Wormy job has some predictable benefits

November 01, 2003|By ROB KASPER

RECENTLY, I was performing one of the five dreaded steps to prepare for cold weather - the yanking of the garden plants - when I came upon a cutworm.

A cutworm is the larva of a moth. It is one ugly critter. But it can also be a prognosticator of the coming winter, or so I believe. These rascals spend the winter hiding in the ground where, unless they freeze to death, they emerge in the spring and start chowing down.

Anytime I find a cutworm, I dispatch it with my bare hands. These are things gardeners do. During the dispatching, I note the thickness of the cutworm's skin. A thick skin in the fall, I figure, means the coming winter is going to be harsh. A thin autumnal skin signals that a mild season will follow.

After hours of pinching cutworms in my garden plot in Druid Hill Park, I am ready to predict that this winter will be a mild one, a cakewalk, nothing to worry about. So say the cutworms.

Scoffers may point out that there is no scientific basis for the cutworm-skin theory of weather prediction. To this I reply: So what? Scientists don't seem to be so sure what is going to happen either.

A few weeks ago, a story in The Sun written by Frank D. Roylance said the nation's weather experts were unable to come up with a clear prediction for the coming winter. The National Weather Service said that there were equal chances that the temperature and precipitation for this winter could be above, below or smack dab in the middle of normal.

Meteorologists at AccuWeather, a private forecasting service, and prognosticators at the Old Farmer's Almanac and the Hagers-Town Town and Country Almanack, did tell Roylance that their data indicate that the winter around here is likely to be cold and snowy. But in the face of conflicting forecasts, I am sticking with the cutworms.

One benefit of believing that the winter will be mild is that it buys me more time to do the dreary tasks that prepare the homestead for the change of seasons.

One of those is yanking the dead plants out of the garden, as I mentioned, and turning over the soil. Experts say you do this because garden pests are like teen-agers, if you cut off their food supply, they vamoose. But if you have snacks sitting around - fallen fruit or leftover plant stems - the pests will never leave.

A second cold-weather-readiness step that I dread is sealing up the doors. Wind, which you welcome into the house in warmer times, now becomes a force you build barricades to stop. The breeze-friendly screen on the back door comes down. In its place goes a panel made of thick glass. The sweeps on the bottoms of doors are tested with a candle to display their draft-killing prowess. If the candle goes out, the sweep is replaced.

Next, the edges of old, leaky windows are plugged with a variety of caulks and foam strips. Once a window is "sealed," it is closed for the season and can't be opened for months.

I almost get teary when I reach the fourth step: shutting off the outdoor water tap and carrying the hose in from the back yard. For me, the removal of the hose is like striking the colors and retreating. I put it off as long as possible.

This year, according to the cutworms, it will be weeks before I have to grab the hose.

It also should be a long time before I even have to think of firing up the furnace, the fifth and final step. The other day, I patted the top of the furnace, like a coach encouraging a bench-warmer to be ready for action.

It is a matter of principle with me that the furnace should not be turned on until November. The later in the month that we have ignition of the furnace, the happier I am.

Last year, I was close to delirious when, thanks to an amazingly warm fall, I was able to postpone turning on the heat until two days before Thanksgiving .

The late start of last year's heating season was a sure sign, I thought, of an amazingly mild winter. That is not how things unfolded. Our winter turned out to be the coldest in 25 years. The snowfall set records. February felt like an unending, miserable blizzard.

So this year, while I am hopeful that the furnace fire-up date will fall late in November, I have abandoned it as a way of predicting the winter weather. Instead, I'm relying solely on the worms.

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