Natural events, March 2016

March brought wacky weather, as March has been prone to do lately. We had a big early warm pulse followed by big temperature fluctuations featuring some cold nights, including one in the low 20s according to our porch thermometer. We saw our first ever peach blossom at Chert Hollow on March 18. In spite of trying to protect the still-small trees with row cover on cold nights, we don’t think these trees are going to be putting on any peaches in 2016. So enjoy the blossom photo in all its glory; that’s our peachy reward for the year.mar_natural_peach

The March rainfall total was a little under 2 inches, definitely below average for March, but for once it came in small doses and mostly had a chance to infiltrate into the soil instead of running off. mar_natural_garlic_2016

The warm weather also has us worried about garlic again. An astute observer may notice several things about the set of garlic beds shown in the left photo: 1) The garlic is big for March in Missouri. 2) Weeds are correspondingly big and are pushing their way onto our to-do list sooner than normal. 3) There’s a distressingly yellow-green plant in the lower right of the photo. The right hand photos feature a couple examples of sickly looking, yellow-green plants. We culled these, to be on the safe side, as the last time we encountered plants with similar appearance was in the aftermath of the horrible 2012 garlic year, and 2012 was the last time our garlic was this big this early, following a similar warm early spring.

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Woodland wildflowers are one of the highlights of March and April in Missouri. Clockwise from top left: Harbinger of Spring, Spring Beauty, elm (Slippery Elm?), and not-yet-open Virginia Bluebells.

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In March, we documented two blooming shrubs/small trees to add to our list of woody vegetation at Chert Hollow: on the left, Hazelnut, and on the right, Service Berry (or Sarvis, Juneberry, Shadbush, or whatever you want to call it). The Hazelnut is in a patch near the stream, and the catkins caught my eye. Upon closer inspection, there are little red flowers at the branch tips. The Service Berry is in one of our most mature patches of woods. We’ve never seen this species bloom at Chert Hollow until this year, when we had at least half a dozen trees blooming.

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Various fungi and lichens. Our shiitakes put on a nice flush, as well.

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Our short list of most-hated invasives has a new member: Japanese Honeysuckle. We used to have little or none, and once upon a time Joanna even wished we had a little patch of vining honeysuckle, since the vines can be used for making baskets. We didn’t actually do anything intentionally to encourage it (if we had, we would’ve chosen a native honeysuckle), but the Japanese stuff has gone nuts, especially in the last year or so. It is growing in full sun; it is growing in full shade. The orchard is one of the first places we noticed some new patches a couple of winters ago, and our best attempts to set it back by pulling and/or covering with a tarp to block light have done little more than to keep it barely in check. Cold winters can help set it back; this one wasn’t and didn’t. The vines grow fast and seem to set down roots in a bazillion locations. Makes me nostalgic about the day when Bush Honeysuckle was the worst honeysuckle we had to contend with. (Granted, the bushes aren’t as bad here as in Columbia, and most of ours can be pulled out with a good tug. And now we can double our satisfaction of pulling them by reporting their removal at this site: https://scienceteachersofmissouri.wildapricot.org/Honeysuckle)

We’re not sure why the Japanese Honeysuckle has gotten so bad. Some sources mention that it is likely to persist near old homesites, and the orchard is indeed just next to one. Have we released an old seed bank by removing a canopy of cedars? But that doesn’t explain the locations where it has simultaneously gotten bad under a still-dense canopy. Anyone else in the region seeing an upswing in this stuff?

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Shifting gears, we’ll address our least favorite animal on the farm. But not quite yet; first, wasps. March is time to clean out the greenhouse, and as part of that I took out some wasp nests. Upper left: paper wasp nest. Upper right: Black and Yellow Mud Dauber (Sceliphron caementarium). Lower:  Pipe Organ Mud Dauber (Trypoxylon politum).

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Now, reptiles. No, not our least favorite animal, either. Well, maybe according to our cat, who announced the presence of this Black Rat Snake in our laundry room with a big hiss. We released it onto the patio, where it soaked up some sun and posed for photos before moving on. The Northern Fence Lizard was also moving slowly and soaking up the March sun.

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Ah, yes, our least favorite animal on the farm: deer. The photo on the left is Blackhaw (Viburnum prunifolium) which lost a considerable amount of bark to a buck rubbing his velvet-covered antlers on the tree. That activity probably dates back to last summer or fall. This is the time of year when bucks shed their antlers, something that appears to have happened recently to the rather scraggly specimen in the trail cam photo on the right. Other photos showed multiple deer grazing on multiple nights in the same vicinity. We’re becoming ever more convinced that the deer pressure is not beneficial to native plant biodiversity or the ecosystem in general. To try to document the impact, we’re trialing an inexpensive deer exclosure fence in a section of woodland. More on that later.

Here are some dates of first-of-year observations:

3/4: Crocus blooming
3/5: Western Chorus Frog singing, Field Sparrow observed
3/6: Eastern Phoebe observed; Harbinger of Spring blooming
3/8: Daffodil blooming
3/14: Leopard Frog singing; Cabbage White butterflies (sigh!)
3/16: Spring Beauty blooming
3/18: Peach blooming
3/21: Tick observed
3/22: Bloodroot, Dutchman’s Breeches blooming
3/23: Tiger Swallowtail in flight
3/28: Red mite observed
3/29: Ruby-crowned Kinglet heard, Brown-headed Cowbird observed (might have heard earlier in month but not confirmed)
3/30: Louisiana Waterthrush observed

6 thoughts on “Natural events, March 2016

  1. Sorry to hear about your peaches, we had the same fate befall both our trees this year. They both bloomed the day before that hard frost. Heartbreaking.

    Our wild plums however have just started blooming, so hopefully we will have plenty of plums.

    • We’re pretty worried about tonight, too. The National Weather Service forecast has us down to 28º. In our valley, we often see temperatures drop a good ten degrees lower than forecast, especially when it is clear (as it is forecast to be). Asian pears are in full bloom and apples and blueberries are starting to flower.

      We’re doing some last minute research to try to decide what to protect and how. Found this useful table that gives some critical temperatures at various stages of blossom/fruit development:
      http://msue.anr.msu.edu/uploads/files/PictureTableofFruitFreezeDamageThresholds.pdf

      • That chart is phenomenal, thanks so much for passing it along. We stayed frost free this weekend, and hope you did the same. I was talking with my father-in-law on Saturday and he shared an old farmer’s tale (is that a thing?) about wind preventing frost from developing, but that sounds completely counterintuitive to me.

        • Oh, no, we got hammered. The heart of the cold air centered on the Mississippi Valley, with forecast lows down to 23-24 across northern MO and central IL, and a strong temperature gradient warming back toward Kansas. The thermometer on our porch read 21 Saturday morning. Lots of brown and wilted blossoms. Not surprised that you didn’t have harm, as you’re far enough to the west to be much further up the temperature gradient.

          We entirely agree with your FIL. A calm night is far more prone to frost/freeze in our experience, because cold air can settle to the ground, and pool in any low or protected areas. Wind, even the north wind typical of cold front passages, will keep the atmosphere mixed up, preventing that kind of stratification. You can clearly feel this pattern walking up or down a hill on our place as cold air settles; dropping 50′ in elevation can feel like diving through the warm layer on a pond’s surface into the cold depths below.

          It’s also our experience that the coldest nights tend NOT to be windy; the normal pattern as a cold front passes through is to be windy that day, with wind shifting around to the N or NW, then dying down as the sun sets, almost never lasting past midnight, so that the coldest hours of the morning are calm or nearly so, allowing cold air to settle. It’s very rare for the coldest night of a system to be windy in our experience here. So the normal meteorological patterns reinforce strong frosts/freezes on the coldest nights.

  2. Do you guys get naturally occurring Paw Paws where you are? I was thinking as reading your peach tree concerns, that a naturally occurring fruit tree might cause bring less angst?

    • Yes, wild ones occur in our woods, and grafted Pawpaws are on our short list of tree fruits to plant. We even have a general plan for where they’ll go, having started some hugelkultur beds for a diverse planting to include improved cultivars of various natives, such as persimmons, pawpaws, mulberries, and hazelnut. We also just started a trial of 10 gooseberry varieties, as the wild plants seem to be able to handle our soils and climate, but the wild fruit set is inconsistent and the tiny berries are inefficient to pick. Brambles are another sensible understory choice for this planting; black raspberries are the one wild fruit we have that often produce a yield worthy of being picked.

      We have two goals in growing fruit: 1) To provide all we can eat. 2) To have enough to sell and generate income. Pawpaws are great for goal #1, but they have significant downsides for goal #2, including a very short shelf life and a high level of unfamiliarity to many potential customers. On the other hand, peaches are infinitely marketable. All in all, if we are to succeed at fruit in Missouri, we think we are going to have to rely on a great deal of diversity, especially given the assortment of record-breaking weather that we keep encountering. We don’t expect every fruit to produce every year, but with enough diversity, enough variation in bloom time, enough resilience to different types of weather, then hopefully each year will yield a collection of tasty fruits.