Saturday, March 29, 2014

Horticultural Seasons

Well it is officially Horticultural Spring for me – before the end of March – just (as described in a previous post) like I hoped it would.

At one time I did not know that there was more than one definition of the seasons – not how many of them, or what their named, but when it is that they actually began and ended.

The most commonly used denotation is that which is based upon astronomical and solar reckoning: that is to say, the equinoxes (“the time or date (twice each year) at which the sun crosses the celestial equator, when day and night are of equal length”); and solstices (“either of the two times in the year, the summer solstice and the winter solstice, when the sun reaches its highest or lowest point in the sky at noon, marked by the longest and shortest days.”)  For calendar year 2014 these dates are: Spring Equinox March 20, Summer Solstice June 21, Autumn Equinox September 23, and Winter Solstice December 21.

But there are also the “Meteorological Seasons”.  “Meteorologists generally define four seasons in many climatic areas: spring, summer, autumn (fall) and winter. These are demarcated by the values of their average temperatures on a monthly basis, with each season lasting three months. The three warmest months are by definition summer, the three coldest months are winter and the intervening gaps are spring and autumn. Spring, when defined in this manner, can start on different dates in different regions. In terms of complete months, in most north temperate zone locations, spring months are March, April and May, although differences exist from country to country.” (

If meteorologists can have their own seasonal schedule, why not we horticulturalists?

Such a seasonal schema makes total sense to those of us plantsmen who view our goal as trying to create our own exemplar of a perfect world – if only nature thought about its creations in exactly the same way that we (and by “we” I of course mean “me”) did.   

This solipsistic view of reality leads directly to my somewhat parochial view that seasonal progressions are marked by when I am able to do the gardening things that define to me the beginning or end of that segment of the year – in my case, e.g., that “OMG, spring really is here” moment of clearing away the winter debris from my perennial beds, and seeing those first glimpses of coming-to-life green emerging from the still-cold soil.

 So astrologers and meteorologists – get down here on earth, dirty your hands, and experience the change of seasons instead of just calculating them.

I did it yesterday – and OMG…!

“Surprise Spring Snow Slaps Swath 
Down The Center Of The State”
(Hartford Courant – 3/31/2014)

 So, three days later
 four inches of sodden snow
 re-bury my dreams.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Past Performance Is No Guarantee – But We Can Hope

I am writing this on March 1, 2014 – hoping that the Groundhog was wrong and that the Old Farmer’s Almanac turns out to be unnecessarily pessimistic.   

Here is their 2014 Long-Range Weather Forecast for Hartford, Connecticut: average temperature 43° (1° below normal); precipitation 3" (1" below avg.); Mar 1-8: Snow showers, cold; Mar 9-14: Sunny, then showers, turning warm; Mar 15-16: Sunny, cool; Mar 17-21: Heavy rain, then sunny, cool; Mar 22-25: Rain, then sunny, cool; Mar 26-31: Sunny, then rainy, warm.

 I am itching like crazy to get my long-dormant garden hands on those winter-dried perennial stems that were left standing over the cold months in order to provide (a) food and shelter for the birds; (b) “winter interest” – i.e. cool shadows and freaky skeletal sculptures; and (c) something to do in early spring to get my frozen horticultural juices flowing again.

I am desperately looking forward to the first sunny day that requires no more clothing than a flannel shirt and perhaps a light down vest (and pants of course) – when I can retrieve my pruning shears and thin leather gloves from the bottom of my yard-work basket, and hew these deliberately neglected and now snow-crushed and pitiful looking desiccated twigs into piles of pick-up-sticks to be consigned to the first trash bin of the growing season.

 I am imagining the feel of my large red plastic leaf rake dragging debris from the bare space between my hacked-down herbage, and the gentle stroke of my hand-held shrub rake as my knees feel the cool, damp earth for the first time in several months –– and perhaps I uncover the first fresh-grown green anything of the year.

It’s all happened before – at the same time, in the same way.  So, even though as we all know “past performance is no guarantee of future results” – it could happen again.

That’s what I am hoping anyway – that as you read this at the end of the third month I will have experienced at least some of my “OMG, spring really is here” garden dreams – and you, yours.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

If You Feed Them...

Mars and I saw the first robin of the year on our property early this morning.  It was a male and he was pecking angrily at the ground under our bird feeders – scattering sunflower seed hulls, mulch, and leaves in all directions in an apparently unsatisfying search for sustenance.
This is definitely not the initial robin sighting of the year for us.  We have seen “mutations” of robins – that’s what a group of thrushes is called – on various public and private grassy areas for the past several weeks.  A couple of days ago Mars reported an assemblage of them looking like an overpopulated Alberto Giacometti sculpture of people passing but never meeting.

Evidently our solo visitor is scoping out his nesting site for the upcoming breeding season.  We usually have at least one pair of the redbreasts: along with a cardinal couple; multitudes of sparrow or finch matings; and, last year, a hawk duo who left abruptly in mid-season after an evidently unsuccessful attempt at parenthood.  Plus there is always a few “drays” (or “scurries”) of squirrels hanging around.
The neighborhood, including our yard, is thick with trees of various heights and leafiness. (Past robin tenants have been particularly fond of our next-door neighbor’s Star Magnolia – unfortunately at a height from the ground conducive to invasions by curious cats and more curious children.) And we keep our sunflower feeders filled throughout the year. 
 But more importantly our yard is decorated with a profusion of berry-bearing perennial bushes (including our blueberries which we now donate almost exclusively to our avian visitors).  Also, because we organically care for our lawn, just under the surface live several “beds”, “clews”, “bunches”, or “clats” (your choice) of plump, protein-rich worms – the quantity and quality of which I assume our prospective tenant was window-shopping for this forenoon.
And of course the aforementioned hawks, should they return, get to choose from the full menu of their fellow nesters.
Given the current ground temperature I suspect that the long, slender, soft, burrowing, invertebrate animals the robin was seeking are still hibernating.  But, temperatures will rise and our ectothermic residents will spring to life. – if not for this robin, then for another. 
If you feed them, they will come – and many will stay.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Woodchuck Alert

I looked up just in time to see a woodchuck trundling down our paver path.  By the time I got outside to look for the trespasser it had made it into our backyard by the still barren blueberry bushes and was heading towards the intersection of our two neighbor’s properties.  (We live on a corner with houses immediately to our east and south.)

It is, I believe, the first instance of these furry brown marmots – aka groundhogs or whistle-pigs or land-beavers – to be seen on our estate.  And appropriately the alleged soothsayer of spring was spotted on the Vernal Equinox  – the very day when his prediction was to be officially proven regrettably true.

He was, as I recall unfortunately correct in foretelling the long winter that still awaited us and thus prompted my favorite LOL email of the year thus far.

Nonetheless, unlike most gardeners, I have a warm spot in my heart for these heavily built, gregarious, burrowing rodents beginning from the time Mars and I spent living in our first apartment in a complex pretty much surrounded by miles of woodchuck burrows. 
Some of them lived in a large open field across the street from our floor-to-ceiling front window and were clearly visible as they waddled nonchalantly from cave to cave.  Others were more secluded in a tree-filled area that ran along one side of the rental property, which my young son B and I would wander through on warm summer mornings and cold winter afternoons being ever-watchful not to step into one of the openings and twist an ankle.

 We meet B’s Godparents – she originally from Punxsutawney PA, the home of the official prognosticating groundhog – in the same housing unit when they lived across the hall from our pad, and they remain close friends today.

Plus, in all our years of vegetable and flower gardening at our own homestead no woodchuck has ever done harm to any of our growing things

Personally I think Punxsutawney Phil gets badgered and bullied every year into giving his pessimistic prediction just so the media can breathlessly report their negative newscast.  With all those damn television lights shining in his eyes as he’s dragged from his warm cozy sleeping quarters into the bitter cold February wind – who wouldn’t be in a grumpy mood?

Maybe someday this captive clairvoyant will wake up, smell the coffee, and sink his little rodent teeth right into the hand of his top-hat-wearing torturer.  This time “’hog bites man” would be news – and LOL.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Gracks Are Back In Town

Not to get all pseudo-biblical but, this must be what “falling from the sky like a plague of locusts” is like.

While Mars and I sat safe and warm in our front yard facing family room, sipping our morning coffee with Norah, Gayle and Charlie softly in the background, the airspace outside our windows suddenly filled with hundreds – maybe even thousands – of rapidly descending shiny black, blue-green sheened birds.  Okay, maybe I slightly overstated the size of the invasion – but there is no question as to what was happening. The “Gracks” are back in town.

They spread out across our front lawn until that mostly snow covered surface was as dark and fluttery as our sky had been just moments before.  Then something, probably a passing car, startled them into a joint flight fright and the horizon was once again painted black.  They pretty much all settled in our, or our neighbor’s, oak trees.  Within minutes, presumably after they sensed that the danger had passed, they re-filled our sightline with another ebony avalanche.

Then another vehicle drove by and the rapid retreat, followed by the rapid return, followed by…  You get the idea.

Eventually they all left our immediate area.  And when we looked out, every kernel of corn that I had complained about in my previous posting was gone – picked clean and pristine.  The grackles have not been back since.

It’s good to know that someone (or some thing) reads my blog.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Grassroots Economics

It seems to me like a simple matter of supply and demand – but apparently it is more than that.  Let’s talk first about the supply side.
We have corn.  Lots of corn.  Evidently too much corn – at least for our guests for whom this grain on a cob is intended.  I buy it in a seven-pound bagful at our local nursery – twelve to fourteen per.  In normal times I put out one ear every day on our “Squirrel Corn Feeder” – a miniature faux picnic table with an upward pointing three-inch screw onto which the cylindrical kernel-holder is rotated. 
Said feeding device is six feet up on the trunk of an oak tree in the front of our front yard.  A series of recent snowstorms and cold weather have rendered passage to this dining spot more difficult than I am willing to exert effort on.  So I have instead resorted to plunging these maize feeding devices upright into the snow-bank that sits directly outside our family room within five to six feet of the other hanging cafeterias dedicated to the neighborhood birds – thus fulfilling my obligation to the bushytailed rodents and presumably affording Mars and me an even better view of their feasting antics.
Not surprisingly it took about twenty minutes for the squirrels to discover the corn’s new location.  Surprisingly however, unlike at the official “Squirrel Corn Feeder” where the little tree rodents gnaw and ingest basically all of the yellow buds of grain, here on the more primitive eating surface they seem to be removing them and piling them up, somewhat neatly, on the icy white mound and paved ground beneath them.  Then they walk away and leave them.
At the fancy corn feeder the small number of kernels that inadvertently had dropped to the ground were quickly swept up by bands of marauding crows that pass through our neighborhood on a daily basis.  Now the very same big black birds tromp back and forth over the very same food-source and ignore it.
 Meanwhile, on the demand side, flocks of robins are moving into our village.  In the past week Mars and I have, in our travels, seen at least two groups of twenty or more hopping purposefully across lawns looking for uncovered patches of grass and, presumably, the bounty of (probably freeze dried) worms within.  Not happening!
And it is also not happening that the robins are even remotely interested in our cast-aside maize.
When the weather warms a bit, and the snow melts, these red-breasted thrushes will be all over our plantation sucking up long, slimy, invertebrates and ultimately knocking back blueberries and the other round fruits that we supply throughout the growing season.  With luck they’ll have to peck their way though some of the kernels that undoubtably still will be lying around and, in the process, develop a taste for this carb on a cob.
Then when the next cold season rolls around – while the rest of the world struggles with GNPs and inflation – our little wildlife feeding enterprise can achieve total economic equilibrium.