Delayed Spring? Pros and Cons for Northern Gardeners

With about 4 inches of snow on the ground already from our current storm and another 2 to 4 predicted during the day, it seems a good time to consider the pros and cons of a delayed spring.

For those not from Minnesota, since the beginning of 2018, we have had two days (yes, just two) with a high temperature of 50 degrees or higher in the Twin Cities. Both of those days were in March—and neither of them topped 55. Currently, we are in a broken record of 30-degree days with nights in the 20s interrupted only by intermittent snowstorms. Some weather forecasters have said this will last into mid-April. Others say we get a break next week.  (I hope these guys are right.)  So what happens in the garden when spring takes forever to arrive?

A couple of pros of a delayed spring come immediately to mind:

Less chance of freeze damaging fruit crops. Back in 2012, we had an extremely early spring, with my cherry tree (and lots of apple trees) blooming in early April—about four weeks ahead of usual. When the inevitable frost came, many fruit crops were severely damaged. That won’t happen this year.

Adequate soil moisture. This year, Minnesota has had an average amount of snow or a bit higher. Since there has been some thawing of the ground, these late season snows should give us decent soil moisture going into the planting season.

I’m sure there are some other benefits to a slow spring, but there are plenty of cons, too.

In 2015, crocus were blooming in my yard on March 31. In 2016, they were blooming on March 15. This year, nothing but snow so far.

When things bloom, it will be a bloom explosion! When spring comes on gently and slowly as it did last year, blooms emerge gradually in a steady parade of color from the yellows of forsythia to creamy magnolias, pink rhododendrons, redbuds, fruit trees and lilacs. Bulbs do the same.  In the best of years, this unfolding of color can start in late March. A delayed spring means everything rushes to bloom at once—boom. It’s marvelous when it happens, but wow, it doesn’t last long. And, for people with allergies, all that blooming means lots of types of pollen all at once. On the upside, the pollen count in my neighborhood today is zero!

A pansy pile up at the local garden centers! I visited a couple of garden centers during a slightly warm day 10 days ago, and the pansy bowls were piled up in the greenhouses. While pansies can tolerate temps down to 26, it’s best not to put them outdoors fulltime until nighttime temperatures are reliably in the 40s. So, hold off for at least a week. After that, rush to your local garden center, because you will be starved for color!

I wrote a profile of this DIY greenhouse for the November/December 2017 issue of Northern Gardener. This would be a great year to have a greenhouse!

A slow start in the vegetable garden. This would be a great year to have a greenhouse, because it’s going to be awhile before the soil temperature is warm enough to plant even cool-season crops such as lettuce and peas.  Seeds for vegetables such as radishes and lettuce will germinate at soil temperatures as low as 40 degrees, but it takes a lot longer to germinate at 40 than it does at 50 or 60 degrees. So, fire up those indoor light systems and give your vegetables a head start inside. Just for perspective, the soil temperature in my raised beds right now is 35 degrees. We’ve got a way to go.

Hungry birds. I haven’t seen any robins yet though they could be around, but I have definitely noticed more birdsong in the morning. If you garden for birds, keep the feeders full and put out some water for them. It will be awhile before they can nibble on insects in the garden.

Speaking of insects, a long winter is unlikely to affect populations of Japanese beetles, emerald ash borers and other insects gardeners consider pests. Bummer.

Enjoy the snow day!





This Holiday Decoration is for the Birds

finished project
Not perfect, but fun.

twig ballsSince the summer, when I went on a garden tour in Hudson, Wis. (a highly recommended tour) and saw these twig balls, I’ve been interested in making some kind of twig decor. You can buy them in many nurseries and garden centers, but I wanted to try my hand at making them. First I checked youtube, where I found one decent video, but when I tried to replicate the instructions, it was a complete fail. My twig circles kept boinging open.

orb with greeneryI gave up until I went to the Rice County Master Gardener holiday party, where one of the gardeners (Karen) showed me how she did the circles. Using large branches (willow or red twig dogwood work well), she lashed two branches together at the thick end using 18 gauge wire. The branches should be facing the opposite direction, so you have one very long branch, which is tied in the middle.  Then, bend the branches around so that they form a circle. You can twist them around each other and then lash the ends together, using wire. Make four circles using this method. The circles need to be very close in size. Then, fit the circles together to make an orb. You may need to use a bit more wire to keep everything together. My orb was not nearly as neat and shapely as Karen’s but it was an something close to an orb.

grapefruit ornamentI decided it might make an interesting outdoor ornament, if I dolled it up into a bird feeder. I started by adding greenery, which was pretty easy to wind into the twigs. Earlier this week, I watched a video from the Daily Connoisseur on making ornaments using dried citrus. This was very easy to do and cute. I took my dried grapefruit ornaments, added dental floss, so they could be hung from the orb, spread them with peanut butter (make sure the citrus slices are not too thin — one of mine broke during the peanut butter speading), then dipped them in bird seed. I also used a margarine tub top in the center of the feeder/orb. The top is also spread with peanut butter and covered with bird seed, and I used duck tape to attach the tub top to the branches in the center of the orb.

Covered with bird seedI added a thick holiday ribbon at the top of the orb so it could be hung from our maple tree out front. I’m not sure how long this will last and I plan to monitor it today because the wind is supposed to pick up. What fun projects have you done this holiday season?


A Nestful of Reasons to Plant Shrubby Things

The baby robins are getting big.

I was putting some mulch under our white pine Sunday when I noticed that the robin who had been around our yard lately seemed to be hanging quite close to me. Soon, I discovered the reason why — a nestful of almost ready to fly baby robins. The parent robins built the nest in the crotch of the pine, which would provide some protection from predators and the considerable wind we have in the spring.

If you like birds, planting “shrubby” trees and bushes almost guarantees you will get nests. In the past, we’ve had nests in highbush cranberry, pagoda dogwood, ash trees and (unfortunately!) an air exchange pipe coming out of our house. (We had to evict those birds, I’m afraid.)

My most recent column in the St. Cloud Times describes the four things birds need, with a few tips on how gardeners can supply those needs.  One of those needs is places to nest, such as a shrubby tree.