Mud Season: A primer for newcomers and Southerners

– Posted in: FAQ, Mud Season, Weather

Mud season has finally arrived. As I have had more contact with gardeners in other climates, I’ve come to realize that certain aspects of my climate are completely foreign to them, so I thought I’d explain mud season for those who have never encountered it. It will sound pretty elementary to my fellow cold climate gardeners, but who knows? You might want to add your two cents in the comments.

The backstory

As autumn progresses into winter, the temperatures continue to drop. We go from light frost, to hard frost to hard freezes. When the lawn changes from green to a dull tan or gray, we know the soil has frozen because the grass has gone dormant. Some years the snow starts falling before we see this happen. That is a good thing. Snow insulates the soil from the increasingly cold air and gives the woody plants more time to take up water, and the bulbs more time to put out roots. The worst case scenario is when we have an “open” winter, which means no snow. The soil freezes to a much greater depth and plant losses in spring are much greater.

The January thaw

In most years we have a thaw in January where the temperatures reach spring-time mildness and most, if not all, of the snow melts. Ideally this should be a brief reprieve, for if the soil starts to thaw and plants are encouraged to break out of dormancy, they will be killed by the return of winter. After this thaw, we get more snow. Often we get a lot more snow.

Mud season, the real thaw

Sometime in March, the temperatures rise again and the snow starts to melt. This snow melt is often accompanied by rain, as it is this year. Think about the implications. In the winter, as I said, the soil freezes solid. You can not stick a shovel into it, you can not pull a weed out of it. The snow has been insulating the soil, keeping it frozen. When the snow melts, it can not be absorbed by the frozen soil. It runs off our hillside and swells the seasonal brooks.

One of many seasonal brooks that will be dry in summer.

One of many seasonal brooks that will be dry in summer.

It puddles in low spots in the lawn.
The snow melt can't seep into the frozen soil.

The snow melt can't seep into the frozen soil.

When the soil finally thaws, it thaws from the top down. The earth below is still frozen; the moisture has nowhere to go: mud.
Mud signals the beginning of the end of winter.

Mud signals the beginning of the end of winter.

Mud. Mud everywhere! But then it gets cold again. Let me tell you, walking on semi-frozen mud is a strange sensation, and stranger still is walking on a shell of completely frozen mud that has unfrozen mud underneath; it sounds hollow when you tread upon it. And then it gets warm again, warmer than the last warm spell, and the crocuses open and the bees return. And you think it’s spring…
A good mud season day from last April. Photo (c) 2008 Cadence Purdy

A good mud season day from last April. Photo (c) 2008 Cadence Purdy

Then the snow returns, and you wonder if you were dreaming…
Plants and people both must persevere through mud season. (March 2008)

Plants and people both must persevere through mud season. (March 2008)

And so it goes, for about two months. One day it’s early spring, then we’re back to late winter. The only constant is mud, so mud season it is.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

In the end, this may be the most important thing about frost: Frost slows us down. In spring, it tempers our eagerness. In fall, it brings closure and rest. In our gotta-go world–where every nanosecond seems to count–slowness can be a great gift. So rather than see Jack Frost as an adversary, you could choose to greet him as a friend.

~Philip Harnden in A Gardener’s Guide to Frost: Outwit the Weather and Extend the Spring and Fall Seasons

Comments on this entry are closed.

Jenn March 15, 2009, 1:31 pm

Where I was in Michigan we had very ‘open’ winters with lots of freeze/thaw cycles. One of the things that first attracted me to your site was the fact that my ‘zone five’ garden killed a lot of ‘zone five’ plants due to not having that protective blanket of snow.

That sort of weather makes for a relative short mud season in most places. In the HoggleBog garden, as the name implies, we were wet for months in the spring, but that was a high water table = less mud.

Donalyn March 13, 2009, 10:20 am

No January thaw her this year and the one in February didn’t come close to actually thawing much snow. It finally melted in the rain last weekend, but we still have piles where we plowed it. As cold as it got, I was very thankful for the thick snow cover. Two days ago it was nearly 60 and this morning it was 8 – spring in NYS!

Don March 12, 2009, 7:25 pm

Oh, very nice piece. I ended up flat on my face in the (muddy) woods today.

Mary S. March 12, 2009, 12:41 pm

Good explanation, Kathy. We have mud season here in Minnesota — though not yet, I’m sorry to say — but I think of it as sump pump season because that is often the time of year basements start taking on all that water with nowhere to go and the sump pump (if you are lucky enough to have one) starts running. After 12 years in a house without a sump pump or a mudroom, we built a new home with both, and have been here 10 dry and mud-resistant years.

Bonnie March 12, 2009, 11:51 am

Wow, I had forgotten from my time in the NE what winter to spring is like up there. Meanwhile, everyone here is racing to get things in the ground before summer cooks them.

Lynn March 11, 2009, 9:36 pm

Kathy! I’d heard about mud season in Colorado, where the many feet of snow finally melts and it’s muddy for a month, but now I’m experiencing our version. Our lazy creek is running, and Six Mile Creek right down the road is roaring! Good thing I love my rubber boots (and they are so in on campus πŸ˜‰ There is so much water in our basement, being collected in the underground gutters and pumped out into the ditch every 6 minutes, that when the furnace stops blowing, you can hear the water just trickling like a faucet is on. The good thing about all this is that I guess “the soil can be worked” finally? I’m thinking of planting spinach this weekend–at the high end of the veg patch. Great post πŸ™‚

Kathy Purdy March 12, 2009, 9:32 am

Lynn, the definition of workable soil is soil that is not too wet and not too dry. When you squeeze a handful, it should not remain in a lump, and certainly water should not drip from your clenched hand. So for the most part, I’d say your soil is not workable yet. If you disturb wet clay soil by digging, tilling, and especially stepping on it, you run the risk of compacting it and compressing the air out of it. However, spinach does best when you get it the ground as early as possible. We have difficulty planting it soon enough that we can get a good harvest before it bolts. Margaret Roach likes to plant it in very late fall. (But I see you already found that post.) So, let’s make an exception to the rule of workable soil for spinach. Here’s how I would minimize the damage:

  1. Do not step on the garden soil. Keep your feet on the grass or path and just reach into the bed.
  2. Do not dig or turn over the soil. Hand pull any visible weeds, taking care to disturb the soil as little as possible.
  3. Use something straight and thin, such as a ruler or a thin board to press slits into the soil, and sow your seeds in the slits.
  4. Cover the seeds with compost or something you can get from a bag or container so you don’t disturb the soil. That’s assuming spinach seed needs to be covered at all. I can’t remember. If rain is in the forecast, the action of rain on the soil might be enough to get them covered.

I take courage from the fact that you said “the high end of the veg patch.” Presumably it is better drained and more workable than the low end.

Craig @ Ellis Hollow March 11, 2009, 8:37 pm

Oh yeah. Mud season, Ellis Hollow style.

In addition to what Kathy describes, we live in a low area adjacent to a wetland, with surrounding hills that create what I call the ‘artesian lawn’.

We have an artesian well year-round. The water flows out of the top due to the pressure created by groundwater in the surrounding hills.

In spring, the pressure is usually great enough that water pops up in the lawn creating little mini-volcaonos of heavy clay subsoil carried to the surface by the bubbling streams of water.

That said, this year hasn’t been so bad. Our ‘dog towel’ by the door has been lasting all week, instead of the usual day or two most springs.

Kathy Purdy March 11, 2009, 8:57 pm

We also have an artesian well, but it stops flowing out of the top during the driest parts of the summer. And we get those mini-volcanoes, too. And just like you, not so much this year. Or perhaps, not yet?

Les March 11, 2009, 7:51 pm

After reading this, I promise to be more careful as to how I complain about the winter.

Yvonne Cunnington March 11, 2009, 4:36 pm

Had a smile about Mr. McGregor’s Daughter’s comment. I chose my carpet color, a sort dun brown – the color of our clay leam – because I have both mud season and a dog. At this time of year, I always keep a “dog towel” by the door.

Yvonne Cunnington March 11, 2009, 4:32 pm

Kathy: I don’t have seeps and springs popping up. Perhaps that’s because we installed a drainage system. We did agricultural drainage here for two reasons: heavy soil and the low area on our property that two neighboring acreages drain into. It works like a charm. There is some flooding at the moment, because the downstream pond at the neighboring golf course backs everything up. They dam the pond to capture water for summer. At least it’s drying a bit now, but if we ever had more than 3 days of heavy rain, it would be brutal. Fortunately, our house is on a hill. (That might be more than you wanted to know!) Cheers, Y

bill / prairie point March 11, 2009, 1:16 pm

Wow, thanks for that explanation. All of my experiences in the cold climates have either been in the summer or in the city.

Annie in Austin March 11, 2009, 1:01 pm

Thanks for giving me flashbacks, Kathy! MMD’s part of Chicagoland may have been well drained, but mud season was the norm in the far SW suburbs where I grew up and the far W suburbs where we raised our family.

People who haven’t experienced it need illustrations. Now when transplanted northerners like Lori and me need to explain things to gardeners here in Austin we can send them to this post!

Annie at the Transplantable Rose

chuck b. March 11, 2009, 1:00 pm

I don’t have mud, but I would still like to have a mudroom. Call it a clay soil room. The stuff gets everywhere and stains even concrete.

Pam March 11, 2009, 11:58 am

That’s exactly what it’s like here in Boston! Except our thaw was a little later this year – February.

Kathy Purdy March 11, 2009, 12:12 pm

Pam, our thaw was in February this year, too. I’m just thankful we had one. Sometimes I think we should call it Indian Spring, the false spring that tricks the unwary. But then, why should we malign them, just because they got stuck with Indian Summer?

commonweeder March 11, 2009, 11:12 am

Mud season is in full slide here. And it is raining. I live at the end of one and a half miles of dirt road and the ruts are already historic.

Mr. McGregor's Daughter March 11, 2009, 10:56 am

With my incredibly well drained soil, I don’t have that layer of mud on top of everything. Where the mud season effect is felt is on the garden paths, where the hardwood mulch has decomposed over the winter, turning the paths to mud. I used to dread mud season when I had dogs. I used to keep a bucket of water by the back door to dip muddy paws into before allowing the dogs to come back inside.

Kelly March 11, 2009, 10:50 am

Spot on, Kathy. Certainly my biggest adjustment moving from Virginia to New Hampshire. Still too much snow cover here to see crocus or snowdrops, but I can tromp through the mud to visit a blooming witchhazel…

Charlotte March 11, 2009, 9:42 am

We had a thaw here in Montana in Feb — a couple of lovely weekends in the 50s and even 60s — this morning it’s 13 below with a foot of snow. Thank goodness for the snow — otherwise there’d be carnage out there — things were starting to green up, and at least the snow will insulate them some. I’d happily trade this for mud though —

kerri March 11, 2009, 9:13 am

You’ve described mud season well, Cathy. It’s not a pretty time of year, is it? I got my boots muddy for the first time last Sunday…pushing a few garlic bulbs back into the veggie garden. The sprouts are up about 3 inches.
It was warm enough to do some clean-up in the flower gardens. Spring is in the air…at long last. We just have to endure the mud for a while, but the green will come…soon! πŸ™‚

Tina March 11, 2009, 8:51 am

Hehe…perfect description!
I didn’t get a January thaw this year, but still have tons of plants with frost heave. ~sigh~
Ever step on the thin, frozen, crusty layer and have the mud squish up around your shoes?
Only 9 days to spring, at least πŸ™‚
(shhhh. I’m in denial)

Kathy Purdy March 11, 2009, 9:23 am

Our January thaw came in February this year, but at least it came.

Lori March 11, 2009, 7:07 am

Wow, only five years away from Wisconsin and already I’d forgotten about mud season!

Sheila March 10, 2009, 11:49 pm

Thanks for the explanation! We have mud slides in this part of the country, but it is more closely connected to fires that rob the terrain of all brush and when the rains come the top soil just washes away.

Karen March 10, 2009, 11:27 pm

Hilarious! Thanks for the tutorial. Kind of most seasons here in Seattle are mud season, but it’s not quite as dramatic. When we visited Vermont, that’s when I heard the term for the first time. That’s why your house needs… a mud room!

Cindy, MCOK March 10, 2009, 11:17 pm

Note to self: do not visit Kathy in March (even if the crocus ARE blooming!)

Yvonne Cunnington March 10, 2009, 10:51 pm

Great public service, Kathy! Can’t wait for mud season to be over. It’s the bane of our existence as gardeners, isn’t it? Especially on clay!

Kathy Purdy March 11, 2009, 9:21 am

Yvonne, do you have seeps and springs popping up all over during this time? I know Craig of Ellis Hollow does. I might do another post on that aspect of it.

Pam/Digging March 10, 2009, 10:35 pm

Hence the popularity of mudrooms, I guess. Nothing like that in Austin, of course, and no need for galoshes here. Thanks for explaining.

Kathy Purdy March 11, 2009, 9:17 am

Mudrooms! Pam and Karen, sorry I forgot that. Yes, having a place where you can sit down and take off your boots (or galoshes) and hang up your dripping coat is wonderful. We have a narrow unheated hallway that I thought would function that way, but time has shown that no one wants to hang their coat there because it makes the coat very chilly to put on, and everyone walks into the kitchen to take off their boots because that’s the first place they find to sit down. The Not So Big House
by Sarah Susanka had some good mudroom/foyer ideas.

Carol, May Dreams Gardens March 10, 2009, 9:59 pm

We don’t exactly have the mud season you do, but we often get a lot of rain in the spring. I think our ground thaws earlier. Right now, the bed I want to plant peas in is 48 F at about 3 inches deep. That’s a raised bed, so it does warm up faster. I guess its the difference in Zone 4 where you are and Zone 5 where I am.