Seems like everyone – in the northern half of the country east of the Rockies, at least – is talking about this spring’s weather. Robert Frost (in “Two Tramps in Mud Time”) had it right when he wrote:
“The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You’re one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you’re two months back in the middle of March.”
Perhaps T. S. Eliot (in “The Waste Land”) was right in writing that “April is the cruelest month.”
But has this past April really been crueler than most? Usually I pooh-pooh day-to-day impressions. But even Sammy, who usually bounds over to me from his doghouse each morning when he sees me, stayed in and watched as I crossed the yard a couple of weeks ago over ground recently covered with a dusting of snow.
Phenology, the study of climate as reflected in the natural cycles of plants and animals, is one way to give the weather an objective assessment. For decades, I’ve recorded the dates on which various plants have blossomed. My interest was horticultural: In spring, plants blossom after experiencing a certain accumulation of warm temperatures. So various blossoms can be indicators of when it’s safe to sow seeds or set out plants of various vegetables and flowers.
Depending on late-winter and spring weather, blossoming dates for various plants can vary quite a bit. Microclimate also plays a role, so I’ve tried to always note blossoming on the same plant from year to year. Back in 2010, forsythia bloomed about April 1: the earliest I’ve ever recorded. Contrast that with 2009, when it bloomed about April 15, or back in 1984, when it bloomed on April 25!
This year, forsythia bloomed on April 23: late again. Over the years, forsythia bloom dates average around the middle of April, so this year is definitely late. All these forsythia bloom dates are for forsythia on my farmden, which is in a local cold pocket, so blossoms spread their yellow petals a few days later than plants even just a few miles away.
Another key indicator for me is cornelian cherry (Cornus mas), whose yellow blossoms are most welcome because they frequently open the first day of spring. Not this year, though; mine bloomed on April 20.
Daffodils typically bloom here in early April – although back in 2016, they bloomed on March 25; this year, April 21.
One of my favorite blooming shrubs, also producing very tasty fruit, is Nanking cherry (Prunus tomentosa). Stems on the row of them along my driveway typically form a veritable wave of pinkish-white blossoms around the middle of April. As I write, it’s April 24 and that wave is just building. If warm weather continues, it should roll in within a few days. (Update: It did, on the 28th.)
It’s tradition to plant corn when “oak leaves are the size of mouse ears.” Considering phenology, I take timing one step further, planting, for example, lettuce seeds when forsythias blossom, cabbage transplants when apples blossom and (this is a tough one) peas a week before forsythias blossom.
So yes, it has been a “cruel” spring, if you’re wanting some warmth and sun. Then again, this cool weather has retarded, so far at least, blossom development of my fruit trees, which is a good thing. The later these trees blossom, the less chance for the open flowers to be burned by subsequent frosts.
The downside to this atypically cool spring weather is that it has delayed planting of annual vegetables and flowers, or their growth if they’re already been planted. I sowed peas, as I always do, on April 1. Still no sign of them poking up through the ground. I’m going to go outside, scratch around in one of the pea rows and check if the seeds have either sprouted or rotted.
I’m back. The peas are okay: Their first bits of green are peeking up through the surface of the ground.
No matter if the season is unseasonably cool or warm, by this time of year the progression of blossoms provides a feast for the eyes and the nose.
Any gardening questions? E-mail Lee at firstname.lastname@example.org and he’ll try answering them directly or in his Almanac Weekly column. To read Lee’s previous “Gardener’s Notebook” columns, visit his garden at www.leereich.com/blog.