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Spring buds in bloom.

12.1.10

In the Off-Season: April

The pulse of the Island quickens. The streets become livelier as the weather warms and seasonal shops start to open. Schoolchildren head outside for sports, the ospreys return to their untidy nests, and business turns brisk at garden centers.

One of the many good things about the month of April is that it means March is over. There may be people on Martha’s Vineyard who love March, but I have yet to meet one. Theoretically spring begins that month; we duly change our clocks to daylight-saving time and listen hopefully for pinkletinks. But the local reality is that March offers the joys of neither winter nor spring. If there is ice, it’s too thin for skating; if there is snow, it quickly becomes dirty slush. The ground thaws, but the soil and the nights are too cold to allow much action in the garden. It usually rains a lot. March is a gray-brown interregnum between the sparkling monochrome of winter and the new color of spring. It’s a long, slow month.

But in April you can feel the quickening. The average maximum temperature for March is forty-six degrees, just nine more than it is in January, the coldest month, but in April it jumps a whole ten degrees to fifty-six, and there are always a few much warmer days that promise summer. After four frosty months, most nights are above freezing and the days are longer than the nights. Like an old movie that has been colorized, April starts out sepia-toned and ends up Technicolor. Flowers and leaf buds begin to reveal themselves. What were apparently dead sticks in my backyard are suddenly cascades of brilliant yellow forsythia. There are daffodils, grape hyacinths, tulips, and everywhere, dandelions.

Other things are revealed too. Every year in our household, April brings the happy occasion of the baring of the limbs. The exact date varies, for April is a fickle month. But there are always at least a few days – and in years like 2010, a lot of days – when I can slough off the jeans and boots and expose legs, startlingly pale and with the hairs worn short from the rubbing of denim, to the strengthening sun. Last April – I remember this clearly because it was so unexpected – there was even a day when I was kicking a ball around the yard with my son, and we both got so hot we took off our shirts.

I know there are some people who are vigorous outdoor types all year round. People who bundle up and ride their bicycles on frosty roads. There are even some hardy souls who don neoprene boots, gloves, and hoods, and smear exposed flesh with Vaseline in order to take on the big winter swell. But most of us aren’t like that. If we get any exercise at all, it’s walking, or tramping up and down some sledding hill with the kids. Maybe the odd day of skating. But mostly if you want to keep fit you have to take your exercise indoors. Which makes it expensive – although a little less so now that the YMCA has opened.

Then in April the bicycles come out of our garage. Across the Island, it’s the time when parents sign the kids up for spring sports. In our house, it means hunting for soccer cleats, shin guards, and jerseys. In other homes, it’s tee-ball, baseball, or lacrosse gear.

But it’s not all fun and games. On Martha’s Vineyard, where the economy depends so heavily on the influx of people in the summer, April is financially the toughest month. For a start, it’s tax time, which can be really hard on people who have been living for half a year on the accrued financial fat of the previous summer. And nobody knows that better than Chris Wells, president of the Martha’s Vineyard Savings Bank.

“It is not the happiest month financially for a lot of people,” he says. “Not like August when the money is – hopefully – rolling in.

“April is the lowest month for deposits, mostly because of federal and state tax payments. There is a preponderance of deposit outflow to the IRS and the [state] department of revenue at the beginning of the month.”

And there are other things too that suck money out of the bank, says Chris. Business owners are building inventory for the coming season and hiring staff. Like the old saying goes, you’ve got to spend a buck to make a buck. And April is when the circulation of bucks begins to pick up pace.

Baseball season begins, and the kids return to play outside.

“More often than not April includes Easter, so people tend to open up their wallets a bit. And generally, people start spending a little more in April, getting themselves out of the doldrums of the long winter,” Chris says.

Fortuitously, there is a way to reconcile that lack of money and the urge to spend: town meeting. This is the month when year-round Vineyarders gather to decide how to spend their towns’ income – some three-quarters of it supplied by the property taxes levied on seasonal residents who are (mostly) not there to have a say. And it’s the time when election posters sprout in yards across the Island, along with the weeds.

The Vineyard’s high rate of seasonal unemployment comes down in April. By June there will be more jobs than workers, and the annual influx of college students and foreigners with work visas will be upon us. But for now, the people picking up work are year-rounders. As the stores open, retail jobs have to be filled. Warmer weather means that construction activity – concentrated indoors during the winter – moves outside and picks up pace. Every spring sees the builders out working to spruce up the houses of the summer people, landscapers out spreading lime or fertilizer on lawns, and starting work on the gardens, which will have to look beautiful when their wealthy owners and tenants arrive for the summer.

You can see it everywhere on the Island, but probably nowhere more than in Edgartown, due to its coincidence of closely settled, high-priced real estate, along with its greater seasonality and the proclivity of its residents for painted structures. Walk the streets of Edgartown in April and your ears are assailed by the din of blowers, mowers, nail guns, hammers, saws. Many white picket fences sport a shiny new coat of paint.

April is a high-activity month, in which a lot of effort is expended in the hope of later benefit. And that’s not only true for people, but also for nature, as Suzan Bellincampi, director at Mass Audubon’s Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown, points out. Migrant birds, for example, burn up huge amounts of energy to get to summer feeding and breeding grounds. It’s the month bees begin to get busy. Those pinkletinks people listened for as harbingers of spring just weeks ago are now laying their eggs. Salamanders are on the march, wandering across the countryside (and the roads; drive carefully), heading for their ponds to breed. The ospreys are back on their untidy nests; the robins lay their pretty eggs in the bushes beside our back door.

“Things are really starting to awaken in April,” says Suzan. “But it’s still a struggle for the wildlife. March is finally over, yet it’s really not spring here, and if it’s cold and raining and you’re not getting all the stuff coming out, it’s hard to get food. It’s a do-or-die time,” she says.

Early April, our family usually heads down to Felix Neck for its celebration of the return of the osprey. We used to religiously hit the Flying Horses when it opened at Easter, although we do it less as the kids have grown older. Another rite of spring they show no signs of outgrowing: the huge egg hunt at Vineyard Gardens in West Tisbury. The kids collect chocolate; we collect a few things for the garden.

Not that we’re big gardeners in our house, but we’ve found that if we put in a bit of effort in April, we can pretty much coast through summer. Stick in a few of the hardier herbs. Cut back the old dead chrysanthemum stalks. Dig up the weeds before they get too big. Turn the soil over, and throw down a little mulch. Then, as the weather warms, just add plants.

Chris Wiley, who owns Vineyard Gardens, obviously is much more serious about her gardening. But she affirms that April is the time to get into the garden. “I have spent years trying to encourage people to start their gardening a little earlier. Most people don’t even want to start until they’re sure the last frost has passed,” she says. But that could be anytime up until early June, which is way too late. So, what should be done in April?

“We do a lot of fertilizing of beds, trees, and shrubs – especially new plantings – and lawns, which are cool-weather lovers. Plants want to be fertilized when they want to grow. Also you should prune the plants which bloom on their new growth. And mulch: a light layer right over the top of your perennials, before they come up.”

Her expertise, though, is not limited to the spring behavior of plants. Chris used to be a high school teacher, and is always struck by the way the month “just invades young people’s bodies.” She says, “Spring is in the air; everyone’s excited – it’s a very, very social time.”

Indeed it is a social time, and not just for the kids. April, as far as I’m concerned, is the real kick-off of the year. A time to shake off winter’s torpor, to get out and about, see friends, gear up for the summer madness that will follow all too soon. Sure, I know some folks prefer May, when the trees are fully in leaf, or September, when the tourists are (at last) gone, and the water is still warm. But for me, April is the best month, because it is the month when everything is beginning. I like beginnings.

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