Dormant Plants and Environmental Awakenings

As I write this, we’re easing into another February deep freeze. Wind chills today are not expected to get out of the teens here on the farm. I just put up a pot of chicken soup with a wonderful local chicken, a medley of frozen vegetables and dried herbs with a pinch of dried chili for depth, all from last year’s garden. I crumbled in some dried Black Trumpets I found in the woods last August and a tablespoon of my currant farm honey. With the hickory and ash firewood from a couple of blow downs, crackling in the fireplace, Coco, our chocolate lab, sleeping close to the hearth to soak up as much of the heat as she can, the soft comfort steaming out from the simmering soup contrasting with the view of the frozen pond and white landscape outside the windows, and Chet Baker in the background, I’m as close to nirvana as one might hope to get. After all the years since Carolyn and I became the caretakers of this 200 year old farm house and the fields and woods that surround it, I’m still struck by its beauty almost every day.
The Nor’easter last weekend left the farm and surrounding woods covered with a frozen white crust and the stream is barely running in one end and out of the opposite of the pond behind the farm house. I can see four deer scouring the woods near the edge of the currant field for one or two buds they may have missed during previous shopping trips. Fortunately, they’re not fond of my currant buds. The local herd is quite large, especially since last year’s non-winter and most of the choice browse is gone. I suspect the amount of winter food is out of balance with the substantial population. They’re left mostly with pine needles and small patches of grass where the winter sun warmed the rocks of a south facing stone wall and melted a bit of snow along its base. They’ve long since had their way with the buds on my fruit trees as far up as they could reach. Occasionally, I see one standing upright on her hind legs to reach a few more. When we pruned the orchard last week, the clipped branches were left on the ground so the deer could take advantage of all those nutritious buds from the tips of the cuttings which were previously out of reach. I imagine they were excited to find this little gift this time of year.

The currant bushes, fruit trees, perennials and surrounding woods all appear to be in deep sleep. The plants have entered a state of dormancy where growth and development cease. While not much is going on during this period, plants are still affected by environmental conditions such as the degree of cold, length of period of chill and available moisture. Often, the winters that do the most damage to plants are those that are very cold and very dry. Cold is not too much of a problem but the combination can be quite wounding. The soils lose moisture to the cold and without sufficient moisture, i.e. snow, the buds and surface roots dehydrate.

During these periods, broad leaf evergreens such as mountain laurel and rhododendrons protect themselves from losing too much moisture by closing their pores, called stomatas, on the bottom of their leaves.

On very cold mornings, the leaves of the rhododendrons look like they’re wilted. This is caused by the stoma closing and the surface of the leaf becoming taught and constricted. If the freezing and dry conditions last unnaturally long, the evergreen leaves and the buds of deciduous plants may be damaged by dehydration, a condition called winter burn. The deep cold and arid air will literally suck the moisture from any fleshy part of the plant.

Have you ever noticed that the seldom used ice cubes in ice cube trays disappear over time or an improperly wrapped piece of fish or meat in your freezer looks shriveled and dry? We call this freezer burn; same thing. Modern freezers have built in dehumidifiers (called frost free freezers) which act the same as the outside environment in extremely cold, dry winters.

On the other hand a sufficient amount of cold is crucial to the life cycle and development of many botanical species. A large group of seeds and plants need a chilling period, called stratification, to stimulate next season’s germination or bud development. This is why one plants tulip, daffodil, onion bulbs and garlic in the Fall. Currant bushes need at least 1,000 hours of below freezing temperatures to set their fruiting buds. This is the reason currants and other fruit such as apples aren’t productive in areas without sufficiently cold winters or in years where winter is not wintery. I get many requests for plants from currant lovers below the Mason-Dixon line and this is the reason we don’t ship there.

Non-winter, where the temperatures remain above freezing most of the season and snow is scarce, such as last year, also present problems beyond just bad fruit set. Last year my fruit trees and many other plants bloomed early only to have their blossoms killed by a normally timed frost. This meant there was no fruit and there were fewer flowers for the bees to pollinate and since the queen honey bee needs protein rich pollen to lay more eggs, there were fewer bees around later in the spring when other plants came into bloom. Fewer bees mean less pollination, less seeds, less plants, and ultimately, less food. Of course this is also true for a whole range of insects which, themselves, would have been a primary source of food for the birds which returned early because of the warm winter.

The tolerances and timing of necessary warmth and cold are amazingly narrow. My currant crop last summer was only 25% of what I would normally expect because of the lack of sufficient chilling during the previous winter. Many people who aren’t as close to the land as farmers often perceive the seasons as simply cold or hot and rainy or snowy without awareness of the necessary variations needed to keep this incredible eco system called Earth in relative balance. Nothing drives me crazier than to hear a meteorologist say something like “What a great stretch of beach weather! 5 weeks in a row without rain!” or “Bad news for those of you that don’t like to shovel snow.” As scientists, they should know better.

There is more awareness today of what a farmer provides than there has been for many years. That’s a very good thing. But there still is a lot of work to be done educating folks to how much the success of a farmer and by extension, the food on our tables, is tied to droughts, floods, diseases and insects or the lack of insects, as in the case of honey bees. Certainly, the vagaries of weather play a major role in these issues. There are those that want mankind to take blame for at least part of the problem. At this stage, I would endorse a positive approach and say we must take responsibility for a solution. With 4 or 5 devastating “storms of the century” in the last few years I think awareness is much less of an issue. We each need to contribute to the change needed.

The chicken soup that we’ll have for dinner this evening is only possible because of the delicate balance of warm, cold, snow, sun and rain. The vegetables, herbs and mushrooms, the chicken’s organic feed, the bees’ raw honey, the glass of dry Riesling I’ll enjoy with the soup, the poached pear I’ll make for desert, and even the firewood, which grew tall and then came down in a storm were all a result and consequence of the wonderful gifts of a climate in relative balance. Before you have dinner tonight, take a moment, close your eyes, stand on one foot and think about farmers. Balance is not without struggle.

Cheers from the farm!


Previous notes from the farm

Greg Quinn
Greg Quinn

In 1999, Greg Quinn, a culinary and horticulture expert, also known as WNYW’s “Garden Guy,” grew interested in black currants and founded CropPharms, located in Clinton, New York, an area in the Hudson Valley well-known for its culinary and farming heritage (the Culinary Institute of America and specialty farms, ranging from garlic and wine to goat cheese, are nearby). Working with leading experts in the field, he decided to attempt to bring back the U.S. black currant industry by first getting the ban lifted in New York State, giving hope to a struggling New York farming industry with the first, potentially-viable crop to come along in more than a half century.

Check out the Walnut Grove Farm website here and check out all the great Currant products grown right here!