Spring has been coming on for a long time now but with frequent interruptions including three more snow falls, cold weather, frosts, and a week of cold winds gusting from 15 to 30 mph from Lake Superior. To go with the wind we got five inches of rain in two days with the usual “flooding in low-lying areas” as the weather forecasters put it but it made for some fun canoeing. But life persists having adapted long ago to our unsteady weather cycles.
The willows, hazels, red maples, alders, and aspens are past their flowering stage and going into seed production. Now there are many small flowering plants (hepatica, anemone, bloodroot, violets) blooming in the forests taking advantage of the warm sunlight that can reach them before the trees fully leaf out. In the forests and thickets, too, the small flocks of chickadees that foraged in the frozen tree tops during the winter are now accompanied by sparrows, woodcock, and flycatchers. Barn swallows and bluebirds are claiming nest boxes along the edges of my fields and today two robins began building a nest in the fork of an old apple tree.
My gardens are coming along well. During the warm breaks in March and April I re-built my squash beds and tomato bed. By June the moldy hay and bedding should be well on their way to becoming soil and ready for planting. As always garlic and rhubarb began poking up very early in mid-April. The rhubarb has grown huge but looking back at last year it is pretty much on schedule. If the weather gets warm for the next week, however, I expect to be making the first harvest in May not June.
I’ve already planted yellow Stuttgarter onions and some potatoes. The onions are starting to show through the mulch. The potatoes seem a bit slower. This weekend on the garden agenda is planting of cole crops and root crops and massive bee forage patches of dill, anise, coriander, fennel, peas, buckwheat, vetch, and mustard.
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.
Last week the weather was so warm here that a person might have thought it was July. Now the weather is cold, almost near freezing, and it feels more like March. Strong gales from Lake Superior are bearing down on us funneling through the ancient abandoned channel that once connected with the Mississippi River at the close of the Ice Age. It is raining, too, and mixed in with the rain is sleet which stings sharply on my face. On the horizon are flashes of lightning followed by low rumbles of thunder.
This fern will need to remain tightly coiled and wait until the warm days come back.
April is the real month of spring around here. Temperatures are beginning to stay above freezing for more than a day. There is snow but there is rain also. The soil starts to thaw and even though there may be frost or even ice a few inches down trees and other plants start to awaken. The warmer weather brings out insects and spiders. Most of these are small moths, flies, and nursery web spiders but there are enough of them that insect-eating birds like olive-sided flycatchers can find something to eat.
Normally, there is a flood in the sedge meadow and shrub carr along the river and I can canoe in it as though it were a large lake. This year we have not had our spring flood because of below normal snowfall during the winter and almost no rain for two months. The daytime temperatures have been very warm with only a few days in the 30’s and 40’s. And it has been windy which is also drying out tall grass and contributing to a fire danger. Many swampy areas are only damp and do not have enough water for wood frogs and spring peepers to lay their eggs. I am hoping for a small flood in May as the small river on my property is low and it is important that it stay full for all the wildlife living there.
Many new birds have returned or are passing through. On April 3 two trumpeter swans flew over. Other new avian arrivals this month include woodcock, mourning dove, redwings, cowbirds, white-throated sparrow, song sparrow, flickers, yellow warbler, purple finches, turkey vultures, marsh hawk, sharp-shinned hawk, broad-wing hawk, olive-sided flycatchers, barn swallows, and biterns. Robins and flycatchers are beginning to claim nesting sites by the house.
Insects are still slow to come out but cabbage white butterflies and Milbert’s tortoiseshell butterflies have been frequent. I have seen three different species of small ants including the common cornfield ant. A few bumblebees have been flying. They are collecting pollen and nectar from squill (Scilla siberica), dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), black currant (Ribes oxyacanthoides), red maple (Acer rubrum), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), and meadow willow (Salix petiolaris). The meadow willow is abundant in shrub wetlands around here and produces many flowering catkins. It is certainly an important early spring flower for many nectar and pollen eating insects.
Some aquatic insects are now coming out of hibernation. In the river water striders, diving beetles, and giant water bugs are now active. There are not many fish in the river this year but for a short period I was catching about 50 mudminnows (Umbra limi) every day in a minnow trap. I do not trap them for bait only to see what is in the river. Mudminnows are able to survive low oxygen levels which is a frequent event in small headwaters streams.
Other arthropods seen this month are centipedes. Two centipedes, the yellow soil centipedes (Geophilus flavus) and the stone centipedes (Lithobius forficatus) are active. I have found many of them under rocks and mulch. Also under the mulch are earthworms so it looks like the robins will have plenty to eat.
The trees are still bare but quaking aspens have a faint green haze in their upper branches a sign that leaves are peeking out from their buds. Many willows are leafing out as are elderberries (Sambucus pubens), honeysuckles (Lonicera villosa and L. canadensis, and currants (Ribes triste). Woodrush (Luzula acuminata), hepatica (Hepatica americana) and the forest sedges Carex peduncullata and C. peckii are in flower. Tussock sedge (C. stricta) is now crowned with the first spikey leaves.
Garden work is in full swing and so far I have built two raised beds, spread about 70 cartloads of bedding and manure, planted more rhubarb, horseradish, and asparagus, got in the first of several 50 foot rows of potatoes, planted a strip of currants and elderberries for the birds, planted white pine seedlings, and planted a bee garden of mustard, vetch, buckwheat, and peas. Today, its back to hauling more mulch and weeding around the rhubarb before the predicted rain comes.
Wild cucumber seedling
Soil in a new garden after four years of mulching, cover crops, and manure.
In most years, this forest pond is filled with water. Sometimes it is almost three feet deep, but usually it is about two feet. When it is flooded the pond is alive with the breeding calls of wood frogs, spring peepers, and chorus frogs. Masses of eggs soon hatch into thousands of black tadpoles. There are pill clams (Sphaerium) in the silt and tiny Planorbula snails gliding over twigs and moss searching for algae to eat. Fairy shrimp, ostracods, and copepods swim in the placid waters. Sometimes mallards and black ducks stop in.
But not this year. We are in a drought. Snowfall was below normal and spring rains have been scant. Warm temperatures and strong winds have also taken away moisture. Unless there is rain soon and enough to keep the pond filled until July the frogs will need to find other places to breed. The small crustaceans, mollusks and other invertebrates will need to wait out the drought perhaps until next spring.
Cycles of wet and dry years are not uncommon here and this pond has been through drought before. While the pond is dry sedge and grass will expand a little and some mosses will die back. The tiny invertebrate animals will remain dormant as eggs and cysts. Some may not survive and will disappear from the pond until, by chance, more come in on the feathers of a duck.