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!

 

 

 

 

January Light

Like a lot of northerners, I find our low-light times of the year a tad depressing. Getting up in the dark and having the sun set before most people are out of work makes you feel like a mole. I know it could be worse than we have it in Minnesota—my husband worked for several months in Uppsala, Sweden, and when we first got there in late January, the sun rose between 8:30 and 9 a.m. and set by 3:30 p.m. Imagine dusk lurking in the background not long after lunch. Grim.

January sun stretches across the floor.

So, usually about this time of year, I start watching the sun. I know that by mid to late January, the sun will start rising by 7:30 a.m. and set after 5. More importantly, it seems higher in the sky, so that when we have a sunny day, the light in the house gets noticeably brighter and deeper.

I noticed this change of light recently, and while we are having a severe snowstorm as I write this, I know that flicker of brighter sunlight means we are not too far from the backside of winter. Our new home in St. Paul has a bay window in the living room and it faces due south. We’ve put most of our houseplants there—a Meyer lemon tree, some rosemary, a few succulent type things, some bulbs I’m forcing and my husband’s bonsai. They love the light and when it stretches across the floor I can’t help but think about seed starting and the new gardens I’ll be adding this summer. For me, that stretch of light is the start of the garden season.

From above, houseplants soak in the sun.

It’s been said many times before, but one of the biggest benefits of gardening is that it pushes you toward awareness of the natural world and its rhythms. Sure, I noticed long and short days before I took up gardening, but it was as a gardener that I started to watch the arc of the sun across the sky from winter to summer and back again, to notice where in the yard the light fell at which times of year, to feel its intensity in June and its weak power in November. As a gardener, I really started to listen to bird songs and the rustle of tree branches against each other. (Time to prune?) I started to see the differences in dirt—from the sandy soil in one garden bed to the baked clay in another—and smell more intently the herbs I grew. Nothing smells fresher than lemon balm.

As a practical Minnesotan, I know we have at least two more months  of winter at our feet, but the light of January brings its own cheer. Spring will come.

Are We in for a Real Winter?

As I write this, it is Nov. 10 and the temperature outside is about 15 degrees. That’s cold, man! Even for Minnesota in late fall. The rather sudden drop in temperatures over the past couple of weeks has many gardeners wondering if we are in for a “real winter,” meaning one with lots of cold and snow.

The last time we had a significantly cold and nasty winter was 2014, when Minnesota schools were canceled for five days because of vicious wind chills. In 2016, I experienced the earliest first bloom in my Northfield garden ever with a bloom on March 13. That was also the longest growing season on record and we did not even have a frost in the Twin Cities until Nov. 7.

The National Weather Service has predicted the possibility of a weak La Nina system affecting weather here, which indicates it will probably be cold and wetter than normal. What does this mean for gardeners?

On Oct. 27, my alley garden was blanketed in snow, including the still blooming ‘Heavenly Blue’ morning glory.

If you still have fall garden work, get it done! I still have a few garden chores to do, including adding shredded leaves to my beds and cleaning out a few pots of annuals that I have not gotten to yet. It looks like this coming week will have a few slightly warmer temperatures and I plan to get out there ASAP to finishing things up.

Why I don’t spray—nasty Japanese beetles (top) and helpful bees coexist.

Fewer bugs??? Well, that’s the hope when we have a cold winter—that it will be cold enough to zap the Japanese beetles and other invaders that spend winter in the soil. Experts say that how much of the population of pest insects are killed by cold weather depends on 1) how cold it is and for how long; and 2) how much snow cover we have and when we get it—cold weather without snow cover is more likely to kill grubs nesting in soil. This article notes, however, that cold, dry winters also kill beneficial insects and, sadly, that Japanese beetle grubs can go very deep in the soil. Sigh.

More plant losses? Well, maybe, maybe not. We had a lot of rain this fall, particularly in October, which means plants are well-hydrated going into the winter season. With this early freeze, you could mulch around tender plants to make sure they don’t heave out of the ground during the inevitable thaw-freeze cycles. But, if we get some decent snow in December, we may just be in for a long, long winter.

Time to make some tea and get out a book!

 

 

 

Opening Weekend for Gardeners

pansy
For instant spring, plant some pansies. Garden centers are full of them now.

Imagine if the hunter or fisherperson in your household was told that the opening weekend had been moved back two, maybe three weeks? Anxiety? Disappointment? Lots of pent-up energy? Yes, to all that, as we gardeners well know having endured one of the most protracted ends to winter that I can recall. But, this weekend is it! The weather promises to be pleasant and warm. So, here’s what I plan to do:

  • Clean up the gardens you can reach easily. You don’t want to be tramping around the yard too much (something I’ve been guilty of already this year). And you absolutely do not want to rake — let the soil firm up and dry out. But, if you can reach a bed from the sidewalk or other terra firma, clean up spent perennials and uncover any of those plants that want to grow.
  • Buy some pansies! If you think you have been anxious to get out in the garden, imagine how nursery and garden center owners feel. Many garden centers will be open for the first time this weekend. Visit them, enjoy the beautiful plants they have in their greenhouses and buy some pansies to pot up for instant spring.
  • Plant a little lettuce. I’ve started some lettuce indoors and those plants have been moved to pots and put on the front porch. But it should be warm enough now to  plant out lettuce or even start some from seed. Hold off on tomatoes or any warm weather crops.
  • Prune Annabelle hydrangeas and other plants that bloom on new growth. Hold off on pruning lilacs and other spring-flowering shrubs until after they bloom.
  • Build a raised bed. Easiest garden project ever. I’ve built several and have a new one in the garage ready to go out to the vegetable area in the next week or so. (If you want to get really fancy, check out my brother-in-law’s deck garden.) You can fill your bed with compost and soil to create a fabulous environment for vegetables. If you are not sure what to grow, check out Chiot’s Run’s 5-by-5 Challenge, which gives you suggestions and planting tips to grow a simple 5-by-5 foot vegetable garden.

What will you be doing this beautiful weekend?

 

First Bloom, More Snow

iris reticulata
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.

Hail Bouquet

Lily and hydrangea in bowlDespite 12.5 inches of rain in the past week, I feel incredibly lucky. Seeing photos from Duluth, I’m reminded of the massive destructive power of water.  Here, lots of people have wet basements and some have ravaged gardens. Hail did a small amount of damage in my yard Monday night, ripping leaves, knocking down tree branches and kicking over the branches on a lovely hydrangea. Time to pick the flowers and make a hail bouquet. I hope your day is sunny!

Another Rain Gauge Photo

rain gaugeWe got almost 3 more inches of rain last night in a noisy, lightning- and hail-filled late night storm. That’s on top of the 7-plus inches last Thursday. The drainage ponds near our house were full, but not over flowing this morning, but several of the bike paths I normally take to downtown were covered with water.  Here’s hoping for a dry week!