They tell me spring is coming. After the winter we’ve had, you won’t get any complaints from me.
It seems we are reaping the benefits of global warming with increasingly cloudy, rainy, volatile weather. Our climate is very delicately balanced and there are even bigger changes to come. Thirty-five straight cloudy days in late December and January were enough for anyone to fear the onset of seasonal affective disorder; it was particularly tough living off-the-grid in a solar-powered house. The generator got the workout that our tractor and snowblower usually get.
Then we got those two periods of rain in January followed by cold snaps. Without a good snowcover, even the fields were sheets of ice. Friends of mine reported cross-country skating with a straight face. After the first coating, we couldn’t feed or water our cattle in the usual places for fear they would fall and break a leg or worse. When a half-ton animal goes down, it nearly stops my heart. They can survive if their hind legs go straight back or tuck under their belly, but if their legs go straight out to the sides they break their pelvis. It’s called splitting their “stride” or “saddle.” Then they have to be destroyed.
It’s especially heartbreaking if she is carrying a calf. I know of one farmer who cut the calf out of a cow that went down and tried to nurse it through, but it was a month premature and died within the week.
One of our older cows, Betsy, sniffed the ground before she moved and managed to step gingerly on the ice. Perhaps it was the lack of an odour that alerted her. Her yearling calf, though, got on a slight slope above the chicken coop and slid on her haunches about twenty feet – all the way down to the chicken yard. We thought she was going to go right through the fence. After that, the rest of the herd just stood still and bellowed.
The chickens provided some comic relief when they flew out of their coop in the morning as usual, then hit the ice and sailed across the yard like water skiers. They skidded to a stop and stood there, bobbing back and forth like those doll’s heads on springs.
We slid the truck sideways down the driveway and shoveled the box full of sand we brought from the yard in town. We made cattle paths from the barn to the feeder to the water trough and used up the rest on the driveway and in front of the garage.
After the second rain and cold combination delivered another coating of ice, we gave up and corralled the cattle in the barnyard. We threw hay out to them on the ground and carried buckets of water to the trough. While filling the buckets in the shop sink, one of them tipped sideways enough to spray water all over the place. Our shop cat, Melvin, shot out from next to the sink shaking his wet head and paws, muttering cat profanity. The weather was tough on everyone. Finally, the big thaw on January 13 melted most of the ice.
Ice problems are one thing – at least you can usually sand a good path in a small area. If the temperature isn’t too cold, you can even use urea fertilizer instead of salt on sidewalks and near plants to avoid the salt damage.
A lack of snow cover can be worse than ice for perennial plants because snow buffers the soil against rapid temperature swings. With no snow, the ground can freeze one day and thaw the next, expanding and contracting as it does. That shreds the roots of perennials, especially shallow-rooted plants like blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, and peaches. Don’t plan on having a bumper crop of any of them next summer unless they were mulched especially well before this winter.
But now we can look forward to spring, the time when perfection is possible in our imagination: a growing season with just the right amount of rain for perfect germination; sunny, warm days for growing; no weeds; no pests.
The clock, calendar, and metre stick are ways to impose some order and consistency on nature, but they don’t always work in our new wacky weather. The snow may be gone mid-March, or hang around like that talkative last guest until mid-April, long after everyone else is ready to call it quits. The calendar alone is misleading; we have to watch nature’s signposts to let us know the best time to do what.
When to work the soil? Wait until a handful squeezed tight breaks apart when dropped from waist height. If you work a field too soon, especially if it has any clay, you’ll end up with a bed of marbles that will never go away.
When to plant? “When the elm leaf is as big as a mouse’s ear, then to sow barley never fear.” So goes one of dozens of rhymes our ancestors used to help them remember their natural calendar.
Another old saw is to “use the soil between cart wheels when transplanting perennials.” This makes sense because it was probably well manured. Unless you have a well-used cart path running through your property, you may have to depend on compost.
If you want to know how much precipitation we will get this season, remember:
“If the oak is out before the ash, ‘twill be a summer of wet and splash.
If the ash is out before the oak, ‘twill be a summer of fire and smoke.”
“One for the rook, one for the crow, one to die and one to grow.” Sow seed generously and transplant on the waxing moon, between new and full, because statistically it is more likely to rain (just what you want on your new seeds) following a new or full moon.
Most old herbals advise the sower to be nude as well. “The best husbandmen would have the seedsman to be naked when he sows, and in sowing to protest that this which he doth is for himself and his neighbors.” Depending on the entertainment preferences of your neighbours, word could spread pretty fast that you’re working in your garden again. But, this is a good test of the warmth of the soil and the weather. If you can stand it nude, so can your seeds.
Even though our nearest neighbours are five kilometres away, we’re not likely to take our own advice on this one or else our cows might be in danger of falling down again – not from ice, but from laughter.