Discoveries Await in the Garden

By Michael Leach

As the incredible NASA rover seeks signs of extinct life on Mars, I don jacket, gloves and boots to discover life in the garden.

My quest lacks any scientific or other significance, but it’s exciting for me. To behold snowdrop blossoms, crocus shoots and swelling magnolia buds fires hope.

In this part of the Midwest, winter sets no records (so far). Still it’s been a trial. Months of always cold, mostly gray weather preceding a snowy mostly subfreezing February. As the snow pack melts away, daily excursions across the backyard wasteland produce a harvest of sightings. 

Just as NASA chose a landing site rich in potential for discovery, I too, know where to search. My eyes carefully scan little warm places, microclimates where the scant winter sun strikes longest and protected areas near the house.

In mid-January the snowdrops beside the walk near the backdoor were opening. As the piles of snow melted in late February, there they stood as if nothing happened. Deliberately planting such tiny wonders in places easily seen from the warmth of indoors enhances the show (no jacket, gloves and boots are needed to see them). I also plant clumps of these early birds elsewhere in the garden to enliven forays into the brown world of wintery death and dormancy.

More than green awaits. Sound is back.

Water trickles into the roof gutters overhead as the snow mass melts. Occasionally crystal icicles shatter as they plunge from rooftop glaciers. Little streams, once muted by an ice slab, babble again.

The resident male cardinal, who began singing pretty regularly about Valentine’s Day, is joined by other birds almost every morning.

Even before melting commenced and birds chirped, I brushed snow from the glass top of the tiny cold frame to speed warming. I cleared weeds and debris from this solar-heated grow box in January, and have been looking for weed seeds sprouting at least once a week since. Germinating weed seeds will  indicate it’s warm enough under glass to plant cold tolerant greens for a jump on the growing season.

Doesn’t that sound hopeful — growing season?

Squirrelly Weather Predicted

By Michael Leach

Photo by Aaron J Hill on

Gardeners apparently weren’t consulted when groundhogs were chosen as prognosticators of winter’s duration. At least not this gardener. 

Personal experience with these creatures is all negative. From chewing up the floor in the old tool barn (woodchuck is a well earned common name), to wrecking havoc amongst the vegetables, this member of the rodent family is unwelcome in my yard. It doesn’t help that the Encyclopedia Britannica defines these pests as one of 14 types of large ground squirrels. Don’t let me get started on squirrels.

Regardless of opinion, there’s a wonderful certainty in Feb. 2. It’s the midpoint between the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, and the spring equinox, when day and night are equal. Days are getting longer, nights shorter.

Soon birds, most of whom are always welcome, will begin singing in the early light, which comes a bit sooner each morning until the longest day on the summer solstice in June.

While several animals were associated with Feb. 2 by ancient Europeans, Germans believed the cute hedgehog predicted winter’s end. If it saw its shadow on Feb. 2, a second winter of six weeks lay ahead, clouds meant an early end.

Lacking hedgehogs, German immigrants in the United States used the groundhog. Definitely a choice lacking in cuteness. This is underscored by Hollywood’s inability to turn groundhogs into appealing animated rodents, such as mice and squirrels. Groundhogs are also called marmots, which almost rhymes with varmints — and that pretty well sums up the situation. Annual rodent family damage totals in the millions of dollars. Food is a prime target, but they sometimes ignite house fires after gnawing on wiring.

Despite the negatives, the celebrated ground squirrels have one trait I envy — hibernation. What a brilliant way to avoid seemingly endless Midwest winter. Just pork out on people’s gardens and snooze till green returns.

At least one groundhog, however, suffers a sleep problem. Since 1887 the western Pennsylvania town of Punxsutawney has brightened winter by rousing a groundhog for a long-term weather prediction and an excuse for a festive time. 

After such a rude awakening, it’s little wonder the animal’s accuracy is only about 40 percent. Without my first sip of morning coffee, I’m exceedingly fortunate to spell my name correctly, much less predict the weather for even the next six hours.

Garden Topics

%d bloggers like this: