The 1998 growing season's over and the immediate future promises us little but a deluge of cold rain or colder snow, depending on where you spend your winters.
Don't expect a repeat of last winter's freakish El Niño weather. A strong weather reversal — called La Niña (young girl) in a PC effort to gender-balance El Niño (young boy) but historically termed El Viejo (old man) — is predicted to follow. El Niño's equatorial-Pacific Ocean temperature pattern will flipflop, producing different, but equally freakish, weather.
Meteorologists tell us that recent El Viejo years have featured cooler and much wetter weather in the Northwest, a colder Northern tier, much warmer and wetter weather in the East Central states, warmer than usual weather in the Southeast, and dryer than normal weather in the Southwest, all around the Gulf of Mexico, and up the Atlantic seaboard from Southern Florida to inland Maine.
Here in the North, we're preparing for winter by putting up an extra cord of wood, resoling the Bean boots we barely used last winter, and installing a block heater in the new truck and chains on the snow blower.
- In the garden, you should mulch the strawberry patch, asparagus, parsnips, over wintering beets, and carrots extra well under straw. Cover the winter-keeping root vegetables with black plastic to keep the ground thawed as long as possible for early winter digging. Anticipating a winter with no prolonged seedling-killer warm spells, you can plant — in finely tilled soil and under a loose, thick mulch — spinach, leaf lettuce, and scallion seeds for an early start to salads next spring. Risk a row or two of edible pod pea seed as well.
- In the stock barn, rabbit hutches, and henhouse, close or plastic-sheet low windows, drop the burlap drapes at weather-ends of cages, and seal cracks and openings in the outer walls against winter wind. Remember, it's the draft more than the cold that causes discomfort or harm to your animals. Check the immersion water heaters in box stalls and heater bases for floor-mount waterers.
- Drain fuel tanks on the tractor and yard and garden power tools and run engines dry, or fill tanks after adding a fuel-stabilizer. Remove spark plugs, squirt a little light oil in the plug hole, and pull engine through once or twice. Lube all controls and wax the paint Cover with a tarp to keep off caustic chicken dust.
- Clean roof gutters of fall leaves so downspouts won't clog, letting gutters fill with melting snow and supporting attic-flooding ice dams at roof edges. If you've contemplated eave-heating cables to prevent ice dams, now is the year to install them! Once the storm windows are on, get out your caulking gun or a box of rope caulk and the stepladder, and spend a crisp late-fall day sealing gaps between siding and trim around the windows and doors. If your home is an old one, windproof the often leaky joint between foundation and sill by piling hay bales around or stapling on a barrier of 4 ml. or thicker plastic film with wood stakes tacked on every few feet to prevent wind-flap damage.
- Has the septic tank been pumped out in the last three years? It's easier to get it done now than in February, when the frost is too deep to hand dig. (If a new-to-you house, do you even know where your septic tank clean-out hatch is? How about underground drain pipes, waterlines, or electric cables? Best find out where they all are before calling in a backhoe.)
- If you haven't gotten around to the sooty and parlous ladder work of cleaning the chimney, woodstove, and pipes by now, you won't. Avoid a flue fire and call in professional chimney sweeps. You'll have to wait in line a while this late in the season and maybe pay a little more, but the sweeps'll arrive in their stove-pipe hats before the cold gets serious.
- Bring as much wood as possible inside under cover and split it small to dry for quick starting fires on cold late-fall mornings. Lay in enough candles, lamp oil, and firemakers, dry and canned food, paper products, bottled water, and radio batteries for two weeks or more of no power and possible isolation due to winter storms. If you are on grid power and the electric freezer is in a warmed spaced and full of this season's priceless produce and meat, shop around for the best price on a gasoline-powered electric generator large enough to run it for several hours a day. This can also power the water pump long enough to fill toilets and a washwater-heating tub on the woodstove, plus a computer and TV in the evenings. Store (safely) enough fuel to operate it for a month.
Be prepared and stay warm this coming El Viejo winter.