We’re halfway there
On Feb. 2, prognosticating rodents are hauled out of hutches and held high, their gloved handlers grasping them tightly around their furry mid-sections. Assembled crowds will wait to see if the groundhog casts a shadow, thus sealing our fate for six more weeks of winter or granting us an early spring reprieve.
The modern celebration of Groundhog Day, for all its silliness, coincides with solemn faith tradition observances including the Catholic celebration of Candlemas and the Wiccan observance of Imbolc. For me, it marks the half-way point on the gardening calendar between the darkest night of the year — the Winter Solstice — and spring’s official start on the Vernal Equinox.
We’ve been enjoying some unseasonably mild temperatures, but the real story is more sunlight. Six weeks ago, on the Winter Solstice, sunset was at 4:30 p.m. Today, it is at 5:15 p.m. The midday sun appears a few degrees higher in the sky and feels warmer on my face. We’re picking up one more minute of sunlight daily. That rate will double to two minutes daily by the end of February.
A gardener friend told me about her grandmother’s traditional Groundhog Day garden walk, during which her grandmother would “wake up” the trees and plants with a gentle tap from her walking stick. When I heard this folk tradition, it made sense to me as gardener wisdom. Inspecting each plant and tree carefully gives the gardener opportunity to observe disease or damage and make plans for pruning, repairing or transplanting.
Groundhog Day also ushers in the sugaring season, when maple trees (other tree species work too) can be tapped with a spigot and the flowing sap collected with no injury to the tree. It’s nice to imagine that a hard rap could wake up a sleeping tree and make the tree’s sap drip faster. The truth is that sap flow is triggered by increased sunlight plus warmer days and cold nights. Maple sap looks and tastes like water, with only the slightest hint of sweetness. It takes about 40 gallons of collected sap boiled down to produce one gallon of syrup. I’m looking forward to helping some friends tap their maple trees this month.
Groundhog Day is a time to spot spring harbingers. There might be early-blooming hellebores, snowdrops or early crocus varieties to see in sunny wind-protected spots. Along my neighbor’s driveway, a witch hazel bush has tight, swelling buds that will unfurl into red, finger-like petals during sunny February days and curl back into a protective bud at night. If you look carefully, some maple trees already sport a red haze on their crown.
I’ll bring my garden notebook out to the yard this week and take a fresh look at each tree, bush and plant. I might even give them a rap with a stick.