Update on the Winter Sowing Containers

winter sowing containers
Lots of germination; lots of rain.

I wrote some time ago about starting native perennials in winter sowing containers, and thought now would be a good time for an update.

Given our especially long winter, the plants in the containers are still pretty small. The good news is, germination occurred in almost all of the 28 containers. The two that have not germinated yet — and I do not expect them to — got pretty water-logged and the seeds may have rotted.

Because of the long winter, I did not end up following the usual winter sowing procedure. Normally, winter-sowers will put their plants out sometime during the winter and leave them there until it starts to warm up. Gradually, they will open the containers up, closing them at night to keep the plants warm. Minnesota springs are not usually gradual and this one was light-speed. On May 2, we had about 10 inches of snow on my garden and a temperature around 28. On May 14, the temperature flirted with 95. (Are we crazy to live in this climate? Very likely.) In any case, once it started to warm up, I just took the covers off of the winter sowing containers and called it a day. Of course, since then, it has been cooler, grayer and pretty wet.

I’ll let the plants get up to size and then, over time, transplant them out to the meadow where they will add color to the grasses and other plants I purchased from Prairie Moon Nursery.

My experiences with winter sowing have always been mixed. It does work — no question about it — but it does not work as well as starting plants under lights. It’s great for a situation like this one: I want a lot of plants and I want them cheaply.

What’s been your experience with winter sowing?



More Notes on Phenology During an Early Spring

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 entomologists and horticulturists talk 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 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?

Winter Weirdness

Salvia in January

I’m not sure which is more disconcerting–that I spent 15 minutes outside today wearing only a cardigan and was comfortable doing it, or that I found an unusual number of signs of life in the garden. Just a reminder: It’s Minnesota and it’s January.

Yet, today when I pulled aside some leaves I found this Salvia sending up several new shoots. In the backyard, the Clara Curtis daisies I ripped out in October had sent up new leaves — green ones. And, in the vegetable bed, a few sprigs of parsley were growing. Now all of these plants are decidedly in the hardy category. I have found parsley under snow in spring before, but still, there are far more green things in my yard than is usual for January (when things are usually covered in snow).

We’ll see what the rest of winter holds. But, so far, it’s just weird.

Dr. Mark Seeley on Climate Change

Dr. Mark Seeley, author of the Minnesota Weather Almanac and a regular radio commentator on climate and weather, spoke at the Rice County Horticultural Day this morning. Seeley gave the full-house of gardeners attending the event an overview on how the weather is changing in Minnesota, with a few ideas on how to accommodate it.

Here are my take-aways from the talk:

  • It’s not that the highs are getting higher, it’s that the lows are getting higher. Higher average night-time low temperatures and higher temperatures in winter are what most of us have been observing when we’ve noticed climate change in the past decade or two. Seeley’s graphs show clearly that we are in a shifting weather pattern and the shifts are heavily concentrated in winter.

    flooding in garden
    More and more serious rain events are one of the effects of climate change.
  • It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity. In addition to higher low temperatures, we are seeing rises in humidity to the point where the heat emergency days in Minnesota in the past few years have largely been due to high humidity (70 degree dew points) coupled with sort of high temperatures (90s). I noted that Rice County was one of several counties that had experienced more than 10 days where dew points were above 80 in the past few years. These weather patterns have also produced larger numbers of thunderstorms, resulting in more rain falling in gushes rather than trickles.
  • It’s not just SUVs causing the problem. While emissions from vehicles and industry (especially less-clean industries in developing countries like China and India) are part of the problem, Seeley is passionate that people not overlook other causes of climate change, including natural factors and the changes in land use. Every time a wild area becomes a corn field or a corn field becomes a housing development we are changing the land and environment, and that, in turn, can change the climate. (I’ve observed this first hand over the past 9 years as our neighborhood went from cornfield to suburb-like, and the spring frog noises changed from delightfully deafening to faint.) Some changes are small–extra driveways, grass instead of prairie–but they add up. Some are huge, such as the destruction of large amounts of boreal forests in Alberta, Canada, to mine for tar sands.
  • Despite the changes, it can still get darn cold in Minnesota. Seeley recalled a day in February 1996 when temperatures dropped to 35 below zero. For the gardeners in attendance, his message seemed similar to one I’ve heard from others who watch climate: go ahead and try higher zone plants, but be prepared to lose them in a bad winter.
  • Finally, we need to pay attention to this. Little changes can add up–and things that sound like a great idea (I’m thinking ethanol here) may not be so great after all. As gardeners, we can put more oxygen into the air, and we can watch and care for our own little corners of the earth. I’m on a multi-year plan to reduce lawn and increase gardens on our lot because gardens, especially those planted with flowers and shrubs suited to Minnesota’s bizarre climate, can handle the changes better and require less in the way of nutrients and water to survive. Is that a big deal? No. But it’s one thing I can do.

Update from 2018: While this post was written a long time ago, the points Mark Seeley made hold true. More so than ever. I’m still planting as many natives as I can and other heritage plants that can make it in our tough climate.