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Oh, Springtime, you've come too soon

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 21, 2012 - Friday, I took a hike down to the stream at the bottom of our country property in Wildwood and was shocked to see so many signs of spring in February. The bluebirds and snowdrops had arrived in January, much too early for the normal garden calendar, and tipped us off that things were amiss.

Now, I see a maple tree with its rising sap oozing out of a cut in the bark and a cloud of gnats swarming in a pool of sunshine over the southern spring seep. Most people would enjoy and delight in such observations, but I know through training and experience that untimely appearances such as these often lead to tragic consequences in the landscape.

  • If the Japanese maples leaf out too early, they will be turned to wilted spinach by a late, hard freeze as happened just a few years ago.
  • If the bluebirds mating in January hatch eggs before the insects to feed them are available, the chicks may die of starvation.

The signs of an early spring are also evident all over town. Yesterday, my husband and I took a walk around our block in the city and saw dandelions, periwinkles and maples already in flower. The buds of the dogwoods and magnolias are swelling in anticipation of bloom. It makes me heartsick to know that a killing freeze will likely come later and mow them all down. These plants have all broken dormancy way too early.
Mother Nature has her annual rhythms and this year they are out of step. January, 2012 has been one of the warmest ever recorded. According to the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), division of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), we have just experienced the fourth warmest January in over a century. You can read the entire report, The State of the Climate Global Analysis January 2012, but here is a small excerpt:

Contiguous United States

Climate Summary

January 2012

"The average temperature in January 2012 was 36.3 F. This was 5.5 F warmer than the 1901-2000 (20th century) average, the 4th warmest January in 118 years. The temperature trend for the period of record (1895 to present) is 0.1 degrees Fahrenheit per decade.”

What this information translates into in my garden is a snapping of the strands of the web of life. Fruit trees may bloom early, before the honey bees are active. If that happens, there will be low pollination, poor fruit set and a bad yield for local peaches, apples and apricots. If the weather suddenly turns cold again, even if the flowers have been fertilized, the baby fruits may be killed by frost. And I don’t know when to suggest to my gardening audience that seeds be planted in the vegetable garden. The unpredictability of this season forces us to toss traditional knowledge out of the window.

My itchy gardener’s fingers are telling me to go ahead and plant now those cold-tolerant beets and greens that normally would not go into the ground for another month. It is not just me or the birds and the bees. Whole segments of nature are missing the cues that will make these organisms more vulnerable to damage.

If I plant a few vegetable seeds early, it is only a few dollars and hours of time. If you are a large-scale farmer with acres and acres of land, seed is measured in tons and time for planting hundreds of labor hours. To help us figure out the normal planting times and which plants to grow, though some still use the old school “Farmers’ Almanacs,” most modern farmers and gardeners turn to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for data-based information about degree-days, precipitation records and plant hardiness zone maps (PHZMs).

Many St. Louisans are relishing these unseasonably warm days of sunshine and brilliant blue skies by getting outside to enjoy active exercise or to bask lazily in the bright afternoons at street-side cafes. But we must not forget the dark side of this coin. The seasonal timing of events in the garden and the greater natural world beyond forms part of an elegant, intricate and complicated web with living elements that are highly interdependent upon one another. Our food, our environment, our economy are all intertwined.

So how is the skiing out at Hidden Valley? Are my bulbs going to get bitten by a sudden cold snap? How much flea or mosquito spray are we going to need this year? When should we re-seed the lawn? Indecision for gardeners is just a reflection of the confusion for Mother Nature. This year, she may be completely delusional. 

Pat Raven has a Ph.D. in Horticulture from The Ohio State University. She was the executive director of the Mercer Arboretum and Botanical Garden in Houston until 2001 when she moved to St. Louis as the bride of Peter Raven. Pat writes a regular column on gardening, with co-author Julie Hess, for the Ladue News.