The Birds Need Us

I’ve seen it said, in more than one article over the years, that backyard feeders aren’t needed, that the birds can fend for themselves and find enough food foraging in nature. In our current state of habitat loss and climate change, I think we should be rejecting towards any argument based on “everything is fine” for our struggling species, someplace else. That formula for avoiding habitat action has been around for decades.

The naturalist Edwin Way Teale, in Autumn Across America, wrote about the decline of the sea otter, which at the time (1950s) was making a comeback. Sea otters had been hunted to near extinction for the fur trade. As Teale recounts, the trade maintained that somewhere on planet Earth must be other populations of sea otters; that if they finished off the Pacific Northwest population, an abundance of other otters would be discovered to make up for it.

The Ivory-billed woodpecker was steadfastly stripped of its habitat. As recently as 2005 sightings were being claimed, that haven’t yet panned out to a certified rediscovery of the species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife service in 2021 ruled the Ivory-billed extinct. This loss, also, came about on the strength of believing no single instance of habitat destruction had to be decisive. Somewhere there would be habitat; somewhere, then, magic belief could continue to place unseen remnants of endangered birds’ populations.

Now, we have a patchwork of wild areas, often widely separated by highways, farm fields, towns, industrial sites. Birds expend a lot of energy when they have to fly miles to find food. Not knowing where food might be, they can lose the gamble, and damage their health going too far without a resting place of insects and seeds, water and shelter, to restore themselves.

Insects are in steep decline, due to pesticides. Without insects, breeding birds can’t feed their young, and insectivorous birds can’t feed at all. New weather patterns, and more severe weather, which we are all aware are happening right now, stress wildlife. Heavy winds and rains stop birds and small mammals from foraging. More rain washes more pesticide residue into watersheds, and kills more wetland-dwelling insects, which reduces the numbers of birds.

We need to make our yards oases. My feeding station above is the most popular, though I have others. I give suet, a substitute source for insect fat, and a nut and fruit blend. Birds like shelter close by; they prefer that sense of safety. If you have an evergreen, like my rhododendron, set up a feeding station almost among the leaves, and the birds will be grateful. And do, unless you know for a certainty there’s plenty of food out there, feed them year-round.

The Value of Gardening

 

If you’re a gardener, you probably know:

Echinacea/Coneflower, Dianthus/Carnation, Salvia/Sage, Digitalis/Foxglove…

In short, you have a mental database of botanical Latin and common name combinations. You can probably, given only a Latin name, identify a plant’s characteristics: tomentosa (hairy), lutea (yellow), glaucous (covered in a bluish “bloom”, as the skin of a blueberry), etc. You know dozens of tools and their uses, and each one’s superiorities for particular jobs. You know the components of healthy soil, and what various additives do to improve bad soil. You know seasonal harvest and flowering times; you know “winter interest” plants, such as red-twigged dogwood. You know design rules, as employing the color wheel, and using odd numbers. You know plant diseases and infestations, and the debating points about how to deal with them. (I am in the leave it alone, and get rid of the plant if necessary, camp.) You know how to start seeds, make cuttings, which plants divide well and which don’t. You can probably solve problems calling for the construction of fences, drainage channels, even small storage buildings. And you know a lot about habitat, what you need to add, of native plants and features, to make homes for wildlife. You can identify several bird species, and routinely consult references to be sure of new visitors. (And you have an entire sub-database of where to look up things you don’t know.) You know reptiles, amphibians, and mammals. You keep up with what’s coming out in the new planting season, in perennials, shrubs, and annuals. 

Of course, gardening involves physical workouts and being outdoors in the fresh air. As we get older, we think about ways to stay healthy and retain our brainpower. Aside from the push to save the planet, that has inspired so many new gardeners, there is this all-around “staying in the game” that gardening provides.  Which makes us better Earth citizens, and better agers.

 

 

This is not a dead log, but a mini-habitat, with its own population of fauna. It has lichen, moss, mushrooms. It probably has insects, in the crevices of the bark, and certainly bacteria everywhere.

That’s why nurse logs (and junior nurse logs) are important in creating a replication of the natural forest environment, as nearly as we can in our yards.

 

 

From last summer. This is poison ivy. Some tiny bug has turned the leaves into these crumply pimpled things, demonstrating that all residents of an ecosystem use and are used, and even nuisance plants and animals belong.

 

 

I bought this succulent at Walmart, and I don’t know what it is. But it started dropping leaves, and each leaf had roots coming out. (See the not-very-focused photo below.) Wherever the plant is native to, it must rely on this alternative reproduction, either when it reaches a level of maturity, or when it feels stressed. 

 

Late Season Sights

My front-yard azalea seems much happier since I started raking out from under it in the fall. It used to be a brown mess, eaten to pieces by azalea lace bugs. Now there’s not too much damage, though spots where the leaves have been eaten still show. I’ve never seen an azalea produce this much fall color.  

This is the outer wall of my garage. I’ve got several things in the nursery, all cuttings, divisions, or dug-up volunteers. With the exception of the foxgloves, in the square pots, right, that seeded themselves. (If you have a perennial that’s reliable for self-sowing, you can place a pot underneath, topped with potting soil, and the new starts will arrive.) I dug up a couple of good columbines, and divided my goatsbeard. I also have a buttonbush, some Russian sage, Baptisia australis, and some actual mountain laurel cuttings. They should root themselves over winter, enjoying this spot where the warmth from the garage keeps them above a hard freeze. It’s my theory (probably not mine alone) that plants evolved to go dormant in the winter and wake in the spring need weather cues and shouldn’t be wintered indoors. The windowbox in front is just there to provide insulation. 

Some plants, in late fall/early winter, go into a growth phase. The upper photo shows the primroses, putting on lots of new leaves. The lower photo shows a hellebore that seeded itself from the parent plant. Fingers crossed that it will bloom in ’22 and I’ll see what kind of flowers it has. They can only be different from the parent if they’ve reverted in some way, though the parent is a fancy hybrid. But I only have one hellebore, so only someone’s else’s could have provided new genes.

A Few Things

The first photo shows this year’s deer. My yard, as a territory, usually has a semi-resident female and offspring, but a male deer, who I call Derek, has been growing antlers and browsing at the bird feeder through the summer. He had little velvet spikes, that turned into double points, and are now cleaned of velvet, while he’s grown much larger, and turned from fawn-color to grey for the winter.

In the second photo, a few more bulbs. Bluestone Perennials was having a 50% off sale, so I picked up some allium, Ornithogalum, Dutch Iris, and daffodils, and made combos of them in these yogurt tubs. In the deer photo, you can see the path edges, where I’m planning to have bulbs all the way along, though buying them one year at a time. 

Finally, this bread pudding turned out really tasty, so I’ll tell the story and share what’s in it. The “shortages” meant I could only find a half gallon jug of half-and-half, which I only buy for coffee. It usually lasts well in quart sizes, but this jug must have been the worse for shipping, because it went bad after a couple of days. Then I had almost 8 cups of product to use for some purpose. I baked two cakes to freeze and still had half the jug left. I looked up bread pudding recipes, and none were quite big enough. But the whole purpose of bread pudding is to use up things you would otherwise throw away, so recipes are only guidelines. I didn’t have bread, but I had lemon and spice cakes. This pudding has 4 cups of half-and-half, simmered and mixed with a tablespoon each of sugar and cornstarch (mix these two together to avoid the cornstarch clumping). It has about six loaf-style slices of lemon cake, and the equivalent of four slices of spice cake. The milk is mixed with two eggs, stirred; and everything is topped with pecans.

  

Wishes for next Gardening year

Above, a hart’s tongue fern, and its interesting way of sporing. The second photo shows how the callery pear tree, that had a section of bark cut out by a yellow-bellied sapsucker, has coped by growing the same sort of collar a tree makes when it loses a branch. I had a fledgling sapsucker, in its juvenile plumage, come to my suet feeder this year. So, the callery pear may be an invasive foreign species, but it does provide sustenance for one type of bird.

I cleared away the pile of brush that was stacked under my sweetgum tree, and the area left, that has very rich soil, I plan to build into an understory habitat, with shrubs, small trees, and wildflowers. I’ve planted lots of jumbo daffodils around my path edges. One thing I decided, based on observation, is that daffodils are better planted along borders than inside beds, because their foliage lingers for a month or so after they flower, and takes up good planting space you want to use for other things. Of bulbs, I’m adding crocuses, tulips in containers, anemones, ranunculus, hyacinthoides (bluebells). 

Next year, I want to plant some conifers, a blue spruce for color, and a mugo pine for its nice size, even thought neither are native to Ohio. I do have a small white pine that appeared in the yard by itself. I have several things in pots, that I’m wintering sheltered against the garage wall, cuttings from shrubs and perennials. I may get a genuine mountain laurel, a second button bush, a cypress, and an azalea—the last two started from root layering. I have a few perennials potted, some columbines, hellebores, goatsbeards, and baptisia. I’ve moved several coneflowers from the front bed to new ones I’m building out from the sides of the paths, turning more of the yard into flower gardens, less remaining lawn.

I would like to get a caryopteris, an Itoh peony, and a blue lace-cap hydrangea. For perennials, I need more pulmonaria (I saw a great, inspiring, multi-variegated planting in Garden Gate magazine, that I’d like to emulate with pulmonaria and brunnera). I need more ferns of different types, and I want to add more primrose and some tiarella. I’ve collected seed of several good annuals and native perennials, but of seed to buy, I’d like to get celosia, cosmos, sweet william, viola, blue centauria, more annual phlox. 

 

 

Learned This Year

As mentioned last post, this spring I tried new annuals from seed.

Dahlias worked well; next year I want to grow the pompom style, if I find them in a catalogue.

Geraniums worked well. Most came out the typical red, though I got one hot pink.

Hens and chicks started easily, but stalled at about the quarter-inch size, and not having a good place to nurture such tiny things, I lost them.

Of tuberous begonias, I got two examples, an orange-red, and one too small yet to know what color. They didn’t germinate especially well.

I got nothing from the exotics I tried, although I scattered the remaining ginseng seeds (that stayed dormant in pots) under an oak tree, so possibly a winter will start them. The pitcher plant seeds never germinated.

I discovered it’s hard to tell what certain seedling trees are, and easy to misidentify them. From now on, unless the seedling is a distinctive species, I’ll wait longer and not share a mistaken ID. I was gifted an ironweed this year, but early on posted it as a Joe Pye weed. As abundant as ironweed is in SE Ohio, I’d always wanted one to find its way into my yard, and it never happened until this year. Now I have a few seeds to spread into my meadow area.

Meadows increase insect life, and it doesn’t matter altogether if the plantings are native. Not to say natives aren’t preferable, but where I have mostly ground ivy, I still have seen the smallest butterflies make use of the shelter. They need safe places to roost at night, as well as host plants for their eggs. 

Above, a late display of tender plants, coleus and strobilanthes, looking bright and beautiful. Being in a sheltered bed, they’ll probably keep going until a frost or two. In photo two, my small paw paw tree (not so hard to recognize, both for the big leaves, and their habit of attaching at a 45 degree angle to the stem), notably chewed up at the end of the season, hopefully bringing zebra swallowtails next spring. This reinforces the point that native trees support insects from the time they start growing leaves. You don’t need a park-size specimen to offer nature the benefits of a host tree. 

 

 

Saving Seeds

One of the things I tried this year that worked well, was starting dahlias from seed. In most of my gardening years, catalogs didn’t sell them, and the advice on dahlias made them seem fussy. You had to dig the tubers, preserve them in sand or peat, or a plain paper bag, spritz them occasionally with water so they wouldn’t dry out, but not let them get wet… Or just buy new tubers every spring. 

In the metal tray above are dahlia seeds collected from my garden. The spent flowers are slimy, and need extra attention—but not too much—to extract the seeds. Lay them where they get sun, and when they’re halfway dry, spread the heads apart. As you can see, the seeds above are exposed and can now be separated from the chaff. 

 

 

All the prepared seeds I’ve collected so far, neatly stored in their envelopes. I concentrate on perennials; most that are helpful to nature and unappealing to deer are in the daisy family, coneflowers and rudbeckias. I’ve also collected verbascum, achillea, monarda, and annuals centaurea and scabiosa.

 

 

The seeds drying out in my garage. For this work you can take several plastic containers out of the environment by saving them for use. Put flower heads upside-down and leave them for a few weeks, add a label (I use wooden popsicle sticks). When they’ve dried, using fingers or a butter knife, depending on how stickery the flowerhead is, loosen the seeds, envelope them, and write the name.

 

 

I’ve been misidentifying what I wanted (wishful thinking) to be a mountain laurel. It looked promising as a small plant, but I’ve learned after a few such errors, not to ID too early. Seeing the ridges developing along the stem, I was afraid it was only a burning bush euonymus. I would have pulled it (they are invasive), but it seems to be something else. It has leathery leaves that stayed on all last winter. They show no sign of being other than evergreen this year. I’ll just have to wait and see what characteristics it develops over time.

 

 

Fungus

This pearlescent white jelly is probably rarely seen. It made an ephemeral appearance after the heavy rains from Ida, on the side of the dead ash tree, and when the weather dried up, it disappeared.

 

 

These shelf mushrooms were especially golden, saturated with rain. Using logs to edge beds does more than give you a chance to see how many types of fungus can sprout in your area. The life that exists in this dead wood also helps sustain a mini-climate. The ground under and just around the logs won’t freeze (unless winter temps are severe). Under every little shelf is a place for an insect or spider to hide.

 

 

A new rose I bought, called Cinco de Mayo. Its flowers are coral with areas of dusty purple. And it puts out new leaves in this bright red hue.

 

I said in an earlier post that my yard habitat lacked any reptile or amphibian species (that I had seen), and that these creatures migrating to your yard is a real proof of progress. After Ida, I got a little frog in one of my bog tubs. That’s how pond frogs move from place to place, traveling when rain is falling and their skin stays wet.

 

 

This grass, probably a sort of pennisetum, makes a great show in late summer and fall. 

 

 

End of August Odds and Ends

This photo composed itself nicely, with the bright sun and strong shadow, and the swirl of fern-leaf and liriope. The two plants were making a pretty woodland look, so I wanted to show a highlight of my garden at this time of year, when several things are finished.

 

 

They say you should cut the flowers off your coleus. It’s true, they add a rangy, unkempt quality, but they are popular with bumble bees, and this year I’ve seen two hummingbirds, while last year, I saw only one—and it was the coleus flowers they were feeding on. These flower stalks by the bog tubs are about two feet long.

In the background is a four o’clock, a better container plant than I would have thought. I didn’t buy them on purpose, but they came as part of a seed mix. I’m not usually outdoors when four o’ clocks bloom, and even when I am, I haven’t been able to detect the famous scent. But even so, the foliage is lush, and the little beginning flowers are so numerous they make spots of color everywhere. Altogether, four o’ clocks in pots are one of this year’s good discoveries.

 

 

These are a kind of pepper called Jimmy Nardello. They aren’t chilies, but taste a lot like bell peppers. But they have the advantage, being thin, that the plants produce lots of them, and they ripen quickly. I like sweet peppers raw on a sandwich, and these Jimmys are abundant for sandwich peppers. Another good discovery.

 

 

The cactus fully bloomed out. The flowers took on a pink tone after starting peach. I didn’t realize cactus flowers are waxy-textured. I tried finger-pollinating them, but I don’t know if that will make a fruit I can use for seeds.

 

 

The alternanthera, that I mentioned also as a new discovery this year. So far, they’re super—beautiful foliage, even prettier with the new blue-green leaves against the older burgundy, than this picture shows. And they’ve grown to a small shrub size, much needed in this new planting area, where the other things have barely taken off. A rabbit, or a groundhog nibbled on them, but hasn’t done much harm to their looks. 

 

 

The pin oaks this year have been shedding lots of tiny, poorly formed acorns. The flowering was off, and I could tell early, because I get showers of catkins to sweep up most years, but hardly any for 2021. If my trees are in sync with the rest of the forest locally, the winter will be a little sparse for the wildlife.