Spring time mud in January?

January 2012

muddy track

Spring time mud in Maine usually arrives in mid-late March and is a sure sign that Old Man Winter has given up on making our lives miserable, or at least for those of us who see winter as a cold, dormant time of year when nothing grows but the fuel bill.

Mud Season, as we call it ’round he-ya’, is the time when the days are getting a little longer, the sun a little stronger and the temperature gets above freezing during the day. This causes the snow to start melting and run off to start puddling up everywhere you go.

spring time mud in Maine

Tipicditocreps.” That’s not a dinosaur but a scientific term applied to a soil (a clay type) that is widespread in the state. Samantha Langley-Turnbaugh is a professor of Environmental Science and policy at the University of Southern Maine. She says certain properties of the clay favor production of the sticky stuff, unlike other soil types.

“You get mud when the water can’t infiltrate into the soil fast enough, if you have very sandy soil water can run off so you never have mud. You need water staying on the surface of the soil, if run-off is greater than infiltration, that’s when you get mud.”

Why is this important…, it’s only January, and it hasn’t snowed in weeks, so why am I talking about spring time mud?

Since wrapping the hoop house in plastic on December 23, I have been waiting, checking and recording. Waiting for the right time to plant some seeds, checking the hoop house soil to see it if was warm and DRY and recording the day and night temperatures. I knew that it would take a few weeks for the ground to warm up but I didn’t expect the soil to turn to mud!

Well of course, why wouldn’t it be mud season in the hoop house. The temperature inside was rising above freezing everyday and the moisture in the ground had nowhere to go with the ground being frozen outside. By putting up the hoop house in December, I had created my own mud season in January. How ’bout that!

On cloudy days, when the daytime high reached 29.4 outside, it was 33.3 inside. On sunny days, when it reached 36.7 outside, it was 60.4 inside. Pretty impressive sun power, I think. Something would surely grow with these temperatures. However, it was the night-time temperatures that concerned me. Several night recordings showed temperatures around 18.1 outside and only 23.9 inside.

hoop house with two layers of plastic

On January 8th, we decided to add a second layer of plastic to the inside of the hoop house. A majority of hoop houses are built with two layers of plastic on the outside with an inflation fan that keeps the space between them filled with air. The inflated space between the two layers of plastic serves as a layer of insulation. I didn’t have a power source out in the garden nor did I want to run a power cord out there to run an inflation fan. Seeing that there was almost always some air moving up here on the ridge, I figured we could use the wind to our advantage.

Adding the plastic on the inside was a bit of a chore, no, better said, it was a chore. Something that should have been attempted with four people instead of two. We spread the plastic out and worked our way under it while trying not to let too much of it resting on the mud. That might have been the easy part.

While I tried to hold one edge of the plastic up to the top of end wall with two hands, Jamie tried screwing a strip of wood to the collar-tie (piece of tubing running across from one side to the other)  to secure it. Nothing was going well. I was standing on my tippy-toes and getting tired. I couldn’t keep the plastic straight with the weight of the remaining plastic hanging down across my back. My arms were aching, and Jamie was having trouble holding the plastic and the strip of wood with one hand while aligning the screw bit and screw with the other. Funniest home video, maybe, but it wasn’t funny at the time. Once we got the first strip in place, the other ones got a little easier  but still not having fun. At least when we got to the side walls it didn’t feel like we were trying to fight our way out of a deflated plastic bubble.

making adjustments

Okay, so with the second layer of plastic in place, I thought the mud would be a thing of the past. Eventually, the ground would absorb the water, or it would evaporate during the day, right? Mmm…no, not so right. After several warm days nothing had changed, in fact, things got worse. Condensation was building up on the inside and raining down like a spring shower on a sunny day. Nothing but squishy mud from end to end. At night, the muddy ground would freeze, making the inside temperature colder than it was before we put the second layer of plastic up. Frustration was setting in.

I went to the internet, thinking I could find a remedy. Surely, someone out there must have encountered this problem before. A quick Google search for ‘mud in the hoop house’, ‘muddy hoop house’, ‘spring mud in the hoop house’, got me nothing but “The Mud House Cafe”, a song called “Mud in the house”, and houses built with mud. I was beginning to think putting up a hoop house in December was not such a good idea after all.

Then I relied upon some prior knowledge.

In years past, I remembered having a spot in the yard that I wanted to utilize for a garden  but it did not drain well. I had brought in some railroad timbers and raised the growing area with 6-8 inches of soil. This proved to be a good solution. Although, I didn’t want to bring timbers into the hoop house, I could certainly move the soil (the mud) around to resemble three raised beds. It was nearing my first planting date. I needed this to work, or I’d have to be defeated until the real spring mud season past.

What fun, what fun, workin' the mud.

With hoe in hand, I entered the hoop house and closed the door with a good pull to latch it. Immediately, several large droplets of water hit my head. I looked at the plastic overhead laden with hanging water droplets and then to the ground below. I could see boot impressions in the mud from the last time I came in to check for improvements.  Another drip fell silently and hit the soil leaving a pot-mark in the mud. With a sigh, I began in one corner, hoeing the soil away from the side wall. By the time I reach the other end (20 ft stretch), I had sweat dripping off my brow. Laborest work, it’s good for the soul, and the heart! It drives my ambition. Mud or no mud, I would get to the end of the this!

I took a tape measure from my pocket and measured 30 inches from the ridge I had just made. Working back in the other direction I dug with the hoe and pulled the dirt up towards the middle forming a raised piled of lumpy dirt. In some spots the ground was more like taffy then it was pudding. It didn’t want to move without my insistent demand to conquer the force of spring-time like mud.

I worked from one end to the other, while the wind outside shook the droplet down upon my head, playing a tune something like Tommy Petty’s song, I Won’t Back Down“I’ll stand my ground and I won’t back down. Hey baby, there ain’t no easy way out, I won’t back down.”

When I was through, I had managed to

raised bed with row cover

make three raised beds, 18 ft long, 30 inches wide and raised 4 inches high with a 10 inch path between them. If this worked like I had imagined, the raised beds would dry out and any remaining moisture could gather in the pathway or along the sides.

1/25/12 Update: It worked! My persistence paid off. In just a matter of days, the soil was moist but not wet. We made some wickets (arches for support) and added the row cover. With the addition of the row cover, the temperature beneath the cover will be as much as 10 degrees warmer than the air temperature in the hoop house. It’s like giving the soil a nice cozy blanket. three row coversSmiles galore from me and the soil!

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2 thoughts on “Spring time mud in January?

  1. Nice Blog, Just wanted to tell you that the image you used of the hoop house is NOT an example of two layers of plastic. It is at my farm. We built the bigger high tunnel over the smaller one. Then we took the smaller one down and moved it to a new location. We did this because the big tunnel was built in Nov-February and we still had winter crops growing in the small one. Just thought I would share.
    Jay

    • Thanks for sharing. Yes, we do not have the traditional two layers of plastic but as you know there are many ways to accomplish the same protective layer.

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