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It’s mud boot time. No matter what kind of weather we’ll see this weekend and next, it’s safe to say that some of March will be mild, and gardeners and homeowners will be outside starting the annual cleanup. I actually saw some overachievers this past week, raking their lawns and edging their landscape beds. Personally, I have a long way to go before raking and edging reach the top of the list. But we all have to start somewhere.

If your reality is anything like mine, when the snow recedes what is left is not a pretty picture. Anything you didn’t put away at the end of the season – shovel, bird bath, pots, hoses, deer repellent, wheelbarrow – is revealed, evidence of your flaws. Winter tools and supplies – snow shovels, brooms, ice chipper, bags of salt and sand – are strewn willy-nilly around the deck. Worse, the heavy pots you thought wouldn’t chip if you left them upside down and empty (OK, this one’s about me) did indeed chip, leaving layers of painted terra cotta crumbling around them.

The debris of Christmas is also haunting, from the brown-needled wreath and water-stained red bows to the now-broken lights you never lifted off the evergreens. Even more discouraging, pots and baskets you had stacked quite neatly, prepared for recycling, have now tipped over and blown in the direction of the neighbor’s yard. Meanwhile, plastic toys and a stray lawn chair from someone else’s yard have landed in mine. Not pretty, not at all.

For new homeowners, this stage might be very discouraging. If you used to live in an apartment, with no outside responsibilities except to get your garbage to the proper place on the proper day, it may be shocking to see that things move around outside during the winter and look worse than when you last saw them in a green setting. If you are like me, resigned to this stage as the necessary precursor of the joyous return of spring, you know it will pass. We can make new resolutions for next year, to put everything away and to store it all better before the snow flies, but you know what comes of resolutions. So put on the mud boots and face it.

Picture perfect?

Close your eyes and imagine for a moment a lady gardener, poking along her garden path in late winter – greeting, inspecting and tending her perennials. As garden painters, writers and photographers would have it, she wears a hat and gloves that complement her long skirt, or perhaps well-fitted jeans and a pastel floral shirt. She tidily catches her plant clippings in a basket that she periodically tips into a pretty garden cart, and she never, ever grunts or groans. Perhaps there is singing ...

Less dreamlike, there’s a real gardener’s day, like mine earlier this week, when I claimed a little outdoor time. Actually, I was nudged from the computer by my husband who had offered to help me get the trash down to the road for garbage day. Lots of recycling had stacked up because, sometimes, it’s just too hard to take it out in windy weather or harsh cold. That led to some gathering up of recyclable bottles or pots that had actually blown across the yard.

I took time to dump some saved-up bags and boxes of pine needles (my favorite free mulch), which I sprinkled over some perennial crowns and small bulbs that were poking up a little too eagerly. Next there were large branches to drag to the edge of the woods. Restacking blown-over outdoor furniture was also a good move, as the deck started to look again civilized – except for the mess under the bird feeder. That required pulling out the garden cart and the big push shovel, in an effort to clean up all the bird seed debris.

As the garden cart filled, it seemed like the right time to add the contents of the kitchen compost buckets – some frozen outside and two waiting by the door. (My worm bins inside have had enough fresh food recently.) Then I was reminded that a large mandevilla inside was yellowing and really deserved a hard cutting back; those branches also went to the garden cart to take to the compost area. Finally, I dumped the accumulated shredded mail – must be careful about identity theft – and I had everything I needed to start layering a new compost pile.

At the compost pile

Then the singing began. OK, not quite like the idyllic garden lady’s scene. But my heart really lifts when I get to the compost. Once the season starts, it’s actually where I start on any given gardening day. It is so very satisfying to pull the tarp and coarse branches off the top of the old compost piles (shrunk to about 4 feet now) and to get a glimpse of the finished or nearly finished compost underneath.

I allowed myself a little poking to see how far along that pile had “cooked” over the winter, but this would not be the day to start digging and spreading it. Instead, I went to a very short, partial pile (my compost piles boxed in by pallets or skids) and began to layer what I had collected: coarse branches on the bottom, then the pails of kitchen scraps (no meat), then some leaves and twigs, pine branches, bird seed debris – a process that I will continue for the next few weeks as the pickup continues. Composting is magical; it just happens. Your yard and kitchen scraps turn into a perfect soil amendment. You’re recycling. And it’s free!

By the end of the project my husband had long gone back to his own work, and my computer and deadlines were screaming for my return to the grind. My deck and yard looked better, although far from the edging stage. My back ached a little. My knees were muddy and my clothes were splashed (and likely fragrant) with essence of watery compostables. I was smiling. Many more days like this face me – and you, too, if you’re lucky. It was a great start.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.