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Ground Hog Day for Gardeners

from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woodchuck

A groundhog,outstanding in its field.

Gardeners unite in observing the second of February as the start of spring! Despite the annual,mindless media babble at Ground Hog Day,the party line that pegs the start of spring to the equinox,and the persistence of the northern winter lasting many more months,spring’s initiation belongs in early February. It has everything to do with light.  At this point in our revolution around the sun,the rate of change in the lengthening daylight begins to accelerate.

Our bodies can feel it,as can all living beings.  (At least those of us who remain unfrozen!)  Plants can once again obtain enough energy to put out new growth. Our fur-less human skin resumes its remarkable ability to metabolize Vitamin D from sunlight.  (Since Halloween,the sun angle in the north has been too low to power these phototrophic miracles.)  From now until May Day and then more slowly to the Summer Solstice,we’re in for a heady ride of ever increasing daylight!  Whee!

Agricultural societies around the world have marked this turning point in the midst of winter. Ancients in Britain celebrated Imbolc – the first of the four cross-quarter days,mid-way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Candlemas,a feast in the Christian calendar,also occurs at this time,marking the end to Epiphany and making a turn towards Lent. Themes of purification are expressed in practical traditions of cleaning out any wilted and dusty remnants of the Christmas celebrations.  In northern cultures,Candlemas,marking the mid-point of winter,was the time to check stores of food and fuel to ensure that half remains.

Setsubun in Japan,also observed in early February,marks the start of spring,often coinciding with the lunar new year. Households gather to toss roasted soybeans out the door,voicing a chant to throw out the demons and welcome luck into the home. Chasing masked demons adds to the drama and fun.  Beans are then eaten to bring good luck —one bean for each year of a person’s age. We could benefit from adopting a version of the Setsubun customs to help banish the corrosive effects of cabin fever,winter sicknesses and the overall blahs and to invite fresh aspirations for health and happiness into the home.

Kindergarten depiction of Setsubun

To celebrate Ground Hog Day properly,we need meaningful and up-to-date traditions in keeping with the past. Here are a few ideas.

  • Cast out the demons by giving the house a good cleaning,chasing out the dust bunnies,recognizing that no matter what the groundhog sees today,there will surely be a another two to three months of life indoors.  Gardeners might as well clean and sort now because once the greening finally arrives,housework will have no appeal whatsoever.
  • Bring good health and happiness into the home by giving potted plants a deep watering in a sink or shower,rinsing the leaves,and amending the soil with worm castings (restocking your worm bin with fresh leaves,paper,straw or other carbon materials too),and pruning and fertilizing the plants to fuel vigorous new growth.
  • Start life anew by planting seeds. Toss some seeds into a jar and sprout them,adding a fresh zing to meals. If you’re inclined to start onions and other long-season seedlings in February,then use this occasion to set up the seed-starting gear and get planting.
  • Feast with friends,preparing hearty meals that take time to cook and eat,bringing in new flavors by experimenting cuisines from around the world.

Any other suggestions for observing the day?

If gardeners claim Groundhog Day as our own,should we settle on another name?  Do we really want to honor an arch-nemesis?  But change to what?  “Candlemas” is pretty but too churchy and ethereal. “Imbolc” feels too pagan,with superstitious undertones.  Others are too obscure.

Despite my initial qualms,I think  “Groundhog Day” works.  It conveys an appealing irony and playfulness.  We could even get semi-serious and infuse Groundhog Day for Gardeners with a  “love thy enemy” or “live and let live” message – a worthy reminder,with a hint of social and ecological significance.

On that note,Happy Groundhog Day,and to all those hibernating varmints,dreaming of tasty picking in our gardens,we love you!

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