First Bloom, More Snow

iris reticulata
This is the latest date I have ever recorded a first bloom.

A Facebook friend of mine wrote today that she is just plain numb when it comes to our weather here in Minnesota this spring. For my town, another 6 to 9 inches of snow is predicted for later today — yes, 6 to 9 inches on April 22! Last year, by this time, we had had several days in the 70s and 80s, whereas this year  we have not yet hit 60. If you live outside of the Upper Midwest, wrap your mind around that. According to the super-helpful Carleton College Weather Database, my hometown has not seen 60 degrees since Nov. 22, 2012 — five months!

But, no more complaining. We will endure. And, I have a bloom in my front yard. The Iris reticulata that is usually the first bulb to bloom in my front yard is up and blooming as of yesterday. April 21 is the latest I have ever recorded this first bloom. Last year, it happened on March 15! Here’s what I said then about past bloom times:

Last year, I first saw Iris reticulata in bloom on April 4; in 2010, I saw it on March 25; and in 2009, I recorded it blooming on April 16.

You can see how much variation there is in Minnesota, but having the earliest bloom time and latest in back to back years—and more than a month apart— is a bit disconcerting. The weather forecast calls for 60s and even 70s by the weekend, so I’m hoping that this will in fact be our last snowfall of the year.

Our Fast-Forward Fall

How fast has fall come on this year? Check out the three photos below, each taken about one day apart last week. I took the first one because it seemed the ash tree out my kitchen window had gone from green to gold overnight. Then the wind started blowing and the temperatures dropped and, in a little more than 48 hours, nearly all the leaves fell from the tree.

fall 1
Wednesday, Oct. 3, approximately 7 a.m.


fall 2
Thursday, Oct. 4, approximately 8 a.m.


fall 3
Sunsets on summer, Friday, Oct. 5, approximately 7:30 p.m.

Assessing the Damage

It's a little out of focus, but there is something on that bloom.

After three nights in the 20s, it looks like we are out of the chilly woods for at least a week or so. Much needed rain is in the forecast and the low temperatures are predicted to remain in the high 30s and low 40s.

It seemed a good time to assess whatever damage occurred. First the good news, most of the blossoms on my cherry tree appear (at least for now) to have survived. And, the really good news is several of these little pollinators were hard at work on the blossoms that were open.

Most of the perennials that have come up seemed to have survived the frost with few problems. Two exceptions: This newly planted ‘Autumn Frost’ hosta really should have been covered up better (my bad!) and the leaves are wilted over completely. The plant was only a couple of inches out of the ground, so I’m hoping it may come up again. Also, a hearty looking (as opposed to really hardy) lupine also is slumped over.

What kind of damage did you experience with the hard freezes?

Covering Up

Bring on the freeze!

My very unofficial thermometer read about 24 degrees F at 7 a.m. today, and there were definite signs of a freeze around the neighborhood. Last night, I covered up my little cherry tree out front in hopes of keeping it a bit warmer against the freeze.

I was surprised how big that tree has gotten! Even using two sheets sown together and an extra queen size sheet, I wasn’t able to cover the entire tree. I plan to leave the ghost covering on through Thursday morning when the freezing night-time temps are predicted to pass.

Fruit Crops on the Line

With a freeze forecast for much of southern Minnesota tonight and tomorrow night, tree fruit crops all over the state are in danger. Many plum, apple and cherry trees are blossoming now–including the little ‘Bali’ cherry in my front yard, which is just starting to bloom. The magic number for a freeze is 28 degrees F.  Above that, many crops will be OK; below it, not so much. The amount of damage also depends on how long temperatures remain low.

Since my cherry is fairly small, I plan to sew together a couple of old sheets and drape them over the tree. Hopefully, that will provide enough protection to keep the blossoms in tact. Those with larger trees or orchards may try running a sprinkler on the tree during the freeze. Here’s a post from the U of M Extension on protecting crops from a freeze.


What’s Growing On? More March Madness in the Garden

Squill in bloom.

Last week, encouraged by comments from a friend, I planted a short row of spinach, a short row of mustard greens and a slightly longer row of peas in my vegetable garden. Today, two of the three of them have tiny shoots coming up.

These are all in raised beds but none of them have row covers. It seemed OK to plant because the gardens met the basic requirement of  the ground being not too wet and workable. Given the long-range forecast for Minnesota, which shows no signs of temperatures anywhere close to freezing for the next week or so, I plan to plant more cool-weather crops outside today. Why not? Apparently we live in Kansas City now.

Based on the U of M's kabob test, my lawn is thawed enough to water. Fortunately, the skewer was wet.

I also cleaned up some of my perennial beds. Normally, I heed the standard advice to stay out of the lawn and beds to prevent soil compaction until well into April or even May, but not this year. The University of Minnesota Extension suggested gardeners get a kabob prong and stick it in their soil. If it goes 8 to 10 inches, the ground is OK to water. If the tip is dry, get out the hoses, pronto!

I am not raking the lawn — partly because it’s a chore I don’t enjoy much and partly because it still seems a bit soft. That said, the weeds are popping up already, and I had a grand time this morning pulling a few dandelions. The ground is soft enough that you can pull out the root cleanly — very satisfying.

One of the stunning characteristics of this very strange spring is the speed with which spring bloomers are appearing and blooming. Normally, the squill in my yard come up very slowly, hold on to flower buds for a week or more and then finally bloom. Not so this year, they popped up, and it was boom and bloom in a couple of days.

U of M Extension Master Gardeners from around Minnesota are reporting unbelievable amounts of growth in their gardens. Perennials such as clematis, daylilies, lupine, bleeding heart and hosta are up. Like me, other gardeners planted lettuces, peas and spinach and are seeing shoots already. Under the mulch, I’m finding rudbeckia and sweet woodruff, even the roses and hydrangea are greening up. The consensus among garden experts now seems to be that it is OK to uncover perennials — just be ready to throw a sheet, blanket or mulch on them if the temps suddenly take a dip.

What are you doing differently in your garden because of the unusual weather?

Digging Out the Phenology Notes

Another sign of spring: Blossoms on star magnolia in St. Paul.

Yesterday, I wrote about how some plant experts suggest gardeners handle the extremely unusual warm spring we are experiencing. The usual advice for spring in Minnesota would be to back off and stay out of your yard and garden until at least mid- to late April. But I think this year we may need to shift away from the usual advice. That’s why I dug out some notes I had on phenology, the study of nature signs and how they can be used to guide garden activities.

In the days before Doppler radar, USDA Hardiness zone maps and even university extension, gardeners relied on birds, bugs and flowers for advice on when to plant what. I’m not sure how reliable this advice is, but here are some typical spring activities and what to look for to guide when to do what:

  • When crocus bloom, remove the mulch on your strawberries. (It’s happening here.)
  • When yellow forsythia bloom, prune roses and fertilize the lawn. (Happening here.)
  • When leaves first emerge on lilacs, plant lettuce, beets, spinach and other cool-weather crops.
  • When the aspens have leafed out, plant pansies and other hardy annuals.
  • When lilacs are in full bloom and the barn swallows return, set out your tomato plants and basil.
  • When irises bloom, set out your squash and melon transplants.
  • When dandelions go to seed, it’s time to plant petunias.

What guides are you turning to this topsy turvy spring? What are you doing differently this year?


Gardening in Interesting Times: More Ideas from Experts

Hosta society experts answer questions at Plant Society Day at Gertens yesterday.

Yesterday the Minnesota State Horticulture Society hosted its annual Plant Society Day at Gertens in Inver Grove Heights. Several specialty societies were represented at the event and it seemed a great time to get more advice from experts about the best approach to gardening this very early, very warm spring.

Mary Don Beeson of the Garden Club of Ramsey County told me that she has been working in her perennial beds this past week. Because of the lack of snow cover, many perennials heaved out of the ground due to lack of snow cover, so she spent some time pushing them back, fixing edging that had heaved and giving everything a good long drink of water. The extended drought seems to be more of a concern with these top-notch gardeners than the early spring. If we do not get some good soaking rains this week, consider hooking up the hose and watering all your plants — they’ll be grateful.

Speaking of rain, Lisa Williams-Hardman, membership guru at MSHS and a great gardener, told me she thinks that some decent rain will create a burst of green in Minnesota gardens in the next couple of weeks. Like several others at the Plant Society Day, Lisa does not expect severe cold again. In fact, she was one of several people who told me they doubted the temperatures would drop below 30 again this spring.

I checked with experts from both the Minnesota Rose Society and the Twin Cities Rose Club about how to handle roses. If you have tea roses, floribundas or other more tender roses and you tip them over winter, just leave them where they are, according to the folks from the Minnesota Rose Society. They will not be harmed staying underground another three or more weeks, and if weather turns cold, they will be secure there. Chris Poppe of the Twin Cities Rose Club covers her roses with bags of mulch and a blanket for winter. She has removed the blanket and is slowly uncovering roses to give them some air. If your roses are out, Chris and fellow rose grower Carole Smuda suggest that you water them well and consider spraying them with Wilt-Pruf, an anti-transpirant. The real danger to drought-stressed plants is the wind, Chris noted, which may dry them out further.

The folks at the Minnesota Hosta Society table noted that while some hostas were beginning to emerge, most were still underground. Careful clean up while trying not to step into the gardens too much and water is the way to go. Gregg Peterson of the society said that people who did not water well into the fall last year — like into November — have a greater chance of losing plants, especially newly planted shrubs and trees.

My take-aways from talking with the plant experts: go slow, get out the hose and hope that Mother Nature doesn’t zap us with some extra cold weather.

Gardening in Interesting Times: An Expert’s View

There’s an old saying “may you live in interesting times.” For gardeners, this year promises to be more interesting than we could ever hope for — or want! A drought that began last fall continued through our unprecedentedly warm winter. Now, it is March and the temperatures the past few days have been hovering in the 70s and 80s. (Reality check: even in southern Minnesota the average temperature in March is in the 40s.) Next week looks damper and ever so slightly cooler, but still a good 20 degrees above Minnesota’s usual March.

How do you garden in weather that no one has seen before — at least, no one who stopped to record and write about it?

Feeling baffled, I checked in with some experts over the weekend. My first stop was Knecht’s Nurseries and Landscaping in Northfield, where Leif Knecht is taking a philosophical approach to the strange weather. “Let’s consider this past winter a blessing,” he said.

If we get severely cold weather in late March or early April—something along the lines of 10 to 15 degrees, which is not unheard of in spring in Minnesota—there could be serious damage to trees and plants that may leaf out in these super warm temperatures. However, Leif noted, plants are pretty tough, and many early bloomers handle moderate cold—mid- to upper-20s and above—reasonably well. Assuming climate change has something to do with this strange winter, it may be a good bet that we will not have the extreme cold we have experienced in the past.  As Leif said, “We won’t know until June when it’s behind us.”

Today, I’m going to Plant Society Day at Gerten’s in Inver Grove Heights, where I plan to ask some other experts about how they plan to garden in this extremely warm spring. I’ll report back tomorrow.

Are you doing anything differently because of the early spring?



First Bloom, More Phenology, and a Couple of Concerns

Today I spotted this lovely Iris reticulata, which has always been a harbinger of spring, blooming in my garden. This is the fourth time I have noted this bloom on the blog, and not surprisingly given our strange weather, the earliest. Last year, I first saw Iris reticulata in bloom on April 4; in 2010, I saw it on March 25; and in 2009, I recorded it blooming on April 16. So that puts us two to four weeks ahead of schedule — at least by iris time.

I should note that while this bulb is up and blooming, I don’t even see foliage yet for the Siberian squill I have naturalized in the lawn and in another bed. My neighbor’s crocus — another plant I monitor as a sign of spring — are also not blooming yet. In the past, these other plants were blooming about the same time as the iris.

I’m not sure what — if anything — to draw from that. It could be the lack of rain is affecting the other plants more than the iris, which is in one of the beds I water most as well as a place where we pile snow from the walk.

A day or two of 70s in March is not totally out of sync with “normal” for Minnesota. But, according to the weather dudes, it is likely we will have almost 10 days in a row of severely above normal temperatures — that’s just plain weird. (The average high for Minneapolis in March is 41, rising to 58 in April. Average lows are generally still in the 20s.)

I find the whole weather pattern disconcerting. There are big picture issues like increased numbers of severe weather incidents and, of course, the drought here. But there are also smaller ones such as how this early, extended warmth will affect my cherry and apple trees. If they bloom, then are zapped by a frost (remember, this is still Minnesota), that will be the end of the crop. I’m sure orchardists in Minnesota are watching their trees carefully, but what can you do to protect them from weather in the 70s? Perennials will likely recover, even if they are frost burned; and we can always plant more vegetables or just hold off until the “proper” planting time.

I’ve listened to some radio broadcasts with entomologists and horticulturists about the effect of an early spring on plants and insects and the experts seem to think the bees, the bugs and the plants can figure this all out better than we humans can. Bugs may hatch earlier (as noted in this video of boxelder bugs in Northfield) and some of them may get caught in a frost. Bees tend to time their spring emergence with the arrival of blooms. Some pests will probably thrive in the warmth, while others will struggle.

This post is a bit rambling, but I’m a bit lost on how to think about this warm, lovely, frightening spring. What are you seeing blooming in your yard? And, what concerns do you have about a too-early spring? Or, are you just enjoying the warm weather?