Gardening Tips: February 5, 2013

Ground Hog Day
Last Sunday was the Super Bowl, which has become a huge American viewing tradition over the past 40 years or so. In most of the world “football” means soccer and soccer is the world’s most popular sport by far. Nevertheless, close to 150 million people watched the game and it has become a bigger holiday than Thanksgiving in term of economic impact. Of course all this hoopla overshadowed the other big event on February 2, which was Ground Hog Day!
Most years, February 2 is a pretty dismal day for much of the Northern United States. The Xmas, and New Year’s Holiday celebrations are over, but the bills that they have encumbered are still arriving and it seems like an eternity until St Patrick’s Day. Presidents’ Day is just a day off from work for most people and generally not a reason to celebrate. We also celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King but that is also not usually a particularly festive occasion. Income tax season in upon us and the weather is too nasty to indulge in gardening thoughts. One thing that is very important in many people’s mind, is the hope and anticipation that spring will arrive early.
Meteorology has become pretty scientific in recent years, but it is still a fact that no one has a clue what the weather will be like in two weeks or six weeks. For that reason, we turn to a furry, little rodent in Pennsylvania and elsewhere to predict the onset of spring. According to Groundhog Day organizers, the rodent’s forecasts are accurate 75 to 90 percent of the time. However, a Canadian study for 13 cities in the past 30 to 40 years found that the weather patterns predicted on Groundhog Day were only 37 percent accurate over that time period—a value not significant compared to the 33 percent that could occur by chance.

Going back a bit
According to the StormFax Weather Almanac and records kept since 1887, Punxsutawney Phil’s weather predictions have been correct 39 percent of the time. The National Climatic Data Center has described the forecasts as “on average, inaccurate” and stated, “The groundhog has shown no talent for predicting the arrival of spring, especially in recent years.” It should further be observed that a prediction made on February 2, to the effect that there will be six more weeks of winter, is hardly a risky proposition, since winter does not officially end until around March 21, which is about six weeks away.
But then, no one seems to hold meteorologists accountable for their incorrect long-term predictions either. A sunny day in which the Ground Hog sees his shadow is supposed to scare him back into his den for another six weeks of winter but a cloudy day is supposed to foretell an early spring. So it really has less to do with the woodchuck, than whether the sun shines or not in central Pennsylvania. Actually it would seem that the odds are stacked in favor of an early spring, considering that it is more often cloudy than sunny anywhere in Pennsylvania in February.
Here in the Catskill Mountain/Hudson River Valley region, it is still much too cold to expect a ground hog to emerge at all to see or not see his shadow. These critters are true hibernators, unlike black bears, and they often have a separate burrow just for spending the winter. It seems like the overweight woodchuck in PA is not amused at all by this annual rude awakening either. I generally watch the TV spot that features him being roused and gaped at while speeches are being made. He usually appears annoyed or at the least, disinterested in the hoopla. But for a few moments at least, we can revert to our childhood, when the tooth fairy really did exist and Santa brought us all those great gifts.
February is a good month to indulge in fantasy. The weather outside is an unpleasant reality that most of us wish would just go away. It won’t so I will. Next week’s column will be written from Florida where no one is concerned about the predictions of a Pennsylvanian rodent named Phil.