Gardening Facts for the New Year

Kay Hinkle
Adams County Master Gardener

One of my favorite things about being a part of Master Gardeners of Adams County is there is constant opportunity for learning new things; and what better to learn more about than garden plantings and the great outdoors! I work with some pretty savvy gardeners and they tell me the same thing - they continue to learn through Penn State University and from other gardeners as well.

This article is all about some new things I have learned in the past years that I want to share with you. If you are one of those savvy gardeners or a naturalist for whom this information is old news, please forgive me. You're ahead of me. Chalk it up to expertise and look for next week's Master Gardening feature in this paper!

First, the banded woolly bear caterpillar has been an unofficial gauge of the severity of winter weather to me for most of my life. While I didn't make plans for a ski or snowmobile trip as a result of seeing lots of black on the woolly bear going into fall, it was certainly a consideration. I like snow, so I have always been delighted to see a dark woolly bear as the weather turns from typical summer to much shorter autumn days.

I learned by reading a past issue of Better Homes and Gardens that the color change is actually an indication of the caterpillar's age. The woolly bear is actually the larva stage of the Isabella tiger moth. I sort of liked to imagine he was a harbinger of winter weather but now I know the "rest of the story"!

Until recently, I firmly believed that leaving hummingbird feeders out after Labor Day might somehow be harmful to the hummingbirds, detaining the start of their migration south. I have honestly never left those feeders out to avoid intervening with that natural phenomenon. To the contrary, I read in a recent issue of Birds and Bloom that their food source has no impact on migration, but rather the length of days/ amount of daylight drives them to move south at the appropriate time.

In fact, leaving those feeders out late in the growing season will supplement the natural nectar they sometimes prefer as blooming plants begin their decline to colder weather. Hummingbird feeders also supply energy for those birds migrating through that come from further north on a path to their winter homes in Mexico or Central America. They need to build up enough stamina to fly across the Gulf of Mexico as there are no rest stops over the water! Only the strong survive that trip.

Did you know that the average male Ruby-throated hummingbird weighs 2.5 grams? The American Nickel, or 5-cent piece, weighs 5 grams. The hummingbird often doubles its weight by going into its feeding frenzy prior to migration - keep those feeders out please!

A Master Gardener friend gave me several small rue plants at our annual plant exchange. She explained that this plant attracts the larval stage of the Black Swallowtail butterfly. I planted my rue in June and sure enough, in spite of their small size, the rue plants were covered with swallowtail caterpillars in August and September as predicted!

Now, a few tidbits around Pennsylvania geology: The planet earth is estimated to be 4.5 billion years old. In its geological history, the area known as Pennsylvania today has been subjected to 3 continental land mass collisions. Geologists believe the first occurred about a million years ago. The third collision resulted in what we know today as the Atlantic Ocean.

The Allegheny Plateau around Pittsburgh is about 3 billion years, and is considered one of the earth's oldest land masses. A second major geological feature, sometimes referred to as the Hill and Valley Region of Pennsylvania, is characterized by long, low mountain ridges.

The third feature that describes our beautiful state (or Commonwealth) is the Piedmont Crystalline Belt and extends from Bucks County through Philadelphia, Lancaster, and Harrisburg, on to include Gettysburg. In some spots, the shale is close enough to the surface that it cannot support cultivation without adding a layer of topsoil. The majority, however, comprises some of the richest soil in the United States. This rich surface soil overlying much of the Piedmont stratus has been created mostly of decomposed decaying plant waste. Over the years this plant waste formed a spongy, nutrient-rich humus washed down from forested hillsides.

This rich soil, in combination with our temperate climate, makes for some of the best farming, and gardening, anywhere. Aren't we fortunate to live here?

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