Officially, spring arrives in the United States on March 20. Spring comes early along the Gulf Coast though, and gardeners shouldn’t be too eager to plant just yet. A few warm days toward the end of February has prompted many, this gardener included, to jump the gun and begin putting in tender plants.
Even thought the USDA has published cold hardiness zones, and has projections for last frost, the parameters are quite large. For instance, the USDA indicates that absolute last frost date in region 9A (which includes a great deal of the Gulf Coast) is March 20. However, there are very few years when we had a frost that late. Not to say it can’t happen, The average risk for last frost in our area is March 1, although it may be a little later in the northern part of the county.
Before you start putting in tender tomato seedlings you might want to wait until nature tells you it’s actually springtime. Here are some indicators that herald the real arrival of spring:
The birds are singing
Backyard birds are one of the best indicators that springtime has arrived. Birds are extremely sensitive to weather. Bluebirds, for instance, are good harbingers. As the old poem goes: “Bluebirds are a sign of spring and gentle south breezes they bring.”
Other “early birds include the American golden plover, the purple martin although they sometimes arrive before the last frost, barn swallow and yellow-throated warbler. Check out the Audubon website or Cornell Ornithology website for identifications of these birds.
Doves (white-wing, mourning and Aztec, begin their cooing mating rituals in the backyard and elsewhere. Carolina wrens and pileated woodpeckers begin visiting trees in the neighborhood.
In about a week, begin looking for buds on your trees. Willows, pecans, and silver maples are good examples of early spring budding. Eastern and Texas redbuds are also early bloomers. These attractive trees bloom from the branches before leafing out and create a wonderful show with their tiny pink blossoms.
Many magnolias also begin blooming in very early spring. Star magnolias, saucer magnolias, Jane magnolias (tulip tree) and lily magnolias are some species that herald spring.
Flowering dogwoods are also an early indication of spring.
Some say that Carolina jessamine is the first harbinger of spring. With its golden yellow flowers climbing up leafless white oaks, sweet gum and our evergreen yaupon, it sends quite a message if you’re looking for it. Find it in wooded areas.
Another early spring bloomer is the pitcher clematis. Unlike its showy cousins, it sports a small purple flower- about the size of a 50-cent piece – resembling an upside-down pitcher. It grows in heavily wooded areas.
If you’re lucky enough to live in an area where there are lightning bugs, know that these glowing insects are also an indication that true spring has arrived. Lightning bugs spend the winter as larvae munching on worms and other small invertebrates in soft moist soil. Highly sensitive to temperatures, they are a good indication that spring has arrived.
If you like to fish, largemouth bass bedding earlier than usual is also a good sign of an early spring. Largemouth bass go to shallow water to spawn when the daytime temperatures are consistently past the mid-60s and hits 70, and nighttime temperatures stay above the low 60s. Crappie also move to the shallows when bass begin bedding. If you like saltwater fishing, black drum begin spawning after the last freeze, when temperatures stay consistently around 65 degrees.
When winecups, Indian paintbrush, and bluebonnets begin flowering earlier than usual, that’s also an indication that spring has arrived. Although it’s too late to plant wildflowers now in Montgomery County – make a note in your calendar now to plant them next fall.
People can also inadvertently be good harbingers of spring as well. Seeing more people in the parks, more kids playing outdoors, more bicyclists, more hikers and more backyard barbecues? Keep your eyes open for these events in your neighborhood. Although we all like to follow calendars, many of us respond instinctively to the weather.