Saturday, February 10, 2018

Counting the Winter Birds in My Backyard

Anybody can take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC.) It's free. It's fun. Every year I mark my calendar for this four-day event in February. Birdwatchers around the world count for as little as 15 minutes a day for one or more days then report the sightings online at Led by Cornell Lab. of Ornithology, the National Audubon Society, and many international partners, the purpose of this citizen-science project is to provide a snapshot of the distribution and abundance of wildbirds around the world in real time. Scientists use this information to answer questions like, "How will the weather and climate change influence bird populations?" and "How are bird diseases, such as West Nile virus, affecting birds in different regions?" More than 160,000 people of all ages and all walks of life participate. The 2018 GBBC takes place from Friday, February 16 through Monday, February 19 and I'm ready -- well, nearly ready, I just have to clean the French windows where I stand to count (I'm waiting for the temperature to go above freezing tomorrow before doing this task.)

The French windows in the garden room are framed by branches from the old catalpa tree. Birds gather there to take turn visiting the bird feeder that hangs from one of the branches.  Click on the next picture to enlarge it; there are four or five birds waiting there:

Cardinals, a sparrow, and a black-eyed junco wait in the catalpa tree.
Can you see the chickadee?

One of the catalpa's larger branches is perfectly placed for my bird photography. Unfortunately, this old branch is dying; it will fall one of these days, so we are careful not to walk beneath it. I will be so sad when it is gone because it enables me to get some great shots. 

White-breasted nuthatch on my favorite-for-photography branch

The bird feeder hangs from this same branch. It looks like a cheery, red barn. H.H. keeps the feeder full of sunflower seeds that attract many species of birds.

House finch on the bird feeder in a snowstorm

Below the tree, on the back porch, there is a water dish containing a small heater that prevents the water from freezing in the Pocono's subfreezing temperatures of winter. This is another of H.H.'s projects: he keeps it clean and topped with water. The heated water dish attracts all sorts of birds and other wildlife. My favorites are the bluebirds, but we have seen very few this season. I'm not sure if the bluebirds' decline is caused by lower-than-usual temperatures, the proliferation of house sparrows, or some other reason. The GBBC study may shed some light on this problem. I hope the bluebirds  return in the spring.

White-throated sparrow on the heated water dish
A single Eastern bluebird -- usually there are several at the waterdish

In addition to the seed feeder, H.H. hangs a suet feeder on the deck. This is for the woodpeckers. We see several species in our garden but the most frequent visitors are the red-bellied and the downy woodpeckers.

Red-bellied woodpecker
Downy woodpecker

Providing food, water, and shelter are ways to attract birds to the yard. Unfortunately, they draw less desirable wildlife, especially my adversary, the grey squirrel. (I don't use that word lightly -- did you know, The Adversary -- uppercase A -- means the Devil? Very appropriate.) The bird feeder is supposed to be squirrel-proof, but they know how to get at the seeds. They even remove the roof sometimes and climb right inside.

Not even the blue jay, with all it's squawking, scares away the squirrel.

Blue jay

In spite of the squirrels, the birds continue to return to my yard.

Black-eyed junco

To take part in the bird count, simply tally the numbers and types of birds you see, noting the time you watched. You can count from any location for as long as you wish. All the information you need to get started is on the website HERE. I do hope you join the fun!

How many birds will you count?

Pamela x

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Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Successes and Failures in the Cottage Garden

The new projects and changes we made to the gardens last year were generally successful, but there were some failures, too.  This is a good time to assess what happened and make plans for the 2018 gardening season.

Kitchen Garden
The big change to the vegetable garden was the cold frame that we added onto the potting shed. This was a resounding success. I planted some cold-weather crops in there near the end of the season and had Swiss chard, lettuce, and cabbages well after the first frost. I look forward to an early spring harvest from the cold frame.

We enjoyed a bountiful supply of vegetables from the raised beds, shown in the collage above. Cucumbers, zucchini, bell peppers, beans, snow peas, red beets, and onions, all our old favorites, produced more than enough for the two of us. I added garlic and leeks, too, last year. The tomatoes were not a success, however. They took too long to ripen with the cool, cloudy summer we experienced. When eventually they turned red they were not firm or tasty. Previous years I've had more success with cherry and plum tomatoes than with the 'Beefsteak', so this year I'll go with the little fellows. I've bought most of my vegetable seeds already; planning and diagramming the kitchen garden is my next gardening task.

Another successful project was adding the skimmer to the pond. The water was so much clearer than previous years. When we closed the pond in the fall, we took out the water irises and other plants. I usually divide them at that time, but they were so out of control (with great masses of roots splitting the sides and bottoms of the pots) that I decided to compost them and start over next spring. I know that was the lazy and more expensive solution, but I couldn't face the mammoth task. Splitting the clay potting medium requires strength, and that's what this old body is lacking. And planning a new water garden is something to look forward to.

The tall water plants had to go as they were pot bound and out of control

Cottage Garden
Most of the new plantings in the herbaceous border were enormously successful. The smoke bush and potentilla I especially love. The foxglove bloomed from June until fall. So beautiful. I am praying it comes back this year in spite of the cruel winter we are experiencing. The bare root delphiniums that I planted the previous fall did not come up. I was so disappointed, and bought plants at a garden center in the spring. They didn't have the giant ones; the ones I bought were pretty but not very tall. I already ordered giant delphinium plants to be delivered this year. I feel strongly that an English cottage garden should have tall delphiniums.

Herbaceous border in the cottage garden

One unexpected success: I was delighted that the hollyhock leaves had no rust. I don't know why, but I'll take it.

My rust-free hollyhocks
Foxglove, delphinium, and potentilla.

Abundance Garden
Abundance 'does its own thing.' I allow the plants to spread, but when they get too big I have to act. The Joe Pye, although a dwarf variety, engulfed a clethra shrub. I must move the shrub to where it will have its own space. One of my biggest mistakes is planting stuff too close together. I have quite a lot of moving to do this spring.

Joe Pye weed in front of the the sunflower is covering a sweet shrub

The sunflowers were both a success and a failure. They were stunning when they came into bloom, taking 'Best in Show' at the West End Fair. Then the sunflower stem borer attacked again and killed the lot. This happened the previous year and I thought I had cleaned up the beds thoroughly. Of course I didn't plant last year's sunflowers in the same spot. I burned the damaged plants and cleaned up again. I'm not planting sunflowers this year; maybe a year's break will help get rid of the pests.

My roses and clematis were very poor in 2017 because of excessive rain, I think, as neither plant likes wet feet. I cut back the two clematis climbing the arbor over the kitchen garden gate because they looked so ratty. I wasn't sure if pruning them at that time would cause damage, but one of them came back and bloomed in the fall. I hope they both return and bloom well this year.

Late-blooming clematis

 Serenity Garden
 Serenity was worrisome as I continued to try to repair the damage caused by the removal of the white birch tree. Many plants were trampled by clumsy feet; some were scorched by the sun when their precious shade was removed. I relocated some of the shade lovers to a new foundation bed, but that didn't help as the west-facing area now receives hot, afternoon sun. I decided to plant some sun-lovers in the former shade bed, specifically all white blooms to create a moon garden. That proved to be a disaster when another maple tree 'cleverly' increased its canopy, so that shade was restored to the location. Oh dear, I moved plants again. But I'm glad to say, by the end  of the season, Serenity was looking more serene again.

Japanese forest grass beautifully fills in where plants were trampled
The 'moon garden' didn't work here when shade was restored.

Woodland Walk
As I said, I have even more plants to move to a more favorable location. In the Woodland Walk, the ligularia that my friend, Peg, gave me, isn't growing bigger and hasn't bloomed.  It needs more sun. I haven't yet decided where to put it. 

 Ligularia between the log and the path in the Woodland Walk

Finally, my 2017 window boxes were a failure. I tried growing petunias from seed without much success. I didn't even take a picture, they were so unimpressive. This year, I'll buy young plants from my favorite supplier.

To-do List for 2018

  • Add giant delphiniums to the herbaceous border (ordered)
  • Purchase water plants for the pond
  • Buy plants not seeds for the window boxes on the tractor shed
  • Grow plum and cherry tomatoes
  • Move clethra, ligularia, white clematis, aster, as they are all in the wrong places
  • Continue to monitor shade in Abundance Garden

A few plants to buy but no major projects planned this year. What is on your to-do list for the new gardening season?

Pamela x

Window boxes in 2016 were a success.

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Sunday, January 14, 2018

These Are a Few of my Favorite Things

High on my list of 'favorite things' is time spent with my family including gardening with the grandchildren. Those of you who follow this blog have met Jon who assists me with my entries for the West End Fair, but were you aware that he has been my gardening helpmate since he could walk? That's Jon pushing the wheelbarrow, 'helping' Pappy and brother, Harry, plant a tomato. Two of my dear blogger friends write about their best loved things: Jo at Through the Keyhole in England compiles a monthly post she calls 'Raindrops on Roses', and Beth from Plant Postings in Southern Wisconsin writes an annual list with one favorite thing for each month of the year. Thank you Jo and Beth. Here are ten favorites that I picked:
1. My family
Jon making a miniature garden (top and bottom right). Picking red beets (bottom left)

Clockwise from top right: First 'Best of Show.' Jon's baking entry for the Fair. Handsome teenager

Although Jon is now a teenager, nearly 15 (where did the years go?), he assures me he will continue to help. I am truly blessed.

2. Early morning in my garden

During the growing seasons, I go outside as the sun is rising and stroll around my gardens, to see what is growing. It's the best time to harvest vegetables and pick flowers for indoor arrangements. I make note of tasks for the day. I choose a favorite seat in one of the gardens to meditate and read. I feel both tranquil and energized.

Love the garden bathed in the golden glow of the rising sun.

The swing in the Serenity Garden is a peaceful place to start the day.

3. My favorite plant

My favorite plant depends on the day and the season. Some flowers, such as the daffodils in spring, the giant allium, 'Globemaster'  that spans spring and summer, the 'Peace' rose in June, and hollihocks in mid-summer are perennial faves.  New favorites last year were foxglove 'Foxlight Plum Gold' and anemone 'Honorine Jobert.' I wonder what new love 2018 will bring.

4. Garden critters

My garden is a wildlife habitat and I welcome many critters: birds, bees, butterflies and all pollinators, of course. I'm not too fond of the black bears because I'm afraid, but I tolerate deer and other 'destructive' animals. They have to survive too. Let's not forget my best gardening buddies,  Dude the miniature horse, and Billy the goat.

5. Flower shows, country fairs, and other people's gardens

Every year I try to visit as many gardens as possible. My favorites are the cottage gardens in England. However, we have wonderful gardens in the US, too, and in 2017 I took every garden tour I could. Some of the best public gardens are in the Philadelphia area. Philadelphia is within driving distance, so H.H. and I travel there frequently. In 2017, we also went to a couple of country fairs and two amazing flower shows.

Grafton Cottage, an iconic cottage garden in England

Top: Northview Gardens, b. left: Philly Flower Show, right:White Flower Farms

6. A new garden book

I have well-over 100 gardening books in my home library. There's something special about holding a new book for the first time, anticipating the wonderful illustrations and beautiful words within. For Christmas, my son gave me A Natural History of English Gardening by Mark Laird. It is a beautiful and informative addition to my library.

7. Writing about gardening

I have written a monthly gardening column for the Pocono Record for nearly three years now. I've published a blog entry every couple of weeks for ten years. I've been writing a book forever -- I sometimes think I enjoy the process too much and just need to let go of it. This year, I promise.

My favorite writing spot

8. Learning about gardening

Being a master gardener, I am required by Penn State to take a minimum of ten hours of continuing education each year. I would do it even if it wasn't compulsory as it is definitely one of my favorite things. I love to attend conferences and gardening programs. This year I am anticipating the Garden Writers Convention in Chicago and the Penn State Master Gardeners' Conference in Pittsburg. Much of the joy is meeting with like-minded gardening friends from around the country.

Jenny Rose Carey showing how to make a roof garden

9. Garden photography

I love taking pictures even though I sometimes feel I'll never get the hang of my DSL camera. I use a Cannon Rebel. This time of year, my garden photography focuses (pardon the pun) on backyard birds. 

Tufted titmouse

10. My potting shed

Finally, I LOVE my potting shed, especially with the coldframe that was added this year. The shed is the focal point of the kitchen garden and my sanctuary. Inside I have gardening books, a rocking chair, my hedgehog and other collections, and a large potting bench, as well as tools and gardening essentials.  It's a bit crowded in there, but that's OK.

What are your favorite things?

Pamela x

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