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Beware the lion, but be thinking about the soil as spring nears

February 27, 2007|by JEFF SEMLER

Regardless whether you believe Punxsutawney Phil's predictions or not, we are about to enter the season of the year for the most dynamic weather.

As you have probably noticed, the days are getting longer; today, sunset is 6:01 p.m., the first time sunset has been after six o'clock since Oct. 28, 2006, the last day of daylight savings time.

The temperature fluctuations will increase as we pass from winter into spring. I trust there are still a few folks who remember the saying, "March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb."

Spring is the transition from winter into summer. Astronomically, we consider spring to begin with the vernal equinox around March 20, and end with the summer solstice around June 21. On March 20, at precisely 8:07 p.m. EDT, the Sun will cross directly over the Earth's equator.

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Such standards are by no means universal, however. In Chinese astronomy, for example, the vernal equinox instead marks the middle of spring, which begins around the time of Lichun (around Feb. 4). In the Irish Calendar, spring is counted as the whole months of February, March and April, while in meteorology, it is instead counted as the whole months of March, April and May.

Around here, the soil begins to warm significantly, causing new plant growth to spring forth, giving the season its name. Snow (if any) begins to melt, and rivers and streams swell with runoff and spring rains.

Most flowering plants, like the crocus, bloom this time of year, in a long succession beginning even when snow is still on the ground and continuing into early summer.

Severe weather most often occurs during the spring, when warm air begins to invade from the south while cold air is still pushing from the polar regions. Flooding is also most common in and near mountainous areas during this time of year due to snowmelt, many times accelerated by warm rains.

Tornado Alley is most active by far this time of year, especially since the Rocky Mountains prevent the surging hot and cold air masses from spreading westward and instead force them directly at each other.

Besides tornados, super cell thunderstorms can also produce dangerously large hail and very high winds, for which a severe thunderstorm warning or even tornado warning is usually issued.

Often, spring storms trigger dozens of warnings, one right after the other, often simultaneously along a line hundreds of miles long. Even more so than winter, the jet stream plays an important role in severe weather in the springtime.

Depending on your heritage, St. Patrick's Day (March 17) is when you are to plant potatoes, peas and onions. While this is nice lore, soil temperature is the most limiting factor for germination.

If you plant too early, your seeds may simply rot in the cold wet soil of early spring. Fifty degrees is the bare minimum for the most cold-hardy plants and many require a soil temperature of 60.

The cool soil temperatures of spring are a great time to plant bare root trees and brambles. Many orchardists or would-be home fruit growers plant apples, peaches, blueberries, blackberries and raspberries while the plant is still dormant.

Sooner than you think, the county will echo with the groan of tractors working the land. The air will be filled with sweet smell of freshly-turned earth or the fragrant aroma of manure being applied for organic plant food.

While I cannot speak for everybody, I like to paraphrase Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now, "I love the smell of cow manure in the morning."

Regardless of whether you till the soil or not, spring is a wonderful time of year, so get out and enjoy it.

Just like Punxsutawney Phil, you can break your winter hibernation and take a walk or plant a flower in the sweet air and sunshine of the coming spring.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached weekdays by telephone at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by e-mail at jsemler@umd.edu

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