Friday, February 24, 2012

It's Leap Year


When I looked up Leap Year on the Internet last week I had no idea what I’d gotten myself into.  It turns out that our calendar, something we all take for granted, was thousands of years in the making, only becoming truly accurate in the 1500s.    

The first calendar was based on the moon, 12 lunar months, which adds up to a year of 364 days.  It was the ancient Egyptians who finally saw the importance of the summer and winter solstice and the spring and fall equinox.  Their calendar had 365 days.

Since a year actually contains 365 and a quarter days, it was only when Julius Caesar came along  in around 40 BC and solved this problem by establishing Leap Year, adding an extra day every four years. Unfortunately even Leap Year didn’t quite add up to an accurate calendar.

Sixteen hundred years later the seasons were totally out of whack with the calendar.  11 minutes were being added each year and by then those accumulated minutes came to a total of 13 days! It wasn’t until the 1580s that Pope Gregory XIII produced the first truly accurate calendar that we use to this day, the Gregorian calendar.

The Pope decreed that Leap Day, which was included in the calendar every four years, needed to be omitted in three out of every four centuries!  Under this new law the years 1700, 1800, and 1900 were not to be leap years, but 2000 would include one.   He must have had some fantastic scientists to figure all that out!

For years New England gardeners depended on various dates on the calendar -   planting peas on St. Patrick’s Day, tender crops on Memorial Day, fall spinach on the 4th of July.  They usually started worrying about Jack Frost in early September.  

What plants and animals really care about is having the sun get up early and go to bed late so that the earth begins to warm up.  Mother Nature’s flora and fauna, from chrysanthemums to hibernating bears, plan their lives around the amount of daylight they get.   Remember this picture of the flower clock?  It shows how the sun opens flowers at specific times each day.  Sorry, it's a little fuzzy. 

Considering the freaky weather we get nowadays and the affect of global warming, the calendar’s dates aren’t very dependable any more.  Planting Brussels sprouts in May can mean they will probably produce their little cabbages long before cold weather can turn them sweet.  It used to be so hard to get a really ripe tomato before frost, but these past few years our gardens sometimes get red and juicy tomatoes as early as July. 

It’s only February but I’ve seen snowdrops and daffodils already popping up.  All the frogs in my pond barely wait until the ice is out before they begin croaking. 

Next week on February 29th we’ll get an extra day to keep our calendars accurate. Just think of the thousands of years it took! 

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Wily Woodchuck

It's hard to think about gardening when the pond is skimmed with ice and the thermometer is hovering around 20 degrees?  At this time of year I usually slip in a column about animals, so how could I have miss the opportunity to write about woodchucks on Groundhog Day? After all, they like our gardens as much as we do. So here’s a belated column on the wily woodchuck.
Old Mother Westwind introduced me to roly-poly Johnny Chuck when I was a youngster.  I found him very appealing until my mother pointed out his real live cousin who was getting roly-poly eating fresh vegetables from our Victory Garden.  This fat fellow was so hated by my Mom that she kept a shotgun close at hand until she’d managed to do him in.

Finding a woodchuck living close enough to feast on your growing vegetables is as painful as realizing you’ve left your camera at home as you arrive in Rome for a week’s vacation.  Having done the latter, I know how irritating it can be.

The fact that Mr. Woodchuck saw his shadow on Groundhog Day and promised six more weeks of winter is something we New Englanders could have told you. It may not be snowing, but you can bet there won’t be signs of spring until April. So what makes Americans think a ground hog that went to ground in October would suddenly wake up on February 2nd and maybe even dig his way through a pile of snow to check out the weather?

According to what I read, Ground Hog Day is also Candlemas on the Christian calendar, the day Christ entered the temple, and a sunny Candlemas presages a cold spring.  In America’s version, a day sunny enough for the groundhog to see his shadow sends him scurrying back down his hole.

Actually a hibernating chuck rarely wakes up in February, even when other animals have taken shelter in his burrow. Not even a visiting skunk will disturb his deep sleep.  His breathing has slowed from 35 times a minute to only one every five minutes, his body temperature has plummeted to a chilly 40 degrees, and his heart is beating so lethargically that if he got a wound it wouldn’t even bleed.

The woodchuck is a rodent, closely related to other gnawing animals.  His paws are designed for digging, enabling him to make his underground tunnels with ease as well as get beneath the vegetable garden fence. His claws also allow him to climb, even a 40-foot tree.  He rarely does so, but when he does, he returns to the ground headfirst, defying gravity just like a nuthatch.  He’s also smart enough to make several entrances to his den that don’t have a telltale pile of excavated dirt beside them.

The furry creature sitting on his haunches in the middle of a summer meadow looks very different than he does at birth.  He’s born as bare-naked as a bird, as hairless as a peeled peach. It takes him a full month just to open his eyes and grow his fur coat. At six weeks he switches from Mom’s milk to grass, weeds, small bugs and of course any vegetables you’d care to offer.  Leaving the home nest, he digs his own modest burrow and begins to stuff himself into a roly-poly state in preparation for a winter of hibernation.

Although there may still be plenty of edibles in October, the chuck stops eating (earlier sunsets are his clock) and sits around waiting for his digestive tract to empty.  Then he retires to his cozy nest, and we gardeners heave a sigh of relief that our late crop of lettuce or peas will be safe.

Since we’ve always had dogs that sleep outside in the hay at night, we never had the problem of woodchucks raiding the vegetable garden, even though we had plenty of woodchucks.  When we bought Locust Hill its meadows were pockmarked with woodchuck holes.  It wasn’t until coyotes moved into the neighborhood and scared the chucks into making their homes in the hedgerows that our meadows finally turned into smooth green blankets. 

That’s about the only good thing I can say about coyotes.  Some day I’ll write a column on these sheep killers.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

String Too Short To Save?

I pulled up my “Idea File” yesterday, the place where I stick newspaper clipping and ideas that never germinated.  I should probably label it “string too short to save” like the box that old lady saved.  Nothing in my file would fill a column, but hopefully they just might if I combine them. 

Here’s one about a Russian scientist, Ilyn Raskin, who has been tricking plants into manufacturing the chemical defenses that form the basis of plant-derived drugs.  Like irritating an oyster so it will make a pearl, Mr. Raskin subjects plants to environmental stresses so they will produce disease-fighting chemicals.

The standard method most scientists use to discover a plant’s potential as a medicine is to collect wild plants, grind them up and analyze what chemicals they contain. Raskin’s approach makes a lot more sense.  The same way you can’t tell if a man has a temper until you provoke him, you aren’t able to discover certain chemicals in a plant until it is required to use them.

Mr. Raskin grows his plants in a greenhouse so their sensitive roots can be exposed to various pollutants and toxins which encourage them to produce powerful defensive chemicals.  According to the article many of these treated plants that had appeared to have no disease-fighting potential before being stressed suddenly produced some.

Since this article contained no date, I looked up Mr. Raskin on the Internet.  I was delighted to find he is still busy with his experiments at Rutgers University and has won several awards for his work.      

Did you know that the name Queen Anne’s lace comes not from Britain’s Queen Anne (1665 -1714) but from Saint Anne, the grandmother of Jesus, who was often called “the queen of heaven”?  I guess that’s why we call it Queen Anne’s lace and not Saint Anne’s lace.

St. Anne was the patron saint of lacemakers and pregnant women.  She and her husband Joachim were married for many years before Anne became pregnant, and according to legend, it was only divine intervention that enabled her to conceive.

Oh, this article will turn your stomach.  It’s about the many mistakes made over the years by the Department of Agriculture. These gentlemen imported many foreign plants and insects to cure supposed ills.  The most famous one was the kudzu vine introduced to the southern states to stop erosion. 


This galloping nightmare has covered hundreds of square miles of land, running rampant over fields, climbing trees and turning normal woodlands into jungles.  The first time Hank and I traveled south we could hardly believe how this vine had strangled forests and even houses.

The USDA was also the villain responsible for bringing the water hyacinth to America, a luxuriant flower that has caused great grief and expense by clogging rivers and waterways in Florida and Louisiana. 

New England has not escaped its share of USDA mistakes.  The worst one was recommending that farmers use the Multiflora rose as a living hedge, claiming these thorny bushes were cheaper and easier to maintain than fencing, and would keep in even a calloused old bull. 

Our best friend, Robin Mead, took that advice and planted these destructive shrubs, which have self-seeded and ruined acres of pastureland, including those on Locust Hill.  They are almost impossible to get rid of.  Unfortunately they fill the air with perfume in June and produce bright red rose hips in the fall, making them appear to be an attractive landscaping plant to people who have no idea what villains they can be.   

The forerunner of the USDA, the U.S. Patent Office, was the guilty party that advised farmers to grow crab grass for animal forage back in the early 1800s. Claiming this ubiquitous weed would produce an excellent crop and grow in any soil, they encouraged all too many farmers to plant it.

What a sorry list of mistakes!