March brings hope that soon the back of winter will be broken

Posted March 04, 2011, at 11:04 a.m.
Last modified March 04, 2011, at 9:35 p.m.

“Now is that sweet unwritten moment when all things are possible, are just begun.” — Donald Culross Peattie

So begins Peattie’s Ode to March, his entry in “An Almanac for Moderns” (1935) for March 1. So I began my first day of March 2011, by reading Peattie, and ending the day writing the words that follow.

Just knowing that February is gone gives me hope. I know better than to think winter is over, but it is in March that I one day soon will whisper to myself, “The back of winter is broken.” I have had enough of shoveling snow, sanding icy steps, entering and leaving the schoolhouse in the dark, those treacherous pre-dawn treks down slushy Washington County roads.

Not that February has been entirely dismal. I will miss the flock of redpolls that came for an extended visit last week but that certainly, one day in March, will just as quickly leave us. I mentioned in a recent column that a single redpoll showed up at our porch feeders early in February, and for several days he alone — a splash of red on the heavily streaked breast identified “it” as a “he” — represented the species. And then the rest of the flock caught up with him.

There are about 50 redpolls dining on the porch these days, a sign that winter in the far north must be truly severe this year. I read that they seldom winter this far south unless driven here by lack of food in the woodland edges and weedy fields of northern Canada.

Canada’s loss is our gain, for these are among the most colorful and tamest of winter songbirds. They line the porch rails pecking at seeds, their red forehead feathers ruffled by winter winds, oblivious to the dogs and allowing us to approach within arm’s reach. After a short period of feeding, they depart en masse to nearby branches.

I’ve learned that each redpoll has a pouch within its throat where it can store food for up to several hours, allowing it to feed in a frenzy in the open and then digest the food over a long period in a sheltered spot. Such are the adaptations that must accompany life in the far north.

These tiny, restless birds — just a bit larger than their cousins the pine siskins and the goldfinches, all in the same genus — gave February a face-lift, and we will hate to see them leave. How many winters will pass before they visit again?

I will miss February morning walks down the snow-covered dirt road with the dogs, watching Dixie, our mostly black Lab-shepherd, chomp off mouthfuls of snow from roadside banks while Reilly, the Brittany, plows into the woods, following her nose. They converge in the middle of the road ahead, snapping playfully and barking at each other, Dixie’s muzzle covered to the ears in snow, Reilly’s feathered legs caked with ice balls.

But I am ready for March, for daytime highs steadily pushing toward 50 degrees, the hills of snow outside my windows gradually shrinking to puddles. I want to see the green tips of winter rye rising through the last few inches of snow covering garden beds sown last September to this overwintering cover crop.

I long to see bare soil warming in sunlight, to watch the needle on the soil thermometer slowly rise, to sow pea seeds as soon as the soil is dry enough to turn — perhaps by mid-April?

I think about the soil slowly awakening in March from a long winter’s sleep; about the slow but sure increase in number and variety of micro- and macroscopic organisms, which, along with plant roots, make up the soil ecosystem; about earthworms rising into the root zone; about spreading composted goat manure over the surface of the soil, feeding the biotic explosion.

The seed orders are in, should be arriving soon. By the end of March the germination table will be covered with flats of seedlings, fluorescent tubes just inches above their leaves.  Just the early-season crops, mind you, the broccoli, cabbage, kohlrabi, lettuce and Swiss chard, or those that need several weeks to reach transplant size, such as onions and leeks.

Paper packets sporting colorful drawings of bean pods, trellised cucumbers and bright red tomatoes lie in a nearby box, their contents, dreams of the summer to come, still dormant.

Send queries to Gardening Questions, P.O. Box 418, Ellsworth 04605, or to rmanley@shead.org. Include name, address and telephone number.

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