Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Fine for Finches

Fine for Finches   

In the summer our forsythia bush is green and full, creating a private nesting environment for a host of our local House Finches. They are the little birds that flock around the feeders and serenade us with song.

The bush is pretty bare, now that winter has arrived. A few leaves are hanging on in homage to the warm weather we had this fall but otherwise it would not seem to be a particularly good place for protective covering. Yet the finches find it to be a good spot to hang out.

And it is understandable. Look at the forsythia’s winter coloring, all grays and browns, perfect blend for a finch. At least for the female House Finch. Male House Finches are more colorful, with splashes of red feathers on their heads and chest. But even so, the inside of the bush is a tangle of branches, easy enough for such a small bird to move through but hard for a larger bird, such as the predatory hawk that has been hovering around the treetops recently, to navigate. It seems that the bush’s qualities are just fine for finches. They come out when they choose and hunker in when they need to.
And perhaps that is a quality we humans should cultivate. It is wonderful to be out in the open, to show the world our best, our beauty, our skills. Then there are times for introspection. This year has been rough with storms, with guns, with political stagnation.

Let’s make next year safer. Let’s be proactive in the face of natural threats. Let’s be protective of our public spaces. Let’s work together for the good of all. Let’s make 2013 a year of cooperation and caring so that we can sing our own beautiful songs.

Listen to the finches:

Some finch facts:

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Common and Uncommon Nuthatch

The Common and Uncommon Nuthatch

The White-breasted Nuthatch is a fairly common bird. It has ordinary coloring – black and gray with white underparts – and is small, about the size of a sparrow. It frequents woodlands and deciduous forests like the Black-capped Chickadee. It makes its nest in tree hollows like the woodpecker and, also like the woodpecker, has an undulating flying pattern. It eats insects and seeds (particularly sunflower seeds) like so many other birds. So what makes this bird unique? 

It’s an upside-down creature most of the time while other birds have more of a rightside-up personality. The Nuthatch is the only bird that regularly starts at the top of the tree (or birdfeeder) and works its way down as it seeks its food. There is an advantage to going downward; the bird is able to see food overlooked by the usual upward direction of other birds.

And that is what speaks to me. What causes this one bird, who is like other birds in lots of ways, to do something different when it would be so easy to do what the rest of the bird world does?

It is intriguing to see what the natural world offers as mirrors. This simple example makes me think of us, the human species, and how we have so many commonalities – in culture, in peer groups, in professions, in fashions, etc. – that make it almost inevitable that we be the same. Like the Nuthatch, however, we may have to deviate from the usual to find what nourishes us, what distinguishes us as individuals. And it is that something that helps us to express our true, particular nature within the broader spectrum of humanity.

Here is a general introduction to the Nuthatch and for more specific information about the White-breasted Nuthatch, click on the link at the left.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Cuba Today

Cuba Today

My backyard really expanded last week – all the way to Cuba! We had the opportunity to visit the island that is so close to us, a mere ninety miles from Miami, and yet so far from our ability to interact, at least until recently. We went with Grand Circle Foundation, one of the licensed groups that lead people-to-people cultural exchange tours. What we found was a resourceful culture, friendly people, and music that enlivens everything.

Much of what you see is reflective of the 1950s (oh, those cars!) when Cuba was a booming tourist destination. But all was not well in the coastal paradise. There was a large class discrepancy. In 1959, Fidel Castro ousted Batista who, when it looked like he would be voted out of power, had taken over total control of the government. Most privately owned businesses and properties became state-owned. Cuba became aligned with the Soviet Union and communism and estranged from the United States. This relationship lasted until the USSR was officially dissolved in 1991. The dissolution left Cuba in crisis. Without the economic support the USSR had provided, food was scarce and poverty reigned.

Cuba is still struggling. There are remnants of functional Soviet architecture but also of the grander architectural styles that came with Spanish colonization. Much of that, unfortunately, is in need of repair, which is too costly for most Cubans. Buildings occasionally fall down, sometimes with the people in them. Many of the buildings have black mold on them, something that is hard to control in such a humid climate.

Cuba’s new leader Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother, is beginning to loosen some restrictions. We visited a cooperative organic farm. The land is still state owned but the produce can be sold privately. We ate in a few paladars, small, privately owned restaurants located in homes. They provide a chance to practice both Spanish and English, depending on which side of the menu you’re on. Our tour was busy but it left us time to wander the cities and interact with local residents who are eager to connect.

And yes, we did see nature in various forms. We saw cranes looking for lunch in Cienfuegos, a city that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We visited a family that owns a tobacco farm where there was a variety of livestock, lots of chickens and a rooster who was intent on getting us to feed him some of the bananas we were eating (there were three delicious local varieties). We went through a nature preserve and learned about trees that are native, and some invasive, to Cuba. There was el malacon, the miles-long promenade in Havana, a great place to see the harbor and a popular venue to stroll along.

We did not cover the whole island. We did not – yet – get to the Vinales Valley, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, or to the many beaches that made Cuba a major vacation spot. To get a general overview of the natural diversity of Cuba, look at photographer Steve Winter’s video http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0311/sights_n_sounds/media2.html.  He spent five months there for National Geographic Magazine and his photographs will give you some idea of the depth and beauty of Cuba.

One day perhaps, sooner rather than later I hope, our countries will be able to set aside our former antagonisms and re-establish relations. The people-to-people concept where we have personal, positive interactions with each other is a good way to help facilitate the process. As the world becomes a more global neighborhood, can we continue to ignore Cuba today, our next-door neighbor?  Should we?

Frommer’s gives a brief description of some natural attractions:
And for history buffs, a timeline of Cuba’s history:

Monday, November 12, 2012

Squirrel, How Did You do It - This Time?

Squirrel, How Did You do It - This Time?

There was a squirrel on the bird feeder today. Ordinarily it would not have been much of a surprise to see one up there – they have outwitted most of our attempts to squirrel-proof the feeders. It came, however, at a time when I thought we had made it even harder for squirrels to get up there.

We had just pruned back the full, exuberant butterfly bushes the squirrels liked to use in their attempts at leaping for the seed. The bushes had been knocked over by good old Hurricane Sandy, exposing the root balls and shifting the branches sideways. Some of the branches had cracked off leaving the area littered with dead wood. We repositioned the plants, added soil to replace what had been blown away, and cut down the damaged limbs. The bushes that had previously been high and fluffy look so sad. We hope they will come back renewed in the spring. But, for now, we thought that it would deter the squirrels from trying to use them as a springboard toward the feeders. So how did that brazen critter get up there???

I thought that maybe the squirrel took a flying leap from the first floor rooftop and grabbed onto the feeder for dear life. But none had done it before so why now?

My husband suggested that since there were five squirrels grazing underneath that perhaps they had cooperated and stood one on top of the other to lift the lucky one who would then toss down some seed for all to eat. Then they started chasing each other so cooperation didn’t appear likely.

The birdbath seemed too far from the feeders to provide a viable starting point but then what’s too far for a squirrel determined to eat? We were reaching here but then that’s what squirrels do so well. They are actually able to reach ten times their body length and their brains are well adapted to problem solving. These are amazing beings. Really. Check them out http://www.globalanimal.org/2011/03/20/survival-of-the-nuttiest-squirrels/7018/

I have to admire squirrels. As I watch them I can almost see their brains at work. They are world survivors. Perhaps they could teach us a thing or two about adaptability though I suspect they are not good sharers. I suspect everyone has a squirrel story. I’d love to read about your squirrel encounters.

And while you are mulling over your interactions with squirrels watch this video. It may help you keep seed in the feeders and a smile on your face.


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Roses for a Philosophical Garden

Roses for a Philosophical Garden

I was fretting after the election that our country was still in adversarial mode. It seems to me that we could be working together for the benefit of people rather than the advancement of political agendas.

It was in this frame of mind that I taught my Wednesday morning class at the local recreation center. We did not talk about the election and what divides us but rather what we can do to help those affected by Hurricane Sandy. We discussed how supporting ourselves in positive ways can help us to support the people we interact with – family, friends, neighbors, those we meet casually or formally.

When class was over, one of the participants handed me a bouquet of peach-colored roses. She thanked me and said how much she enjoyed the sessions. I was touched by her gift. It reminded me that appreciation is a beautiful gift we can all offer.

I thought of our politicians. They have a new chance to encourage each other to help our country fulfill it promise. Wouldn’t it be more functional to give appreciation for what works instead of trying to negate it to boost an opposition opinion? And if something isn’t working, why not dig deeper into the situation to find seeds of other possibilities while maintaining an atmosphere that nourishes growth?

What a marvelous philosophical garden we could have if everyone could plant his or her people-supporting ideas within our society. Some of them would not prove viable, no doubt, but some might be just what we need. And it wouldn’t matter which side of the aisle the planter came from because a good idea would grow into something beautiful and benefit all.

I am grateful for my roses and for the kind appreciation they represent. Yes, roses have thorns but their splendor makes our cautious handling worth it. Governing presents thorns, too, but when we work together, when we genuinely cooperate, we can grow a magnificent garden.
Interested in growing roses? Here is a site to get you started:

Monday, October 29, 2012

Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy

We have been hearing about the approach of Hurricane Sandy for days and now it is finally here. So far it’s not too bad where I live. The winds are blowing hard and our backyard suddenly looks bare as the remaining leaves on the maples, Redbud and Tulip trees have been stripped from their branches. The butterfly bush, still lush as a curtain outside our dining room window, is bending low, the remaining flowers gone. Our rain gauge shows over two inches of rain so far but more is predicted. The bird bath has water up to the top and spilling over.

We left our bird feeders in place although I know that some people have taken them down for fear that they might be dislodged and crash into a window. I am keeping my fingers crossed that doesn’t happen here because the birds are still eating. When a burst of wind swings the feeders they take off. Yet, with a forecast of possibly ninety mile and hour winds heading for our area, I think we will probably opt for caution and remove them later today.

All this, so far, is more maintenance than worry. People who live near the shore are seeing a different story. They have been ordered to evacuate, which is probably wise as pictures on the newscasts show flooding in the streets and jetties askew in the ocean where their supports have been undermined. And a particularly high tide is expected mid-evening. Rain + wind + high tide = trouble. Not a good equation. The bridges leading onto the shore towns are closed. 

The storm is making its presence known far and wide. I have been receiving messages of concern from friends and relatives in different states. I even got one from Japan. Thank you all.  People seem to come together when there are difficulties. When we can care about each other and express that caring we become like a family. In troubling times, whether physically based like a storm or politically motivated, if we can remember that we are a family and care about what affects us all, we move into the space called humanity. I hope everyone affected by Hurricane Sandy is safe. And I wish the best for all of us no matter what circumstance presents itself.  

My lights just flickered. Maybe it’s time to lower the bird feeders. Don’t worry, birds, they’ll be back. I take care of family.   

Stats about Hurricane Sandy:

Monday, October 15, 2012

Brussels Sprouts on the Stalk

Brussels Sprouts on the Stalk

Years ago, when my children were in elementary school, I used to bring in raw foods to show them how our food grows. Peas in the pod, corn in the husk, strawberries on the vine, peanuts in the shell, you get the idea. Can’t do that today, of course, but it was interesting to see their surprise at the natural state of things.

My local Trader Joe’s, in the past couple of years, has been bringing in Brussels sprouts on the stalk. I find I am just as excited to see how they grow as the kids were back then. There is something satisfying in connecting with the emerging process. Seeing the tomatoes grow in my garden is extremely pleasing.  To watch each stage of a tomato as it develops, to hold it in my hand while it is still warm from the afternoon sun, is a treat. 

Origins are intriguing. They hint at possibilities. They are Act One in an ever-changing play. Each beginning brings with it unknown potential that responds to nurturing or its lack. It expresses its uniqueness even within its group identity. Every grape in a bunch is different even if they all taste sweet.

Brussels sprouts are a good example of hidden promise. They are rather strange looking and not always the favorite choice of diners but they pack a nutritional wallop that should have us clamoring for them. Here is a profile that should have you looking at Brussels sprouts with respect: http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=10

I think that seeing how our food grows is important. It helps to keep us interrelated within the chain of life. Our supermarkets are filled with artificial products that contain non-food additives, which we are learning are not in our best interest to ingest. The fewer the ingredients, the better. We should be able to pronounce the ingredients. And do we really want food that has an extended shelf life? Fruits and vegetables in the produce aisles are identifiable, fresh, and, if organic, pesticide free. I would love to see everyone have access to real food and to make choices that support healthy eating.

The US Department of Agriculture has some simple tips to help you eat well:

Monday, October 8, 2012

Many Mushrooms

Many Mushrooms

My father-in-law took a course in mushroom identification. He would go out into the field with his guidebook looking for specimens. Yet much as he liked to eat mushrooms, I don’t think he ever picked any in the wild. He was a smart man. Wild mushrooms can be dangerous to eat. Some have toxins that can cause digestive or respiratory problems that are uncomfortable, while others are downright life-threatening. But the right kind of mushroom (and there are many varieties to choose from) is delicious.

Which brings me to agaricus, a common whitish field mushroom. Button mushrooms fall into this category. I saw some mushrooms that looked sort of like golf balls. They grow on lawns all around my house. Tempting as it was to pick and cook, I limited my appreciation to the visual. Then I went out to my favorite market and bought a carton of safely farmed produce that I can enjoy without worry.

I tend to be casual when I cook and mushrooms are so easy to work with, they make perfect dishes. I like to sauté crimini mushrooms in a little olive oil with chopped basil, garlic, and pine nuts, then sprinkle on a little grated cheese, serve them over pasta and yum. Portobello mushrooms are great stuffed with almost anything – rice, ground turkey or beef, tofu, squash, spinach – drizzle a little sauce of your choice over the top and bake. Shitaki mushrooms lend themselves beautifully to dishes with Asian spices. If you want a more precise way to prepare them and favor a world view of mushroom dishes, take a look here:

If anyone has a favorite mushroom dish, please feel free to share. We mushroom lovers will be delighted.

For some mushroom varieties and photos:

And for a very basic description of field mushrooms: http://urbanext.illinois.edu/woods/21NN.html

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Squash - a Fruit and a Vegetable?

Squash - a Fruit and a Vegetable?

I know that there are many kinds of squash – I eat lots of different varieties – when I came upon one at a farmer’s market that I hadn’t seen before. I was intrigued. It was star-shaped with lovely light green/dark green markings. I brought it home with the intention of cooking it right away but I was waylaid by its charm. So instead, I put it in a basket for a table decoration.

But now it is time to get down to business and eat it. Only what is it that I plan to eat? I found out it is a patty pan squash, a variety that comes in green, yellow, and white. I also found out that, botanically speaking, it is a fruit! Like a tomato, it has seeds, the telltale marking. Yet, in the culinary sense, the way we prepare and eat it, it is a vegetable. So it is both. And what does that mean?

This is as much a philosophical issue as a botanical one. Is it more important to identify something technically or to categorize it functionally? Can something be more than one thing and still maintain its integrity?

I actually like the diverse nature of things. It is inherent in the concept of repurposing, shifting how we use something in one way to use it in another, an important aspect of the current green movement. Food scraps turn into compost. Rainwater is caught and used to water a garden. Wind becomes electricity. In truth, we have been doing it all along, in lots of different ways, without any labels. Vinegar is used in cooking as well for cleaning. A scarf gets turned into a belt A colleague becomes a friend. It makes life creative and interesting.

As for the patty pan, it doesn’t much matter if it is a fruit – I will still prepare it as a vegetable and serve it as such for dinner. In either case, it is food, and I anticipate it being delicious!  

I never realized quite how many varieties of squash there actually are. Check out this site:

Fruit or vegetable? What makes it one or the other?

I wrote a picture book about community and repurposing called The Story Blanket :

Monday, September 24, 2012

Blue Jay and an Empty Feeder

Blue Jay and an Empty Feeder

I was enjoying a peaceful moment on my patio out back on one of the last delightful summer days when I heard a Blue Jay call out. It wasn’t unusual for the jays to visit our backyard. They would usually land on the feeder with such a thump from their hefty bodies that the other birds would almost be flung off their perches.

Because I was reading, it took me a while to realize that I was hearing a lot of Blue Jay calls, the raucous cry that sounds like a squeaky door. When I paid attention I could pinpoint the cries from tree to tree and follow the bird’s movements so I knew that it was close. I saw the leaves flutter in the surrounding trees as the jay moved about. It wasn’t mating season so I wondered if it was in distress. Usually when a bird seems frantic it is warning of a predator in the neighborhood. Was there a hawk around? I looked up but didn’t see any evidence of one.

Was it just being aggressive? Blue Jays are known to be territorial and will go after an intruder be it a bird, a squirrel, a cat, sometimes even a human. But that is mostly at nesting time.

When I went inside and happened to look out my kitchen window, I saw a jay practically wrapped around one of the bird feeders, which, I noticed, was empty. Could that have been the reason for its vocal outburst? Blue Jays eat such a variety of foods - nuts, fruits, seeds, insects, mice, grasshoppers, beetles, caterpillars – surely a lack of sunflowers seeds should not have caused such verbal outrage. But maybe it was so used to this particular source of a meal that it wanted to make its dissatisfaction plain.

I don’t claim to understand nature nor have I observed it sufficiently to make any confident conclusions about what I see. I occasionally note consistencies so it is sometimes tempting to come to a conclusion but then I am often surprised. This applies to people, too. Motives, desire, necessity, instinct affect us all and make even the most usual unpredictable at times.

In this case, I just went out and filled the feeders. Several jays came around later and partook of the bounty. Perhaps one of them was the bird I had heard earlier, perhaps not. My desire is to provide seed for the birds who find their way to the feeders, at least most of the time. I guess the Blue Jay’s desire is to eat it.

Listen to the Blue Jay – and other birds:

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Rainbow Meditation

Rainbow Meditation

Rainbows have always fascinated us for a variety of reasons. They appear (excuse me) out of the blue. Their beauty is astounding. They combine the physical world with the metaphysical.

There is science behind the rainbow, to be sure. Here are the facts from the Franklin Institute: http://www.fi.edu/color/rainbow.html . But I don’t think facts will negate the ethereal quality a rainbow has over us. A rainbow shifts us out of our ordinary lives for the moment it takes to register in our minds. Little backyard rainbows (like the one in this photo) or great expansive ones like those seen in Hawaii all have the power to make us stop in our tracks and pay attention. We tend to halt what we are doing, where we are going, what we are saying when we see one.

We have a long history with rainbows, in myth and imagination, stories and symbolism. Joseph Panek looks at these connections on his blog http://www.aseekersthoughts.com/2012/03/rainbow-as-symbol.html

But there is more to a rainbow than either fact or belief. A rainbow causes people to dream. Somewhere beyond the rainbow is our ideal self, the success we desire, the love we cherish. It is there, our individual pot of gold, if only we can find it. Perhaps if we keep the image of the rainbow vibrant within us then possibility will always exist and the dreams that keep us energized will guide us through the days when rainbows are hidden by the clouds.

A free tutorial from Ian Plant on how to photograph a rainbow – and some amazing illustrations: http://www.ianplant.com/articles-photographing-rainbows.htm

Monday, September 3, 2012

Gardens – Our Inner Voices Made Visible

Gardens – Our Inner Voices Made Visible

On this Labor Day weekend, I thought it would be appropriate to feature a neighbor’s garden. It has the usual bushes, specimen trees, a birdbath, and…the Statue of Liberty!  The weeping tree behind the statue almost looks like a background of fireworks. What a wonderful reminder of our roots. 

It makes me aware that gardens are more than plants – they are our inner voices made visible. Some gardens are perfectly groomed, each blade of grass tended, every bush placed in a precise location. Some gardens are specific, favoring a particular style, an English garden perhaps, or a peaceful Zen garden, while others run wild, looking unkempt and troubled. And there are water gardens, vegetable gardens, raised bed gardens, container gardens, roof gardens, and don’t forget about flowers. Wow, what possibilities.

Our garden is somewhat planned but in many respects is free, as we tend to favor a fairly natural setting. We often take our cues from the plants themselves. The privet hedge we planted many years ago does not like the shade that has developed from our now mature trees and has turned woody. We probably will replace it, perhaps with the Rose of Sharon bushes that seem to be establishing themselves near the privets; they don’t seem to mind the shade at all.

And after seeing the statue in our neighbor’s yard, I think I would like to have something in our own that would reflect our personal spirits. Maybe a path of hand-crafted stepping stones meandering down to the back of the garden. Perhaps a trellis created from the tree limbs that have fallen from the maple trees for our veggies next spring. The choices are many, as many as we are in our great country.

Here are some garden ideas to consider:

Gardens through history and around the world…Incredible!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Being Responsible with Rabbits and Other Things

Being Responsible with Rabbits and Other Things

(Sigh) I admit it. I am besotted with rabbits despite the problems they cause. I see a baby rabbit and think, “Ooh, what a cute bunny,” even though those cute bunnies eat my flowers, decimate my hostas, and munch on my veggies. But then only a few rabbits habitually visit my backyard. It is a different story in Australia.

European Rabbits were brought to Australia in the 1700s with the first settler fleet. In 1859, Thomas Austin released 24 rabbits on his property in Victoria for the purpose of having hunts. They got loose and did what rabbits are known for – they reproduced like mad. By 1990 the rabbit population was about 600 million. Over the years they have caused devastation in the country. Not only are they destructive to farms, they are problematic for the ecology. Their excessive grazing causes weakened native plants, which often succumb to invasive plants. Too much grazing also depletes the vegetation and causes soil erosion. Here is a real eye-opener about rabbit over-population http://www.dpi.vic.gov.au/agriculture/pests-diseases-and-weeds/pest-animals/lc0298-rabbits-and-their-impact. The effects of rabbit overpopulation are still being felt.

It is a reminder that our actions have a larger effect than we usually think they do. Donald Trump built a golf course in Scotland, dramatically changing the landscape. Will that turn out to be merely a playground for golfers or will it have broader consequences for the local ecology? What will be the outcome in California, both for small independent farmers and large agri-business, as well as the ecosystem of the Sacramento River Delta, if the proposed plan to build tunnels under the delta becomes a reality? What we do has an impact. We need to be responsible in our actions for the good of all, whether it involves leisure or business or rabbits.

If you are interested in a pet rabbit, you need to raise it responsibly.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Monarchs - Time to Bulk Up

Monarchs – Time to Bulk Up

I was reading about monarch butterflies. It seems they only like milkweed plants so I was thinking that I might plant some milkweeds for next year. Then I looked out at my butterfly bush, the buddleia, and saw a monarch happily flitting from one flower cluster to another. Hmm.

So I read further. There are four stages to a monarch’s life. Monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed plants. The eggs hatch into larvae or caterpillars, which feed on the plants. They then wrap themselves up in cocoons, where they go into a metamorphosis that turns them into the butterflies. At this point the monarchs can eat from other flowers, including my butterfly bush. Whew. Let them bulk up on my bushes. They will need all the nourishment they can get for their long fall migration.

I found out that each butterfly species has a specific plant that the larvae feed on. And many of those plants, the milkweed included, are being cut down – to build houses, to construct roads, because of wildfires, illegal logging and deforestation of overwintering areas.  On personal properties, they are often viewed as unwanted weeds. This is causing a decrease in the monarch population.

There are reasons to preserve the monarch butterfly (see Conservation points), not the least being that all of nature has a place in this world. I was glad to see the lone monarch on my butterfly bush. I wish it and its companions a successful flight.

About monarchs:
Life cycles and more:
Conservation points:

Monday, July 30, 2012

Good for You, Squirrel!

Good for You, Squirrel!

I was passing my kitchen window early this morning when I saw something that opened my eyes wide. A clever squirrel figured out how to bypass the baffles to the bird feeders. I didn’t see the actual process, just the result. There he/she was, atop the accordion baffle reaching for the seeds. Keeping squirrels off the feeders has been an ongoing struggle. We thought we had finally solved the problem as no squirrel had succeeded in getting past the baffles for a couple of years though there had been several attempts.

My husband was convinced that the squirrel leaped from the branches of the butterfly bush that was nearby. He pruned the bush (it needed it anyway), to make it harder for a squirrel to cross the chasm but I wonder if this particular one will find another way to get up there. I have seen squirrels traverse the whole backyard, leaping from black spruce branches to tulip tree limbs, dashing the length of our back neighbor’s fence, and hurling itself from one maple tree to another, before touching the ground. So perhaps the butterfly bush was the conduit but I suspect that the pruning was only a problem to be solved rather than an insurmountable barrier.

These creatures are certainly persistent. I have to respect that. If the adage “Practice makes perfect” works for people, why not for squirrels? Perseverance is often what leads to success. Writers revise their manuscripts for clarity, inventors discard what doesn’t work and enhance what does, chefs tweak recipes until the flavor is just right. So, I say Good for you, Squirrel! I hope the sunflowers you munched were sufficient reward for your efforts.

You won’t believe this!
Squirrel opening a peanut jar:

And here is an original story I wrote about squirrels in PhlMetropolis:

Monday, July 23, 2012

Frog or Toad?

Frog or Toad?

I think I saw a frog in my sister’s yard the other day. Or maybe it was a toad. It looked like a rock, snuggled as it was at the edge of the garden.

I know they are both amphibians but it is often hard to tell the difference. I thought frogs always stayed in the water and there is a pond in back of the house but this creature was in the driveway. So was it a toad? But then toads have smaller legs and tend to walk instead of leap and this one scuttled across the cement and then jumped. So was it a frog?

There are many overlaps between them as well as several distinguishing features.  There are differences in the eyes (frogs’ are bulgier) and the legs (toads’ are shorter). Frog skin is usually slimy (toad skin is usually dry) and toads have separate toes (frogs have webbed feet). But reading the literature, it seems that there are common characteristics in some of the areas, skin for instance and habitat. Sometimes it takes studied observation to determine the amphibian’s identity. There is similarity and at the same time individuality.

Which makes me wonder if frogs and toads can cause so much confusion how can we possibly make snap judgments about people? It may take a little time to get to know a person, to understand the person’s habits and intrinsic nature. Who takes leaps and who takes measured steps? Who blends in and who is out there? Pretty interesting, whether in the world of ponds or people.

Frog or toad?

Monday, July 9, 2012

Wildlife Habitat

Backyard Wildlife Habitat

The National Wildlife Federation has an interesting program to help our spaces become places in which nature can flourish. They have certified over150,000 Wildlife Habitat sites across the country. A wildlife habitat can be in a backyard, on a roof, in a park – wherever we can put together what is needed to make a nature-friendly environment.  

What does it take to make a site Habitat friendly? NWF says four things:
Food – Water – Cover - Places for wildlife to raise their young.
Every creature needs food. Native plants help the locals thrive. Water is necessary for drinking, bathing, and often for reproduction. Vegetation provides safety from predators and places to raise offspring. 

My backyard has bird feeders, a birdbath, bushes for butterflies, shade and sun, a variety of plants and trees. We did it for our own pleasure; now I see it is more than that. It is not officially certified but it does provide much of what is needed. And even though the rabbits drive me crazy sometimes, I am glad we are providing an area where they can live and be well. Don't we all deserve that?

If you are interested in learning about creating a Certified Wildlife Habitat, you can get started here:

Schools can become part of the green movement, too, by becoming an Eco-School. In my own state of New Jersey there are 36 Eco-Schools, including my township high school.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

We Have Potatoes!

We Have Potatoes!

I took some time off from talking about my backyard to just enjoying it. (I hope some of you missed me.) The heat has been oppressive so we have been watering a lot and trying to remember to drink more water ourselves.

Even so, the small vegetable garden we planted was showing signs of distress despite our watering. (Here is where we really show our city roots.) The potatoes, which had sent out such beautiful stems and leaves seemed to have given up. The leaves wilted and the ground looked forlorn. So we decided to dig up the plants, replenish the dirt, and plant something else. We were happily surprised to discover potatoes were under there after all! Not a whole lot and some were not very large but they existed. This was from a couple of potatoes that had sprouted and graced my kitchen windowsill for some time this spring. They were so vibrant that they just called out to be planted.

Everything is a learning experience. We learned that these were our seed potatoes, the potatoes from which the others would sprout. And we found out that it was time to harvest when the stems died back. We did the right things but from intuition rather than knowledge. We’ll know better for next year. Lucky for us, we planted some more seed potatoes (in different spots of our yard) for the sheer joy of them growing. They seem to be flourishing. Can you see me grinning?

This is a great site for the basics:

Monday, June 11, 2012

Summer Squash

Summer Squash

I love this season. It’s exciting to see the vegetable plants starting to sprout. They express themselves so beautifully, even in our makeshift garden. They don’t seem to be bothered that we have so little space for them – only our small side yard has the needed hours of sunlight. So we grow one or two plants wherever we can fit them, starting vines in pots and letting them reach out across the lawn.

On one of our recent trips to the nursery, we were attracted to the squash seedlings. There are so many squash varieties that it is almost impossible not to find one that appeals. They tend to be fast growers, good for those of us who are impatient for home-grown goodness. We put in a couple of Yellow Straightneck plants and now there are flowers bursting into bloom. Underneath we can see the beginnings of the veggies. I understand that it is best to pick them when they are about six-inches, not too large. When the light yellow turns to darker yellow they are over-mature and the plant slows down its production so it pays to be ready when the squash is.

Squash is nutritious and delicious. I am already thinking of recipes – sautéed with chopped scallions, some sliced mushrooms, and a dash of apple cider vinegar perhaps, or maybe sliced lengthwise, brushed with a little extra virgin olive oil, sprinkled with fresh basil (I love basil), and baked, or just plain steamed - all good.

I am enjoying the process, seeing the leaves and flowers unfold, checking on the daily growth of the veggies; whatever we get to eat is a bonus. For me this is dabbling in a mini-farming adventure but it has helped me to appreciate the true farmers of the world.

Extensive info about summer squash:
and do click on the link for Basic Gardening – it will get you off to a great start!

Monday, June 4, 2012

Wasps and People Aren't Compatible

Wasps and People Aren’t Compatible

Okay, so here’s the thing – we have a wasp’s nest tucked into the crook of our garage door where it meets the house. As we enter or leave we have the insects in plain sight and often very close. The nest is getting bigger since we saw it a few days ago. We have to do something.

Wasps are actually beneficial in that they eat a lot of other bugs but they are dangerous so near to people. They will sting if they feel threatened, which is understandable - but not acceptable at a busy threshold. Stings are painful (I know from prior experience), starting with the sharp incision of the stinger. The injected venom stimulates the nerve endings of pain receptors in the skin. Then the body releases a fluid to the site to wash away the venom, which spreads it and causes redness and swelling around the sting area. Not fun. And not something to play around with. Some people are allergic to stings. Anaphylaxis can cause minor irritations such as hives, swelling, nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and headaches. More severe reactions such as shock, dizziness, unconsciousness, or difficulty breathing need immediate attention as they can be life-threatening.

I tend to be reluctant to harm anything in this world; I capture and release spiders found in the house rather than kill them, shoo flies out the window, discourage ants by spreading ground pepper at their points of entry. If this nest were anywhere else I would probably let it be but wasps and people are not compatible so close to each other. It is dangerous here; the nest must go. I hope the next time the local wasps want to build a nest they find a more suitable place.

More than I wanted to know about wasps but helpful, especially regarding wasp management:
A gentler perspective:     

Monday, May 28, 2012

Dappled Willow Hedge

Dappled Willows

The privet hedge on the side of our yard began to have problems. The ground it was planted in is mostly marl, a moist, clay-like dirt. While some of the plants were able to establish good root systems, others had shallow roots and after many years of providing a nice boundary they began leaning, which loosened their root grip even further and negated their hedge-like quality. When their leaves started to wither and their branches turned brittle, it was time to do something.

In browsing the nurseries last year, we came upon the Dappled Willow and immediately fell in love. The white foliage with pinkish tips had an exuberant appeal. We were told that they would only grow to about six feet, though we learned later that this might be a low estimate, and their branching would fill out to form a striking hedge. We amended the soil and planted the first of the hedge line. We waited to see if the willows would survive. They did and when the plants sent out leaves this spring we were entranced with the delicate quality they presented. The sun shined through the translucent leaves so that they seemed to glow. Our neighbor, who has a good view from his deck, commented on their attractiveness.

We planted the rest of the hedge so that now we have a full line of Dappled Willows to admire. We’ll prune them come early winter to encourage dense growth and maintain a reasonable size. Dapple willows are deciduous but the foliage comes out several weeks earlier than most deciduous plants, starting the season with a burst of beauty.

These willows are still young but, like toddlers, they already show their potential. They will fill out and grow and, I imagine, charm us as they do so.

So much to know about Dappled Willows: 

Monday, May 21, 2012

Tulips Way Above the Ground

We have a Tulip Tree in our backyard. I remember being excited when we got it as a young seedling because we were told it would grow fast. At that time our backyard was just starting to fill out with trees, shrubs, and flowers so we were delighted with the rapid growth idea. Well, several years later and forty feet higher, the Tulip Tree is a mainstay of the yard. And it keeps growing. We learned that it can actually grow to be 150 feet! That’s a little more than we expected.

This past weekend we had a visual of the potential of the Tulip Tree. We went to the opening of Duke Farms in Hillsborough, NJ, http://www.dukefarms.org/en/About-Us/  and in our walk through part of the 2,740-acre property of the Duke family we came upon some Tulip Trees that were three times the thickness of ours and way higher. The Duke Farms is now open to the public. Its mission “is to be a model of environmental stewardship in the 21st century and to inspire visitors to become informed stewards of the land.”

Despite its size potential, I am glad we planted our Tulip Tree. It is a treat to see the tulip-like flowers each spring. It’s like having an outdoor bouquet.  Most of the flowers bloom toward the top of the tree – more sun, I guess – but they eventually drop down to be admired. I learned not to press my face too close, however, as they are a source of pollen, which makes bees happy but can trigger allergic reactions. Our tree is also a harbinger of Fall. Its leaves flutter to the ground earlier than most in a bittersweet reminder of the cycle of seasons.

American Tulip Tree:

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Ways of Blue Jays…and Others

The Blue Jay family has spotted our feeders. Each day they plop their hefty bodies on one perch or another and munch away. Larger than a robin though smaller than a crow, they have presence. The smaller birds like the finches and sparrows scurry off to settle on our roof until the feeders stop shaking when the jays arrive. Watching from my kitchen window, I am quite taken by these birds.

One morning I took a photo when the Blue Jay was feeding. I could not tell if it was the male or female as they both have the same coloring. I watched for a while until the bird flew off. I put my camera away, prematurely it seems, because when I looked back the Blue Jay was there again and then a male Cardinal with its bright red feathers came along. And then a bright yellow male Goldfinch joined them. There was a bird rainbow right outside my window! I was glued to the sight. I finally ran to get my camera again but they were gone. The Blue Jay returned for another meal later in the day.

The colors and markings of birds are riveting. They add to the sense of the various species. Yet it is more the way they act that defines them. Birds have personalities both as a group and as individuals. Kind of like people. We often identify with groups that have similar interests but act individually within those groups. Blue Jays, for instance, will eat eggs of other birds but they will vigorously defend their own nestlings. People can be adamant about politics but can set aside dogma to help a neighbor in need. I guess we all, birds and humans, show our colors in different ways.

Some general Blue Jay facts:
For you true birders who want to identify Blue Jay calls:

Monday, May 7, 2012

Lilac Time

Lilac Time

Years ago we planted a lilac shrub in front of our house. It slowly grew each summer and put out lovely pale purple blossoms. Now it is large, full and bushy, with a scent that envelops us as we open our front door. The bush is thriving and expanding; we will need to prune it back – again – after the flowering season.

We also planted a lilac bush in our backyard. It was a different variety with darker flowers and a more delicate scent. It grew tall and leggy and did not do as well. The trees that were growing up at the same time provided too much shade for this sun-loving plant. So we dug it up and replanted it in a sunnier location. For two years it reluctantly put out leaves, no flowers, and half of it stopped growing at all. It looked so fragile, almost pathetic. This year, much to our surprise, it bloomed with such incredible vigor on one side that we staked it and each day look out in wonder at the rejuvenation of this beauty, in awe of its will to live.

Two bushes, very different personalities, same family (Syringa vulgaris).  One had an optimal growth situation, the other was forced to deal with a challenge. Yet they both found a way to express themselves in relation to their circumstances. And we love them both.

That’s the joy of diversity. There’s something to admire in every expression of life.

Lilacs can enhance any garden:

Monday, April 30, 2012

Potatoes Ready for Planting

Potatoes Ready for Planting

I am a sucker for plants that start growing on their own. Last spring it was a sweet potato, this season it is a white potato, three actually. They started sprouting in my pantry. They were forgotten in the dark and by the time I noticed them they had more than eyes. I put them in some water and they grew shoots and some roots. I transferred them to soil in a flowerpot and waited to see if they would continue to grow. They did. Green leaves unfurled. The stems began reaching for the sun. I turned the pot and the stems shifted direction. It seemed that they couldn’t wait to get outside so when the weather warmed without the threat of frost, we planted them in our side yard. They are continuing to stretch out and grow.

The other day our neighbor’s daughter asked if she can have some of our tomatoes again this year and have we planted them yet because she can hardly wait. She said they were better than any tomatoes she had ever eaten. I think her enthusiasm is partly because she saw them growing. But she was right about the taste – those tomatoes were great. I am hoping that the potatoes will be as satisfying; we’ll be happy to share.

I, obviously, am not a serious farmer but I can understand the passion of those who are. Growing food creates a relationship that nurtures both sides. I feed the potatoes so they will grow healthy and hearty and they return the favor when they develop to their potential. The process is a wonder to me. Grow, potatoes. Thrive in the garden. You will be appreciated when harvest time arrives.

I love this! There’s more than one way to plant a potato:

Monday, April 23, 2012

Azaleas are Blooming Now

Azaleas are Blooming Now

Azaleas are blooming now where I live, adding bursts of color that enliven neighborhood gardens. There are three azalea bushes in front of my house. One is huge, full of magnificent peachy-pink flowers. The middle bush is almost as beautiful though slightly smaller. They are both growing and thriving. The last bush, though, the one closest to the door, doesn’t do well. We planted it there to replace one that died previously. This one seems to be headed for the same fate. What could be causing two bushes to flourish and one to shrivel? They have the same soil (marl, so not very good though we did add topsoil when they were planted). The sad one does not get as much sun as the others as the house shadows it in the afternoon but azaleas like diffuse sunlight and gentle shade. We water them equally.  Last year I pruned all three and two out of three came back with even more flowers than ever.

I needed info and, hopefully, answers so I went online and found some sites that helped me know more about the plants I so love.

The University of Missouri Extension website http://extension.missouri.edu/p/G6825 gave me a clue. It said that azaleas should be protected from the wind and that houses make good barriers. These bushes are right in front of the house so that should be helpful except…we have noticed over the years that during a snowstorm the snow is blown in swirls in the front, up against the garage. We end up with drifts not far from where the distressed bush is planted. Maybe that is the reason for the azalea’s trouble – wind damage!

We’ll have to rethink the planting site. Perhaps the poor plant can be saved if we move it to a different part of our yard. Meanwhile, it’s good to know that we may have found the cause and it will alert us to what to be aware of in the future. This situation reminds me that all living things need nurturing according to individual needs. I hope I do a better job of it for the azaleas now.

Lots more information and some great photos:
And in answer to your questions:

Monday, April 16, 2012

Pug-noses - for Maple Trees and Fun

Pug-noses - for Maple Trees and Fun

All my friends called the maple tree seeds pug-noses when I was growing up in Brooklyn. We would open the sticky pod and affix it to our nose. Sometimes we would grab a handful of seeds and toss them into the air creating a pug-nose storm. We’d watch the pug-nose wings spin and flutter to the ground. Then we’d do it again. We would usually end up twirling around ourselves in our pug-nose imitations until we were too dizzy to stand. It was lots of fun.

But that was then. Before having grown up with a lawn to care for. Now pug-nose storms precede an abundance of new maple trees. If we leave them to grow we will have a forest in no time. Maples grow fast and I find seedlings in the most improbable places: poking out from cement seams on our driveway, in the flowerpots on the patio, up in the gutters, and, of course, everywhere in the lawn. We have several maple trees that planted themselves in the backyard and are now full grown. What used to be a gently shaded garden has turned into a deeply shaded one, which requires new shade-loving plants.

Still, the pug-noses backlit by the sun are beautiful. It is easy to appreciate their form and numbers while they remain on the tree though some have already fallen, blown by the windy spring days in their own flights of freedom. No doubt roots will start to spread any day now and I will find myself getting exercise as I bend down and try to manage their spread.

I have to admit, though, that I probably will end up reverting to my younger days when these pug-noses whirl down. If the neighbor’s children come outside and ask me what I’m doing, I’ll show them how to open the pods to stick on their noses and how to make a pug-nose storm and we can twirl around together.

Want to know about the variety of maple trees?


Monday, April 9, 2012

The Redbud Tree is All Heart(s)

The Redbud Tree is All Heart(s)

The ornamental Redbud tree is a delight to see. At every stage it draws you in to appreciate its color, flowers, and leaves. The flowers are now an attention-getting purply pink that last for weeks. The leaves, when they appear, start out as maroon, turn deep green, and eventually yellow. And you have to love the shape of the leaves – they look like hearts!

It is an understory tree, which means that it thrives under the canopy of taller trees, usually growing between twenty and thirty feet. Yet it is adaptable. It can grow out in the open and pretty much in any soil (even clay, hooray!) though it does prefer some drainage.

The Redbud is an early blossoming tree and stands out against the slower developing trees. The fruit hangs in pods like peas and is edible. The flowers can be used in salads. Native peoples used the bark to make a medicinal tea to treat fevers and congestion like whooping cough.

Quite a multi-purpose tree. It nurtures in a variety of ways. Did I mention that bees are attracted to its pollen and that hummingbirds like its nectar? Without a doubt, this is a tree that deserves to be valued. Whenever I look in my backyard and see the spring Redbud, I can feel my spirit expand. And all summer long its heart-shaped leaves will remind me to keep looking for the spirit in all life forms.

About the Redbud:



Pictorial details:


Monday, April 2, 2012

Bird Seed Experiment

Bird Seed Experiment

Last week I wrote about Starlings. One of the links suggested discouraging them from the feeders by using safflower seed instead of sunflower seed. It said that the other birds would love the safflower seeds but all the blackbirds – starlings, grackles, and redwing blackbirds – would leave it alone.

As the blackbirds, grackles in particular, were eating most of the seed, I decided an experiment was in order. So I bought some safflower seed. These seeds looked different, a stark white instead of black. We filled two of the feeders with it and left the sunflower seeds in the other feeders until they ran out. Each time we passed the kitchen window we peeked out to see who was munching on what.

At first it seemed that the information was correct; the grackles munched on the sunflower seeds and left the safflower seeds alone. The cardinals shifted back and forth between feeders, as did the finches. Then the sunflower seed ran out. The blackbirds were not happy. They hopped over to taste the new seed and left, disgusted. The other birds were testing it out, too. They seemed to prefer the original meal but most came back. It didn’t seem to bother the tufted titmouse, or the chickadee. We even saw a woodpecker munching away. The flocks of blackbirds that sweep in and decimate the feeders were not present. A lone grackle would show up and soon leave. The experiment was working! And then…

There it was. A grackle was eating the new seed! I thought it would leave once it realized this was not the delicious sunflower seed it was used to finding. It didn’t. The bird took another seed, and another. It didn’t seem upset at all. Now comes the question – Was this an aberration or an adaptation? Would this lone bird alert its flock that the change on the menu was okay? Were we participating in an evolutionary shift?

It’s too early to tell where this will end. All I know is if the blackbirds will eat both kinds of seeds, the sunflower seeds cost less. To be continued…

Monday, March 26, 2012

Starlings are Stars - at Survival

Starlings are Stars – at Survival

According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, “European Starlings were released into New York’s Central Park in 1890 by a small group of people with a passion to introduce all of the animals mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare.” The original specimens took off, literally, until now the birds number in the millions and have established themselves across North America and Canada. A good story of survival and flourishing. Yet it is also a story of problems for homeowners, farmers, and other birds.

These prolific birds are not shy. Starlings nest in cavities so they sometimes get into dryer vents or attics, utility poles or cracks in buildings. They might even take over nest boxes and co-opt nests from native birds.

Starlings are aggressive about food, as well. They may prefer insects but they will eat fruits, seeds, plantings, and are sometime found rooting in garbage pails. They are a problem to farmers, especially as they can show up by the hundreds in freshly planted fields and feast on cultivated fruits – grapes, peaches, cherries, etc. – and may eat sprouting grains. They sometimes even damage golf greens digging for grubs.

To add to the negative profile, these birds are not neat. Their droppings are acidic and can corrode metal plus they carry disease spores that can be transmitted to livestock and occasionally to humans.

So although they are pretty birds, especially in the winter with their speckled feathers, and as they tend to flock with grackles and can deplete feeders rapidly, it might be a good idea to discourage starlings from your backyard. Here is a humane and practical way to do it without driving away the birds you prefer to have visit: http://www.songbirdgarden.com/store/info/infoview.asp?documentid=167

And here is some further info about Starlings: