No More Snow in the Gardens

The snow has melted, the soil is thawing,and today's high was 65 degrees. Spring is still five days away.
The snow has melted, the soil is thawing, and today’s high was 65 degrees.


Spring is still five days away but today the weather was so warm that it felt like a day in May. So I got busy and spread old hay onto the rhubarb patch, built two brush piles for ground nesting birds, and cleaned up some of the junk that always seems to grow from nothing during the winter. Tomorrow, I’ll be bringing in the poles from the woods that I cut last week for new bean and squash trellises.

It looks like my new apple trees (in the background) made it through the winter with no damage. The older ones that weren’t so badly damaged by voles in the winter of 2013-2014 look good, too. The cover crop of rye (the bright green patch in the middle) survived but the oat cover crop froze out. The soil is still frozen about four inches down so planting anything now is out of the question. But soon, maybe in one or two weeks, I might be digging and dividing currant bushes and moving them to their new garden home.

Prediction After the Fact

Wooly Bear

Well, according to this woolly bear its smaller black bands and wider orange band mean a less severe winter. But the problem is this caterpillar was out and about today (the high was 60). It was hibernating in the hay bales, a safe sheltered home, this winter which was not too snowy here and not too cold either. Too bad I didn’t see this caterpillar last October then I wouldn’t have bothered to buy a snow-blower. Unlike some parts of the country, our winter weather this year in my part of Minnesota saw less snow and temperatures that were cold but terrible. Now most of the snow has melted away, the ice is thawing on rivers and lakes, and we’ve had highs in the upper 50’s and lower 60’s since March 9 and before that the highs were at or above freezing. So, spring is here a week ahead of time.

March 1, 2015

Sunset in the willow swamp on March 1, 2015.
Sunset in the willow swamp on March 1, 2015.


February is over at last and maybe the cold weather with it except for two days next week when the lows will be around minus 15 but this is Minnesota.

Last month saw 18 days with lows below zero. The lowest temperature was minus 30 on February 19. But we had some oddly warm days, too. On February 9 the high was 37. The next day it snowed about 3 inches of wet slush with some freezing mist. For the rest of the month we got no snow except for occasional flurries.

There was very little animal activity in February. The most commonly seen or heard birds were blue-jays, crows, chickadees, nuthatches ruffed grouse, and pine siskins. Pileated woodpeckers and downy woodpeckers passed through a few times and I heard an owl one night. Deer were seen from time to time as were cottontail rabbits, meadow voles, and red squirrels. In the woods and in the marsh I saw tracks of deer, porcupine, snowshoe hares, fox, and wolf. Today on the river I saw where beavers had been crawling out of the water through holes in the ice. They may have been out the last week of February but I hadn’t been walking on the ice for a week. At one of the holes I could hear them fussing about my walking by them. A weird sound like a combination of quacking and grunting.

The river just before sunset and still in the grips of winter on March 1, 2015.
The river today just before sunset and still in the grips of winter.

Now that March has begun it is time to start cleaning of the starting bench, checking grow lights and heating mats, and getting flats and pots ready for planting seeds of peppers and tomatoes. Hot pepper seeds will be planted first as they seem to take a long time to¬†germinate. A week or so later it will be time for tomatoes. My other seeds for cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower will be planted in mid-April. I have new plant varieties and species to try this year such as gobo, quinoa, and root chicory. And I’m hoping for an abundant harvest of rhubarb from the new patch.

Spruce Seed Lunch

Cone scales scattered over a cushion of moss after a red squirrel feasted on black spruce seeds yesterday morning. Thick stands of black spruce are shelter and a food a source for red squirrels, pine siskins, and chickadees all winter
Cone scales scattered over a cushion of moss where a red squirrel feasted on black spruce seeds yesterday afternoon. Thick stands of black spruce are a place of shelter and an important winter food source for red squirrels, snowshoe hares, ruffed grouse, pine siskins, and chickadees.

A Spider in January

Spider on Snow in January

On Tuesday this week the low was minus 28 degrees Fahrenheit and the high 15 degrees. Temperatures for the previous seven days were below zero at night and zero or just slightly above during the day. Today, the air temperature is 28 degrees and when I went out to check for eggs this morning I saw this spider walking across the path. It is a member of the wolf spiders (Lycosidae) although I am not sure which species. It seems closest to the genus Pirata. Young and mature adults overwinter (hibernate) and it is actually very common for them to come out on warm days. Several other spider species also venture out on warm winter days.

Spider on Snow in January

Spiders of the Northwoods by Larry Weber (2003). Kollath-Stensaas Publishing. Duluth, MN

Since I Last Posted

One of twenty rhubarb planted in the summer of 2013 on May 16, 2014.
One of thirty rhubarb planted in the summer of 2013 and now growing luxuriantly on May 16, 2014.

It’s been almost a year since I last posted to my blog back in January when I decided to take a break from blogging. Back then it had become apparent that the winter would be very harsh. The cold weather brought down by the Polar Vortex was going to stay much longer than we usually experience. In early December there was rain mixed with snow. This turned into eight inches slushy snow that froze solidly to my roof and remained in place into April. In the following months we had many consecutive days of below zero temperatures even in the daytime. Life was very difficult for my sheep and chickens that winter.

And I was feeling worn out from writing and researching a complicated technical report I had worked daily on for three months. After I submitted the report it must have landed straight into the trash because I never heard from the client again. I guess it was one of those reports that came to the wrong conclusion (that would be the one supported by observable facts and not an ideological agenda). So it goes. Not the first time, either.

During the time I left off from blogging many things have happened here, some good and some bad. I had actually intended to start writing again in June. But a busy summer with a new job (a mixed bag of good and bad) that included long commutes and long days left me too tired to sit down and write and (barely) keep up with my gardens.

Late Summer, Fall and Winter 2013
In August 2013 I planted 30 rhubarb root divisions in a new patch that I’d been building up with cover crops and sheep manure and bedding for two seasons. I also started a new patch next to the rhubarb for a spring planting of asparagus and continued working on a new site for currant bushes adding more wood chips, old hay and planting with cover crops of buckwheat, oats, wheat, and peas.

The harvest from the main vegetable garden in 2013 was very good considering the fluctuating temperatures and spotty rain during the growing season. My freezers were filled with rhubarb, apple sauce, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, string beans, onions, garlic, and summer squash, enough for more than a year. The Painted Mountain Corn plot (30 feet by 60 feet) yielded about 30 pounds of grain a real improvement from the earlier years. There were 300 pounds of potatoes in the basement. I harvested about 400 pounds of winter squash which is much more than I need. The extra squash was put to good use as feed for the chickens and sheep.

Recently harvested winter squash in the late afternoon sun (September 23, 2013).
Recently harvested winter squash in the late afternoon sun on September 23, 2013.

The fall of 2013 was unusually cold but tolerable until November. Hard frosts in September quickly put an end to most of the vegetable garden except for kale and cabbage which were kept under a double layer of frost blankets up to the first day of December. In September, before the weather got too cold, I planted 900 cloves of garlic, and 200 shallot and yellow multiplier onion sets.

Frost blankets over cabbage and kale on November 20, 2013.
Frost blankets over cabbage and kale on November 20, 2013.

Then, beginning in December, the Polar Vortex struck. The first snow was a slushy mess that glued itself to the roof. After that it snowed heavily and often. Temperatures were extremely cold for days on end all winter and often below zero. The snow was deep eventually reaching four feet which spelled disaster for my apple trees. On top of the deep snow meadow voles were able to climb into the upper trunks and branches of the trees and strip off the bark. They even climbed down into the tree guards and ate off bark from the lower trunks. Most of my trees died as a result.

Hay for livestock was hard to come by in 2013. Many people in the area got only one cut from their fields because of low rainfall and cool temperatures. On top of that a lot of hay was shipped to other states where pastures and hay fields were drying up. What hay was left was expensive and sometimes of low quality. Some of the hay I bought contained, besides grasses, sedges and rushes which are a poor forage as they contain sharp silica spicules on the leaves and toxic chemicals. One bale of hay proved to be very bad although it looked fine otherwise. When Aries, my ram, ate from that bale he also ate a piece of sharp plastic trash that was in there. The plastic was from some sort of fireworks (I later found other pieces in the remains of that bale). The plastic cut his rumen leading to an infection that killed him. After that I tore up every bale of hay and checked for trash. All of my other sheep made it through the winter without any serious harm but a few times one of the young rams got his horns stuck in a fence. He seemed to always pick the coldest mornings for that. And there were times when two of the rams locked horns. I managed to separate them with no injuries but it was a little nerve wracking fearing they’d break their horns.

Winter seemed unending and although we didn’t have temperatures lower than -30 F most of the time we did have long stretches of below zero weather. But winter did finally end as spring arrived slowly with cool weather and some more snow in April and again in early May.

A snowstorm on April 16, 2014. This is the scene in the marsh near my house.
A snowstorm on April 16, 2014. This is the scene in the marsh near my house.

Spring 2014
April remained cold and after a few days of mild weather that melted a lot of snow and even some river ice we were visited with a bout a half-foot of snow on April 16th. Much of this melted in a few days but the temperatures were still below normal. Willows begin blooming here around the middle of April but this year none bloomed until the first week of May. Even alders and hazels, two more early bloomers, were late.

At last the weather got warm, the ground thawed and life returned. In late May the garlic began to push up through the mulch a full 30 days behind schedule. I had a job offer in May doing botanical data collecting that looked good so I took it. Work on this project would begin near the end of May so I rushed getting vegetable seeds and potatoes into the ground, trellises built, mulch spread, animal pens cleaned, new apple trees planted, and fences repaired. By May 25 I finished planting onions, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, potatoes, carrots, and parsnips in the vegetable garden. Between then and the first few days of June I had also planted squash, cucumbers, corn, beans, and tomatoes in their plots.

When June came I was working full-time on the project collecting data trees and other plants at pre-selected points in forests. Most of these sites were a 2 or 3 hour drive one way from my home. Each weekday morning I got up at 4:00 to feed the sheep and chickens before leaving for work at 5:30. I usually got home by 7:00 PM but still had to check on the animals and gardens as well as get ready for the next day.

In spite of the busy work schedule and a summer with cool weather alternating with hot and long dry spells the harvest was good for most of my crops. But some parts of my garden suffered and are overgrown with weeds and lots of little repair and maintenance projects never got done. More about that and other things that happened over the summer in future posts.

Garlic emerging from the ground on May 09, 2014.
Garlic emerging from the ground on May 09, 2014.