On a trip to Washington this past February, it seemed strange to see (Anna’s) hummingbirds coming to the feeders. Here in Colorado, we aren’t so lucky. The species we enjoy here depart in the fall and don’t return until the end of April—or even later. Still, I’ll be brewing up some sugar water soon. I typically hang my feeders around April 25, just in case some early arrivals show up in the backyard. (When temperatures dip below freezing, I take the feeders in for the night, then warm them a bit for the birds’ breakfast.)
Here it is noon on Saturday, and it’s currently -5 outside. Everyone is talking about the weather—especially because yesterday the temperature soared to 60 degrees. The entire country is shivering. Adding to the discussion is the fact that today is our local Christmas Bird Count. Hardy birders are out counting even hardier birds. Brrrr!
While the frigid conditions outside seem unusual for our area, an arctic cold front isn’t actually all that rare. Please go back to 2013 and see what I had to say then about Cold Brrrrrds! I think it is appropriate for today as well.
We have a lot of snow in our front yard. It may not seem like much to those who live in Minnesota, upstate New York, or Maine, but for us here along the Front Range of the Rockies, it’s a lot of snow. Colorado is dry. Colorado is sunny. We don’t get all that much snow, and what we do get melts the next day. The “real” snow is supposed to stay up on the ski slopes, not in our front yards.
When we picked out a lot for our new house, we were thinking about a longer growing season from our south-facing backyard, the spectacular view of Pikes Peak out the living room picture windows, the warmth of sunshine filling our bedroom. We carefully oriented our house to take advantage of all these.
As temperatures dipped into the negative numbers last week, I started wondering—how do wild birds, some no bigger than my fist, manage to stay warm in such frigid conditions? Of course, some bird avoid the problem by migrating, but plenty of birds winter right here in Colorado. I already knew that birds eat more when the weather is cold; my need to constantly refill the bird feeder is proof enough. The suet feeder, with all that high-calorie fat, empties even faster. But could a higher metabolism be enough to carry such seemingly fragile puffballs through a Colorado winter? I decided to find out.
As I write this, the sky is a brilliant blue, the sun is shining, and the thermometer in my garden reads a pleasant 55 degrees. However, only two weeks ago my plants were subjected to a frigid minus 17, and tomorrow’s high is supposed to barely pass freezing. It’s only February, with plenty of winter yet to come. Sometimes I wonder, how do my shrubs and perennials manage to survive such extremes?
In most years, the parts of the country that experience arctic temperatures also have a significant amount of snow. While we think of snow as very cold, it actually acts as an insulating blanket in our gardens, keeping the soil temperature relatively stable—often not much lower than 32. Then, during warm spells, such as we’re experiencing this week, that snow keeps the ground frozen. Plants stay dormant, and the roots stay buried.
Brrrrr. I woke up this morning to -17 degrees (that’s Fahrenheit!), and the weather folks are predicting cold and more cold. While I ventured out to refill the bird feeders, and I need to dig out the car later (something about mailing Christmas gifts), for the most part I can snuggle up at home, with the thermostat in the 60s and a cup of warm tea defrosting me from the inside out.
The birds aren’t so lucky.
After waiting your turn for the shower, you finally get your chance. You turn on the water, adjust the temperature, and step under the warm spray… which suddenly turns freezing cold as the hot water heater runs out of water. Yikes!
We don’t enjoy a sudden dousing of icy water. Neither do our plants. They may not look startled (how does a bean plant look startled?), but the cold water abruptly chills the soil and slows their growth. Since our growing season here in Colorado is often too short to begin wth, pouring cold water on our plants is to be avoided.
Are you staring out the window, watching the snowflakes, and desperately wanting to plant something? Guess what—you can! It may be too early to start tomatoes and broccoli, but lettuce seedlings can handle the cold with a little protection. So pull out the recycled six-packs and potting soil, soak your peat pots, and clear some space on the counter. It’s planting time!
I’ve written several posts about starting seeds (see April 2009 for the basics, or choose “Gardening: Starting Seeds” under Categories, in the upper left of the screen), so I won’t go over all that again. Rather, I’d like to encourage you to push the limits and experiment a bit. Most seed packets contain far more seeds than a home gardener is likely to use, so you can afford to take a few chances.