Have you ever wondered what bird is making that caw, screech, cuckoo or who-cooks-for-you sound? Well, celebrate the Fourth Day of Christmas by downloading one of the latest birding apps. A Heartland Gardening favorite is Merlin by Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Simply answer five questions and the app will come with a list of possible matches. From here, you can further explore thousands of audio files and images. For beginning birders, the lab offers these tips.
Watch and listen. When you see a bird singing, the connection between bird and song tends to stick in your mind.
Learn from an expert. It’s much harder to learn bird songs from scratch than to have a fellow bird watcher point them out to you. Check for a local Audubon chapter and join a field trip.
Listen to recordings. Start by listening to recording of birds you see often. Play them frequently to make the sounds stick.
Say it to yourself. Some songs sound like words like the Barred Owl’s “Who cooks for you?” These mnemonics can make a song easier to remember.
Details, details, details. Break the song apart into its different qualities, including rhythm, pitch, tone and repetition. For more info, see the Lab or Ornithology.
While French hens like our Cuckoo Maran – or even American ones like our Black Javas – might make great gifts, I’m not convinced December is the ideal time for such gift giving. Yes, these beautiful hens can produce wonderful eggs and rid the garden of weeds and pests. But, here in the Midwest, wintertime is my least favorite season for keeping chickens.
With this November’s early snow fall and cold temperatures, we had to scurry to prepare the coop for winter especially since “our girls” were still growing feathers from their fall molt. We added insulation for warmth and wind-proofing. Plus, we ordered a water heater and had to keep checking the water bucket for the ice until the heater arrived. In addition, we no longer found eggs in their nesting box and learned they take a break from egg-laying until daylight lengthens again to 14 hours or more a day. Still, “our girls” do provide plenty of entertainment, especially on sunny days when we turn them loose in the garden to graze on cover crops and peck for grubs.
The choice of the turtle dove for the second day of Christmas is significant. Turtle doves form very strong pair-bonds which, I believe, is the basis for their association with love. The turtle dove has two broods a season and two eggs in each brood. Its gentle “turr turr” is a double song. For this bird, good things come in pairs!
We see the same pattern in many of our native birds, especially cardinals. I’ve watched pairs face off for the suet and seeds we offer in the winter.
Pardon a moment’s rant: I have to take issue with those that say the female is drab compared to the male; I think her coloring is more complex and subtly nuanced. Along with the feeders, my garden is populated with plants that support wildlife. The birds love the fruits of spicebush, chokeberries, rose hips, and the seeds from purple coneflower, native grasses and more. All I need is a water source that stays ice-free in the winter; maybe this year.
Repost from Dec. 14, 2014: Landscape Trend Foretold in Song Lyric
By Michael Leach
Partridges have gone the way of powdered wigs, but producing fruit is uber trendy. From potted herbs on windowsills to towering nut trees in the backyard, edible landscaping is in.
Fruit-bearing plants do double duty. They produce some food, while filling some landscape roles of strictly ornamental plants. Think of strawberries for ground covers, espaliered fruit trees for screens and fences, berries for informal hedges and dwarf fruit trees for accent plants. Almost all can adapt to container growing.
Reduce labor — Because picture-perfect produce takes much work, shorten your to-do list by selecting plants that are resistant or immune to common diseases and pests.
If you are wondering what Santa should be bringing to your favorite gardener, here are a few suggestions based on what I would like. Many gardeners would be happy with a load of compost, but if you want to give something that lasts longer, here are a few suggestions.
1. Pruners:Corona Tools has some of my favorite pruners and saws for money-conscious gift-givers. Try the FlexDIAL® ComfortGEL® Bypass Pruner at 3/4 inch. Notice it has bright orange handles.
Retail varies from $27.00 to $35.53 depending on the dealer.
2. Soil Knife:AM Leonard carries a version of the tool that goes everywhere with me, the soil or perennial knife. You can choose the Classic or the Deluxe style, and if you add a sheath, then your giftee will be less likely to lay it down in the garden and lose it!
Retail for the classic is $19.99; $29.99 with the sheath. Retail for the Deluxe is $23.99; $31.99 with the sheath.
3. Forged Trowel:DeWitt of Holland makes beautiful hand tools for that special gardener in your life. Who needs diamonds when you can have one of these forged works of art? Warning: the wooden handle will disappear in the garden. Ask me how I know.
Single tools or combination sets are available online and at your local garden centers; cost varies with the tool.
4. A compost bin is also on the wish list, so I can compost my vegetable scraps from the kitchen. My Mother’s Day redwood compost bin, a gift from approximately 16 years ago, has finally fallen apart.
For your favorite gardener, you can build one from old wood pallets, but know that they will breakdown quickly. If you build a bin system, please do not use treated wood. There are plans on the web for building compost bins made of wood, wire and plastic.
If you are not the handy type, there are many types of compost containers to buy made out of metal, plastic and wood. Retail cost can be as low as $29.99 to over $400.00. Check out the Mantis compost tumbler ($299) and the Ecostack composter ($128).
5. Garden Gloves: For your favorite gardener, please be aware that gloves can be difficult to buy for someone else, so do your homework. Look at the gloves your giftee uses. I suggest several pairs in bright colors . . . remember about losing things in the garden? For gardeners who actually use gloves and garden-hardy, each pair may last a month or so. Favorite glove brands include West County Gloves, Fox Gloves and Bamboo Gardener. Also consider nitrile gloves for working in wet places or rose gloves for the rosarian in your life.
7. Time: Offer a coupon of your time to work with your gardener in the garden. Or hire some help at the beginning of the season. Find out which tasks are onerous – spreading mulch? – and find a local landscape professional to do the job.
6. Heartland Gardening book: I’m definitely giving copies of our book “Heartland Gardening: Celebrating the Seasons” to several friends. Our blog book is a collection of gardening lessons and meditative essays woven among beautiful images and illustrations. The book leads readers through the region’s heralded seasons, offering tips for favorite plants, recipes for beloved edibles, plant design ideas and advice for top garden destinations.
8. World Peace: I can’t think of a better place to practice peace and love than a garden.
Wishing you all a beautiful and balanced holiday!!!
While I have visited the incredible Biltmore House and gardens in all four seasons, this year I had a chance to tour it in its “fifth season” (to borrow the phrase from Adelma Grenier Simmons in Herb Gardening in Five Seasons).
At the Biltmore House, Christmas could easily be called the fifth season. The lavish Christmas decorating traditions started when George and Edith Vanderbilt moved into their newly finished, 175,000-square-foot mansion and officially opened it on Christmas Eve 1895. Visitors who travel to Asheville, NC from early November to early January can view the opulent house lavishly adorned with lights, ornaments, garland, poinsettias and presents.
In November, my husband and I visited during the Christmas season display. This was the only season we have missed in our previous five visits. We have been in the gardens, on the roof, in the cellars and in the servants’ quarters, but this visit was not about understanding the house and the owners, but to see a grand display of holiday décor.
Approaching the house is always an exciting moment for me. This is time turning back. I imagine I’m in a gently swaying coach with clip-clopping horses prancing along the cobblestone pavement. In the capacious porte-cochere, I descend from the shiny black coach and am escorted by members of the gracious staff to a guestroom. My trunk is carefully unpacked by a quiet and efficient maid. There’s time to rest before dressing for dinner in something silken and flowing. There’s a king’s ransom in jewels around my neck and glittering at my ears.
Guests might gather in the Winter Garden (conservatory) which is in the center of the home. Here, you can see the impressive greenhouse dome that offered some of the best light for taking pictures. Note the stacks of presents on the floor. We speculated if they were real and might be for the staff.
The day was overcast and most of the interior light levels were low. I mentioned that it seemed darker than usual to a docent. His response was that this is one of compromises that must be made in a home that has been restored to much of its past glory. The textiles, furnishings, wallcoverings can all be degraded by too much light. It is expensive to replace flocked satin wall coverings that are only made by one firm in France; at great cost.
One of the most impressive spaces in the Biltmore is the Banquet Hall. Some of the trees, garlands and wreathes that adorn the house are artificial due to the length of the Biltmore Christmas season, but in this room with a seven-story high ceiling, the three two-story trees are freshly cut.
The opulence of the decorations of today is an exaggeration of what you might have seen if you were a guest of George and Edith Vanderbilt. I was told that there would have been one large tree in the Banquet Hall; not three.
The Salon was another gathering place for guests. There were amaryllis and poinsettias scattered throughout along with a humble, yet detailed, nativity scene.
When you visit the Biltmore be prepared to climb somestairs. There are elevators, but the wait is long. If you take the stairs you will be rewarded with a birds-eye view of the Banquet Hall. If you were Cornelia, daughter of George and Edith Vanderbilt, or a young guest, this is where you would have watched a party that you could not attend.
Below is an intimate dining set-up in George Vanderbilt’s bedroom, complete with another tree, candles and plants. Edith’s golden boudoir is close by, separated by a sitting room. This private part of the house would not normally be visited by quests.
Back down on the first floor there is the gallery off the Main Hall; another gathering area for guests. There were at least five large trees and several smaller ones. But what caught my eye was a vignette of family pictures and Santa on his sleigh. Like the nativity scene in the Salon, this captured the time of the Vanderbilts for me.
I wish I could give you a glimpse of the decorations in the library, but my pictures are truly dismal. The library holds George Vanderbilt’s personal collection of 22,000 volumes that span art, history, philosophy, travel, architecture, novels and more. Each book that he collected was sent to be rebound in leather before being added to the library. It is no surprise that the Biltmore curators keep the light levels quite low to protect the books and the opulent furnishings.
The wreathed twin lions, which flank the front steps, are a last glimpse of a Biltmore Christmas. There were moments when I was frustrated by the crowds, but there were also moments to get lost in the story of this home, and of a time gone by.
When I told people, “Hawks are nesting in my garden this year,” they seemed awed and a bit envious.
But if you’ve had hawks in the backyard, you know it’s lonely at the top of the food chain. With hawks around, there’s almost no fauna to go with the flora. Some furry and feathered creatures played their roles in the food chain, but countless others fled in terror to safer territories.
Gone were the usual flocks of robins hopping back and forth across the lawn doing their own food chain duty of culling the earthworm population. Until late June, their predawn songs filled the air from the relative security of the small bamboo grove. (Where they spent the day, I never knew.) Goldfinch, jays, song sparrows, wrens, chickadees and other favorites made rare public appearances. From the distant neighbor’s yard, they could be heard sometimes. A cardinal managed splendid morning songs, but otherwise stayed so well concealed, there were only occasional glimpses of his flashy red suit. I never had the pleasure of watching the parent cardinals teaching their fledglings proper behavior.
In spite of the menace, a cheeky pair of cat birds nested near the brick-paved patio in the tall hedge where the cardinal occasionally skittered about.
An outdoorsman neighbor identified the problematic newcomers as red tail hawks, but I referred to them as squawks, for that is their primary mode of communicating. They were especially loud and squawky when talons clutched freshly caught food. That racket roughly translated into, “Come and get it while it’s still warm. Bon appetite!”
Having resident hawks had upsides. The plague of English sparrows that once roosted in the bamboo grove disappeared long before I became aware of the hawks. Instead of their screechy 20- to 30-minute gab fests, as the flock took to the air in the morning or came home to roost at night, there was only silence.
Fortunately I found far more small, furry bits than feathered ones on the lawn and in flower beds. This was a great relief for a bird-loving gardener, who holds much less affection for field mice, voles, chipmunks and their pestiferous ilk. Due to the incredible appetites of the two young hawks reared in the garden, I’m hoping there will be fewer field mice invading my small Victorian farm house this winter.
Life with hawks had other advantages.
Maintenance was easier, especially during mulberry season. When the fruits ripen, robins gorge and leave purple polka dots on lawn furniture, pavements and occasionally this gardener. Daily rinsing (flushing?) of the bird bath is de rigueur; so, too, pulling mulberry seedlings that sprout wherever one of those well-fertilized seeds lands.
Squirrel issues decreased markedly. Initially the quartet of plump, brazen squirrels seemed to coexist peacefully with the hawks. Granted the bushy-tail tree rats didn’t cavort on the lawn with their usual abandon, nor did they perform their Cirque du Soleil acrobatics from sycamore to cedar to apple and back. As August wore on, I saw only one thin, nervous squirrel each morning.
Because the advantages of hawks are few, I’ll take high-maintenance robins and a handful of miscreant squirrels any day to spring and summer days of silence punctuated by occasional squawks.
Last week, the green industry met in Columbus, Ohio for Cultivate 2018 – a massive trade show in which 10,000 attendees and 700 exhibitors from 18 countries converged for a four-day event! Here, bulb companies from the Netherlands, seed companies from Japan and plant breeders, marketers and growers across the United States showcased their new plants and products.
Across the tradeshow floor, it was evident excitement is building in the horticulture industry as more and more people value the power of plants in our backyards, workplaces, health care institutions, schools, universities and downtown communities.
According to National Institute of Consumer Horticulture, the industry contributes $196 billion to the U.S. economy and creates more than 2 million jobs. The industry is fueling consumers’ hunger for more plants with many new varieties. Here’s a sneak peak at 10 up-and-comers:
Edibles: Two show winners include Amazel™ basil, a game-changing, mildew-resistant Italian sweet basil by Proven Winners, and Hort Couture’s Edibliss kales which combine sweet, soft edible leaves with the more flamboyant colors of ornamental kale. All-American Selections mini bell peppers (Pepper Chili Pie and Sweetie Pie) also grabbed attention for their snackable size.
Mangaves: Talk about a statement plant for containers! This succulent cross between an agave and manfreda was turning heads at the Walters Gardens booth.
Expanded fall plant palette: Tiring of mums for your fall displays? Look for ornamental Corn Pink Zebra (a dwarf corn for containers) and new Sneezeweed hybrids (Helenium autumnale ‘Salud Embers’).
Black-eyed vincas: In the Vinca Tatoo™ series, each vinca bloom is inkedwith a dark center. Colors include papaya, black cherry, tangerine and raspberry.
Must-have gomphrena: ‘Truffula Pink’ was a Proven Winners standout with its heavy flower coverage, pollinator appeal and toughness in extreme heat and humidity. Plant it in mass in flower borders or containers.
More mandevillas: Suntory is introducing two new giant Sun Parasol® mandevillas: 1) Giant Dark Pink with changing shades of coral pink and white blooms and 2) Giant Marbled Crimson with variegated foliage and red blooms. Columbus, Ohio gardener Paul Schrader trials many varieties in his eye-catching garden on City Park Ave. in German Village.
Canary wing begonia: Jared Hughes, 30-year-old plant breeder from central Ohio, is overwhelmed with the response to his first nationally released plant introduction with Ball Ingenuity. It’s a standout in shade gardens with its chartreuse angel-wing leaves and non-stop red blooms. The plant won the 2018 Retailers’ Choice Award at the trade show.
Scented modern rose: Suntory has reintroduced perfume to disease-resistant shrub roses with its line of repeat-blooming Brindabella™ roses in red, pink, apricot, salmon, blush, white and purple.