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Little Winters

There's a nip in the air.

Last week after temperatures were near the 70’s, the temperature dropped and we had a snow. This was what the old timers referred to as a “litter winter”. I heard people ask, “What winter is this, it is too early for blackberry vines to be blooming?” We may not know which winter we are experiencing but we know that it will last a few days and then we’ll be back to warm temperatures again.

Before the days of modern weather forecasting, the porch of the country store was where one received weather information. Farmers relied on nature for weather forecasting and to help them with planting crops and gardens. Predicting spring cold snaps, in particular, could make the difference between success and failure. If you planted too early, a cold snap could undo your hard work. But waiting too long could mean not having a long enough time to grow before the first freeze.

If you don’t like our weather, stick around, it will be different tomorrow.

I’ve learned in later years that these store porch predictions were a bit more scientific than I thought. These predictions were based on centuries of country-folk observing nature’s phenomenon, noting when certain plants leafed out and bloomed, when migratory birds appeared, when temperatures cooled or warmed, which taught important lessons about the unpredictable weather of spring. From March into May, some days are summer-like and others threaten frost.

Farmers also kept journals noting the weather and other phenomena, allowing them to increase their harvest and thus their income. Their observations in the shift from winter cold to summer heat revealed noticeable changes that happened year after year. The farmers that I knew did not have a fancy leather journal but they journaled every day. They used the calendar to record changes in the weather and many days that included the temperature for the day. These calendars were saved and referred to regularly.

Through such observations year after year, farmers knew to wait before planting cold sensitive crops such as corn, tobacco, and cotton. The knowledge could save them from disastrous losses and increase the yields from their labor.

Little Winters occur earlier in the season than the old-timers observed.

Little Winters dates vary in different parts of the country.

I will discuss seven little winters that I have heard from the store porch. Some of these may be unknown to the reader. As climate change has brought warmer temperatures, the little winters of Tennessee now occur two to three weeks earlier in the season than observed in the 19th and 20th century.

Little Winters

Sarvis Winter- In mid-March the Serviceberry trees and bushes bloom. The white blooms from the Sarvis Bush were used in church service celebrating the return of the circuit riding preacher. The Serviceberry bush, as it was called, was sometimes called “June Bush” because red berries appeared in June.

Redbud Winter- By early April in our area, we were having a few warm days. People were enjoying the sunshine and began work in the yard and garden. Beautiful flowers and gardening plants were appearing in the stores. But the true Southerner knew then and knows now, that Redbud Winter is on the way. After a few warm days, the redbuds start to bloom and we get a “little winter” again. Only the hardiest crops can be planted before this cold snap.

Dogwood Winter- Redbud Winter passes and we get several warm days. People get anxious to put something in the ground, after all it has been warm for several days and it is late April. The gardener who wishes to be the first in the neighborhood to have flowers bloom, puts a few plants in the ground. The experienced gardener/farmer knows that when the redbuds bloom, we get a “little winter” again. In fact, it is not uncommon to have a killing frost during Dogwood Winter.

I remember old-timers sitting on the store porch and discussing how their grandparents used the passing of Dogwood Winter as a sign that it was time to plant corn.

My Dad laughed and commented that the best March and April farming was done on the store porch “Just talking about it”. I recall the ladies sitting by the fire and studying the seed catalogs that came in the mail. My grandmother’s seed catalogs had pages dog-eared and directions for replanting circled. Somehow, they knew that the best farming in March and April was planning.

For my grandmother and her friends', spring planting was the culmination of winter months of poring over gardening catalogs. They did not stroll through the aisles of the local nursery and randomly choose a plant. Each selection was properly vetted for size, blooming potential, and compatibility with the other flowers in the flowerbed. In the unfortunate event that one of these ladies had to sell her home and move, proper gardening preparations were made. The yard looked like a dog had lost his bone and was digging for it. Many flowers, bulbs, and shrubs were removed to be replanted at the location of the new home or in a loved one's yard. Martha Stewart’s spring gardening could not compare to the flower garden campaign of these Southern ladies.

Locust Winter- This “little winter” is less known and the timing a bit controversial, some say it comes before Dogwood Winter. As April becomes May and the leaves start to appear on the Locust trees, expect a cold snap. It could even be May 1 and you need a jacket at night. The old-timers sitting on the store porch tell of times that there were snow flurries in the morning and warm sunny afternoons.

Blackberry Winter- This is probably the most widely known of all the winters. Old- timers knew that blackberry vines had to have a cold snap to set the buds on the vines. It would be cold when the vines first starting blooming. When this “little winter” appeared in early May, it was not as harsh as the earlier winters. The soil was warmer and drier, plants were not in danger. By the time of Blackberry Winter, a killing frost was not a worry.

The best store porch stories involved the exception to the rule. They usually started, “Now let me tell you about the Blackberry Winter of …..............and on and on, with weather oddities.” I never knew how much of the stories to believe but they were entertaining.

Cotton Britches Winter- Some city folk refer to this as “Linsey-Woolsey” but on the farm in the South it was Cotton Britches Winter. By late May when the times of cool nights have passed, it is time to put away long johns and get out the cotton britches. This winter name came from the days of wearing homespun clothing, by late May one could put away the wool pants and get out the cotton britches.

When I was young and heard family members discuss the “little winters”, I noticed that they had to do with nature, a plant, vine, or tree. They tell stories of me going to the woods, looking for a cotton britches plant.

Whippoorwill Winter- The last cold spell occurs in early June when the whippoorwills return from Mexico. It is not as cold, doesn't last as long, and doesn’t damage plants. It is however a wonderful time to build an outdoor fire and enjoy a brisk cool evening.

Blackberry Winter is the most well-known and maybe that is because we know after the vines bloom, we’ll have berries and by July, we’ll have fresh blackberry cobbler. If you’ve ever picked blackberries, you know about the chiggers. Well, that’s another story.

“Little Winters” or warm days, Historic Granville sites are open Wednesday- Friday 11AM-3PM and Saturday 11AM- 5PM. Now with that said, there are always exceptions; Sutton General Store opens at 8:30 for breakfast. Plan on lunch at Sutton Store 11AM-2PM, country cooking, sandwich specials, and homemade desserts. If you’re lucky, they will serve blackberry cobbler.

In Granville this is the year of “Untold Stories: If These Hills Could Talk. Would you please share with us any stories of “little winters”?

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