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.It puddles in low spots in the lawn. 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. 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… Then the snow returns, and you wonder if you were dreaming… 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.