Insanely warm February: We love you. We hate you.
It’s a little delicious, right? A record-breaking-temperature February is a fast-forward through the worst month of the year straight into park picnics and spring.
But warm February is also a little off, like a haunted doll’s unhinged smile.
Gardeners are among the most freaked out by the weather.
“It’s frightening. I’ve never seen this before,” said Scott Aker, head of horticulture at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Arboretum. In his 20 years on the job, he’s witnessing a first.
“The lilacs have broken bud,” he said.
This has been a bizarre month, where thousands of high-temperature records have been set nationwide. It was 79 in Nebraska and 74 in Moline, Ill. Dallas has hit 80 degrees 11 times.
As my colleague Jason Samenow at the Capital Weather Gang put it: “The weather this February keeps getting weirder.”
These are high times for winter haters, but even a lot of them are unnerved by what we’re witnessing. Maybe it’s just a blip, but it’s also a reminder of global warming. All the evidence supporting climate change is there, no matter what the deniers in Congress and the White House claim or what is erased from government websites. Glaciers are receding, ocean levels have risen almost seven inches across the globe and the water is warmer, Arctic ice is melting and carbon dioxide levels are off the charts. Abnormal weather patterns are everywhere. It’s 70 degrees in the nation’s capital during the same winter that my California home town has gotten 25 feet of snow.
Still, it’s hard for people to be anything but happy when they get to ditch their North Face in February.
In Washington, the arboretum is hopping like never before. There are early-flowering cherry trees and Japanese apricots already in full, gaudy blossom. And people are outside. Walking, strolling, hiking during a month when they’re usually entombed indoors and under blankets, dormant.
“It was never busy in February,” Aker said.
Snow and ice. That’s February.
“I’m inside, snow’s on the ground, there was never any planting in February,” said Maggie Wiles, who worked as a landscaper in D.C. for 40 years before arriving at her spot behind the counter at Greenstreet Gardens in Tracys Landing, Md.
“Now we’re in 70 degrees, and a woman came in the other day with a big, long list of stuff she wanted to plant,” Wiles said. “I just had to say: ‘No. No, you can’t.’ ”
Because all it takes is one freeze, one March frost and all those plants are kaput. It’s over. Every gardener has a March freeze horror story. That’s why they stockpile blankets and plastic sheets so they can swaddle vulnerable plants when the temperature drops, Aker said. They monitor the weather forecasts slavishly.
But the optimists can’t help themselves. They crunch that gravel in the parking lot and burst through the nursery doors, itchy trowel fingers twitching. It’s warm. Their knitting projects are set aside. They want to plant.
“Chill.” That’s what Margaret Tearman, who handles the nursery sales and design at Greenstreet Gardens, tells them. “Mother Nature is not done with us yet.”
So on Tuesday, seeing the string of totally bizarre 70-degree days in the forecast and besieged by the eager beavers, Tearman ordered up a bunch of primroses and some pansies to offer up to this weekend.
“Pruning. We tell them to do their pruning now if they want to get outside,” Tearman said. “Or do your deadheading.”
She added: “If they need to plant, they can bunch the primroses in close. But anything tender? Nope.”
Some local big-box stores read the forecasts and already put out armies of fruit trees and herbs ready for planting. And that’s heresy for hard-core gardeners — like Christmas decorations out in October.
“No, we don’t do that until March,” Wiles said.
People and lilacs are seduced by a warm February. Ditch the puffy jacket, break the winter shells; hello, sunshine and 73!
But there’s more at stake than a frozen blossom when you celebrate Warm February.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture had to shift the planting map five years ago, moving botanical hardiness zones because of the changing temperature trends.
More change on that map is decades out, but it’s coming. That’s hard to deny.
What does it mean right now? The small monthly shifts disrupt the natural rhythms in all of us — plants and animals.
Without the deep, long cold that they’re used to, the bonsai in Aker’s arboretum have timid growth years. They need that full shutdown, the prolonged cold to come back stronger and heartier, with more vigor.
That pattern might hold for people, too, Aker said.
“It’s good for everyone to slow down a bit. All of us in this town, we’re all so Type A, we don’t ever slow down,” he said. “But we all need some dormancy. You can’t be vigorous and healthy without a little dormancy. We all need that. And I can see it’s not happening the way it needs to. Here at the arboretum, or in this town.”
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