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No job too small

FOR the last three Saturdays, I have been performing the rituals of spring. Indoors I've started peppers and eggplant and lettuce of all sorts, daisies and pansies and ageratum. Outdoors I have raked the leaf mulch from my tulips so that -- unlike last year -- they will grow straight. With these first equinoctial chores, I mark time waiting for Mr. Eggleston, the man who for many years has rototilled my garden. In March I pruned my little apple trees. I'm always a little apprehensive about this. I'm afraid of making a mistake, for fruit trees are beautiful in youth -- like children. It was a glorious day, with temperatures in the 40s on the side porch. You could see why the old farmer's adage about pruning when you feel like pruning actually works. The best weather for it -- brisk, with the sun bright but still low in the sky -- makes you want to sharpen your shears and thin out your trees.

``Should be able to throw your hat right through,'' Mr. Eggleston would say.

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Today I grafted scions from the Worcester Horticultural Society, young branches taken from the old and famous apple varieties still kept growing up at Sturbridge. I ordered Newton's pippin because it was Jefferson's favorite, and Esopus Spitzenburg and Black Gilli-flower just for the names. While writing this, I'm trying to scrape the grafting wax from my fingers and pen.

``You've got it on the doorknobs,'' says Mrs. Beeching, ``and the faucet and the dish towels.''

I also found a gladiola corm I'd overlooked last fall. I'll dry it and put it back down in a month or so. It won't know what happened to it. But now, while the tips of the iris and the white-striped leaves of the crocus appear above the sod, I wait for Mr. Eggleston and the planting of the seed. I wait even while the snowflowers bloom and fade. When the soil makes a crumbly ball in my hand, Mr. Eggleston will appear -- ``No Job Too Small.''

It will happen this way.

``Afternoon, Mr. Beeching,'' he'll say, having parked his pickup in the drive -- the great scarlet body of his rototiller protruding from its rear.

``Glad to see you again, Mr. Eggleston,'' I say. ``Got a string around the raspberries and asparagus. Peas are in between.''

The warning is purely formal. After all these years, Mr. Eggleston knows the garden like the back of his hand. But certain ceremonies are expected on great occasions.

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``I'll watch out, Mr. Beeching.''

``There's a lot of leaves on it this year -- hope not too much.''

``You always do like plenty of compost.'' He will say this last as he trundles the heavy machine around back.

At this point, I go inside as I am expected to. Both Mr. Eggleston and I subscribe to the dictum, ``If you hire a man to do a job of work, leave him alone to do it.''

But, of course, I always peek out the kitchen window as he moves slowly and carefully back and forth turning the mottled, newly thawed earth into reddish-brown, beautifully combed soil. It looks good enough to eat. As I watch, I always feel a kind of hitch in my breath and a foolish desire not to plant, to leave this richness just as it is.

And then he will be through and sweeping up the driveway where his tiller has left some moist tracks, as if it were a horse. And I pay him -- I'd pay him just to come visit me each March, whether he plowed or not.

If Mr. Eggleston is aware of the effect he has on me, he never lets on. When the gods cast a man in the role of a harbinger -- with a scarlet tiller -- a man behaves with a certain dignity.

For Mr. Eggleston is an annual sign of better things.

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