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By Staff | Apr 3, 2009

There is much discussion hereabouts nowadays as to what is the “proper” time to plant gardens and crops. This is a topic that’s taken very seriously, eliciting as much thought and debate as the naming of a first-born child.

One of the easiest-to-read signs that spring has come is the arrival of certain birds. That’s all fine and dandy, but let’s face it, birds can be rather, well, bird-brainish.

How many times have we seen endless streams of geese flowing northward in early spring, honking as if to say, “Yippe! Spring is here! Par-tay!”

And how many times have we watched those same geese hightail it south a few days later, pushed by a sub-zero wind gushing down from the Arctic? Except the geese are now honking in a manner that seems to say “Whose stupid idea was it to head north this early?!”

I recall a spring not so many years ago when it appeared that we would get an early jump on the season’s planting. We had even pulled the grain drill out and were getting ready to sow oats – tame oats, that is; not the other kind.

A riotous rabble of robins bolstered our belief that spring had indeed arrived early. Then came the blizzard.

The three-day snowstorm left the prairie encased in a stark white blanket. The robins had no choice but to bunker in the trees and tough it out.

As soon as the storm ended, we commenced snow removal operations. Dad used the loader to bust a path to the grain bins. In the process, he also exposed a swath of bare earth.

That swath of bare dirt immediately filled with robins.

Many female robins seemed to be scolding certain other robins, all of whom seemed to be male. It’s as if the females were saying “You idiot! It was your stupid idea to come for the early bird special!”

I think I even saw one robin boot another in the heinie. You can guess which gender was the kicker and which was the kickee.

A very common folkloric custom is to plant potatoes on Good Friday. The trouble is, Easter moves around from year to year. Sometimes Easter arrives almost in February; sometimes it doesn’t come until nearly the Fourth of July.

I recently chatted with a guy who grew up in a family that religiously followed this potato planting practice.

“I hated it,” he said. “Some years, we had to scoop snow so we could plant spuds! We often hit frost when we dug. I once told Dad we could speed up potato planting if we could use dynamite. He said to just be quiet and keep swinging that pickax. Dad didn’t believe in doing things the easy way.”

Corn is a major crop in these parts, so when to begin corn planting is a major topic of discussion.

A rule of thumb I’ve often heard regarding corn planting goes something like this: when the ground warms to the point where you can sit on it comfortably with your bare keister, it’s time to plant corn.

There are some obvious problems with this metric. For instance, what time of the day are we talking about? Noon? First thing in the morning?

And the soil itself can vary greatly. A sunny southern hillside is going to be a lot warmer than right next to the trees. Plus, a badger may have marked his territory yesterday where your bare bottom sits today.

But perhaps the most important variable is the ambient temperature of any given individual’s butt.

I know a certain someone whose heinie is always cold.

Need to chill a can of beverage in a hurry? Just hold it against this person’s derriere for few moments.

Were this person to do the sit-down soil temperature test, she would invariably report that the dirt feels nice and warm. Soil scientists would then be puzzling over why we suddenly have these random areas of permafrost.

A precious nugget of corn planting lore was given to me back in the mists of prehistory. I was but a wet-eared lad and check-row planting was the standard operating procedure.

One sunny May day, Grandpa Nelson took me aside and advised me thus:

“Don’t start planting corn until the elm trees begin to drop their seeds,” he counseled. “And I put four kernels of corn in each hill: one for the church, one for the devil, one for the worm, and one for me.”

I asked him whom should receive any ears of corn that went unclaimed by the worm or the devil or the church.

“That depends,” he replied, “On who helps me cultivate that field this summer!”

Nelson is a freelance writer from Volga, S.D. Reach him by e-mail at jjpcnels@itctel.com.

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