Words of truth, I’d say! We begin winter here thinking about the long, silent months ahead. The deep snow and the frigid temperatures which will turn us indoors for more reading and knitting and fire-warmth. We drop our shoulders, breath deep, and feel thankful for the slow pace of winter. We’re some of the few who are not in a hurry to move these cold months along…the sun and the warmth will come back to us, all in good time. But we can feel the stirrings now, the seed catalogs spread across the table, the lists of new plants for the nursery ( some dandy primula!), the urge to ‘hoe’ out the greenhouse and fire up the stove that heats it. Oh, truth be told, our minds are never completely void of gardening and plants and soil. Notebooks are filled with lists and ideas for a new season of promise. Are you thinking about spring? Does a bit more winter trouble you? Are your veggie seeds ordered? Any new garden plans? Let’s hear!
Please join us at Fernwood Nursery on Saturday, April 21st at 1:00 p.m. for a very informative talk on Bluebirds. Bluebird expert, Jeff Nimms, has agreed to visit us here at the nursery to share his experience and knowledge of bluebirds. Perhaps you have a piece of property that lends itself to bluebird habitat or maybe you just want to learn more about these delightful birds. If so, we’d love for you to join us!
Fernwood will be serving tea and scones at the event and Jeff will be here to talk bluebirds. Please visit our classes and more page for further information and to sign up for this lecture. Space is somewhat limited, so saving a spot will be helpful.
All About Bluebirds
Learn about bluebird habitat, nesting boxes, parasites and predators, mealworms, what to feed in winter and roosting boxes in this PowerPoint presentation by bluebird enthusiast Jeff Nims. He and his wife Betty have been protecting bluebirds and tree swallows at their blueberry farm on Clarry Hill in Union for more than twenty-five years. Annually, they save an average of a dozen fledglings from blowfly which kill hatchlings in the nest. Retired since 2010, Jeff splits his time between farming, photographing bluebirds, historical research, writing, kayaking, and volunteering.
A male bluebird offers a mealworm to female as part of courtship. Photograph by Jeff Nimms
Last week, during a time when the weather seemed ‘unfit for man nor beast’ and while Rick was working on reglazing some barn windows…working inside the barn not out… two bluebirds showed up to feed on the dead flies trapped along the window sill. Bluebirds! Yes, really, a pair of bluebirds! Well, this is odd and it meant two things. First, call George. George is the retired vet in our area and also an avid birder. George is the only other person we know besides my father who has a great love and appreciation for bluebirds. When my dad was alive he and George would often consult one another with regard to the comings and goings of the bluebirds. This was great for my dad, (who by the way also wore the covers off of every sequel to ‘All Creatures Great And Small’), and his being able to converse with someone who was a vet and also kept track of this areas bluebird migration.
George filled us in on some of the habits of bluebirds and then (secondly) we did some research of our own. My dad would be very happy to know we did this.
So, bluebirds don’t always migrate. When they do leave the frozen northeast, they head for places as far as Texas but may only travel as far as they need to find a food source. Their winter fare is mostly berries. It is true that some hardy bluebirds do brave the winter here, apparently making their way through by eating berries and fruit from various trees and shrubs. They’ll also feast on dead and frozen bugs, like the bluebirds who were eating frozen flies along the window sill at the farm. Not an easy choice I would say, but not as uncommon as you’d think. When not nesting they move in flocks and beginning in the Fall, these groups of bluebirds start meandering south following food sources. But, some do stay. At least these two did. In the winter, if they remain in a frigid climate, like Maine, they will find shelter in a hollow tree. Often as many birds that can fit inside that hollow will do so creating warmth in numbers. Unfortunately, there has been a significant decline in bluebird populations over the last several decades. Most of this is due to habitat loss, insecticides, and the introduction of starlings and house sparrows that out-compete them for food and shelter. This makes me even prouder of my Dad ( and you, too, George!) for taking such an interest in the well being of our bluebird population.
When my Dad passed away, my mom forwarded some of his books to me. Mostly because my dad and I loved many of the same things…nature, farming, and food ( he was known to drive 100’s of miles for a good piece of pie…who wouldn’t!). In one of the books that was passed along, ‘Song And Garden Birds Of North America’ I found pages of my Dad’s bluebird notes folded up in the back. He had been tracking the bluebirds (and building them boxes) since 1966! His last entry was 2002, just two years before he passed away. I love that my dad did this, I love seeing his carefully handwritten notes, excerpts like “A pair of Bluebirds arrived, they did not nest until April 2nd or 3rd. The female laid a clutch of five eggs”. This was written in 1971. On another account, in 1969, he wrote this “A pair of Bluebirds arrived and soon nested in the same bird box of previous years. Also, I noticed the presence of a house wren. Which seem to be a menace to the bluebirds. By the sound advice of a friend, Mrs.Trudy Smith, who is quite familiar with all birds, I netted the female house wren who had nested in one of the bluebird boxes. With somewhat of a struggle, I might add. Mrs. Smith then took the house wren, banded it, and took it to the Harkness Estate in Waterford.The bluebirds had two eggs in the box at the time of the house wren departure. The female bluebird has been in the nest two days. So I think she may have laid a clutch of four eggs”.
In honor of my Dad and all other bird watchers, we’ll keep a close eye on the two bluebirds that have stayed. We’ll hope that they brave the winter so that this spring when the first hatch of insects descends upon us, they’ll be swooping through the fields having their fill.
In addition, consider checking out this site: http://www.nabluebirdsociety.org/
Perhaps you have the perfect location for some nesting boxes or maybe you’d just like to find out a little more about those birds my Dad so carefully thought of throughout his years.
Not too late to order this book for Christmas!
A great book that helps us to understand the importance of bio-diversity within species. We may not always condsider the reason behind diversity and how it plays an essential role in our ecosystems.
Here’s a great article also by Doug Tallamy that makes the point:
Bringing Nature Home
Gardening for Life
Chances are, you have never thought of your garden — indeed, of all of the space on your property — as a wildlife preserve that represents the last chance we have for sustaining plants and animals that were once common throughout the U.S. But that is exactly the role our suburban landscapes are now playing and will play even more in the near future.
If this is news to you, it’s not your fault. We were taught from childhood that gardens are for beauty; they are a chance to express our artistic talents, to have fun with and relax in. And, whether we like it or not, the way we landscape our properties is taken by our neighbors as a statement of our wealth and social status. But no one has taught us that we have forced the plants and animals that evolved in North America (our nation’s biodiversity) to depend more and more on human-dominated landscapes for their continued existence. We have always thought that biodiversity was happy somewhere out there “in nature;” in our local woodlot, or perhaps our state and national parks. We have heard nothing about the rate at which species are disappearing from our neighborhoods, towns, counties, and states. Even worse, we have never been taught how vital biodiversity is for our own well-being.
We Have Taken It All
The population of the U.S., now over 300 million people, has doubled since most of us were kids and continues to grow by 8640 people per day. All of those additional souls, coupled with cheap gas, our love affair with the car, and our quest to own ever larger homes have fueled unprecedented development that continues to sprawl over 2 million additional acres per year (the size of Yellowstone National Park). The Chesapeake Bay watershed has lost 100 acres of forest each day since 1985. We have connected all of our developments with 4 million miles of roads, the paved surface is nearly five times the size of New Jersey. Somewhere along the way we decided to convert most of our living and working spaces into huge expanses of lawn. So far we have planted over 62,500 sq miles, some 40 million acres, in lawn. Each weekend we mow an area 8 times the size of New Jersey to within 1 inch and then congratulate ourselves on a job well done. And it’s not like those little woodlots and “open spaces” we have not paved over or manicured are pristine. Nearly all are second-growth forests that have been thoroughly invaded by alien plants like autumn olive, multiflora rose, Oriental bittersweet, and Japanese honeysuckle. Over 3400 species of alien plants have invaded 100 million acres of the U.S, and that area is expected to double in the next 5 years.
To nature lovers these are horrifying statistics. I stress them so that we can clearly understand the challenge before us. We have turned 54% of the lower 48 states into cities and suburbs, and 41% more into various forms of agriculture. That’s right: we humans have taken 95% of nature and made in unnatural. But does this matter? Are there consequences to turning so much land into the park-like settings humans enjoy? Absolutely, both for biodiversity and for us. Our fellow creatures need food and shelter to survive and reproduce and in too many places we have eliminated both. At least 40% of Delaware’s plant species are rare or extinct, and 41% of its forest birds no longer nest in the state. Over 800 plant and animal species are rare, threatened, or endangered in Pennsylvania and 150 have already disappeared entirely. Many of those that haven’t suffered local extinction are now too rare to perform their role in their ecosystem. These can be considered functionally extinct. The song birds that brighten spring mornings have been in decline since the 1960s, having lost 40% of their numbers so far. Birds that breed in meadows are in even more trouble. Once common species such as the northern bobwhite, eastern meadowlark, field sparrow, and grasshopper sparrow have declined 82%, 72%, 68%, and 65%, respectively, in total numbers, and are completely absent from many areas that used to support healthy populations.
Why We Need Biodiversity
For most of us, hearing such numbers triggers a passing sadness; but few people feel personally threatened by the loss of biodiversity. Here’s why you should. Biodiversity losses are a clear sign that our own life-support systems are failing. The ecosystems that support us – – that determine the carrying capacity of the earth and our local spaces – – are run by biodiversity. It is biodiversity that generates oxygen and clean water; that creates topsoil out of rock and buffers extreme weather events like droughts and floods; and that recycles the mountains of garbage we create every day. And now, with human induced climate change threatening the planet, it is biodiversity that will suck that carbon out of the air and sequester it in living plants if given half a chance. Humans cannot live as the only species on this planet because it is other species that create the ecosystem services essential to us. Every time we force a species to extinction we are encouraging our own demise. Despite the disdain with which we have treated it in the past, biodiversity is not optional.
Parks Are Not Enough
I am often asked why the habitats we have preserved within our park system are not enough to save most species from extinction. Years of research by evolutionary biologists have shown that the area required to sustain biodiversity is pretty much the same as the area required to generate it in the first place. The consequence of this simple relationship is profound. Since we have taken 95% of the U.S. from nature we can expect to lose 95% of the species that once lived here unless we learn how to share our living, working, and agricultural spaces with biodiversity. 95% of all plants and animals! Now there is a statistic that puts climate-change predictions of extinction to shame. And studies of habitat islands with known histories, such as Barro Colorado Island in the Panama Canal and Ashdown Forest in England, have so far shown these predictions to be accurate. Species are lost at the same proportion with which a habitat is reduced in size. The good news is that extinction takes awhile, so if we start sharing our landscapes with other living things, we should be able to save much of the biodiversity that still exists.
What will it take to give our local animals what they need to survive and reproduce on our properties? NATIVE PLANTS, and lots of them. This is a scientific fact deduced from thousands of studies about how energy moves through food webs. Here is the general reasoning. All animals get their energy directly from plants, or by eating something that has already eaten a plant. The group of animals most responsible for passing energy from plants to the animals that can’t eat plants is insects. This is what makes insects such vital components of healthy ecosystems. So many animals depend on insects for food (e.g., spiders, reptiles and amphibians, rodents, 96% of all terrestrial birds) that removing insects from an ecosystem spells its doom.
But that is exactly what we have tried to do in our suburban landscapes. For over a century we have favored ornamental landscape plants from China and Europe over those that evolved right here. If all plants were created equal, that would be fine. But every plant species protects its leaves with a species-specific mixture of nasty chemicals. With few exceptions, only insect species that have shared a long evolutionary history with a particular plant lineage have developed the physiological adaptations required to digest the chemicals in their host’s leaves. They have specialized over time to eat only the plants sharing those particular chemicals. When we present insects from Pennsylvania with plants that evolved on another continent, chances are those insects will be unable to eat them. We used to think this was good. Kill all insects before they eat our plants! But an insect that cannot eat part of a leaf cannot fulfill its role in the food web. We have planted Kousa dogwood, a species from China that supports no insect herbivores, instead of our native flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) that supports 117 species of moths and butterflies alone. In hundreds of thousands of acres we have planted goldenraintree from China instead of one of our beautiful oaks and lost the chance to grow 532 species of caterpillars, all of them nutritious bird food. My research has shown that alien ornamentals support 29 times less biodiversity than do native ornamentals.
Your Garden Has a Function
In the past we didn’t designed gardens that play a critical ecological role in the landscape, but we must do so in the future if we hope to avoid a mass extinction from which humans are not likely to recover either. As quickly as possible we need to replace unnecessary lawn with densely planted woodlots that can serve as habitat for our local biodiversity. Homeowners can do this by planting the borders of their properties with native trees plants such as white oaks (Quercus alba), black willows (Salix nigra), red maples (Acer rubrum), green ashes (Fraxinus pennsylvanica), black walnuts (Juglans nigra), river birches (Betula nigra) and shagbark hickories (Carya ovata), under-planted with woodies like serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis), arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum), hazelnut (Corylus americnus), blueberries (Vaccinium spp) . Our studies have shown that even modest increases in the native plant cover on suburban properties significantly increases the number and species of breeding birds, including birds of conservation concern. As gardeners and stewards of our land, we have never been so empowered to help save biodiversity from extinction, and the need to do so has never been so great. All we need to do is plant native plants!
We don’t grow acres of beans, but we do grow enough to get us through the winter. Most often, we plant three types of beans for storage…Vermont Cranberry, Black Beans, and Adzuki Beans. The black beans were pulled a couple of weeks ago, their leaves had dropped and the beans themselves were fairly hard. I pulled the entire row, lashed together bundles of plant and pod and hung them in the greenhouse for further drying.
At the end of the day, we’ve been lighting a small campfire and sitting out to enjoy the evening, often having dinner by firelight. We hardly ever do this during the middle of summer, we’re so busy and tired from the day’s pace that we come inside after dark, eat, and flop into bed. Sitting by the fire, last night along with our friend Jack, who tells good stories, I shucked beans and listened to Jack talk about his travels through Europe and about growing up here in Maine in the fifties.
If we grew fields of beans we’d need a bean thresher, doing this task by hand would then be pretty impractical. Growing just enough for home use makes it possible to thresh beans by hand (preferably by a campfire, ha!), perhaps a bit tedious and time consuming but something I enjoy doing. The next batch of beans are not quite ready, we’ll leave them to dry on the vines for a while longer. Once they’re harvested, they can hang in the greenhouse until we can get to them ( before Christmas, I hope!).
The gardens here are slowly winding down. However, the broccoli is still producing lots of side shoots, the chard is tall and handsome, cabbage, Brussel sprouts, and leeks are waiting to be harvested, and there are still tomatoes and peppers in the hoop house to be gathered.The winter squash is all laid out on tables curing for winter storage. A few tender late planted greens continue to provide for fresh salads and sauteing. Even now, as the weather turns and we begin preparing for those long (delightful) winter months, there continues to be plenty. Very thankful, we are. Very thankful.
If I am lucky and can get myself indoors before dark, make a meal for dinner
(last night was baked winter squash stuffed with roasted garlic and cauliflower and then sprinkled with feta cheese…pretty yummy!), then get cleaned up and find a comfy chair to relax in before my eyes close, I’ll usually read or knit. Right now I am slowly progressing on a pair of baby leggings that should only take me two days to knit up but seem to be taking much longer. Hope that baby’s legs don’t grow too quickly! I am also reading an interesting book by Thor Hanson called, The Triumph Of Seeds, How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, and Pips Conquered The Plant kingdom And Shaped Human History. The reading of this book is most likely the reason I am falling short on my knitting project. I am always happy to read about seeds, to better understand their biology, and to consider their vital role in the world. I’m still fascinated by plants and their seeds….or should I say seeds and their plants? As Thor Hanson puts it ” seeds transcend that imaginary boundary we erect between the natural world and the human world, appearing so regularly in our daily lives, in so many forms, that we hardly recognize how utterly dependent we are upon them”. Right now, we are busy collecting seeds throughout the nursery for propagation. Every collection is unique, each seed designed specifically to encapsulate all of the characteristics and functions of that plant. We handle seeds daily, and still, I am fascinated by them. If you want to add a good read to your fall or winter reading list, consider Thor Hanson’s book. I think you’ll find it interesting and informative!
My mom called this morning,”are you still writing the blog”, she asked. I think so. I’m trying. In between getting the firewood split and stacked, the last of the tomatoes harvested and preserved, the lower sheep field bush-hogged, after another fifty bales of hay are put into the loft, once the apples are picked and made into cider, “then I’ll write a blog post”, I say. I am not the least bit put off by the lengthy Fall chore list. Each beautiful autumn day is too precious to not want to be engaged in some outdoor task. Riding the tractor through a field of tall grass ( and a bit of goldenrod and aster) on a sunny afternoon….delight. Filling baskets of apples and scrutinizing the various varieties and tastes of each…joy. Knowing the freezer will be full of stewed and roasted tomatoes…comforting.
Yesterday, our friend Moe brought us some pears from his orchard. Pears are a lovely fruit, don’t you think? I’ll leave them on the table for a day or so, let them ripen some, and be happy to just look at their mottled green and tawny skin…beauty.
How about a poem? Now, for me, back to work!
by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889)
Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Angelica gigas, also known as Korean angelica and purple parsnip, is now in bloom, adding its wonderful colors and structure to the late summer flower period. It’s purple domed clusters attract many pollinators and are smothered in a variety of bees, wasps, hornets, flies, and beetles. Each flower, on a multiple branched stalked, is held on a reddish purple stem whose color bleeds down into the leaf. Not all of the flowers open at once, extending the show for a few weeks. Listed as a biennial, it can often be kept as a short lived perennial if the flowers are cut off before the seed is set. If left to go to seed, the seedlings are often numerous and easy to transplant. Korean angelica prefers full sun to part shade in an evenly moist soil. At 3-4 feet in height, it fits well at the back of the garden or poking up through shorter plants, although it is interesting to have it close enough to observe the insects on it. The root has been used medicinally for gynecological, cardiovascular, and immune system health. Research is being conducted for its possible anti-cancer properties. We love how well its rich color plays with the foliage on the yellow and variegated plants in the garden.
As things wind down here in the gardens and at the nursery, we so appreciate the rich color and structure that Angelica gigas brings to our Fall landscape.
Peaches are in season. Not the final fruit to be harvested, eaten and preserved, we still have apples and pears to look forward to. But doesn’t a fresh peach pie along side some home-made ice cream (ginger ice cream, maybe? Yes!) seem just about the most decadent thing you can devour at summer’s end?
Here’s a poem by Kate Barnes about peaches…and a reminder that what we think we know may not always be true. Enjoy!
by Kate Barnes
Jenny, because you are twenty-three
(and my daughter),
you think you know everything;
and because I am fifty-three
(and your mother),
I think I know everything.
A week ago you picked up two green little peaches,
only half-grown and still hard,
from under the loaded peach tree
and put them on the kitchen window sill;
and I thought
(though I didn’t say a word):
they’re too small, they will just rot
but I won’t move them, Jenny put them there.
Now the summer is over and you are gone,
the mornings are cool, squashes conquer the garden,
the tree swallows have flown away, crickets sing—
and the sweet juice of your peaches runs down my chin.
We have a sea of winter squash trailing through the landscape here, they are growing with an intention of both vigor and determination. That’s good! Butternut, Delicata, Buttercup, and Spaghetti Squash, all for our winter larder. I’m already thinking Thanksgiving!(sorry). In addition, growing right alongside our marathon winter squash are rows of dry beans….Vermont Cranberry, Jacob’s Cattle, Black Turtle, and Adzuki. Not acres of beans, but enough to fill some shelves in the pantry. Earlier in the season, I was given some open pollinated flint corn, a variety called Ray’s Calais, and though we were late getting it in the ground, it is tasseled out and forming good solid ears. Ray’s Calias is seed that originates from the Abenaki people of the Northeast and Quebec. This corn will be ready to pick some time in October when the corn stalks are good and dry. Once picked they will hang in a cluster to dry for another couple of weeks before the kernels are removed from the cob. Next, they’ll be put through the grinder. I’ll pass along a substantial helping of ground corn to the friend who gave me the seed and who helped with the planting. Corn, beans, and squash a-plenty! The pantry shelves are filling!!