2016-02-03 / Gardening Tips / Columns

Gardening Tips: February 3, 2016

Ground Hog Day
by Bob Beyfuss

Before I begin this week’s column I want to pass on a tip from a reader who is also an avid bird feeder. For many years he battled the grey squirrels with little success and this year he finally he came on the idea of “greasing” the pole that supports his feeder with Vaseline. Since he did that he reports no squirrels climbing up it. Worth a try!

Most years, February 2 is a pretty dismal day for much of the Northern United States. The Christmas 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. Fastened many people’s minds is the hope and anticipation that spring will arrive early.

Meteorology has become pretty scientific in recent years, but still no one has a clue what the precise weather will be like in two weeks or six weeks. This winter it seems like the long-term predictions have been pretty accurate. This is mainly due to the repeated observations of what happens when “El Nino” is occurring. The west coast is getting some badly needed rain and the Northeast is somewhat warmer and wetter. Many people seem to hold credence to “The Farmer’s Almanac” but despite my fondness for farmers and most things that are farm related, I consider this weather predictor source as nonsense. The Farmer’s Almanac always predicts bad weather and not a single winter ever goes by without some bad weather, but overall that has not been the rule this season.

For that reason, we turn to a furry rodent in Pennsylvania to predict the onset of spring. According to Groundhog Day organizers, the rodents’ 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 insignificant compared to the 33 percent that could occur by chance. 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 that, “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 PA. 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 PA for most of 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. Since the weather is predictably bad for the next six weeks at least, I will spend it in central Florida, as I have for several years now.

Return to top

Click here for digital edition
2016-02-03 digital edition