Winter woes


OK, it’s not pretty anymore. It’s just boring and annoying and frustrating and COLD, and another storm is expected on Monday. And according to the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center, we have an above-average chance of below-average temperatures (isn’t that a great phrase?) for the next month.

The sun is now so strong that even on a day when the temperature doesn’t go above the mid-twenties, the water remains liquid in the puddles. If we weren’t still buried under almost a foot of frozen snow, the snowdrops, winter aconites, and crocuses would be blooming, the daffodil foliage would be up, and I’d be thinking about sowing seeds for cool-season greens this weekend. And checking the hazelnut and spicebush shrubs for the first signs of bloom.

But still, spring is bound to come, right? Have a good weekend, and stay warm.


A beautiful native vine


This is a beautiful native vine whose berries are highly attractive to wildlife. It’s lovely throughout the growing season; in autumn, it displays a foliar flag to let the birds know that its berries are ripe. More birds eat its berries than those of almost any other plant. You know that I’m describing poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), right?

Check out this post on the Beautiful Wildlife Garden website for more information about this very important native plant. For one thing, only humans are allergic to it. And among humans, by no means all are allergic. I have seem estimates ranging from 30 to 50 percent of people are quite immune. So, if you have a large property, perhaps containing some land where people never go, you might consider not eradicating the poison ivy there. You’d be doing the wildlife a favor.

Sunday in the park



We took a walk in the Glen Rock section of the Saddle River County Park today. There’s still maybe 7 or 8 inches of snow left, but it’s melting fast and the streams are quite full. The vernal pools will be large and full of life this spring. The ducks are already showing signs of mating behavior. Woodpeckers are very noisy and active.

If you don’t know this park, you should check it out. It’s quite a mixed forest, with beech and tulip trees, sycamores and red maple. There are some invasives, most notably multiflora rose along the paths, but in spring there’s a lovely groundcover of ephemeral wildflowers: trout lilies, spring beauty, toothwort, and violets.

Beech forests are particularly beautiful in winter because the young trees hold their pale brown leaves. You can enter this park at a number of points in FairLawn, Glen Rock, or Ridgewood and walk for miles. The paths are broad and well cleared of snow.



Growing spring greens: Got your seeds yet?



It’s hard to believe, but in most years, March 1 (nine days from now) is a good time to start planting spring greens around here. The pictures above were taken on May 3 and 5 of last year. They show arugula almost ready for harvest and pea plants growing up a simple trellis. I had planted both crops on March 31 (later than usual, because last spring was particularly cold). Usually, I plant in early March. I expect to harvest early spring greens in mid-May and peas in June.

Yes, I know there’s still a foot of snow on the ground. But it is starting to melt, and eventually it will melt entirely. So start ordering your seeds if you haven’t already done so. I’m almost ashamed to say that because the weather has been so wintry, I haven’t placed my order yet!

Nothing could be easier than growing cold-weather crops like lettuce, arugula, spinach, mustard greens, or mesclun mixes of greens. I like to harvest a mix of greens leaf by  leaf, rather than cut or pull whole plants, so I broadcast the seeds. Mark off a section of ground, and make sure the soil is smooth and weedfree. Generally a packet of seeds (around 2 grams) will sow about 8 to 10 square feet.

Sprinkle the seeds as evenly as possible over the plot and water gently. Keep the plot damp until the seedlings are a good size. If the weather is warm, you may begin to harvest in three weeks; if cool, it may take 6 weeks. Sow a new crop every 2 weeks or so to extend your harvest (although most of these crops must be pulled up as soon as the weather gets hot–they go to seed and taste bitter). Generally, unless the weather is very hot, we will eat our own greens from mid-May until the end of June, when the CSA takes over.

Greens and fresh herbs are almost ridiculously easy to grow as soon as you have a sunny spot, no matter how small. Try it this year. Start a small garden with your children. Don’t let the season pass you by.

Bird activity


It’s February 18, the sun is stronger every day, the snow is trying as hard as it can to melt. Before last night’s snow, the temperature was ABOVE FREEZING yesterday for a few hours and is back up there right now. Most recent years, there have been many signs of birds’ springtime activities by this time. I see lots of birds daily in my backyard–cardinals, chickadees, juncos, jays—and certainly there are still lots of seeds on the plants that are sticking up above the snow, but I haven’t observed what I think of as spring mating activity—until yesterday. As we were walking along Harristown Road in Glen Rock, I heard a persistent chickadee mating call–the lovely “fee-bee” two-note call, a descending minor third.

It’s sad to think that in a more normal year the crocuses would be in bloom already and the daffodils would be up. But spring will come. The birds know that.

News about monarch butterflies (possibly hopeful)

“The onslaught of chemical agriculture … is altering the entire food chain,” said Lincoln Brower, a research professor of biology at Sweet Briar College in Virginia and one of the world’s top experts on the monarch. “I think the extraordinary, rapid decline of the monarch butterfly is the canary in the coal mine.”

That quote can be found in today’s LA Times in an article about a petition from over 100 scientists to the leaders of the United States, Canada, and Mexico. The petitions asks the three heads of state to include discussions about ways to save the monarch in their upcoming NAFTA summit. Specifically, it suggests that both the United States and Canada better manage roadsides to protect and preserve native plants. Mexico is attempting to stop illegal logging in the forests the monarchs use for their winter roosts, but up north, along the migration route, more and more milkweed is disappearing all the time, especially now that farmers are growing corn that’s genetically modified to resist herbicides. This allows for increased use of herbicides, with the resulting destruction of the wildflowers, including the milkweed plants the monarchs need for their caterpillars. (For a description of the monarch’s life cycle and an explanation of its reliance on milkweed, see this blog post.

Read more about the monarch in previous posts on this blog and on the website of the World Wildlife Fund and Monarch Watch. WWF has also written an open letter to the three leaders, asking them to address this issue at their upcoming summit. And of course, you might consider emailing the White House about the issue. But do it quickly–the NAFTA summit is next week.

And of course, you can plant some lovely, carefree milkweed, like this orange butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)  in a sunny spot yourself. If you do, you’re almost sure to see monarchs in future summers. If they don’t go extinct.


Nature and St. Valentine’s Day

The topic of this blog–nature–is a big one, so I have lots of choices of topics. Did you know that there’s a connection between Nature and Valentine’s Day? According to medieval English legend, first set out in Geoffrey Chaucer’s poetic dream-vision “The Parlement of Foules” (written around 1382), Valentine’s Day is the beginning of warm weather and the day when the birds choose their mates.

Warm weather? The beginning of spring? Yes–the English reckon their seasons differently from us. We say that spring begins on March 21 and summer begins on June 21, so the three summer months are June, July, and August. To the English, June 21 is Midsummer Day (the middle of summer); their summer months are May, June and July. So if the equinox, March 21, marks the middle of spring, it follows that right now, the middle of February, is the beginning of spring. And it makes sense to think of the seasons this way: the sun is climbing quite high in the sky these days, it’s light until 6:00 p.m. or a little later, and the sun’s rays feel quite strong (so a few warm days like today might melt a lot of the snow). Something nice to think about–spring is closer than we think! In fact, it’s really here.