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Signs of spring

| Saturday, April 29, 2006

The weather prophets proclaimed on March 20 that it was the first day of spring, but the temperature didn't feel like spring. Well, of course, when spring comes we expect warmer weather. But this year, as they told us, the first days of spring were cooler than normal. How should we account for this?

The la nina effect, some said. Or the jet stream angling south to allow a high-pressure system to bring a cold north/northwest breeze. Punxsutawney Phil, others joked, who saw his shadow. Whatever the reason, March this year was cool and dry.

Yet, in spite of this, we could note signs of spring. Bird signs, for example, such as grackles at the bird feeder. Grackles are warm-weather birds, and my wife does not consider them proper recipients of her largess, so she drives them off. But a towhee showed up several times and we did not chase him. One towhee impressed us more than a dozen grackles.

Birds beginning to sing was another sign. Not the Carolina wren, which sings all winter. But cardinals, "cheeah, cheeah, tweet, tweet, tweet." And titmice "peter, peter, peter." Also a red-winged blackbird, "okalree." And once I heard a chickadee sing, a thin "fee bee, fee bee."

The mockingbird keeping an eye on the juniper tree seemed a sign of spring. It appeared that certain doves or grackles might have aspired to nest in that tree, so he was evidently guarding it.

The mockingbird does well to nest in the juniper, a tree so tall it is pressing the electric line. Last year mockingbirds built a nest on our grape arbor, but a black snake invaded the nest. I conducted the snake away with a hoe, but the birds gave up that nest. Better to stay high in the juniper.

Soft maples blooming is another sign of spring. The cool weather may have frustrated some of them. Some days it was too cold for bees to pollinate. But soft maples are patient. If they can't pollinate this year, they will try again next year.

My wife remarked one day as we traveled along a road that the deciduous trees look barren in early spring. No green to relieve the monotonous brown. So we wait for the green. But I have noticed as I walk that garlic is already green.

The greening of garlic reminds me of some bad old days on the dairy farm. We would turn the cows out to pasture in late April or early May. Both cows and people welcomed the change. But the fly in the ointment was garlic in the pasture. Cows would eat garlic along with grass and this could "flavor" the milk.

The dairy in Philadelphia employed someone with a sensitive nose to "smell" the milk cans for traces of garlic. Too much garlic smell and that can of milk would be returned the next day. What to do with it?

Several options were open. One was to make homemade ice cream with vanilla flavoring. The vanilla pretty well overwhelmed the garlic, and a good time was had by all the family. Another was to feed it to pigs or chickens, which were not at all fussy about garlic.

This year because March was dry, I could work the garden early. Because it was cool, the garden tractor started reluctantly the first time, but it soon got into the act, and we planted peas on March 31. The conventional wisdom is to plant peas in the spring as soon as possible. One year I planted them too soon and a hard freeze the third week in May froze some of them in the pod. Last year I planted them later and the month of June was hot and dry. The later peas suffered from the heat. Better to follow the conventional wisdom and plant as soon as possible.

Along with the blossoms, the most pervasive sign of spring is the gradual greening of the grass. For many of us grass means "lawn" and lawn means mowing. Uh oh. A long summer of mowing is ahead of us. But, of course, we need the exercise. So why not mow?

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