A Moveable Feast

In today’s economic climate the urban garden is an endangered species. Real estate developers regard the open green spaces greedily, square foot by square foot, visions of co-ops dancing in their heads. In millennials’ magnet cities—Boston, San Francisco, Seattle—housing advocates view the garden plots warily— they take precious space where young families could grow instead.

The city is the worst site imaginable for agriculture. Urban soil, laden with centuries of ground pollution and polluted air often requires remediation or replacement. Getting ample fresh, clean water to keep city gardens flourishing is challenging and expensive. Sunshine is in ever-shorter supply.

It’s a growing problem, you might say. I have a plan on how to take the urban garden to the next level: by creating the exurban garden, taking urban agriculture away from high-density, premium real estate to where there’s plenty of underused land, nourishing soil, boundless water, and unfiltered sunlight. In other words, get out of town.

Within a short drive or train ride from metro centers, there is plenty of unused land: former farms, abandoned military bases, and deserted mental hospitals.

I envision new meta gardens as breeding grounds for collaboration and human connection—as well as a bounty of fresh vegetables, herbs and fruits.

The fabric of American community life is frayed, with two working parents, the siren of the Internet, and the evaporation of cohesive urban and suburban neighborhoods. Chain stores and big box retailers have also played a part in suctioning the easy-going collegiality—friendliness!—that was long a signature trait American life.

The shared gardens I propose offer a vibrant antidote to the decline of in-person civic participation in the U.S.: the “bowling alone” phenomenon. Designed with generous open spaces for picnicking and play, the gardens provide opportunity for a totally diverse array of city dwellers to jump-start communities.

Just as farming formed the basis of nearly all communities right up to the 1900s, the new community garden will engender fresh social ties that bind. If you wish to encounter a hive of happy, engaged, and expressive people, get thee to a gardening event.

The community metagarden I envision offers a forum that transcends distinctions of race, ethnicity, gender, age, religion, or politics. Socialists can celebrate the egalitarianism and collective nature of the project. Capitalists will admire the arrangement’s spirit of enterprise and self-reliance—not to mention the delicious dividends paid in fruits and vegetables.

What I am proposing is no garden variety utopian dream. In Russia—no one’s idea of a land of opportunity—one-third of the population own dachas, extraurban plots of .15 acres, just large enough for a 6,000 square foot garden, and a small, rudimentary habitation that serves as a second home. In the outer reaches of greater Moscow there are over a million of these miniature farms.

In shortage-racked Soviet times, dacha gardens furnished up to 90% of the country’s produce. Nowadays, under the Putinocracy, dacha garden plots yield almost 45% of the national harvest, including 80% of fruit and berries as well as potatoes. Back in town, dacha owners routinely sell or barter produce with their neighbors. An underground economy, you might say.

Amidst Germany’s thriving economy, there are 1.4 million thriving allotment gardens. Nearly every European country has an allotment garden program, with waiting lists of up to 20 years.

Here in the U.S., there is a sprinkling of allotment gardens, often descendants of the World War II victory garden movement in which 20 million Americans participated, helping to supplement skimpy food rations.

How does this garden grow? Capitalized by private and public money, currently desolate stretches of exurban land can be transformed quickly and inexpensively into vibrant, gardening communities, each with a distinctive spirit and character.

For stressed-out inner city residents, the gardens offer a sanctuary and refuge where families experience an open-air setting, where time is reckoned by the rising and setting of the sun, and the changing seasons. There is the singular joy of growing fresh, pure and inexpensive fruits, vegetables, and herbs, to be savored fresh or cooked. The harvest can be enjoyed year-round: the fruits rendered into jams, the vegetables pickled or preserved in jars.

Americans of all ethnic origins are descended from farming ancestors. The American Allotment Garden or “American Dacha” is a chance to renew and recapture our shared agricultural heritage and savor the simple life lost in the urban bustle.

Welcome to Second Summer

Labor Day is reflexively regarded as the end of summer, and with it, the end of the gardening season. Not so fast, my fellow Americans! Summer will be with us for a few weeks yet, until the autumnal equinox on Wednesday, September 23.

But the best is yet to come. While we harvest our lima beans, eggplants and tomatoes now, we should consider the three months ahead of us.

A far-reaching element of American Exceptionalism is our country’s singular diversity of terrain, climates, and seasonal transitions. Until the mid-nineteenth century, American farmers and home gardeners took European agriculture—especially that of the United Kingdom—as their model, only to be annually disappointed by the erratic performance of their imported seeds.

While American culture and politics mirror European origins, our agriculture does not. Reckoned in temperature, precipitation, sunlight, and day length, the only areas in the U.S. remotely resembling Western Europe are the northern-most stretch of Down East Maine (minus the winter), and the Seattle area, from Tacoma right on up to Bellingham.

We tend to think nature, and the garden, operate according to a Northern European time clock: the growing season punching in come June, and punching out three months later, on Labor Day. This is far from the case. Because of our country’s Southern Mediterranean and North African-like latitude, gardeners around the country can reap a second, three-month long garden season.

When fall arrives, we reach for our sweaters, if not our overcoats. But, in fact, for vast swathes of the country, fall is prime gardening time.

Most of the country—some 80 to 85% per cent—offers six months of peak outdoor growing. In September, October, and November, the average temperatures in our 30 largest cities are conducive to growing virtually every vegetable, except perhaps tomatoes and eggplants after mid-October.

In cooler northern climes, the garden-friendly average temperatures range from a high of 59 degrees in New York to 53 degrees in Chicago and Seattle. Heading southward, the temperatures get positively balmy, averaging 60 degrees or above, from Houston’s 71 degrees to Louisville’s average of 60. Of course, it gets still warmer (and wetter) in places like Miami and New Orleans. And, yes, it gets plenty warm in the Southwest, but, except for northern California, there’s the pesky matter of water, and the lack of it.

“Fall” is too glum and fateful a term to encompass the fertile splendor of the season—the garden is in full swing. Lasting right up to the first deep frost, this complete garden season runs until mid-October in the northern states (and even late October if you’re on the water, like Boston), into late November in the mid-South, and as late as mid-December in the Deep South, South Central and South West.

The garden’s autumnal reboot brings forth bountiful harvests of delectable vegetables. In the north, enjoy lettuce, spinach, kale, cabbage, turnips, Brussels sprouts. In the South, gardeners can grow anything they like.

In the spirit of this holiday, the garden offers a salutary hybrid of work and leisure. And, to get bottom line-ish about it, no other investment will reap you dividends even close to what gardening offers, tangible gains you can sink your teeth into. Hedge-fund managers, take note: a modestly-sized garden can deliver a return on investment up to 25,000 percent, reckoned by what the produce will cost at your local grocer.

Remember that the garden is not only the original business—it is the ideal workplace. You are the boss, setting your own hours, claiming full ownership. You work in a thriving creative environment in a picturesque setting. The commute: minimal. Consider it a Second Summer vacation.

A version of this article appeared in the August 21, 2015 edition of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette

The Blooming of Urban Gardening

One of the great marvels of our time is the rapid emergence of urban gardening. A casual stroll about a major city soon reveals signs that the urban jungle is morphing into a luxuriant urban Eden.

Gardens, great and small, sprout on urban rooftops, root in repurposed warehouses, climb up walls, bloom on apartment terraces, and sunbathe on fire escapes. Thriving gardens transform once-desolate city lots and help unite communities. Pansies eagerly wave to passersby from window-boxes.

Farmers’ markets across the city are abuzz with kale connoisseurs, zucchini zealots, and fennel fanciers. To my great surprise, vegetables are suddenly hip, and deservingly so. As a longtime gardening evangelist, color me thrilled.

Since the 1960s, gardening prophets have predicted the coming green explosion in the metropolis. This coming season, we seed folk told ourselves each year, urban baby boomers will morph into baby bloomers.
The transformative moment kept not arriving. The future of gardening in American cities, we japed, was a sleeping green giant no one could wake up: an urban creation myth. It was like waiting for Godot, if Godot were a garden.

Then, 10 or 15 years ago, began a small trickle: a roof garden here, a hydroponic warehouse there, some victory gardens springing up in disused lots, and neighborhood parks. We took notice.

Orders flowed in from urbanites for herbs, vegetables, fruits, and flowers, as if from decades of pent-up demand.

Why not? The garden provides a perfect antidote for urban dwelling: lighting up the city with color, fragrance, flavor, shapely buds, and fruits. In cities where it is hard to see the buildings for the real estate, the garden surprises in new ways, providing a sanctum immune to hype, spokesmodels, or clickbait. That buzz? Visiting bees. In the warp-speed city, gardening is as soothingly low-tech and slow motion as it gets.

Already dark clouds are gathering over the new urban garden, still in its first bloom. They aren’t clouds, in fact, but the shadows cast by predatory developers whose focus is the bottom line, not the bumper crop of swiss chard, who associate chlorophyll with currency, not foliage, and whose ever-higher residential towers siphon sunlight from the city’s gardens.

The jumped-up rents of our nation’s cities may tarnish urban gardening’s golden age. Urban gardening is now in a space race with luxury condos, a green David up against Goliath market forces. The money, if history is our guide, is, unfortunately, on the developers.

It is time to reconsider the urban garden. Fact is, the city is a less than ideal setting for gardens. Besides land costs, complications include logistics (where to produce compost, for instance), deficits of sunlight and water, city lots with tainted soil, and the ongoing flight of the budding upwardly mobile from city neighborhoods to suburbs.

However, for gardening education — the most strategically valuable of all garden trends — the city is sublime. Huge, eager audiences, exquisite exemplary plots at both community and city botanical gardens, and a cornucopia of well-educated horticulturalists and gardeners to teach the beginners. Indeed, nearly every urban public garden is expanding not its gardens, but its education and outreach programs.

So many non-gardeners, so much time. Perhaps the poster children of endangered urban species, such as Detroit, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Chicago, hold promise as future models of both the reeducation and renaturalization of a true “nation of gardeners.”

Where have you gone, Aldo Leopold? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

By George Ball, chairman, W. Atlee Burpee & Company, and past president, the American Horticultural Society

This article appeared in the June 28, 2015 edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Hot Air

Recently Pope Francis proclaimed climate change a fact, stressing our moral duty to correct it. The Pontiff titled his encyclical “Laudato si’ ”, or “Be Praised”, a phrase taken from “Canticle of the Sun”, composed by the wandering naturalist and pioneering ecologist, St. Francis of Assisi.

I agree we are experiencing manmade climate change. But much of the change may arise from factors until now unconsidered. To make my case, I humbly invoke the 14th century English Franciscan friar, William of Occam and his principle of lex Parsimoniae (“law of parsimony”), the theory we know as “Occam’s Razor.”

The principle holds that, between competing hypotheses, the one based on the fewest assumptions is apt to be the correct one.

My hypothesis regarding global warming, called Personal Climate Change, requires no experts, voluminous studies, “hockey stick charts” or intergovernmental panels. In its parsimonious way, it locates the heart of climate change, not in the ozone level or longtime weather patterns but with we humans, our bodies and daily behavior. The problem is not global, but as local as the body you inhabit.

Over the past half-century, Americans’ “personal climates” have undergone a transformation. Two crucial developments factor in the rise of Personal Climate Change: air conditioning and changes in clothing styles.

Consider how cold it is, come July, in homes, office buildings, malls, and restaurants. Notice how the ubiquitous T-shirt, and its many and various descendants, leave the skin exposed, offering no insulation from the sudden heat blast as one steps outdoors.

The T-shirt’s popularity dates from World War II “training shirts” — hence the “T”. Originally an undergarment for warmth, the T-shirt on its own became standard issue military wear that allowed millions of personnel to keep cool in the sweltering tropics.

Post-war T-shirts became an essential ingredient in young America’s year-round informal uniform. The skimpy garment has a triple effect on its wearers—making them feel colder in air-conditioned buildings, hotter once outdoors, and hypersensitive to the acute temperature contrast between indoors and out.

In the 1950s, air conditioning’s chill became pervasive in America’s great indoors, notably in the South and Southwest. Soon AC was everpresent across the land. In the air-conditioned ’50s, the word “cool” became the new “hot.”

Over the last thirty years, Americans have gravitated to the Sunbelt’s sprawl of treeless, shadeless suburban conurbations. In this deserta suburbanica, the
American Dream morphs into Henry Miller’s “Air-Conditioned Nightmare”. Arizonians live half the year in air-conditioned lockdown—waking in 70 degrees, driving in the 70-degree climate of their car, and working in 70-degree offices. In this artificial paradise, the real natural climate becomes notional, abstract, terra incognita.

To one unnaturally cooled, nature feels unnaturally hot. The perception of global warming partly stems from the lack of air conditioning we find outdoors. Literally, we lose our cool.

Just as Americans started dressing down in the 1960s, on went their T-shirts, and off went their hats. The dramatic decrease in the wearing of hats—which keep you warm in winter and cool in summer—was accompanied by an equal and opposite increase in head colds, and a skyrocketing demand for cold remedies. Cool begot colds.

Then there is the “wind chill” factor, a 1960s innovation, now standard in winter weather reports. “Cold” will no longer suffice—too vague. “Minus 10 with the wind chill,” we mutter, venturing hatlessly into frigid weather, body heat escaping from our bare domes. Wind chill statistics lets us suffer the cold more knowledgeably, just as with global warming we feel knowledgeably warmer. Ours is, after all, a suggestible species.

Personal Climate Change—effected by refrigerated environments, intensified by thin, weightless, sleeveless clothing and hatless heads—predisposes Americans to warm to the concern about global warming. It feels true.

I do not dispute climate change, so lay down your hockey stick charts. I wonder, however, if our profoundly altered personal climates have made us the climate change we believe in. Personal Climate Change, a theory rich in parsimony, does not solve Global Warming. Yet, it just might enlarge our understanding—if only to a degree.

By George Ball, chairman, W. Atlee Burpee & Company, and past president, the American Horticultural Society

This article appeared in the June 28, 2015 edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

The Winter Is A Garden

The winter has turned the corner— truly — our days are lengthening.

The beginning of winter’s end is fast upon us — but don’t be too enthusiastic: the winter is, itself, a garden.  You just don’t see it that way.

Winter is not the cruelest season.  It is the mother of the garden’s invention.

The winter garden is all around us: lights of all types — indoors and out — replace the sun.   Bright hues recall the colors of summer, clothing us and spread about our immediate surroundings.  Potted flowering plants, cut flowers — the entire glasshouse industry — orients us back toward the late spring, summer and early fall months.  Table décor such as glass and crystal reflect and augment the brilliance that surrounded us in summer.  Sweet foods and candies emulate the “fresh” tastes of the warm months.

Indeed, our ancestors believed the corn — or grain — spirit dwelt amongst the summer crops.  During the growing season, the fertilizing agricultural spirit’s movements could be detected in waving stands of wheat.  Once the harvest had been reaped and threshed, the now dormant corn god — or corn mother, or corn maiden, or old man or old woman: a matter of regional preference—was essentially homeless.

A widespread custom was to fashion a corn spirit figurine from cornstalks—incorporating the plant’s most fertile features—of the last crop harvested.

The corn spirit would bunker down in a selected home for the winter until dispersed into spring’s newly-turned earth. Yes, the corn doll is the ancestor of Barbie, a modern-day agricultural and fertility goddess whose effigy, carefully nurtured and groomed, is resident in many homes on a year-round basis.

Winter brings us all back home — but to the garden within. We close the door quickly and firmly, lest our garden be overtaken by rampaging wind and cold. The shut door closes both ways: confining winter’s wet, cold and wind to their outdoor chamber, and securing we mortals indoors. Inside becomes garden.

Winter epitomizes the sweet uses of adversity. The garden—and gardeners—come in from the cold. The place of genesis, fertility, growth, and activity moves indoors, corn-doll fashion.  And the very seeds that will plant the crops of the following season sleep with us, in their dormancy, as we keep them — even mother them — in dry and uniform conditions.  These are the garden beds of winter.

At home we cultivate not crops, but our hopeful selves. Agriculture’s skill set—planning, preparation, attunement, and the ability to cope with uncertainty—are put to frequent use.

Cool, cruel winter fertilizes the very human creations that keep us warm: home, culture, cooperation, tradition, song, legend, music, art, etiquette, festivity, comfort and joy.

The mid-winter season rejoins us to our ingenious, tenacious peasant forebears—who, at a minimum, were able to survive enough winters to produce offspring and a line of descent that leads to us. Their ancient folkways, born anew each winter, harmonize with our relatively modern established religions.

Virtually all creation myths begin in a vision of paradise that is, invariably, a garden.  This must be a creation of the winter months, during which we imagined the vibrancy and beauty of creation as being that condition that would return to us in time.  The corn goddess lives both through us as well as for us.

Speaking of time, our ancestors had to invent rituals to keep them awake in the shortened days.  Both the rites and contemplation thereof, expanded the sense of time. Also, the practice of sharing — and the holidays just passed were the kick off for months of gift giving — might be the first foreshadowing of the recognition of brotherhood.  Could it be that long sheltered winter groups became tribes?  Making sure everyone has something, as in the survival of winter famine, and residually expressed in gift giving, reflects the invention of human survival.

As dormant seeds finally come to life again so shall we be reawakened in spring.  But the fact remains that the garden lives year round.  It simply does not look like the summer; but it is every bit as much a summation of our humanity during the winter months as during the rest of the year.

Just ask the corn dolls, the Raggedy Ann dolls or even Barbie.  They answer with joy, hopefulness and ultimate fertility that they promise during these harsh months.

This article appeared in the January 18, 2015 edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Daylight Saving: Now Is Not the Time

What you will rarely encounter in the digital world of today is a sense of tradition.

The change-over from daylight-saving time this weekend reminds me of a long-ago conversation with a business colleague from India. He found the notion of our biannual time shift both novel and disturbing.

“You can’t do that,” he said. He felt that this arbitrary manipulation of time runs counter to nature, which is surely true. “How do we know that we are here now, and not an hour ago?”

“Now” is a slippery business, an ever-moving sliver of time sandwiched between what has just happened and the not-yet. The past represents an infinite series of nows endlessly arriving and departing, gliding past their sell-by date with nary a backward glance. The future is forever heading this way, alighting for a moment to become now, and then retire into the past.

The current, salutary vogue for mindfulness bids us to focus on the moment, rather than have our thoughts kidnapped by ruminations on the past or concerns about the future. Mindfulness allows an individual access to a personal, subjective now, a portable personal sanctuary from the polyrhythmic drumbeat of change. Someday I shall try it.

Then there is the now of mindlessness. This altogether noisy now—the digital Babylon of the new, novel, momentous, scandalous, and sensational—endlessly colonizes our attention via the Internet, Twitter , TV, radio, news, popular entertainment, and advertising. Clicking and flicking, we are sucked willy-nilly into a swirling vortex of data, opinion and personalities, a psychic maelstrom devoid of perspective and reflection.

Mass media—and we, their faithful masses—provide a surrogate reality we engage with cognitively and emotionally. Information, which should teach, enlighten and inspire us, has, as social critic Neil Postman noted, “turned into a deluge of chaos” and “information no longer has any relation to the solution of problems.”

We live in a quandary of fight-or-flight hyper-arousal, stressing our bodies and minds, narrowing our vision and producing “auditory exclusion,” so our hearing is reduced to our inner screams. What you will rarely encounter in our media’s iCloud of Unknowing is the past or a sense of tradition.

Albert Einstein called this the “modernist’s snobbery,” observing, “Somebody who reads only newspapers and at best the books of contemporary authors looks to me like an extremely nearsighted person who scorns eyeglasses. He is completely dependent on the prejudices and fashions of his times, since he never gets to see or hear anything else.”

Since now is the moment when we are most fully alive, do you really want to spend it in the company of pixels?

We discover something surprising once we step away from the carny fairway of mass media, and meander through the great works of the past. Whether we are listening to Mozart, gazing at a Georgia O’Keeffe painting, pondering Confucius, or reading the “Odyssey,” we are struck by the newness and nowness of the experience.

As G.K. Chesterton wrote: “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.”


This article appeared in the October 31, 2014 edition of The Wall Street Journal.

H2O No: Guest Blog By Nick Rhodehamel

The sky grew darker, and when the clouds finally let loose, the water stood an inch deep on the level driveway and streamed into the window wells. Later, in the basement, among the ruined boxes of books and whatnot, I saw a little plastic bear, long forgotten, bobbing gently against the wall and floating on his back looking up at the floor boards. It was hard to imagine that anyone anywhere lacked water.

But tell that to people on the West Coast, particularly Californians. Rainfall record keeping in California began in July 1849 in San Francisco. In those 165 years, never has there been a year as dry as 2013, but 2014 might top it. A recent LA Times headline blared “California drought will only get worse, experts say”; currently 99.8% of the state is under “Severe” drought conditions. Much of California’s water comes from winter precipitation that accumulates in the Sierras. Melt water is stored in reservoirs, but most of California’s major reservoirs are below 50% of capacity; some are well below that, and with the hot, normally dry summer months upon us, the most reasonable hope for rain in California is not until early next winter.

Drought is nothing new. As a child, I was taught about ancient civilizations that dwindled and faded: Egypt’s Old Kingdom, Bronze Age cultures around the eastern Mediterranean, and the Akkadians, who gave rise to the Assyrians and the Babylonians, in the Fertile Crescent region. That’s all ancient history. They disappeared and nobody’s quite sure why. But drought has always been a likely hypothesis.

Recent research sheds light on what may have happened to those peoples and another civilization that also flourished and faded at about that time, the Harappan culture. The Harappans were Bronze Age people who thrived 4,000 years ago in the Indus Valley in what is now northwestern India and eastern Pakistan. They had two well-developed cities with efficient municipal sewer systems, standardized units of weights and measurements, and a system of writing that has not been decoded.

Paleoclimatological evidence published last February and based on oxygen isotope deposits in the shells of fresh-water snails dug from stratified layers of lake bed sediment suggests an “abrupt weakening” of the Indian summer monsoon preceded a prolonged drought that occurred about 4,100 years ago. The authors contend that this caused “deurbanization” of the Harappan culture and perhaps those other civilizations too. That drought lasted some 200 years.

The most extensive and long lasting drought during the past 300 years in North America was from 1930 until 1940 – the Dust Bowl drought, chronicled in the Grapes of Wrath and by the grainy images of “Black Blizzards” that were created by air-borne soil and that obscured the sky and sun sometimes for days. During the worst year of that drought, 70% of the USA was affected.

In the course geological time, 300 years is the blink of an eye. Regardless of the records the current California drought is breaking, tree-ring data used to infer the historical climate tell us that the last century in California has been unusually wet. California has been much drier in the past, and its droughts have lasted for decades and sometimes centuries. Within the last 1,200 years, there have been two prolonged droughts, lasting between 140 and 200 years.

So how about the current California drought? No one knows whether this drought will last another year or another century. Our understanding of what causes drought is incomplete. Computer models designed to predict and simulate drought are not sufficient to forecast the weather or climate 100 years hence.

Surface water temperature of the eastern Pacific Ocean seems to be one important variable – almost certainly one among many. Data from tree rings, ancient mollusks, and such likely demonstrate a correlation between several historical megadroughts and cool surface waters in the eastern Pacific.

When cooler sea temperatures persist, ridges of high pressure form over the northeastern Pacific Ocean (such as the one that’s been in place since 2012). These force the jet stream and mid-latitude (California) storms to track north and effectively block moisture-laden storms from reaching California and bringing winter rain and snow. This same weather pattern spawned the advance of the infamous “Polar Vortex” that chilled much of the country last winter.

These cooler sea temperatures are linked to a pattern of Pacific climate variability called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), similar to the more familiar El Niño pattern but lasting 20 to 30 years rather than 6 to 18 months. The eastern Pacific has been in a cold phase of PDO for 15 years or so.

What if California’s drought does persist for a decade or 100 years? Would California be deurbanized and begin to resemble Saudi Arabia’s Empty Quarter? Workers at University of California-Davis Center for Watershed Sciences studied this question and concluded that an apocalypse would not ensue. Their published report says that, while it wouldn’t be pretty, if well- managed, an extreme drought, such as the 72-year one they modeled, would cause little damage to California’s economy “…with a statewide cost of only a few billion dollars a year out of a $1.9 trillion-a-year economy.”

To be sure, there would be cataclysmic social dislocation for some, and agriculture, wildlife, and some ecosystems and areas such as the Central Valley, where much of North America’s vegetables are grown, would be severely affected. During the drought, reservoirs and lakes would never refill. But “California has a very flexible water supply system that can support a large population and economy under extreme adverse circumstances – provided it is well-managed.” Read the whole thing.

A Requiem for Woodchucks: Guest Blog by Nick Rhodehamel

For a long time, I used to go to bed early. That was when my daughter was little more than a toddler. At night, she asked to be told stories about animals. Sometimes she would fall asleep before I had begun; sometimes I would find myself speaking from my own dream. But other times the stories, continued from previous nights’ accounts, would go on for an hour or more.

There were lots of stories with lots of different animals, but the ones with woodchucks were the most engaging and enduring. Our woodchucks had adventures, paddled a canoe up a river, avoiding humans and other predators as best they could, and lost and found love. They had lively times; they were thoroughly amiable creatures. But they were not much like real-life woodchucks, which are nothing like humans, can be aggressive nuisances, and are not amiable.

When Europeans first colonized North America, they had no name for woodchucks. They adopted the Algonquian name “wuchak”, and that was subsequently corrupted to “woodchuck”.  Woodchucks do not chuck wood; nor do they routinely chew wood or structures. Woodchucks are also commonly called “groundhogs” and “land-beavers”.

The scientific name for woodchuck is Marmota monax. They belong to the rodent family Sciuridae—the squirrels. Other members of that family include tree, ground, and flying squirrels as well as chipmunks and prairie dogs. They are the largest of these mammals, typically as adults weighing about 10 lb., but in a particularly lush area (say near an alfalfa field), they may reach 30 lb. Their closest relative is the whistling marmot (Marmota caligata), which is often encountered by visitors to the Rocky or Sierra Nevada Mountains who, leaving a pack containing trail mix unattended, return to find it chewed open and the food missing.

Woodchucks prefer to live in open fields and woodland margins, though they’re well adapted to urban settings such as golf courses. When those Europeans first settled here, much of the land east of the Mississippi was wooded, and woodchuck populations were relatively low. As the forests were thinned and woodchuck habitat thus opened up, woodchucks thrived and have prospered in the eastern and central USA and spread northward across Canada, up into Alaska, and south to Georgia.

Mounds from burrow construction may be the first sign of the presence of woodchucks. Woodchucks are built for digging. And dig they do; their burrows are extensive and can be 5 feet deep, 150 feet long, and contain sleeping, birthing, and latrine chambers. Woodchucks are most active during the day and rarely venture more than 150 feet from their burrows to which they scurry, if possible, when threatened.

From mid to late fall until March or April, woodchucks hibernate. They are generally solitary, but when they leave the burrow in spring, males may range far and wide looking for love. Females produce one litter of four to nine kits per year after a 32-day gestation period. Woodchucks waste little time in childrearing; offspring are on their own by mid-July.

Woodchucks are primarily herbivorous, eating, in a natural setting, grasses and other plant products such as berries, nuts, and the bark of young woody plants. They will also eat insects, grubs, and other small animals.  If available, they consume most vegetable and agricultural crops and will do significant damage in a flower garden too. Woodchucks may look ungainly, but they climb trees well and like fruit.

Many woodchucks fall prey to highway traffic, but there are few natural woodchuck predators. Young ones can be killed by coyotes, dogs, and some birds of prey, but adults do a pretty good job of taking care of themselves. As a result of this, their fecundity, and an abundant food supply, woodchuck populations can blossom.

Fordhook Farm, our founder’s 60 acre original test garden, is a case in point. One spring day several years ago, the farm manager and an assistant entered an old playhouse that was used as a tool shed. The floor dropped out from under them, and they were violently pitched against a wall. An earthquake had not occurred, as they at first thought; rather, the whole building, undermined by several generations of woodchucks, had dropped nearly a foot, and the tool shed canted over on its side.

When they looked, they found foundations of several other buildings had been damaged too. As the growing season progressed, some of the display gardens were torn up, and vegetable trial gardens also were ravaged. Burrows seemed to appear everywhere. A professional was thus called. He identified the epicenter of the invasion as a hillside by a freeway off-ramp adjacent to the farm. He set to work.

Throughout that summer, the professional came to the farm manager for payment with a string of woodchuck tails as evidence of his effectiveness. The farm manager told me once that he half wondered whether each time the tails were actually different; maybe they were always the same ones, but just their order on the wire had been changed. I could imagine that too: the professional sitting there humming softly late at night while he restrung the tails.

Whatever the truth of that conjecture, by October the woodchucks were gone, and the professional went his way. I like to think sometimes that maybe on foggy mornings before starting work, he joins a congress of fellow professionals at a roadside café and with raised cup of coffee he toasts Fordhook Farm and the plunder he made there. I know he knows too that on a spring day like today, the woodchucks on the hillside by the freeway off-ramp are getting restless and that they’ll be back at Fordhook Farm before long.

My Spring Vacation

As today’s the first day of spring, it seems timely to ask, why does anyone go on spring vacation? It seems odd to fly off to a southern, tropical, virtually springless destination at the very moment that one of the great astonishments of life on earth is taking place right at home. When friends tell me their spring vacation plans, they mention the word “escape.” Really? You want to escape from spring? That’s like fleeing paradise. Far better to escape to spring.


You cannot access the magic of spring on your laptop or smart phone; you can’t watch it on TV or catch it on your radio or simply read about it. If you wish to apprehend spring in its ineffable splendor, you have to show up in person, with every one of your senses engaged, and personally participate in this annual miracle.


The media world in which we dwell offers us a shared spectacle of limitless images, constant chatter, endless noise, infinite information, and mountains of data: at once a stimulant and a narcotic. What’s lacking in this manmade media galaxy, to my mind, is everything that matters: beauty, love, magic, mystery, grandeur, rapture, the miraculous. Not to forget, poetry, delicacy, refinement, purity, splendor, intimacy, innocence, fulfillment, inspiration. And then there’s nuance, drama, poignancy, integrity, harmony. Where will you find these? On your smartphone? Non. On your tropical vacation? Unlikely. Discover the magnitude, mystery and wonder of life at home, working in your garden, in springtime.


If you are inclined to look for the meaning of life, get thee to a garden. There are profound reasons why the garden is central in the sacred texts of major religions. Since ancient times, the garden has been the place where the soul goes to exercise, while simultaneously engaged in a multi-layered dance with earth, plants, sun, birds, bees, hummingbirds, butterflies, night and day, temperature, the faithful earthworm, water, minerals, fragrance, a cast of thousands of microorganisms, our stalwart friends the fungi, chlorophyll, nectar. I think of it as a ballet in the biosphere.


In primitive times, when people were more advanced, religion, science, custom, magic, ritual and myth—one and the same in those days—were chiefly focused on spring, how to encourage its return, and with it, the return of life. Unlike our vacationing escapees, our distant ancestors weren’t certain that spring would come around once more: the laws of nature had yet to be invented, and calendars in short supply.


In the “Golden Bough,” James Frazer writes of the ancient spring rites, “It was natural that with such thoughts and fears he [our ancestor] should have done all in his power to bring back the faded blossom to bough, to swing the low sun of winter up to his old place in the summer sky, and restore its orbed fullness to the silver lamp of the waning moon.”


There’s a difference between the first day of spring and the first springlike day. In whatever spring weather, take time to wander the garden and home landscape gradually, lucidly, taking note the season’s early arrivals, the flower and vegetable avant-garde.

The robins are on location, announcing their arrival with a song; starlings poke under leaves for savory insects and worms. In the vegetable garden, garlic and asparagus bask in the spring sunlight.

The lawn is dappled with snowdrops, crocuses, sweet william, vivid yellow winter aconites; tulips and daffodils push from the earth sunwards. The humble skunk cabbage is flourishing, having determinedly pushed its way through the snow a week or two back. Hail, skunk cabbage!

Fragrant hints of rosemary, lavender, thyme and basil criss-cross the herb garden. The moist earth, warmed by the sun, exudes a musky, sense-soaking mind-freeing perfume. The author Margaret Atwood observes, “In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”


Welcome to my spring vacation.



An abridged version of this article appears in the March 20, 2014 Wall Street Journal.

The Calm Below the Storm

This winter’s epic storms lavished near-record amounts of snow on a vast swathe of the American landscape. At my farm here in Bucks County, PA, five feet of snow have fallen since Thanksgiving, leaving the ground covered with a snowy mantle several feet deep.

Increasingly I hear friends and colleagues complain of “snow fatigue.” They want to see this vast snowy carpet rolled up once and for all—and a speedy ending to this prolonged winter’s tale. While I’m tempted to suggest they regard the great American Snow Pile-up from the overwintering plant’s point of view, I fear the answer would be a cannonade of hard-packed snowballs.

Veteran gardeners know a lush snow cover promises a bountiful garden season ahead. The current feet-deep snow blanket on the ground is a godsend for wintering plants: the thicker the covering and the longer the duration the better. Paradoxically, the same weather gyrations that dump all this snow provide the needed “security blanket” to protect overwintering plants and the soil from zigzagging temperatures and climate effects.

A few feet of snow provides an “igloo effect” that insulates the plants’ earthly home, shielding vulnerable root systems from potentially destructive temperature jumps. The frost heaves caused by winter’s “bipolar” temperature swings that lay waste to asphalt roads can devastate fragile soil. Left unprotected, plants’ root systems—subterranean habitat under siege, tissues torn and exposed to frigid air and desiccating wind—are doomed.

Deep snow cover actually helps warm “hibernating” plants. In winter, dormant plants, though asleep, are still in a minimal growth phase. A thick snow mantle warms the soil, plants’ root crowns and, in some species, the upper root system. Under the snow covering, the soil can be 25 degrees warmer than the air temperature. Without this snow security blanket, very low temperatures cause plants to suspend growth activity and utilize the stored energy in plant tissue to keep warm.

Sunlight boosts the thick snow’s warming effect, helping the soil retain the daytime temperatures into night. Snow helps conduct light to the soil it covers so plentifully. Under the thick snow layer, plants’ root systems engage in photosynthesis, powered by the sunlight, distributed evenly as if by an advanced lighting system. Nurtured in the light and relative warmth of snow’s cold greenhouse, plants will emerge earlier, grow lusher, and taller.

Finally, our winter’s thick snow cover creates a finely calibrated “drip system” that keeps plant roots underground optimally watered, even in frigid conditions. The warmest snow, drawing heat from below as well as above, nourishes the dormant plants. And come warmer weather—it will come, it will come!—the resulting snow melt will help keep water tables well-supplied, the better to slake the thirst of plants and trees.

Adopting the plant’s point of view cures “snow-blindness,” and opens our eyes to snowfall’s role as the white stuff with right stuff: an invaluable source of protection, warmth, light and moisture for plants. The snow may be white, but its rewards are green.