The warmer weather has the garden sopping wet. The water table in our vegetable patch lurks close to the surface and in the wet winter and spring months. The mud season in New England differs from place to place; the sandy soil of the Cape provides for some interesting variety. Cold winds still whip through the woods, and those warm early spring days remain inconsistent.

The birds in spring send up a racket around the garden, and evidence of wildlife traipsing around the garden fencing abounds. Deer in particular seem to have designated the garden area as a waypoint on their daily meandering across our property and into the woods beyond. Just behind the garden lie abandoned railroad tracks that are a preferred route for the pack of coyotes that call our neighborhood home. Red and gray foxes, martens, fishers, and river otters also patrol the woods and streams behind the garden, but rarely let themselves be seen. Hawks pirouette in the sky, and bald eagles are making a comeback after nearly a century of their absence. Skunks and raccoons make their nightly rounds as do opossums. Early on in our residence, a domesticated duck marched up and down the street from its owner’s house to the cul-de-sac in front of ours.

The garden is set off the road and away from the house; in summer it feels isolated from the rest of the world by walls of green. In spring, the woods still seem bare, but with the promise of new life to come.

Soil improvement remains an ever-present project, the work is never perfected. When the garden winds down in the fall, it’s time to prep for spring. For acidic soils, which much of the Cape has, a coating of lime is best applied at the closing of the year; it’s slow breakdown into the earth will set up next season’s gardens PH well. Working in compost and seaweed before planting a cover crop like winter rye is wise for the forward thinker. Given the time constraints and many other projects seeking my attention, this doesn’t always happen. I should be better about winter rye in particular, which helps hold the soil together and can be turned over the following spring, providing added nutrients. I have a habit of playing catch-up in the spring, adding compost or dehydrated cow manure and, if needed, quick lime, which will dissolve in the soil faster than other types of lime, but with less potency.

One major element that I omit here is peat moss. Some gardeners swear by this organic additive: it aerates the soil, helps it retain moisture and, being slightly acidic, works to adjust soil PH. The issue with peat is the environmental toll contained in each bag we so liberally dole out over the vegetable patch. Peat is the decayed remains of sphagnum moss accumulated in bogs over years. These vast mires result in a major carbon sink, some of the largest on the planet. Much of the peat consumed in the United States originates from Canada. Warming global temperatures and melting permafrost have led to fires breaking out in the tundra, burning peat and releasing a vast store of greenhouse gases. To that end, I’ve stopped using peat and searched for alternatives.

A lot of garden work in the spring is soil prep. Before a single seed nestles in the garden, it’s important to make sure that the soil is loaded with the key nutrients and has the right soil PH for the plants you plan to bring in. Remembering what you planted, and where, the year before is important. Some plants, like corn, are heavy feeders; this soil will be tired and in need of key nutrients. On the opposite side of the spectrum of the garden, areas where legumes grew the previous year will fare better as these plants are nitrogen-fixers, taking nitrogen out of the air and incorporating it into the soil.

Finding out what your soil needs to produce a great crop requires testing. The University of Massachusetts will, for a nominal fee, test your garden soils and report on PH, nutrient levels and traces of lead in the soil. You can also purchase home tests, though without the accuracy attained through professional testing.

Early spring finds much of the planting occurring indoors. Starting from seed, once a daunting task on my part, has become much easier once we learned to keep pets and children from disturbing the growing process. I start with a four- or five-inch pot, sprinkle it with seeds, burying them in more soil at the prescribed depth. I set them in a tray and bottom-water the pots, so as not to harm the newly nestled seeds. The medium you’re planting them in doesn’t need to be nutrient-rich at this point; seeds contain their nutrients.

Once the first leaves appear, it’s time to repot the seedlings into their own individual containers. The first “leaves” that appear, the cotyledon, are part of the seed embryo and it’s the second set you should wait for. When these appear, I take the seedlings out of the pot and drop them on a potting bench to loosen up the root ball. It’s important here to lift each seedling by its leaf before planting it in its own pot, bottom-watering it and putting it in indirect sunlight for a day or two before placing it directly in the sun.

Spring in the Northeast is muddy. The soil in March, even in well-draining soil is thick and sticky, and generally not pleasant to be wallowing around in for extended periods of weekend days, especially when March and April remind you they’re coming close on the heels of winter. Even for the most eager gardener wishing to turn a spadeful of earth after the cold months, it’s advisable to wait until the last frosts have passed before getting plants into the ground. On the Cape this usually occurs in mid- to late April. There is plenty of cleanup to do first. The winter has often battered the deer netting around our garden and leaves, branches and pine needles litter the beds. Before tilling the earth is when I like to test the soil to find out what the garden needs for the coming year before adding compost, dehydrated cow manure and anything else the soil may be lacking.