One local interpretation of Groundhog Day

Growing up in a rural area of Monroe County Michigan, I had a chance to absorb a lot of our local farm culture. Back them there were plenty of old-timers who, in their younger days,  had farmed their acreage with teams of horses. Those gray-haired farmers had plenty of advice and time-worn proverbs to pass along. One that stands out for me is the meaning of Groundhog Day.

I don’t know the history of  Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney but the town has so successfully managed to turn Groundhog Day into its own event that many people don’t even know, or care, that this minor holiday has been around way before weatherman Phil Connors got caught in that time-loop in Pennsylvania. The first time I ever heard of the town of Punxsutawney was on an episode of  The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. I’m not sure in what context it was, I just thought it was funny to hear a cartoon character say “Punxsuatawney Pennsylvania”.

Most of the farmers in our area had some sort of livestock, often it was dairy cows. They would grow corn and hay as feed for their animals rather than purchase it off site from somewhere else. That meant storing feed on the farm; dried corn, still on the cobs, in corn-cribs and hay up in the second story hay mows above the livestock area on the ground floor. Farmers could easily judge by eye how much their livestock were eating.

Feeding livestock through the winter could be a challenge if the previous growing season’s harvest was below normal. Groundhog Day was, according to those farmers I knew, the half-way point of winter. By that they meant, if you still had half of your feed or more left in storage by Groundhog Day, you will make it through to spring. If not, then potentially you would run short of feed.

In our rural elementary school, Groundhogs Day was a fairly big deal. Our teachers never mentioned the practical side of the day but we did learn about the whole six weeks before spring thing. My classmates would come in to school on the morning of February second and excitedly report if they thought there was enough sunlight for a groundhog to cast a shadow.

I still use this day as reminder when I look in my deep-freezer and estimate how much frozen garden produce I have left from last year’s harvest.

Bob

Problem with geese eating cover crop seeds

One of the best things you can do for your garden is to plant winter rye; the same crop that farmers grow for flour that eventually gets made into rye bread. Last year at this time I wrote a couple of posts about how to sow rye. You can scroll back and find those posts if you’d like to read about it.

This year I planted my rye about ten days later than usual — big mistake. Not only was it late for planting, it turned out to be the middle of the Canada goose migration.

I carefully prepared the soil by removing weeds and debris. Then I mowed the finer textured plant material that was left. Next, I roto-tilled to make a nice seed bed.Broadcasting the rye with a seed/fertilizer spreader works good, which is what I did. Since my original plan was not to rake in the seed, I doubled the recommended seeding rate. With that all of that done I was sure the garden was all set for a long winter’s nap.

A couple of geese had discovered all of that rye seed laying on top of the ground in my garden and decided to help themselves to a free meal. It wasn’t long before other migrating geese looked down and saw what was happening in my garden. It turned out to be a free-for-all once they landed.To a goose, the seed must look like an easy meal.To a goose, the seed must look like an easy meal.

By the time I checked my garden a couple of days later, it was all over. Not a seed could I find, the garden looked like it had been used as a feed lot. Goose tracks covered every square inch. They ate all 100 pounds of my rye seed in one day.

I re-seeded again the next day only this time I raked in the seed and surrounded the garden with wooded stakes with twine strung between then. The twine is about a foot off of the ground and has some plastic ribbon tied to it. That seems to be enough to deter them.

Canada Geese are strong, graceful flyers and are at home on the water. But on land, they’re at a disadvantage. They can waddle to move short distances but can’t run very fast or negotiate obstacles very well. Being on land makes them more vulnerable to predators than when they’re in the water or flying. That twine is just enough to to make them nervous about getting tangled up so they stay out of the garden. A few strands of twine criss-crossed inside the garden reinforces the effect.

We have has a mild late-fall so my rye had enough time to germinate and get established. If not I have learned a valuable lesson about putting off planting my cover crop.

Bob

 

Snapping turtle eggs in the garden

There’s a corner of the garden that I rototilled earlier this spring but never got planted so the weeds were really out of control. I decided today it was time to re-till the area and do something with it.

It was a real struggle to get the tiller to knock down those tall weeds but I managed to get most of them. On the second pass with the tiller I spotted what looked like a pair of under-sized, off-white, leather ping-pong balls. I recognized them right away, they were snapping turtle eggs.

Snapping turtles spend almost their entire lives in the water. The only time they come out on to land is to lay eggs.

I’ve seen websites that say snappers typically lay 20 to 40 eggs in a single clutch. The most I’ve ever found was 19 eggs several years ago in a different garden in another part of the state. Maybe you’ve seen more.

Raccoons, foxes, crows and other animals love to eat turtle eggs.
Raccoons, foxes, crows and other animals love to eat turtle eggs.

I’ve come across them in compost piles, piles of wood chips and mulch, flower beds and areas of loose sandy soil. Female snapping turtles will walk quite a distance to find a spot she thinks is best, up to a mile in some cases. This one was about two hundred yards away from the water. The problem I see with that is that the newly hatched turtles have to walk all the way back to the water. The farther away it is, the longer they are exposed to predators. Which brings up another question: how do the hatchlings know where the water is?

Back in the garden, I discovered I had inadvertently tilled up the entire nest and broke at least a half dozen eggs. None of them looked like they had any developed turtles inside. They just looked like tiny, off-colored scrambled eggs laying in the dirt.

I took the two undamaged eggs and put them in a protected area where the pumpkins are growing. Now we’ll have two cute baby turtles in the neighborhood that will grow up to be ugly, mean, grown-up snapping turtles.

Bob

Protect backyard chickens from migrating hawks

Urban chickens are not making as much news as they were a few years ago but plenty of people still keep chickens in their backyard. Chickens, in a lot of cases, have become just another part of the garden.

Right now the fall wild bird migration is in full swing. It is not just song birds and waterfowl that fly south for the winter, hawks and other predatory birds are making their way south too. On some days, thousands of hawks will fly over certain areas during the migration.

That is causing big problems for some chicken owners, including me.

Last week while I was crouched down in the driveway working on my car, something compelled me to turn around. What I saw was a large hawk getting ready to latch onto one of my chickens.

I have about 75 hens in my flock and usually they are quite vigilant in spotting predators. At least one or two hens out of the 75 will spot a hawk and warn the others even if the hawk is quite a distance away. Even the blue jays will screech out a warning call to the rest of the birds in the area when they spot a predator.

This time however, a hawk was able to silently swoop down without anyone noticing.  I’ve observed that hawks don’t usually bother my hens when there are people close by. The hawk didn’t see me until I stood up and turned around. I surprised it enough that it took off without a chicken and landed in a tree about a hundred yards away. By that time all 75 hens were making quite a ruckus.

That hawk never did come back to try again. I’m sure it looked for another meal as it continued flying south.

This hen wasn't paying attention and almost got nabbed by a hawk.
This hen wasn’t paying attention and almost got nabbed by a hawk.

Don’t think that just because you are in a populated area that your hens are safe from hawks. I live in a rural area but have heard reports of chickens being attacked by hawks in suburban and even urban areas this fall.

Free range chickens are the most vulnerable because they often wander far away from cover that could protect them from attack. The best thing to do is keep your hens locked in a pen or chicken run covered with protective netting until the migration is over.

Keep in mind that hawks are protected by law. It is illegal to capture or kill them without a special permit.

Bob

More tree frogs in our garden this year

It sure seems like our garden has become a haven for baby tree frogs. Standing in one spot without having to move, I could see three of them. I’ve also seen a lot more hopping around in the yard.

Tree frogs need water to reproduce, either permanent ponds or temporary pools of water. This wet summer with all of its rain has left a lot of standing water around. Some areas around here have had water standing for a couple of months, long enough for tree frogs to lay eggs, hatch into tadpoles and develop into frogs.

The little frogs are easier to spot on flowers.
The little frogs are easier to spot on flowers.

Like other frogs, they eat all sorts of insects which makes them helpful in the garden.

They’re so much fun to watch too. Tree frogs blend in so well with their surroundings that it is hard to find them in their natural habitat up in the trees. They can surprise you by showing up in the most unusual places.

Waiting for a meal to come his way.
Waiting for a meal to come his way.

Many of us have seen them resting on windows or stuck on the side of a building. One time I was happily surprised by one sitting on an apple I was about to pick.

Adult tree frogs are about two inches long, ours are a little over half an inch right now. They range in color from gray, brown or green depending on their circumstances.

Compare the size of this tree frog to the width of the daylily leaf.
Compare the size of this tree frog to the width of the daylily leaf.

I believe tree frogs are loudest frogs we have around here. Their call is distinctive and carries quite a distance. Like bird songs, you can learn to identify them by their call even if you can’t see them.

Bob