consider taking care of in the garden if you’re in Portland this weekend. 

For anyone who, like me, avoided some ‘fall clean up’ tasks, now is a good time to check over your tools and equipment ahead of the busy season in the garden. Lawn mowers that sat idle all winter with a bit of left-over gasoline in them may be slow to start or need some TLC to clean out their carburetors or fuel lines. It’s an incredibly common spring problem, and there are dozens of local small engine repair companies ready to help, so don’t fret. Or better yet, go electric.

As we get a bit closer to Portland’s last frost date—historically Memorial Day weekend, though typically (and alarmingly) earlier these days—this month is a smart time to place any plant orders you’ve been plotting for the backyard. You may have a favorite local nursery you frequent: many are placing big orders for mid-spring deliveries and are likely able to order that slightly ‘niche’ plant you’re never able to find by mid-summer at the store. Give them a call sometime this month. If you don’t have a go-to nursery yet, I’d recommend starting your search at O’Donal’s. They’re less than 20 minutes from downtown, and always have a good selection of healthy plant material to peruse.

If you’ve resolved to doing something new with your garden this year, consider browsing University of Maine’s cooperative extension guide on native plants for our locale. The main considerations, beyond the specifics of your home’s microclimate, are to find plants hardy down to zone 5b (true for all of Portland and many surrounding towns, too), and tolerant of our sometimes-rainy winters. 

A favorite specimen of mine from their list is our native Shadblow Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis). An architecturally beautiful tree (or shrub, depending how you care for it), Shadblows are, quite literally, New England’s best harbinger of spring. The name shadblow refers to the annual runs of shad—an anadromous fish returning inland from sea—up Maine’s rivers in early spring. This tree bloomed at just the right time to become the indicator of abundant fish migration throughout New England. Its other common name, Serviceberry, was given to this native species for its floral signal that the ground was thawed enough for spring burials. Morbid, but neat. Consider a serviceberry for its early spring color in your garden, or its surreal red and orange foliage in late fall.

Amelanchier canadensis, the Shadblow Serviceberry. Courtesy of Melissa McMasters.

Lastly, for a more ‘hands in the dirt’ kind of chore, it’s time for a spring cut-back of all perennials and grasses that were left to stand over winter. There are countless reasons to avoid this task in fall—from increased cover and food for birds, to an early snowfall that pushed you inside earlier than anticipated—but now it’s time to finish the job. Cut back last year’s stalks, shoots, and seed heads to make way for the eruption of green that’s just below the surface. This will provide more light and air to the base of your plants, and support all of the new growth about to occur. Then, if you’re like me, you can just leave everything you’ve cut right there as a mulch for your beds. Saves a trip to the dump and adds a lot of goodness to your soil. 

Beyond our home gardens, there are a host of places to find inspiration further afield in the coming weeks. Over the next month, Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens is hosting a slew of online educational events to share their knowledge on all things gardening. On March 23rd they’re sharing tips on how best to grow vegetables and herbs from seed. And on March 30th, they’ll do a deeper dive into soils, mulches, and amendments.

While it might not feel like green, lush spring yet, our gardens are already working double-time to get this year’s show on the road. Let’s enjoy every minute of it. 

Gavin Boyce-RatliffGavin is a professor of horticulture at Southern Maine Community College, and a landscape designer serving all of Northern New England. Gavin lives in Deering with his wife and dog, and can be found in the garden, on the trails, or at the rink. See more of his work here:

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