Here in northern Minnesota May is the month when spring really takes hold. Although the calendar says spring began on March 20 that is only referring to an astronomical event. The time between dawn and dusk slowly increases, a promise of more warmth. But having lived here 45 years I know better. I accept the cold winter weather as a part of life here and love the frozen silence. But all things will change as one cycle comes to replace another.
Changes, some subtle and some dramatic, take place in March and April. They signal an end of dormancy and the awakening from the long time of frozen sleep. The ice begins to melt on streams and lakes. Snow melts in the woods and it runs down to the lowlands flooding them. Plants like tea-leaf willow and tag alder, true remnants of the Ice Age, flower by mid-April but everything else awakens slowly. Temperatures can swing from summer-like one day to wintry the next. But you can tell by changes in the color of the sky, the shapes of the clouds, and the way the soil smells that the land is warming up. Seeing a few spiders running across the grass or centipedes under a log are hopeful signs. Sometimes there are small moths or a butterfly struggling in the cool sunlight. Finding a wooly bear alive and well in March is always exciting. Life has pulled through once again.
So now May has ended and during this month there has been a great explosion of growth and change. All the trees and shrubs, except the ash, walnut, and big-tooth aspen, are fully leafed. The forests and fields are green. Wildflowers are everywhere in the woods with violets, anemones, goldthread, bloodroot, and marsh marigold almost carpeting the forest floor with flowers.
There has been a profusion of flowers on apple trees, June berries, pin cherries, plums, currants, red maples, and willows all attracting thousands of bees and syrphid flies. The air was often sweetly fragrant on warm nights. These blooms are winding down now and are being followed by viburnums, hawthorns, choke cherry, and black cherry. A feast of flowers for the bees and later a feast of fruit for me and the birds.
The gardens can be worked in May but seldom is that possible in April and certainly planting that early is risky. But in May planting is possible. I began planting potatoes in early May digging deep trenches for the seed pieces, back-filling and covering it all with a layer of hay. In the last week the first potato shoots have pushed up through the soil and mulch. May is also the time I plant onion sets and some crops like kale and mustard. These plants do well during the cool spring days. As the month comes to an end it is time to plant flour corn.
This has been a busy month in the gardens with building trellises for tomatoes and squash, mulching, spreading manure, planting potatoes and onions and seeds of root crops and cole crops. Just a few days ago I planted 600 seeds of Painted Mountain Corn. The tomatoes I re-potted have tripled in size, some even have small green flower buds, and will be strong and healthy when they are transplanted in about two weeks. The rhubarb is huge and the first harvest will be this week. My new rhubarb plants (varieties Chapman and Crimson) are growing well now. If they continue growing vigorously I may transplant them in early July along with ten cuttings of Victoria rhubarb.
New apple trees and apple tree root-stock to replace what voles destroyed during the winter of 2013-2014 arrived in May. These were planted in a new site just south of my East Garden. I also am trying a new berry crop, the honeyberry, with six new plants. My blueberry patch is in need of restoration so this year I will be layering branches of choice varieties to get new plants for transplanting to a new site that is more moist.
Our weather this month has been like always a mix of hot and cold but most days have been in the upper 60’s to low 70’s. Frosts, when they’ve happened, have been light. Total rainfall for the month is 7 inches. There was a flood in the marsh but it lasted only a few days and water levels are normal again which means knee-deep between the grass and sedge hummocks. All this water attracts flocks of geese, sandhill cranes, and ducks a few of which will stay the summer to raise young. The water also means breeding season for frogs and toads and on very warm nights it seems that they are everywhere trilling and chirping. And there are the song birds like yellow warbler, eastern myrtle warbler, blackburnian warbler, ovenbird, hermit thrush, white-throated sparrow, fox sparrow, song sparrow, mourning dove, robin, oriole, cardinal, and flicker that arrive in May. Every morning in the woods and fields just as the sun is showing is alive with their calls. May is truly my favorite month, a month of renewal, of fresh colors, of cheerful sounds, and of rich sweet fragrances.