The Last Frost

April 15th is the average last frost in St. Louis. But we know that date is no promise. In the past couple weeks, the temperature sank close to freezing more than once. April rains are unpredictable, sometimes bringing in cold; other times warmth. Days drop 30 degrees without warning.

But the winds are changing. More and more often, the warmth sticks around for awhile. The weather blows over, defying forecasts for thunder and rain. You start to feel bold enough to leave the house without a jacket.

Those who plant peppers, okra, or other heat-loving plants find a little more certainty at the end of April. The seeds of these plants can’t survive the cold and shouldn’t be planted outside until two weeks after the average last frost. With April 15th two weeks behind us, we have made it. And it’s not just the gardeners that know it—every creature has figured out that it’s safe to come out. Early blooming trees like magnolias have already lost their blossoms to the green of their leaves. The bees are back and buzzing in the sun. Birds we only see in springtime are passing through now on their way back up North. Azaleas are in full bloom.

This is spring as we dream of it through winter. Not the uncertain spring of March and April—the flowering, bustling, breezy spring of May.

First Flowers

It only took a week above freezing and a few warm rains to coax the ice out of the ground once and for all. Finally, the earth can be turned over and worked. Anyone with a garden can tell you that—they probably spent a giddy weekend with their hands in the dirt. People creep out of their homes and into the sunlight in slowly-growing numbers just to be outside. Just to look.

Still the green holds out on us, but little hints of color are popping up here and there to bring the news of the thawed soil to the surface. The delicate white snowdrops were the first to arrive a couple weeks ago. Now the daffodils and crocuses pop up out of the grass. Violets, tulips, and irises won’t be far behind. These first flowers are a promise: the big blooming is well on its way.

First, as always, there will be more rain. More mud. More cold nights. Spring is still quietly creeping out, and the people in the city are wary. They aren’t gonna greet it ’til its arrival is more obvious. When spring arrives in full sun and full color, you will no longer be alone with nature when you go outside. The bombastic, lively spring that we’re all waiting for could hit any time—and when it does, it’ll bring crowds out in droves. Every restaurant patio will be bustling. Every path through the park will be jammed. For now, let that little bit of light left in the sky at 7:30 be reason enough to take an evening walk. Go out into the quiet world and find those first whispers of spring.

Sweet February

February’s got a bad reputation. It’s wet and dull, and somehow every year it’s colder than we remember. But beyond the grey skies and the dirty roadside snow, new life is beginning in the branches above us and the burrows below. Lots of animals—woodchucks, minks, screech owls, opossums, rabbits, coyotes, American woodcocks, salamanders, flying squirrels, mourning doves—are mating this month as they prepare to bring forth new life in springtime. And there’s life at the heart of Missouri’s sugar maples in February too.

When you think of maple syrup farming, it’s probably Canada or New England that comes to mind. In fact, it’s possible to tap sugar maples in Missouri too, and February is the time to do it here. The thaw of February’s slightly warmer days paired with its freezing nights is the perfect recipe to make the sap flow more freely than it does any other time of year.

maple leaf filledYou can tap trees yourself, but make sure you read up before you dive in. You should know, for example, that you shouldn’t tap a tree that’s less than a foot in diameter. And don’t plant a new sugar maple, either—they’re somewhat of a problem in Missouri because they spread like wildfire and cast too much shade for a healthy amount of forest undergrowth to survive. But if you’re lucky enough to already have one on your property somewhere, February is tappin’ time. Right the middle of winter, tapping a sugar maple can bring you the same satisfaction as tending a summertime vegetable garden. It’s a lot of work, though—it takes around 40 gallons of sap to boil down to one gallon of syrup!

But plenty of people who live in the city don’t have a sugar maple in the yard—if we even have a yard at all. For us, it will have to be enough to remember that new life is on the way, and that even now, at the core of the sugar maples, golden sap runs through the veins of a living Earth.

Frozen Frogs

In the rain and snow, a hush seems to fall over the neighborhoods. The leaves aren’t there to rustle in the breezes, and the stray cats and little squirrels hide away. The people, too, are huddled in their dens, curled up in some quiet corner.

There’s one particular critter who hides especially well: the spring peeper. These frogs are native to Missouri, and they’re strange creatures. They snuggle into winter shelters of leaf piles, logs, and tree trunks, and won’t make a sound all winter. Along with a handful of other frog species, the spring peeper survives winter by going completely dormant–and even freezing through.

During their frozen slumber, the spring peeper is saved only by glycogen, a natural sugar in the frogs’ blood that acts as an antifreeze. This is just enough to keep ice crystals from forming in their vital organs. Its breath and heart have slowed to an almost undetectable rate, and the energy needed to keep these systems running at all comes from the same sugar. It ferments in their bodies and provides just enough energy to keep them alive.

The spring peeper runs out of glycogen stores right around the time that the first hint of warmth creeps into the air. So in the last days of winter, the spring peeper will miraculously thaw and awaken like the pet project of some mad scientist. This is where it gets its name: in that season of uncertainty, halfway between winter and spring, it emerges from its slumber and utters its call—a sequence of short peeps. The call of the spring peeper is said to be a sure sign that winter is relinquishing its bitter grip, and spring is on the way.

In the meantime, they sleep alongside the warmblooded hibernators in their shelters, waiting. And we wonder at a tiny frog who, for all our strength and smarts and stamina, would outlast us on a cold winter night.

Looking After Houseplants in Wintertime

At this time of year, our houseplants are especially precious. Our homes are sealed tight against the cold of the outdoors. Only our plants breathe life into the stale air.

It’s also this time of year that many of them are most delicate. They’re probably not growing quick as they would in spring or summer, so it can be easy to forget to check on them. It might also seem that since they’re safe and warm inside, they should be treated like they’re not experiencing seasons at all. That’s flat-out wrong. Plants need a different kind of care in wintertime.

Pumping the central heat all winter makes for unnaturally dry air that’s a strain on most plants. Your cacti and succulents might be okay with it, but keep a close eye on everything else—especially if you’ve got anything that hails from the rainforest or jungle. For these guys, you’ll need to either park them near a humidifier or make a habit of misting them with a spray bottle. Bathrooms are usually a great home for plants that crave humidity. You’ll want to consider your individual bathroom before you move any plants in there, though. Since they’re usually one of the smallest rooms in the house, bathrooms might be extra cold, extra dry, or fluctuate dramatically between both when the heat kicks on and off. If that’s the case, you might want to stick to the misting and keep your plants in a more consistently warm room.

Pinpoint the drafts in your house and move your plants out of these danger zones. This doesn’t just apply to the chill creeping in from outside—keep your plants away from blasting heat vents, too. As for the cold drafts, only the most tightly sealed window is a good place for a plant to overwinter. If your windows are breezy, move your plants to a new spot and find them a different source of light. You may need to purchase artificial plant lights to get the job done. Don’t overdo it though—plants don’t need summertime sunlight hours during winter, and some plants don’t like direct light at all. Research your plants’ preferences before you get them settled into a permanent lighting situation.

Just because your indoor plants are safe from the cold doesn’t mean that they don’t need their wintertime rest—even the biggest cacti in the hottest deserts have a dormant season. Let your plants take their winter sabbatical by ceasing efforts to encourage growth. Don’t feed and fertilize plants during winter, and reduce your regular watering schedule dramatically. Most plants will do well if they are watered only when the top inch or two of soil is completely dry. They need a lot less when they’re not growing, and too much water can cause root rot or other disease. To be extra kind to your plants, use room temperature water so you don’t shock their roots with the frigid stuff that first comes out of the tap. By changing the way you feed and water your plants, you let them experience a winter of sorts. This helps them to complete their natural cycles so that in springtime they’ll grow faster than ever or possibly even flower.

Don’t repot during winter unless it’s urgent. Since your plants aren’t growing, it’ll be a lot tougher for them to take root in new soil. You should only repot if the plant is at risk in its current home due to disease, pests, or some other issue with the soil.

51216228_548342269003589_3689981561349865472_nWhen spring arrives and the danger of frost has gone, move them back to the windows.They’ll stretch out in the sunlight and grow again. Until then, nestle them among your pencils, in your bookshelf, on your kitchen table—wherever they need to be to stay warm and get a taste of indirect light. They might not look as photogenic spread helter-skelter, but let their green splendor all throughout the house be a constant reminder of the life all around you. Such is the nature of the wintertime garden.

The Days Grow Longer

With the holiday season coming to a close, it seems the dead cold of winter is ready to settle over us. We return from New Year celebrations or long holiday vacations and grit our teeth. We prepare ourselves for the months of cold that still lie ahead, we grunt and we hunch and we bundle.

But watch closely in this heart of winter, and you will see that it is a time of good change. With the winter solstice behind us, the daylight lingers just a little longer each day. Every night, darkness falls later than it did the night before. At first it comes later by just a matter of seconds, then minutes. By the end of January, the days are growing by two minute intervals. From now until the summer solstice, the daylight will increase exponentially.

When the new year comes along, it makes us feel like something in the world has reset. There is a sense of fresh opportunity. We make resolutions and try to better ourselves. Remember as you step into this new year that sudden leaps of change are much less common in nature than unhurried marches, sometimes hardly detectable. As you make an effort to better yourself, keep pace with these slowly lengthening days. They are steadily growing.

The Last Gift of Christmas

A Christmas tree has adorned the White House practically every year in American history. As far as we know, there have been just four years that the White House didn’t have a tree, and Teddy Roosevelt is responsible for three out of the four. They say that the nature-loving president saw deforestation happening in the name of the tradition and refused to get behind it.

These days our Christmas trees come from farms, not from wild forests. From time to time, somebody who’s thinking along the same lines as T.R. will say that they like to reuse an artificial tree  instead of cutting down and killing live trees year after year. But all things considered, nowadays a live Christmas tree is more environmentally friendly than an artificial one by a long shot. An artificial tree is usually used for about 10 years. Once it’s discarded, its plastic branches will shine unscathed in a landfill for a hundreds of years to come. Your live tree will decompose naturally, and it’s doing good for the earth long before you’re cutting it down. Trees take 7-10 years to grow to marketable size, and they spend their lives putting out oxygen into our atmosphere and soaking up carbon through the soil that surrounds them. They improve the landscape for wildlife, too–your Christmas tree might’ve been home to birds who spent their summer at the farm. The demand for live Christmas trees increases the number of trees planted. Every year in the United States, 100 million Christmas tree seedlings are planted and 40 million are cut in winter. 

It’s hard work to grow marketable trees successfully. Farmers spend a lot of time carefully trimming the trees to get that ideal cone shape. In spring and summer, common pests like wasps and worms have to be removed. On a pesticide-free farm, this means picking off bugs and fungi by hand. The changing climate is making farmers’ job even harder. Dry conditions are bad for tree growth because evergreens need a lot of water to thrive, and some farms’ crops have suffered. Pea Ridge Forest, located in Hermann, Missouri, is a popular destination for St. Louis families who want to choose and cut their tree on-site at a farm. At Pea Ridge, the dry summers and mild winters of recent years have made it increasingly difficult to grow successful crops of Christmas trees. This year, the farm bolstered their own crop with trees shipped from Michigan and the Carolinas.

In colder climates like those, it’s much easier to grow fir trees. Growing firs here in Missouri takes lots of extra water, sometimes even the installation of irrigation systems. It’s much easier to grow pine trees here, so the Scotch pine in particular is a popular choice for Missouri farmers and their customers. Pine trees are the most resistant to warmth and dryness, which also means they’ll hold their needles the longest after they’re cut. Our homes are way too hot and dry for an evergreen’s liking, so it’s good to take this into consideration when you’re thinking about what kind of tree you want and how long you want to have it displayed. Firs will hold their needles second-longest after the pines, and the spruces come in last.

Inevitably every year comes the twinge of sadness when you must take down the Christmas decorations, and the tree along with them. Most of our decorations are packed away safely for the next year. It’s only our live Christmas trees to which we must say a permanent goodbye. But while the ornaments and ceramic Santa Claus sleep packed away and useless til next winter, the Christmas tree makes itself useful in a new way. It can be turned to mulch for next year’s garden. It can be burned as firewood. If you want to provide winter shelter for birds and rabbits, you can lay it down in your backyard and leave the strings of popcorn for them to eat. You can also donate your tree to be recycled by one of the city parks. 

Even if you don’t make practical use of your tree, the last Christmas gift you give each year is to return a real tree to the earth from which you cut it. No matter where the tree ends up, it will rot away and give back to the earth the gift of the nutrients it borrowed while it was living. And this period of decomposing and giving back will last long past its fleeting moment of glory in your bright front window.