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Growing expectations of spring

Notwithstanding Friday’s relatively balmy air, winter really doesn’t seem to have gotten the hint.

Oh sure, there are some 40s in next week’s forecast, but mostly it looks like the cold will be sticking around for at least another week or two.

On the other hand, that bodes well for the risk of catastrophic floods that could come of a heat wave and quick thaw.

So it goes for those who rely on the weather gods — they’re really just jokesters — and have had to accept good news and bad news that aren’t always delivered in equal measure.

If you’re like a lot of us, you’re pretty darn ready to get out and poke around in the dirt. Usually by this time of year, we’ve at least been able to prune a branch or two, or rake out dried plant matter on the garden beds. I haven’t caught a glimpse of my beds since sometime in November.

You don’t need me to tell you that we’re all plenty crabby about the weather, and unable to do a darn thing about it. So let’s look at the bright side, at least to the extent we can.

So how about those tulips? What tulips, you ask? Exactly. They’re staying below ground, which is right where they belong until spring gets closer.

For those of us who are beyond-ready to see some green things, however, the news is mixed.

Scott Kobal, plant ecologist for the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, pointed out in a news release that temperature is what fuels flora. “If cold temperatures linger, we may only have a brief blooming period, but moderate spring temperatures added to the abundant moisture could create a spectacular show in DuPage County’s woodlands in April and May,” he said.

Good news and bad news.

Homeowners, unfortunately, are likely to become all too familiar with the concept in the coming weeks.

“What we’ve been hearing is a couple different things,” said a master gardener with the University of Illinois Extension I talked to Thursday; they aren’t supposed to give out their names. “One thing is I’ve heard that the ground is frozen like three or four feet (down).”

That could mean areas around streets and other plowed places, he said, where the snow has been removed and the brutal cold has gotten to the soil around those areas. In the backyard, most of the snow that came down at the very start of the season, before the mercury ducked way below zero, is still there.

“Because of that insulating layer there, the frost hasn’t penetrated as deep as we had thought,” he said.

So here’s the bad news: that same snow may also have protected the larvae of the emerald ash borer and its cousin, the long-nosed beetle, which also has a taste for hardwoods. Only thaw will tell.

There’s more.

“Right now, when spring does come and you get all this snow melt, we should have a lot of moisture in the soil,” the gardener said. “Because of that, you may have to put things off a little bit. You really can’t plant in the mud.”

Good for the soil, bad for the eager gardener.

Recent reports suggesting that the Great Lakes are still pretty much just one gigantic ice floe don’t bode well for an early spring, either. The gradual melting there will keep the air cooler than we’d like.

“The sun’s not going to be able to warm up the water at all, so that may be an effect too,” he said.

But hey, the big lakes’ water levels are about 20 inches above where they were last year.

They’re still well below their norm, thanks to droughts in recent seasons, but it’s an improvement.

If spring fever has hit you hard, there are things you can do. The gardener said the soil can be tricked into warming up a little sooner if you put a layer of black plastic over its surface, to make the most of the warmth that comes from the sun.

Should spring arrive in hot-and-cold fashion, which seems plausible this year, putting seeds into containers will enable gardeners to bring them inside when Jack Frost acts up.

“There’s always a potted garden,” he said. “That makes it mobile.”

Mostly, I would guess we’d all do well to keep our expectations in check. I was hoping the gardener would give me cause to think otherwise, but no such luck.

“I think it’s going to be really rough,” he said.

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