I don’t think anyone can argue that this has been a strange spring. Or shall we say, what spring? Winter, winter, winter, winter, summer. In one week, we had 18 inches of snow, followed by 80-degree weather! Many of the domestic plants, like our apple trees, are just starting to barely leaf, holding back their buds as if wondering whether it’s truly safe to come out.
But Mother Nature isn’t waiting. Already along the edges of the fields, the wild black cherries have opened their tiny clusters of white flowers. Trilliums are beginning to appear in the woods, and everywhere the leaves are popping in their early spring shades of glowing green.
After the last snow melted, perennials like chives and rhubarb burst out of the ground, growing for all they were worth. It is as if nature is playing her catch-up game—we’ve only got so much time before the fall frosts, so it’s time to book it! With the recent rains, the yard has sprung into dark-green life, and violets and daffodils are beginning to bloom.
Last spring was an insane global-climate-change roller coaster. First came the major warm-up in February that fooled all the plants. March was like July, with 80 degrees on St. Patrick’s Day. The apples bloomed. Then the temperature plummeted (as did the apple crop potential), and everyone who had put in their gardens early had to start over.
The old saying up here is that you’re not really safe until Memorial Day, and we’ve witnessed frosts into the second week of June. Some old-timers say they’ve seen it snow every month but July! (Poor sledding up here that month, you know.) Some of my artist friends who live in New York think this must be the end of the earth…who would ever want to live in the wilds of Wisconsin’s Northwoods?
But they don’t know to listen for the deep-throated call of the Bittern in the marshes—oonk-a-loonk, oonk-a-loonk—or watch for the return of the red-winged blackbirds. The swallows dance in the air around the barnyard, causing the chickens to cry “HAWK!” because they’ve forgotten these friendly summer residents. Tree swallows flit at the opening of bird houses, barn swallows swoop above the sheep’s heads, and cliff swallows with their yellow masks dive up into the rafters of the woodshed.
My urban friends don’t know to wait for the smell of the damp, cool earth as you turn in new compost for planting the garden or the change in the wind as a spring thunderstorm rolls through. April showers bring May flowers? Well, this year it has to be May showers bring May flowers—all part of nature’s catch-up game. This spring, everything seems in a hurry to grow, bloom, and nest. The bulbs planted last autumn in front of Farmstead Creamery propelled their eager leaves through the mulch as if to shout “We’re Here!” Even the brave little cherry tree we planted last year sends forth tiny green leaves of hope.
This week, we loaded our laying hens into their mobile summer coop unit that sits atop a hay wagon and rolled the team out into the pasture. Circled by the safety of an electric mesh fence, we released the ladies into their summer habitat. Tails held high bobbed from side to side as they raced in all directions, scratching for worms and young, tender grass. This was the long-awaited chicken heaven they’d been dreaming about all winter! Finally, these poultry dreams had come true.
Even Belle, our guard donkey, got a romp out in the pasture during the day—trotting and shaking her head. She loves to stand out in the rain and let it wash over her, as do the three survivor ducks. Quacking and flapping their wings, they dig mud holes with their bills and preen their long, white feathers with joy. Rain! Nothing marks the transition from the winter season quite so well as a good spring rain—especially when it helps put out forest fires.
Some folks get a little funny when the seasons are changing. Perhaps they’re not used to it or just not ready. The welcomed weekend rains settled the dust of the hot, dry winds that had swept through for days, adding fuel to the Gordon wildfire just 45 minutes to the north and west of our farm. Needless to say, the event had us terribly worried for all the people in its path and wondering what we would have done with all the farm animals should the fire have suddenly changed directions.
The light rain patted on the metal roof that Saturday as a family on vacation trudged into the Café and looked around at delicious farm cheeses, eggs, and homemade granola.
“Isn’t it nice to be getting some rain,” I offered, bringing out a new tray of fresh muffins.
“Yeah, well,” the mother grumbled. “Just wish it wasn’t today.”
I shook my head with an internal chuckle. “Well, it’s better than a forest fire.” But the lady just humphed, oblivious to the recent area calamity.
Now, I know you folks with lake property would love every day to be sunny and 80 degrees during your vacation, but please remember that the Northwoods is a whole ecosystem and that nature (and farmers) needs a good rain fairly frequently to stay healthy and your lakes filled. Besides, a light rain seldom keeps outdoors folks inside.
We were planting peas in a newly-prepared garden bed just yesterday, with a light, muggy breeze teasing at our hair. Our intern LeeAra was on one side, I on the other, and the bucket of soaked peas was in the middle. A low rumble rolled over the brow of the sky. We looked at each other, then up at the cauliflower-crowned clouds converging on all sides. This wasn’t going to be some light spring shower. It’s more like…how fast can you plant peas before the lightening gets too close! We called in reinforcements and got the job (and chores) done just in time.
I hope that real spring temperatures will come soon, along with tulips in the yard and more gentle white trilliums on the forest floor. When will the first monarch butterfly be spotted at the farm? When will the first bluebird sing from the garden fence post? Spring is truly here, as nature plays her wondrous catch-up game towards summer’s glory. See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. (715) 462-3453 northstarhomestead.com