Monday, November 29, 2010

Feeding the Birds... and Blue Grosbeaks

Following Thanksgiving the first freeze arrived and the remaining leaves broke from their parents to rain, collecting in crisp piles on the lawn. The trees provide a charming parting gift if one swishes and crunches through the woods, enjoying the marvelous feel of fall. The sun has assumed a warm luster, making one forget racing from shade to shade to evade it at the height of summer. And the stark sculptural beauty of the barren trees provide yet another visual interest by allowing us to see the antics of the birds darting in and among the branches.

Since the birds are no longer hidden and muffled by a bevy of leaves, their aeronautic antics become clearly visible. Now is time to fill the feeders and enjoy their seasonal mirth from the warmth of the living room! We are fortunate to have many birds who choose come to the neighborhood to make their home for the winter. The Blue Jays, Titmouse and Chickadee, Sparrows, Mockingbird, Goldfinch, and adorable Cardinals all appear at scheduled eating times. The personalities of each species is apparent to observation, with the most respected amongst the crowd being the Red Headed Woodpecker. Perhaps it is his daunting beak, or the fact he may cling to an edge with his funny feet. Regardless, upon his arrival there is mass panic and every bird disappears in a rush of wings except the daring Titmouse who will dart in to snatch a sunflower seed without stopping to rest.

To seriously feed the birds, it is unnecessary to assume financial ruin. A standard mix of wild bird feed is easily affordable and will instantly draw birds to your feeder. They tend to eat at specific times so often there will be dozens at the feeder, and often not a single guest. It is as though they have breakfast, lunch and dinner at appointed hours.

One year we had a (large) unusual Blue Grosbeak arrive. Never before seen in the neighborhood, we were wildly excited, dragging out the bird book to identify and then provide proper food for him. Our ornithologist neighbor came to photograph him and record the unusual event in her journal. The next day there were two; we were thrilled! The following four… by the fifth day there were at least two hundred! Our more polite guests were shoved from the feeder as the raucous crowd bullied and shoved, jumping up and down, screeching and pushing, making our feeder the equivalent of an on-going bar room brawl! We panicked, recalling the Alfred Hitchcock thriller ‘The Birds’ and removed their favorite food; in fact we removed all food. Each morning we cautiously opened the curtains to see if they had abandoned our world and moved along. Happily, by the second week they suddenly disappeared and things got back to normal… with our usual guests a bit frazzled but grateful for peace and casual dining.

Blue Grosbeaks aside, a high quality bird feeder and an assortment of feed would make a thoughtful Christmas gift for anyone.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Nandina and Holly for Seasonal Color

Back in the age before twitter and instant media, back when sitting on the porch stoop visiting with a friend was a way to pass the time, the steps to my childhood home were flanked by two lovely Nandina. Invariably talk included unconsciously plucking the berries, twirling them, then tossing them to the yard, mentally measuring the distance. This practice was much to my Mother’s dismay as she continually monitored her Nandina, counting on the winter display of ripened berries to compliment Christmas. And since they are one of the few shrubs that sport berries which mature in the winter with classic red, they naturally speak of the season in a delightful way.

Nandina, or Heavenly Bamboo, is a hardy species of plant, originating in Asia, common from Japan through the Himalayas. It is not a bamboo at all, but rather a shrub with branches growing from roots and it is evergreen, meaning that it maintains some sort of visual interest all year. In the spring the leaves of the Nandina turn from red to a copper-red tint and tiny white flowers with deep yellow centers appear. As summer arrives green foliage begins to reappear and with fall the color changes yet again as the foliage shifts to a reddish-purple and produces the timely red berries.

Another delightful addition to the winter landscape is the Holly. With approximately 600 species available, there is a Holly for any environmental circumstance and their seasonal red berries and glossy green leaves are spectacular as decorations. The folklore surrounding holly is both ancient and colorful with mention of it as far back as the 15th century. At that time it was noted that they were never struck by lightning thus making them a safe place for refuge during storms. Also it was observed that a good crop of berries foretold of a severe winter.

It was long believed that bringing Holly into the house during the darkness of winter would bring good luck in the coming year and the trees were believed to be protective against witches and other evils. For this reason they were planted near churches and homes, however with the advent of Christianity, the occult beliefs were altered and Christians compared the prickly leaves to Jesus crown of thorns, the red berries drops of his blood.

But old beliefs die hard; a planned roadway in Ireland was adjusted in the late 1990’s after it became public knowledge it required removal of a Holly. No one was willing to risk the bad luck which could ensue from removing one.

As the season progresses, consider colorful and natural elements to add to the inside decor… a walk in the garden or woods will produce some amazing results.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Fall Foliage... and Leaves 101

Over the weekend the fall foliage assumed a brilliance which signals the height of their show…. and at last the reds arrived! Nature devised leafless trees to give additional sunlight for warmth during the cold winter months and completed this gift with a stunning visual as a parting gift.

Although the following explanation will be a vast over simplification, it may provide insight into the foliage change. During the spring and summer the trees use their leaves to collect air and water utilizing a process called photosynthesis to turn it into food. Photosynthesis means ‘putting together with light’ so as the days shorten and daylight diminishes, the gathering process ends. The leaf is no longer necessary to the tree and begins its fall descent. Suddenly the hillsides are transformed into a dramatic autumn palette that provides breathtaking color for a brief moment in time.

Both the chemicals chlorophyll and carotenoids are present in the leaf cells throughout the growing season with chlorophyll making leaves the bright green color associated with the photosynthesis process. As darkness increases in the autumn, chlorophyll production eventually stops and inevitably all the chlorophyll disappears. With the loss of chlorophyll, the carotenoids become visible and they provide the leaves with lovely yellow colors. Lastly the anthocyanins may arrive and take center stage, ushering in the vibrant reds we associate with Autumn.

Because carotenoids are always present in leaves, the amber, yellow and gold colors remain fairly constant from year to year and will always be available as a spur to the senses. However conditions must be ideal for the fickle anthocyanins, who are glucose (sugar) and singularly responsible for the brilliant hues of purple, crimson, and scarlet. The weather we have experienced this month is perfect for producing their display as it requires warm, sunny days and cool, crisp evenings for without these conditions there will be lackluster reds. An excess of sugar is being produced during these last warm days but the cool nights have slowed the closing of veins going into the leaf and trapped them, thus creating the glorious reds.

However the shade and foliage show are not all the leaves have to offer. They drift from the trees and collect underneath, continuing to work by slowly decomposing over time. By adding their nutrients, a rich soil is created to nourish fledging saplings as they grow to become forest giants like their parents.

Think Green!

With the rise of environmental awareness, businesses have come around and are beginning to market ‘green’ with great enthusiam. Many of us have been raised with an environmental conscience so it is but a small step to again embrace the premise. If in doubt, the comparisons in the American standard of living today and fifty years ago make a compelling statement.

In 1950, the average household consisted of almost four people. Most homes were less than 1, 200 square feet and had one or two bedrooms and one bathroom according to the National Association of Home Builders. With a modest home and ownership of a family car, most people thought they had achieved the American Dream.
By 2003, the average household size had shrunk to 2.6 people and yet the size of new homes had doubled. Half of them have at least four bedrooms, all have two or more bathrooms. Americans own twice as many cars per person, multiple TVs, computers, and cell phones. None of this is necessarily bad... but just how much is enough?

Betsy Taylor, president of the Center for a New American Dream, thoughtfully discusses the changes in American aspirations. For our parents and grandparents, the American Dream meant hope, an unshakeable belief that happiness and security were truly possible. That dream still exists but the original focus on security and personal wellbeing slowly gave way to an obsession with ‘more’. More work, more material goods, larger cars and homes have not granted contentment or free time. This in fact has created a disconnect with nature and the waste generated by packaging the goods for expanding collections is almost overwhelming. Changing the way one consumes to improve quality of life and protect the environment is not difficult.

Going green does not mean deprivation; it means changing habits. Simple tips can be implemented as a lifestyle. For example borrow books, CDs, DVDs, and video games from the library and share magazine subscriptions with friends. Use fewer household cleaners; try soap and water, baking soda, or vinegar instead. Share a lawnmower and tools with your neighbors and learn to do your own repairs rather than throwing things away. A prime example is the shirt with the missing button... learn to sew. Turn out the lights when you leave a room and use ceiling fans to boost your cooling/heating system effectiveness. Skip prepared and frozen food by making dinners from scratch and then utilize leftovers for lunches. Plant a garden and swap produce with neighbors. For many more ideas check out the ‘Turn the Tide’ initiative at Additionally, to give away that which you don’t want or find what you may need, join where donated goods are exchanged or given away. Think Recycle!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Gophers and Moles

Although this subject has been broached before, it bears repeating about now. Almost overnight it seems the semi-dormant gophers and moles have become incredibly active. Since they are a problem of fairly vast proportion to the gardener, a brief description of their physical appearance and habits might be helpful. They are rodents and require strong measures to eliminate and exterminate them.

Gophers live in long, complex tunnels below the ground. They dig with their powerful front feet and their sharp teeth. Their bodies are well suited to their lifestyle below ground as they have poor eyesight and move slowly. Most of their lives are spent digging and patrolling their tunnels to protect their territory from other gophers. Their tails are hairless and tactile; it is an organ of touch which can “feel” as the gopher backs up in his hole. Their food choices include the gardener’s favorites…vegetables, buds, grass, nuts, roots and bulbs. They can totally decimate a lovely garden in very few days. In fact once I watched as a stalk of Asparagus was slowly pulled below, one jerk at a time until it disappeared. A gopher’s home is recognized by the large mound of earth above it. It is said their nest is usually about a foot below ground and lined with leaves, although digging like a mad woman has never revealed anything of the like.

The mole is a fast, tireless digger whose body is shaped for burrowing. With its narrow pointed nose, its wedge shaped head, and its large forelegs, it is a virtual digging machine. The forepaws, especially designed to scoop the earth, are hinged sideways on the mole’s body and equipped with large broad nails to act as a shovel. They are almost blind and although they have no external ears, their hearing is excellent. Their diet consists mainly of insects and worms, rather than plants, and their tunnels are dug so their food falls into them and are easily collected by the foraging marauder. If one sees a new tunnel being dug, it is possible to ‘catch’ it with the door open and flood it with a hose. The almost-drowned, gasping mole will emerge where it may be smashed with a shovel, thus eliminating one. However, like mice… there is never just one.

*An odd bit of history is that that moleskin was once quite popular for coats, gloves and hats. It is warm, soft, thick and lightweight; gray fur was preferred, but brown and black were also used. In my opinion collecting enough for a coat would be a mammoth chore.

Now with an understanding of the habits of the two, methods for extermination must be examined. For the gardener, dropping bits of poison into gopher mounds is ineffective as it seems to be the equivalent of giving them a vitamin tonic. And the old wives tale about dropping Juicy Fruit gum into a mound and it will destroy the digestive system is totally false. The “bomb” one may obtain from Tractor Supply to drop into holes (in spite of being extremely fun to use) is ineffective as well. Flooding gopher mounds with a hose makes an unsightly mess and often the water will completely destroy a flower bed by imploding the underground burrows leaving deep crevices in its wake. Trapping is time consuming and a full time job that never seems to work. Waiting for the emerging gopher with a gun in hand is ultimately a waste of time for it seems they ‘sense’ danger and never appear.

The easiest and most efficient way to eliminate these pests is to purchase a marvelous invention which attaches to the exhaust pipe of your car and then to a simple garden hose. When the engine is running you can fill the burrows, tunnels, or holes with highly toxic, extremely fatal carbon monoxide exhaust. Available at Ace and True Value Hardware stores for only $16.95, it works! This handy device is guaranteed to provide hours of Fall fun for any gardener!!

*A Man can spend years trying to bag a gopher!

The Garden Diary

*Lovely gift!

Most gardeners have found it helpful to keep a journal or diary in order to record the seasonal happenings. Year after year, depending upon one's memory becomes impossible as a first garden slowly turns into successive decades of them. Lovely gardens visited, names of plants, and often disastrous experiments may be lost to the memory entirely unless there is a reminder of them. Not to mention the sorrow of accidentally severing sleeping bulbs while planting new ones. Left to chance, the established garden may suffer unless careful records are kept and a three to five year journal is best.

Now is a good time to review the endeavors of the season and make note of exactly which plants thrived and those we accidentally killed. I have a list of those I have loved and lost, and often wonder if my favorite roses will greet me in heaven. I also have a list of those that will not acclimate to my garden; like the detestable Rhododendron which was finally sent to the rubbish heap, banished forever from the garden. Year after year it was a struggle to keep it alive, moving it from place to place, from sun to dappled shade, from various drainage and variable soils, until at last I forced myself to abandon it altogether and promise never again. The same is true of Hydrangeas who will absolutely refuse to live here for any reason and are a waste of otherwise well-spent money.

The winter months are less than exciting if not planning for the next season. By reviewing a journal, one may note when to expect the early Crocus, the Stars of Bethlehem and Peonies. Or when the first freezes arrived and how the fruit trees fared. Journals may include diagrams of the locations of perennial plants and bulbs so there will be no mistakes when adding new guests in the garden. The growth cycle from planting the seeds to enjoying full bloom may be noted, as well as the scent of flowers and the taste of vegetables at their peak, and which years were best. If left to recall, crops may not be rotated yearly which may result in poor yields.

Photographs of the gardens according to year are helpful as well; to look back five, ten, even twenty years and see how plants grew, how light changed is an amazing trek. Gardening is so dependent on the weather that some gardens that were spectacular in May were gone by July with no rain and 107 degree heat, yet some years have been rewarding all season. The beauty of the garden is really at the whim of circumstance no matter how much we try otherwise. Late freezes, freak hail storms, torrential rain, no rain, wind, temperatures over 100 degrees for days on end, hoards of locust… we gardeners face some daunting obstacles and yet remain the eternal optimists!

And for those of you who are in love with a gardener who is without a journal, giving them one this holiday would be an excellent gift! *My 1999 Rosemary Verey diary is dog-eared and tattered, but valuable beyond measure.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Forcing Paperwhites for the Holidays

The days seem to be passing quickly and soon the winter festivities will arrive. To decorate with scent, color, and charm, plan now to ‘force’ some bulbs for the up-coming season. For those unfamiliar with the process, ‘forcing’ is the method by which a bulb is planted and compelled to grow and bloom out of season by exposure to the warm temperature indoors. This process brings the bulbs into bloom long before they would naturally bloom outdoors, thus allowing us the pleasure of their company during winter months.

Since their ancestors came from warm areas of the Mediterranean the darling Paperwhite Narcissus requires no cold to bloom and may easily forced. Taking only three to four weeks to flower, they will bloom faithfully providing both fragrance and cheer for the holidays. So easy is the growth of these bulbs that anchoring material may include gravel, pebbles, colored glass stones, or moss as acceptable mediums. Any sort of shallow growth container whether pottery, glass, or clay will work as well.

First select large, top-grade, flawless bulbs which are free of sooty mold then choose a favorite container that will be lovely as a centerpiece or focal point. Perhaps select a glass bowl for the added pleasure of watching the roots as they begin to grow and slowly twine about the stones. Grandmother’s shallow crystal bowl filled with red, white, and green glass stones is lovely at Christmas but more a more rustic selection might include a pottery bowl with polished rocks or pea gravel. Naturally if a large container is chosen, more bulbs will be needed, however the display will be entirely riotous… and often more is better!

(Ten days)

Fill the bottom of the container with whatever you have chosen to anchor your bulbs, making a bed about two inches deep. Gently press the bulbs halfway down the bulb mass, wriggling and carefully nestling them until they stand firmly on their own. Try to space the bulbs about two inches apart, remembering to place several in the center as well. After arranging your bulbs, fill the container with enough water to cover your anchoring material, moistening the bulbs approximately half way up. Keep this water level, adding a little each day if necessary and your bulbs will begin to flower in three to four weeks.

As the roots grow, the reed-like foliage will first appear and suddenly many tiny blooms arrive, slowly swelling, then opening over the course of several days. Remember to give the bowl a shot of gin as the first flower buds appear. The gin will force the foliage to stand at attention and will prevent the wilt so prevalent with forced Narcissus.

The marvelous sweet smelling flowers will last several weeks filling the house with spring time as temperatures plummet. One of the most beautiful books I own is 'Paradise Contained'. Featuring photographs by William Stites, with Mary Sears and Kathryn George, it is timeless and would make a lovely gift for anyone who gardens.