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Gardening Tips: The woods awaken

May 10, 2019 11:41 am Updated: May 10, 2019 11:53 am


I have been back home in New York for just about two weeks now and it has rained almost every single day. I believe this string of rainy days is the fourth longest on record in the Capital District as I write this on May 7. This has certainly put a damper on getting my outdoor gardening chores accomplished, but it has not prevented me from spending lots of time in the woods turkey hunting!

It is pure joy for me to watch the plants and animals of the forest awaken from winter dormancy. There is really nothing I enjoy more than communing with nature every year at this time. It is well worth the effort to get out of bed at 4:30 a.m. in order to be in the forest before the sun comes up. The pace at which the leaves on trees and shrubs expand and the growth rate of the perennial plants that are emerging is truly remarkable. It seems that the tree leaves double in size in only three or four days and the ephemeral herbs arise from the forest floor at least as quickly. Five days ago ginseng plants had not yet emerged at all in a place where I have monitored a wild population for almost 30 years, but now they are 3 inches tall and within a few weeks they will be twelve inches tall. Most of the woodland ferns are in the fiddlehead stage now, but maidenhair fern, my favorite, is still not even beginning to open.

It is interesting to note how the color of these plants change from emergence to full development. Common plants such as poison ivy and Virginia creeper as well as many tree species begin growth with red colored leaves that will eventually turn deep green as their chloroplasts get to work and mask the red pigments. Chloroplasts are the remarkable organs contained in plant cells where photosynthesis takes place. Like mitochondria, another cellular organ, they contain their own DNA and are capable of self-replication. The lime green color we are seeing now will darken and deepen as the season progresses and the chloroplasts multiply. Woodland wildflowers abound with colorful blossoms ranging from white to red, green, pink, maroon, blue, violet, purple, yellow, orange and even brown. I feel sorry for some men, like my friend Lester, who are somewhat color blind and cannot see the subtle shades of all these blossoms. Women do not suffer from this malady, since the genes that cause color blindness occur on the Y chromosome, which women lack.

Woodland animals are also becoming active again, from salamanders to black bears. The air is filled with the sounds of so many bird species that have either returned from warmer climates, or have survived yet another winter in the Northeast. Food is also abundant as plants produce highly nutritious flowers and seeds. I watched a rose breasted Grosbeak and a red squirrel both gorge themselves on the green flowers of a sugar maple tree at Lester’s house, while ignoring a platform bird feeder nearby. Black bears are already becoming a nuisance to people who have not yet removed their winter bird feeders. It is imperative that these feeders be removed now, or at least brought indoors at night to prevent bears from becoming accustomed to a free handout. Bad bear behavior is usually the result of seemingly innocent bird feeding and sometimes the bears must be killed by the DEC if they persist in raiding human sources of food.

I spotted an adult woodchuck in my garden today. It quickly took refuge under one of my sheds before I had a chance to shoot it. I really don’t like killing woodchucks, or any other wildlife I don’t eat, but in New York it is illegal to live trap an animal such as a woodchuck and re-locate it elsewhere. People who live in more urban areas often must hire someone to get rid of offending critters like woodchucks if they take up residence in an unacceptable location. Once a woodchuck has an established burrow, the burrow must be completely destroyed or it will quickly be re-occupied by another woodchuck.

Despite the wet weather, I want to remind everyone that no outdoor burning of anything is permitted until mid –May. Leaves, and other garden debris can be raked up and composted, but not burned.

Reach Bob Beyfuss at