I’d like to start this week’s column with a belated happy birthday wish to George Story, founder of Story Nursery in Freehold, Greene County and a continuing inspiration to several generations of horticulturists, including me! George turned 102 on February 22 and is still active and fit as I write this. His love of plants and horticulture in general is as contagious as the Omicron strain of COVID, but people who acquire this affection are beneficiaries and not victims at all. If you’re feeling a little stressed as we enter March, the longest month of the year of at least two weeks, I suggest you visit Story’s Nursery or another garden store that offers freshly grown plants. .
Day length is now noticeably longer, although the weather is not noticeably better this month. March is the month of Pisces and like our astrological sign, we Pisces have a hard time deciding! We get a nice weather teaser followed by a bad weather snap almost every week now. Early birds, like red-winged blackbirds, return to the swamps, but snowbirds, like me, wait until spring really hits the mountains before heading home.
Maple syrup season is well underway, as blue plastic buckets and tubes appear almost like intravenous trees along roadsides and in sugar maple forests, cryptically called “sugar bushes.” “. I’ve never quite understood the term “shrub” as applied to mature forest trees, but I’ve heard it originated in Canada, where people have some weird language weaknesses to begin with, at least for me. I’ve learned that it’s perfectly acceptable to end any sentence in English with “Eh?” in Ontario. Maples must be much more than “bushes” before they are tapped. Twelve inches in diameter, four feet above the ground, is a minimum size for a maple to be tapped according to research at Cornell and elsewhere. “Elsewhere” is most likely Quebec, Canada, where approximately 90% of the world’s maple syrup is produced, or over 6.5 million gallons per year. Vermont is the largest producer in the United States with about half a million gallons in a good year.
“A good year” is not a misnomer, because like many agricultural crops, the weather plays a huge role in determining whether or not the sap will flow. It’s only relatively recently that scientists have finally figured out what, exactly, causes sap to flow, squirt or leak from holes drilled into tree trunks. The culprit is that gas called carbon dioxide, which everyone is so concerned about these days.
It has long been recognized that sunny, warm days followed by cold nights trigger the best flow (flow) of sap each spring, but no one was quite sure why. Carbon dioxide dissolves much more easily in cold water than in hot water, which is the complete opposite of oxygen gas. Cold nights allow CO 2 gas to dissolve in the wood’s tissue cells, called xylem. As the sun rises and the wood heats up, the gas comes out of solution and literally pushes the liquid under pressure. Imagine a can of carbonated soda that’s sitting in the sun versus a can that’s in the fridge. Hot soda practically explodes when the can is opened compared to opening a chilled soda can due to gas expansion. Thus, the mercurial weather of March affects much more than our Pisces nature in nature, as well as astrology.
One thing we can be sure of however is that March will be a muddy month as snow and ice melt and soil particles also dissolve into the resulting water. It’s a phenomenon not seen in desserts or places that have very sandy soils, like many places here in Florida, no matter how much it rains. Sand particles (grains) are too large to dissolve and go into solution, so mud is a texture factor in the soil. The more clay in your garden soil, the more mud you can expect to see each year.
The problem with mud is that it can act like glue as it dries, leaving a hard crust of impenetrable soil that is difficult to till. This is especially a problem if the clay is compacted by weight. Even walking on muddy garden soil or muddy lawns can result in compacted soil that does not allow air or water to penetrate. So the lesson for this week is to stay away from your garden or lawn until mud season passes, as it surely will in a month or two!