Biotime Log – February 2019

February 3, 2019, Sunday

Observations: Yesterday was Imbolc, the Festival of Brigid, celebrated in Celtic cultures as that tipping point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. Indeed, we are seeing noticeably more daylight. Up to now, the days have been amazingly mild. The Indian Plum is opening its buds and the Cornelian Cherries are covered with tiny yellow blossoms. The Snow Drops are poking up – and many of the bulbs and tubers: Daffodils, Tulips, Daylilies, and Irises, are all noticeably up now, too. Buds are swelling on almost every shrub; brassicas and especially the wild mustards, which the bees so appreciate in early spring, look almost ready to bloom.

Bees: I am reminded that I need to take note of which plants are the earliest bloomers and be sure to plant them near the beehives so the bees don’t have far to go when they venture out on wintry days.

Weather: Today, however, dramatic change: the barometer took a plunge, the wind picked up to 35 mph with gusts up to 45. A lot of activity at the birdfeeders: many many finches, nuthatches, bushtits, sparrows, towhees. The quail stopped by at least twice. They all seemed to know the storm was brewing. By mid-afternoon, there were snow flurries that turned into heavy wet snow. Although we only have about 1.5″ accumulated here in the lowlands, there is much more in the foothills.

Everything is white. I wondered whether we would truly experience winter this year, which could translate into another bad fire season. There has not been much rain or snowpack in the mountains so far. I am thankful for the winter blanket. Too many plants were responding to the warm weather as an early spring, and many of us feared early growth would be stunted by the cold.

It is 10:30 p.m. and the wind still howls at the door. It is getting colder.

February 8, 2019, Friday

Snow! LOTS of snow! Perhaps more snow than we have had in over 20 years. We aren’t equipped to deal with snow here, and those who have to travel in it are caught on slippery slopes.

Here in the garden, though, is a different survival story. Lots of activity around the birdfeeders, which the birds have come to know as a reliable, easy source of food. The fat little quail jump over their heads through the snow to get to the grain (why don’t they fly?). The backyard sparrows, juncos, and finches are opportunists. They take advantage of what is available, both domestic and wild. I grow a lot of bird-friendly plants, most of which I let go to seed – yet, I still find myself providing a gourmet smorgasborg for these little gluttons who so entertain me. They will have healthy clutches of hatchlings come spring. Occasionally a hawk swoops in to perch on our fence. It gives a different connotation to the term, “bird feeder.” Everyone is hungry. Everyone is burning precious calories to make it through the night.

So, why am I not feeding the hummingbirds? I see them here and there. Sugar is cheap compared with the expensive seed. Yet sugar water seems such a poor substitute to nectar (I rarely feed it to the bees), and I don’t want them to be dependent on it as a food source…but I certainly feel a pang of guilt. How do they survive? I need to provide a feeder, at least during these hard times.

8″ now and still falling at 10:00 p.m. All is quiet. The snow seems to stand out so bright, almost illuminated in the darkness. The branches so heavy, they arch downward. Even the Berberis, with its bright red berries against the white and its sturdy spiky stems, is bent to the ground. I thought about shaking the snow off, but then I saw how the laden branches create a shelter. We will leave them for now. The birds need every shelter they can find.

Our gardens are full of shelters. Piles of brush and orchard prunings. Heaps of concrete blocks. Dense shrubs, such as the Flowering Quince and the Bay Leaf. The funky “insect hotel” has fallen over in the wind, but I left it be, knowing insects would still find it a good place. Many spiders winter over in my stash of flower pots. Some creatures hide out in the woodchip and compost piles. I was adding woodchips to the path to the willow room the other day and found a small snake – must have been last year’s hatchling. So cold, it could hardly move. So thankful I hadn’t injured it! I carefully picked it up and tucked it down beneath the cardboard and chips on the path. I put a bit of brush on top. Perhaps it will make it.

The snow transforms the entire garden into a wonderland. Everything is laden with the weight of heavy snow, arching downward to the earth – right at the time when creatures need the protection the most. I am thankful for this blanket. I am thankful for the snowpack in the mountains that will later provide water to the lowlands and to the salmon in the rivers. There is no need to rush into spring.

February 16, 2019, Sunday

Temperatures are finally warming up to melt off some of this snow, which got up to 18″ in places. Shrubs are springing back up into an upward position, although some have broken down. The big fir trees, especially, at the northwest end of the property, lost several rather large branches. Snow is still heavy in the field and piled in high mounds where we have shoveled it or raked it off the roofs, but at least we are seeing places of bare ground again and daffodil shoots and daylilies poking up here and there. Snow damage seems minimal.

Lots of birds are out and and about and chirping all about it. A flock of robins – a good half dozen of them – perched in the medlar tree, preening themselves and enjoying a bit of sun. Of special importance: the covey of quail, which I thought must have been buried beneath the blackberries, were out to scratch beneath the feeders. The melting snow reveals a ton of seed piled on the ground, so there is plenty for everyone.

The first snowmelt makes it easy to identify which areas get the most sun and where the cold stays longer. The back northwest corner of the property gets quite a bit more unobstructed sun at this time of year when the sun is low and the cottonwoods and alders still don’t have leaves. It is not very good soil back there, mostly clay, very dry in summer, acidic, and bordered by firs and cedars; however, the red flowering currants seem to like it fine and are budding out. The mahonia, with flowers on the verge of blooming, is also taking advantage of the extra sun and melted snow. It is a good area for native plants.

The orchard, on the other hand, although on the eastern side of the property, receives very little of the morning sun, which is blocked at this time of year by the tall firs across the street. The orchard is still quite snowbound. This is not necessarily a bad thing. If the snow can delay the budding a bit longer, there might be less cold damage to tender shoots and we might get more fruit.

Good news! Bees in the hive by the grand firs are out! I have not seen much activity at the other hive for quite some time and I am concerned. Later in the day was a good time to check on them and give them some supplemental powdered sugar to tie them over until things start blooming. The roofs on both of the hives were full of hive beetles, which I dumped onto the snow where they died instantly (or so it appeared). The hive by the greenhouse had a cluster of dead bees on the top bars of the top box. Not a good sign. The more active hive by the firs had what appeared to be thousands of dead bees around the hive in the snow and many on the landing board. Also not a good sign. But when I put powdered sugar on the top bars, several bees in the 2nd hive came to get some right away. I have hope this one might make it. I will write more about this in a blogpost soon to come.

Late afternoon: rain. More snow on the way?

February 17, 2019, Monday Update

A rather mild day, and I am happy too see numerous bees are out and about at the hive by the fir trees. My efforts may have helped. At least they did not hurt as far as I can tell. The other hive, though, is still quiet. I think we lost them. 🙁

February 22, 2019

We are quickly approaching the end of February. Snows are melting except in the shadows. Intermittent rains are cold and sometimes turn to sleet, but help in the melting. Daffodil, daylilies, and garlic shoots are up; chard and kale look a bit bedraggled, but look determined to make it through. Birds at the feeders are quite active.

It is a good time of year to look at the overall structure of the garden and how it might be improved. A fair amount of damage from the heavy snow, particularly to the big firs, the strawberry tree, Dunbar plum, and autumn olive. Still, so many things are ready to bud out, particularly the red flowering currants (everyone should grow these if they can!) and the Mahonia / Oregon grape. So much work to be done!

To be continued….

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