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Mud Season

March 24, 2011

In my south-central Pennsylvania garden, winter transitions into a long, gentle spring that is the most delightful of seasons. But in my Maine garden, the only way to get from winter to spring is to pass through the least delightful of seasons – mud season.

The beginning of mud season in my driveway (photo credit: Jean Potuchek) Mud season is created when moisture from snow melt (often accompanied by spring rains) cannot drain away because the ground is still frozen. At first, all this moisture forms large puddles. Then, as the ground begins to thaw, it absorbs moisture, softens and turns to mud. As my neighbors and I drive in and out on our dirt road, the soft ground forms muddy ruts.

Because the ground thaws from the top down, the mud and ruts keep getting deeper and deeper as the thaw continues. I’ve seen a number of estimates of how deep the ground freezes in my part of Maine. One published frost map puts the average frost depth for my area at 36-40”; local building codes (which are designed to deal with worst case conditions) put it at about 4-5’. Once the mud gets deeper than the clearance between the car’s undercarriage and the ground, my road is no longer passable. In the worst mud season I can remember, I couldn’t drive in and out for two weeks; I parked my car on the paved road a quarter mile from my house and slogged through the mud wearing tall rubber boots and a backpack for carrying things. In the best years, while the road may get a bit dicey, it’s never completely impassable.

How bad the mud gets depends on a number of factors.  First is how severe and how prolonged the cold has been in the winter; the colder the winter, the deeper the frost. A second factor is how deep the snow pack is.  In the garden, a deep snow pack provides insulation that lessens the freezing. But the dirt road is kept plowed, so it doesn’t benefit from that protection; here a deep snow pack just means more moisture that has to go somewhere during the thaw. A third important factor is the amount of spring rain; if snow melt is accompanied by heavy rains, the mud will be worse. A final factor is how warm it gets and how quickly the thaw occurs; a faster thaw means fewer days of severe mud. The worst mud seasons are characterized by cold, snowy winters, with heavy rains during the spring thaw, and weeks of temperatures in the forties and low fifties.

Muddy ruts forming on the dirt road (photo credit: Jean Potuchek)Despite our yearly struggles with mud, though, my neighbors and I are lucky because the geology of our area is characterized by glacial sand that is the ultimate “well draining soil.” Once the deepest frost thaws, the moisture drains away and the mud disappears remarkably quickly. For those who live in areas with clay soils, mud can hang on for a long time. But for us mud vanishes in a small miracle each spring. I can slog out through the mud in the morning and return before lunch to a smooth, sandy road that shows no sign of the muddy ruts that were such a problem just hours earlier.

Snow and rain are important to the ecology of Maine, but I’ve never met a Mainer who had anything good to say about mud season. This year, I hope to miss the whole thing. When I was in Maine last week, mud season was just beginning, with much of the moisture still bound up in the snow pack and the ruts in the dirt road only inches deep. I’m hoping that by the time I return in a few weeks, the miracle thaw will have already occurred and mud season will be over.

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23 Comments leave one →
  1. March 24, 2011 11:06 pm

    we get our mud season now too but we have nasty clay soil so it lingers but we don’t sink quite as low as you do in the mud…hoping for warmer dry weather soon…I am weeks behind in my garden this year..

    • March 30, 2011 3:17 pm

      Donna, I’m so grateful that I don’t have clay soil; once the ground thaws, the mud is gone — and I can repress all memory of it until the following year!

  2. March 25, 2011 12:59 am

    Oh I don’t miss this stuff at all. At all! This is why I don’t go up to my cabin in your neck of the woods until May :)! Oh and don’t get me started on those mud accompanying blackflies, little wings on teeth. Yep, May.

    • March 30, 2011 3:20 pm

      Jess, In Maine, mud season is over before blackfly season starts. I don’t know whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing; I could see some advantages getting both these scourges over with at once. On the other hand, I’m trying to imagine slogging up my dirt road through the mud carrying a load of groceries in my arms and also trying to swat away the blackflies. It’s not a pretty picture! Often we get a week or two of perfect gardening weather between the two. But once the blackflies hatch out, the only way I can work in the garden is wearing a full suit of armor netting.

  3. gardeningasylum permalink
    March 25, 2011 6:32 am

    You’re lucky to be absent for the season of mud! The worst part for me is the awful temptation to work in the garden before the soil is properly thawed and drained.

  4. March 25, 2011 7:48 am

    Oh dear, ‘mud season’ is not a season I’ve had to contemplate! Lucky really, as we have heavy clay soil, so I’d dread to think how we’d end up. Looking forward to seeing how things emerge in your garden once the mud has gone on its way!

  5. March 25, 2011 12:05 pm

    When I lived in Vermont, some of the people I knew in rural areas would end up moving into town for a few weeks until mud season was over and the roads were passable again. Ice, snow, and bitter cold were no problem, but mud… It’s very clever of you to avoid it this year. 🙂

    • March 30, 2011 3:28 pm

      Cyndy, This is the one time of year I count myself lucky not to be in Maine. Since my garden (especially the deck border, which is on the north side of the house and in shade much of the day) still has snow in for most of mud season, there is no temptation to get out there and work. Once the snow has melted, I limit myself to spring clean-up to get my gardening fix. Our frost-free date isn’t until late May, so I know I shouldn’t start moving plants or planting tender annuals until Memorial Day.

      Heidi, You can count yourself lucky that you’ve never had to contemplate mud season. It’s not a pleasant thought!

      Stacy, I can easily imagine people in Vermont moving into town until mud season was over, especially given the preponderance of gravel roads in Vermont. It’s one thing for me to walk the quarter mile from the paved road for my house; but if you live 20 miles in on one of Vermont’s gravel “highways,” that’s not really an option.

  6. March 25, 2011 12:06 pm

    Jean, we’ve definitely hit mud season here in the maritimes! Our driveway is a mess and I’ve contemplated wearing rubber boots to the office on several occasions. The good news is that this long slow melt means no flooding. I’ll take mud over flood any day!

  7. March 25, 2011 7:43 pm

    With our recent storms, we’re up to our elbows in mud here too. It’s so sloppy I’ve been avoiding walking the muddy road to the garden. Definitely not my favorite season, but at least the plants were glad for our rain. I hope you get your thaw soon, and your mud subsides.

  8. March 25, 2011 8:44 pm

    Ah, I remember mud season in Maine well from my years of living there. You notice I didn’t say fondly!

  9. March 26, 2011 7:19 am

    Definitely sounds like a season to miss!

    • March 30, 2011 3:35 pm

      Marguerite, I’m sure your mud season is every bit as bad as hours. I’m up on a hill about 40′ higher than the local river, so flooding is not a major concern for me. But, I agree; as nasty as the mud can get, it doesn’t have the destructive power of mud.

      Well, not unless you’re in California, where mud season is a whole different experience and mud can be very destructive indeed. Clare, I well remember the clay soils of the California hills when I lived in Ventura County — like concrete when it was dry and flowing freely when it rained. My first ever glimpse of California was driving up the Pacific Coast Highway from LAX and seeing along the side of the road the foundations of houses that had slid down out of the canyons during winter mudslides!

      Carolyn, LOL, I’m relieved to hear that you don’t have fond memories of mud season in Maine; I would question your sanity if you did.

      Janet, That about sums it up.

  10. March 26, 2011 12:38 pm

    I spent the first 4 years of my life in Northern Canada and those big muddy puddles you describe fill my earliest memories. I remember be distraught because one patch of mud sucked the wellie boot right off my foot. I had to leave it behind and go get my mom in bare feet!

  11. March 26, 2011 2:34 pm

    My old Jeep which I finally disposed of last year had trusty M+S-rated tires, but they never saw much in the way of mud or snow in Southern California to fulfill their destiny.Drive safe. Hopefully you don’t lose too many vehicles into the brown ooze!

  12. Jean Stirrett permalink
    March 26, 2011 9:22 pm

    Hi Jean
    I just couldn’t help writing to another Jean. I garden in Ontario’s cottage country just north of Toronto. We specialize in mud season. It is so cold now that everything is just waiting but then spring will come with a rush. Last year I had primroses out in mid-March. This year there was 2 feet of snow. I guess that’s what makes gardening so much fun.
    I wear a bug shirt for spring gardening. It has made all the difference in my abilityto enjoy the season.
    Happy digging
    Jean

  13. March 27, 2011 2:22 am

    Goodness me! I would never have thought anyone could write anything interesting about mud, but you did. Your mud sound horrendous, and there we are in our little England, coming to a halt with a couple of days of snow.

    I found your blog, because you discovered mine – isn’t the world of Blogging great for that? You are on my list for regular visits now, glad to have found you.

    • March 30, 2011 3:44 pm

      Byddi, It sounds as though you were scarred for life by your close encounter with boot-eating ooze. Fortunately, our sandy soil does not make mud viscous enough for swallowing footwear whole.

      James, If I had a jeep (rather than a compact sedan), I could probably drive in and out for much more of mud season. When my next door neighbor can no longer drive on our road with her Toyota Corolla, she gets her husband to drive her back and forth to work in his pickup truck — until at last the day comes when the pickup can’t make it either.

      Jean, Thanks for visiting. It sounds like your gardening conditions are similar to mine. This year, my southern Pennsylvania garden is behind where my Maine garden was last year at this time. I consider the bug shirt essential equipment for gardening during blackfly season (May-July for us).

      Ronnie, Welcome. I’m away from the mud in southern Pennsylvania at the moment; but even here, we are having temperatures 10-15 degrees (F) below average and spring seems to be in a state of suspended animation.

  14. March 27, 2011 9:35 am

    I hate the mud season! The dogs track mud into the house and cover the kitchen floor with their footprints. Out comes the mop and the floor is clean until the next time that they go out (a few hours later). Still, I can’t complain when I consider that you have to walk to your front door when the roads are impassable. Here’s hoping for a short mud season this spring!

  15. March 29, 2011 3:31 pm

    Hats off to you Maine gardeners. A tough breed surely to hang on to hope through so many tribulations. But when the growth starts….boy, does it go! Hang in there, Jean – Spring will surely follow…

  16. March 29, 2011 4:34 pm

    While I have certainly experienced mud ( we have clay!) I have never had to deal with ‘mud season’ – I’m glad for that! You have to cope with a lot, slogging through all that mud after living through a long, snowy winter! Would you swap it for my sweltering summer?

  17. March 30, 2011 3:50 pm

    Jennifer, I hadn’t thought about the complications of dealing with pets during mud season. Ugh! I’m hoping for a short mud season, too. Because everything has been slowed down by the unusually cold weather, I’m beginning to worry that mud season will be at its worst rather than over when I get back to Maine in a few weeks.

    Chris, LOL, we are a hardy breed. But as sure as sunrise follows the night, spring will come after mud season!

    Deb, Nope; I wouldn’t swap. I don’t mind a long, snowy winter, but I can’t handle heat at all. I start to wilt when the temps get up to 80F (is that in February for you?). Living in a place where it’s front page news if the thermometer hits 90 three days in a row in July or August suits me just fine.

  18. Lula (onbotanicalphotography.blogspot.com) permalink
    April 4, 2011 1:33 pm

    This comment is very late, so I hope the mud season is ending soon, It’s sounds really annoying! Lula

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