February 2, 2020
There are few people who don’t tire of winter after a couple of months of cold and snow. So, someone came up with a peculiar way of figuring out whether winter will persist for much longer. It involves dragging a hapless groundhog into daylight on February 2nd to see if he/she can see their shadow. As far as I know, we cast a shadow as well as any groundhog on a sunny day. So, why disturb the poor rodent. There’s not much to wake up for if the ground is covered in snow and there’s nothing to eat. As hibernation is a way to conserve energy, it really makes no sense to use precious fat reserves just to give people hope that winter is soon over.
Shadow or no shadow, I think here in southeastern Ontario, we can safely predict six more weeks of winter. In any case, the length of daylight has increased markedly since the winter solstice and plants in our greenhouses are responding well to the increasing amount of sunlight.
Clearly, a greenhouse full of greens on February 2nd would be paradise for a groundhog and any other herbivore struggling to find something green to eat. That’s why we keep the greenhouse doors closed even when the temperature inside rises above 20 ⁰ C. An open window has to do. We also fenced off the tree nursery to discourage the deer and rabbits from browsing on the young trees and stripping their bark, when food is hard to come by. For those concerned that we don’t have a heart for these animals, rest assured the woodlands and fencerows on our farm are filled with young growth to nibble on and our bird feeders are open to anyone except cats.
There can be new growth well before the spring equinox, provided you have a microclimate. Our greenhouse temperatures have fallen well below – 10⁰C but frost blankets have ensured that the night time temperature under the blankets is considerably more moderate. The beds with heated stone stay closer to zero during the coldest nights. If the ground is not frozen and liquid water is available to the plants, the limiting factor for growth is largely the lack of light. With each day and that extra couple of minutes of sunshine, the plants have greater potential to produce the sugars they need to grow. Since December, that amounts to more than an extra hour of daylight.
We currently have renewed growth with all our cold-hardy plants which includes the various greens, celery, onions, leeks and herbs, By the end of February, unless we have a deep freeze, we should again have enough produce for sales.
As I mentioned in an earlier post on greenhouse gardening, we keep the overhead costs at a minimum to ensure the whole project makes financial sense for us. If the greenhouses are heated and lit through the shortest days, we could grow anything through the winter but the cost would be through the roof. That we’ll leave to others until we figure out a way to create a low-cost microclimate for all kinds of produce including those which are frost sensitive.
Our family has a weakness for salads, especially those that include tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers along with all the cold hardy fresh produce we currently harvest from our cold frame greenhouses. The thought has crossed my mind to excavate an area into the south facing slope of the hill we live on. Then build a small greenhouse into the hill using insulated glass. A stone wall on the north side would be insulated by the hill and could act as a heat sink. As the glass roof would be just above ground level, it would be relatively easy to cover the entire greenhouse during the coldest nights. However, the cost of construction would be fairly high and we would need extra light and heat for these heat loving plants.
We humans have an insatiable urge to change things to suit our purposes. We just aren’t content to stay put and accept what is. It is in our nature to explore and innovate, to figure out why things happen and find ways to use that knowledge to advance technology.
Ironically, we continue to hang on to silly folklore that makes no sense. I suggest we leave the groundhog to hibernate in peace. If we want to alleviate winter fatigue, it is not out of the realm of the possible to put up a small cold frame greenhouse and try our hand at growing at least some of our own veggies through the cold months. As it does involve a fair amount of commitment, it could be a joint project, perhaps part of a community garden.
If we can just balance our drive to innovate with respect for the natural order and a sensitivity to the other creatures with whom we share this planet, then we would surely be moving forward as a species.