Vernal Equinox March 20: Spring has sprung

March 20th was the Vernal Equinox: in other words, spring officially commenced on Monday of this week.

The signs are everywhere. As I write, “our” herd of 5 deer are grazing in our western field. Now that the snow has gone from the fields, they are venturing out from the protection of the woods.

Fortunately, they haven’t destroyed our apple orchard, although we admit there are a few nibbles here and there.

One week ago we decided it was time to prune these trees. This is an early spring task that gives much pleasure as we are helping nature along by creating an airy, open tree structure. We take care to prune branches that are damaged in any way, that are rubbing against another branch -- or that have been munched by deer. Not coincidentally, the pruning creates a tree that is easier to pick.

Most of our trees are cider apples, with alluring names such as Purple Passion. Its leaves are a deep purple colouration, the blossoms are dark pink, and the flesh of the fruit is a beautiful deep crimson. The name well-describes the plant.

Last year, we were at home for the blossom period, but were out west when the fruit started to set. We decided to ask the couple who were looking after our farm to cut all the sets off the apple trees. This is something we have done for the past several years, in order to concentrate the growth energy into the trees’ root system.

We believe this treatment has benefited them immensely. In the past few years they have grown sturdy, hopefully as a combined result of pruning, removing the fruit sets, and irrigation.

This year we are not travelling for an extended period of time during the summer, so we will leave the sets and allow the fruit to mature. It will be an interesting experiment, to see the different types of apples, note the yield, and compare one variety with another. All of the trees are heritage species which we procured from an orchard west of Montreal.

Eric installed a drip irrigation system involving a network of underground piping that he and a young friend installed years ago, and which works from a remote well. Eric rented a trencher and went to work laying the pipe, bringing water from a back field into the orchard site.

We selected the orchard location because of relative proximity to the house, and shelter from the eastern and northern winds. Our attempt to create a western windrow with poplar trees failed: only one transplanted poplar tree has actually taken hold.

Our primary concern regarding location was with the soil. Where we live, the soil is extremely sandy and the orchard was planted in an area that has 18 feet of sand. Hence, irrigation was critical to the success of our project. Planting in sandy soil means that the tree roots won’t be sitting in water, but a friable, loamy soil would be preferable to the sand that we have.

Nonetheless, as anyone who is in the business of growing anything knows (whether it might be fields of crops or a small vegetable plot) conditions are never perfect, are they? Just as you do, I am sure, we wander about our property, examining how our precious plants are coping with their growing environment. And, here and there, we take pleasure in making adjustments and testing this and that technique.

It is not just the orchard area that inspires our attention these days. Our perennial, vegetable and herb beds are also beckoning us now that the snow has receded. To be sure, we’ll probably get more snow, but our early spring melt now exposes all of the gardens that we have. For instance, I cannot help walking about, looking for the first crocus.

Because the melt is so early, I need to practise more patience. It is tempting to start pulling at grasses and weeds that I did not get around to cleaning up last year. But experience and the wisdom gleaned from gardening books and fellow gardeners teach me that it is best not to disrupt the soil at this early date. It is far too easy to damage the roots of an adjacent plant, or create air pockets that can introduce pests into the root systems.

Talking about pests, one of the critters that has invaded our garden this year is a mole. The characteristic cones of freshly dug earth indicates its presence and one day, we actually saw the earth moving as the underground tunneler was doing its job. It amused us no end to see Tigger, our calico cat who is a great huntress, intently watching the earth move. Occasionally she extended her paw to pat the moving dirt. We’ll have to see whether she successfully dispatches the mole.

Yes, there are many signs of spring. On March 20th, I noticed that the pussy willows are out. And today, the grackles and redwings are bossily intimidating the smaller birds from the feeders. I have made a mental note to stop stocking some of my feeding stations, so as not to encourage these bullies.

I’m sure you all have similar stories, and are enjoying signs of spring.


Thanks to reader Doug Brandy, I can share a tip about suet feeders with you. A regular correspondent by e-mail, he wrote to say how he avoids the use of plastic netting with suet.


Katharine Fletcher is a freelance writer enjoying her home north of Quyon. Contact her at