If you are like me, you are spending some time while quarantined working outside in your garden. If you took my suggestions from last week and planted some things, I hope you covered the fragile plants to keep them safe during the cold temperatures we have had at night.
I remember when I was a child I could hear my mom (whom I got my love of gardening from) say something like, “This is blackberry winter” or “This is dogwood winter.”
I always wondered about this, so I decided to find out just what these winters are.
In the days before the National Weather Service’s precise predictions, most Tennesseans still worked on the farm. They would read weather behavior from the signs. Farmers depended on told wisdom for when to plant their crops and gardens.
Observing nature’s phenomenon, they would note when certain leaves appeared, when certain birds appeared and when temperatures cooled or warmed. This taught them important lessons about the unpredictable weather of spring when some days from March into May are summer-like and others threaten frost. They observed small blips when the weather switched from summer heat to winter cold. These changes from hot to cold are called “singularities.” For one of these blips to be recognized, it had to occur in at least 50% of the years. To plan for one of these weather changes, they gave these weather changes a name.
Through these observations year after year, famers knew when to wait before planting cold sensitive crops such as corn, tomatoes, cotton and tobacco. This knowledge could save them from disastrous losses and increase the yields from their labor.
Here is a list of the most common “singularities” of spring. Maybe this will help all of us to know when to plant our gardens. Just a word of caution: What we just experienced was Blackberry Winter, but if you notice, there are two more “singularities” to come!
• Locust Winter. This usually happens in April when the locust trees start to get their leaves.
• Redbud Winter. Mid-March to early April, when the redbud trees bloom.
• Dogwood Winter. Mid- to late-April when the dogwood trees bloom. Often there will be a heavy frost in dogwood winter.
• Blackberry Winter. Early to mid-May, when blackberries are in full bloom. In the Tennessee mountains, this often coincides with the last frost of spring, which can kill new plants.
• Whippoorwill Winter. Mid- to late-May, when the whippoorwills can be first heard in the twilight of evenings and before dawn.
• Cotton Britches Winter. Late-May or early June, when the linen and wool pants were put away for the summer and farmers changed into the light cotton pants of summer.
Because of climate change, the little winters in Tennessee now occur two to three weeks earlier in the season than observed in the 19th and 20th centuries. While you are quarantined, you could write in a journal when these little winters occur. This would create an important record for Tennesseans to come.
One of the reasons I like to spend my time gardening is that it just makes me feel good. There has been research into just why gardening is so good for you. Below are some physical reasons you may want to get your hands dirty:
• Gardening can help you burn calories. Gardening is considered moderate to high-intensity exercise. You can burn up to 330 calories during just one hour. As a result, this can lead to weight loss. Weight loss can aid in reducing the risk of heart disease, diabetes and other life-threatening diseases.
• When gardening, you are weeding, planting, stretching and other repetitive tasks. This type of exercise helps with joint pain and other chronic pain. It will improve your limberness and the use of your hands. Exercise by gardening has another advantage: People are more likely to stick with it.
• Gardening can reduce the likelihood of osteoporosis. When you dig, plant, weed and engage in repetitive tasks that require strength or stretching, all the major muscle groups are getting a good workout.
• Gardening can strengthen your immune system. When you are out in the sun, you will soak up plenty of vitamin D, which helps the body absorb calcium that keeps your immune system healthy.
• If you grow vegetables, you are providing yourself with the freshest food you can eat. They are also among the healthiest and most nutritious. Studies have shown that people who grow vegetables eat more than others.
Not only does gardening have many physical benefits, but the mental benefits are surprising:
• Gardening is a stress-buster. Gardeners exhibit lower levels of cortisol — the stress hormone.
• Gardening improves your mood. This may sound surprising, but there is actually a harmless bacteria, Mycobacterium vaccae, in soil that has been found to increase the release and metabolism of serotonin in parts of the brain that controls mood. An increase in serotonin results in a better mood.
• Gardening may lower the risk of dementia. Some research suggests that the physical activity of gardening can help lower the risk of developing dementia. A study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found that various physical activities, including gardening, can cut your risk of Alzheimer’s by 50%.
• Gardening makes you happy. Gardening staves off blues, provides an outlet for creativity and nurtures a sense of pride when you harvest those yummy vegetables. Flowers are a natural and healthy moderator of moods and have an immediate impact of happiness.
Here are a couple of other tricks to make gardening more enjoyable, especially if you are a senior:
• Pace yourself. If you are just beginning, start slowly. Change your position and activity every 20-30 minutes. Then rest for 10 minutes. That way, you won’t be too sore to go back to your garden the next day.
• Avoid being in the sun between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. to avoid too much sun exposure. Drink plenty of decaffeinated fluids to prevent dehydration. Allow plenty of time for breaks in the shade.
• Wear lightweight clothing, a long-sleeved shirt, eye protection, sunscreen, a big hat to shade your face and gardening gloves. Use an insect repellent to keep away the nasty mosquitoes.
• Choose your tools wisely. Tools that are lightweight and come with longer handles would be a good idea. You can use duct tape on the handles to make grips and make them more comfortable to use. Paint the handle of your tools a bright color to make finding them easier.
• Think like “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Plant upward. Save your back by growing vegetables on trellises, tomato cages, bamboo stakes, fences or walls. This will cut down on bending and stooping and make harvesting easier.
Maybe when the time for social distancing is over and you can once again visit a friend or family member in a health care center, you could take a mini-garden in a pot to them. They probably miss being able to go out and work on their own. It’s like you are bringing the garden to them.
If you know someone who is at home, but not able to go work in an outside garden, help them by putting plants in containers right outside their door. If a loved one is bedridden, plant a mini-garden in pots on the windowsill or create a maintenance-free terrarium from a glass container. This way, those who are not physically able to garden can still receive the joys of gardening.
I hope that, after seeing all the benefits you can receive from working in a garden, you will want to get out and try your hand at growing something. Not only will you improve your health, but you will help make this world a more beautiful place.
Sue Walker is the executive director of the Etowah Area Senior Citizens Center. She may be reached by calling 423-781-7632.