Since I arrived in the mid-valley, more than a decade ago, I've become a convert to the charms of February.
Growing up in Montana, I had a completely different take on February: It was a miserable slog, the month you had to endure to get to March — not that March necessarily offered any relief. February was the month you spent shivering in your car waiting for it to warm up. February was the month when you were most likely to encounter stretches of black ice while driving. February was the month when the clouds laid siege to the valley in a never-ending vista of gray — well, I guess that happens here as well.
Otherwise, though, February in the mid-valley is a different beast entirely. This is the month when crocuses and witch hazel and primroses and camellia bushes burst into radiant life. (The camellia bush outside my front door is having an all-star season this year.) This is the month when you can hear the nightly roar of Pacific chorus frogs calling out for mates. This is the month when gardeners get serious about planning. (In fact, Kym Pokorny of Oregon State University's Extension Service says that gardeners already are getting outdoors this month to do some early planting.)
Except I'm worried about this February. It's too nice. It's too warm. It's too dry. Gardeners shouldn't be able to get out and dig through the dirt in February; instead, they should be flocking to garden shows and paging through catalogs and making notes about what they'll do when they finally get the chance to get outdoors.
As much as I hate to admit this, what we need is a burst of nasty Montana-style weather in the next few weeks to dump plenty of snow in our mountains, and if that means we get some snow on the valley floor, I'm fine with that.
But experts say that's not likely to happen.
Laurel McCoy of the National Weather Service office in Portland said that February in the mid-valley is part of "what's supposed to be our wet season. We just aren't seeing that this year," with conditions that are warmer and drier than usual.
Furthermore, "the outlook doesn't look great for the rest of the month," she said, at least in terms of moisture. Forecasters are predicting below-normal precipitation and temperatures at or above normal for the rest of the month.
And once the calendar moves to mid-February, she said, it's unlikely for the region to get socked with a big winter storm of such intensity that it dumps snow on the valley floor. Which means that it's unlikely that I'll be treated to the sight of longtime mid-valley drivers trying to make their way through even a skiff of snow on the roads. ("Skiff," being a word that usually goes along with the word "snow," is rarely used around here.)
It also means that we could be in for a long and dry summer. It's the mountain snowpack, after all, that provides a good measure of the water we use in the mid-valley for agriculture and recreation. A healthy snowpack also helps to diminish, to some extent, the risk of wildfire in our forests.
So it's not good news that snowpack in the region is well below average. In fact, the Willamette basin has only about 35 percent of its normal snow water equivalent.
And it's not so much that we're not getting moisture, although Oregon has received just 88 percent of its normal precipitation so far this season. It's that so little of it has fallen as snow; we've gotten only about 40 percent of our typical snowfall.
Even gardeners, who are generally delighted that they can get an early start this season, are taking note of what could be drought conditions when summer arrives. There's increasing interest in drought-resistant varieties.
But gardeners need to remember to pay attention to proper irrigation even of drought-resistant plants, Pokorny advised, especially when those plants are getting started. "New plants need to get established," she said. And gardeners planting in wet soil should remember that they don't need to compact the soil when first planting. "Don't stomp," Pokorny advised. "Just put the dirt in."
At the risk of irritating excited gardeners, it wouldn't be bad if that dirt stayed too wet through February and well into March. It wouldn't be bad if ski areas managed to enjoy a late-season comeback with plenty of new powder. I'd be willing to deal with snow on the valley floor. Because, at this point, a too-nice February could lead to a long, hot summer. (mm)