Anise Hyssop- Herb of the Year

By Heather Stone

Photo of a yellow bird sitting on an anise hyssop blossom.

photo courtesy of pixabay

Every year since 1995 the International Herb Association has named an Herb of the Year. This year’s selection is Anise hyssop, Agastache foeniculum. This North American native wildflower has a lot to offer in the garden, the kitchen, the medicine chest and to the pollinators.

 

Anise hyssop is native to the Upper Midwest, Great Plains and into Canada. It’s found growing in prairies, dry upland forests, plains and fields from Northern Colorado to Wisconsin in the US and from Ontario to British Columbia in Canada. Anise hyssop is a member of the mint family. It grows best in full sun to part shade in dry to moderately moist soils with good drainage. This low maintenance perennial thrives in zones 4-9 reaching heights on average of 1-3’ tall by 1-3’ wide. Beautiful lavender flower spikes bloom in summer and with regular deadheading will continue until fall. The flowers are edible and make for a nice cut and dried flower. Both the flowers and the leaves can be added to baked goods or salads. My favorite way to use them is finely chopped in a fruit salad.

 

Anise hyssop is easily grown from seed and established plants will spread by rhizomes or will self-seed in the right growing conditions. It also transplants easily. Deer tend to leave this plant alone, but the same can’t be said for rabbits. Anise hyssop works well in the middle or back of the border and is at home in native, wildflower and herb gardens as well as in prairies and meadows. Great companions for anise hyssop include Black-eyed Susan, Purple Coneflower, Bee Balm and native grasses. Anise hyssop also looks fantastic in pots mixed with flowering annuals.

 

While the flowers of this plant have no scent, the leaves of anise hyssop smell and taste like licorice with notes of lemon, pine and sage. Native Americans found the scent uplifting and used the leaves to help treat depression. This was but one of many uses the Native Americans had for Anise Hyssop. It was also used externally as a poultice to treat wounds and burns and as a wash for itchy skin irritations such as poison ivy. Internally, it was used for treating diarrhea, fevers and coughs. Anise hyssops’ antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and expectorant properties make it an excellent herb for soothing coughs and relieving chest congestion. I find it to be especially effective in children. The best time to harvest leaves for use is just past full bloom when the oil content in the leaves is at the highest.

 

Anise hyssop is also a favorite plant of many pollinators. The lavender flowers are a good nectar source and highly attractive to bumblebees, native bees, honey bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and beetles. Goldfinches love to feed on the seed so make sure to leave some flowers standing in the garden at the season. So let’s celebrate 2019 by adding a plant or two of Anise Hyssop to the garden this year.

 
Photo of a Blue Tit Bird eating from a suet ball.

MAKE YOUR OWN SUET BALLS FOR BIRDS

By Engrid Winslow

During the long cold winter months, fat is extremely important for many birds to survive. The species that especially love suet are woodpeckers and flickers, chickadees, wrens, goldfinches, juncos, cardinals, robins, jays, blackbirds and starlings. Be aware that raccoons, squirrels and mice are also attracted to suet so be prepared to use baffles or place mesh over the balls to deter them.

Suet is raw fat and has also been used to make candles and Christmas pudding. You can get it from your butcher and ask him to grind it for you. Then it needs to be melted and strained to remove any solids. If you want to avoid the “ick” factor, you can substitute l cup lard or shortening. The birds will eat it plain but many recipes call for adding seeds, dried fruit or even insects to the mix. Many pet food and birding stores sell pre-made suet cakes but it is so much more fun to make your own in various shapes and hang them outside. If you are getting only starlings, hang the balls with a mesh around all sides but the bottoms. This will make it possible for all of the woodpeckers to hang upside down and eat while the starlings are baffled and confused. Place them near where you already have feeders with plain birdseed and watch the fluttery show!

Here are some methods and recipes for making the suet cakes or balls:

_____________________________________________

    1 cup crunchy peanut butter

    1 cup lard

    2 cups quick cook oats

    2 cups cornmeal

    1 cup flour

  1/3 cup sugar

Melt the peanut butter and lard and add remaining ingredients and cool.

_____________________________________________
    1 cup crunchy peanut butter 
    1 cup shortening
    1 cup flour
    3 cups cornmeal
    1 cup cracked corn
    1 cup black oil sunflower seeds and/or mixed seed

Melt the peanut butter and shortening, add remaining ingredients and cool.

 
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4 1/2 cups ground fresh suet

  3/4 cup dried and finely ground bakery goods such as Whole-wheat or cracked-wheat bread or crackers

  1/2 cup shelled sunflower seeds

  1/4 cup millet

  1/4 cup dried and chopped fruit such as cranberries, currants, raisins, or other berries

  1. Melt suet in a saucepan over low heat.
  2. Mix the rest of the ingredients together in a large bowl.
  3. Allow the suet to cool until slightly thickened, then strain and stir into the mixture in the bowl. Mix thoroughly.
  4. Pour or pack into forms or suet feeders or pack into pine cones.

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  1/2 lb. fresh ground suet

  1/3 cup sunflower seed

  2/3 cup wild bird seed mix

  1/8 cup chopped peanuts

  1/4 cup raisins

  1. Melt suet in a saucepan over low heat. Allow it to cool thoroughly, then reheat it.
  2. Mix the rest of the ingredients together in a large bowl.
  3. Allow the suet to cool until slightly thickened, then stir it into the mixture in the bowl. Mix thoroughly.
  4. Pour into pie pan or form, or pack into suet feeders.

Optional or substitute ingredients: millet (or other bird seed), cornmeal, cooked noodles, chopped berries, dried fruit.

 

BBB Seed’s Wildflowers to Attract Butterflies and Birds

by Heather Stone

Photo of two birds on a birdbath.

Photo courtesy of pixabay

It brings great pleasure to see more birds and butterflies about the garden and we as gardeners can do a lot to attract and protect the birds and butterflies that visit our garden. These critters simply need a safe place to live and healthy food to eat.

Wildflowers to attract butterfly and birds seed packet.

Butterflies

For butterflies, providing food (host plants) for caterpillars, nectar sources for adult butterflies and a safe place to overwinter can all be accomplished in a small area. Caterpillars of some species of butterflies have very specific larval host plants, while some will eat a wide range of species. Nectar is the primary food source for most adult butterflies. Planting nectar-rich plants in the garden is sure to attract more butterflies. Depending on the species, butterflies overwinter in all stages of life from egg to adult. Some places they overwinter include leaf litter, the bases of bunch grasses, rock piles, brush or wood piles, behind loose tree bark and near their host plants.

 

Birds

Just like butterflies birds need healthy food to eat and shelter. Start by planting native plants in your garden that provide seeds, berries, nuts and nectar. Shrubs and trees, especially evergreen species, provide excellent shelter and nesting sites for birds. Birds also need a year-round water source such as a bird bath. Providing nesting boxes and offering food in feeders will attract even more birds.

Photo of an orange and yellow butterfly on a marigold bloom.

Photo courtesy of pixabay.

Try planting our Birds and Butterflies mix to attract more birds and butterflies to your landscape. The mixture of annuals, perennials, introduced and native wildflowers is designed to attract butterflies over a long season of bloom from spring until fall and a variety of birds to the seeds come autumn.

 

Sources:  Gardening for Butterflies, The Xerces Society

https://www.nwf.org/sitecore/content/Home/Garden-for-Wildlife/Wildlife/Attracting-Birds

 

Oh, Sunflowers!

By Engrid Winslow

Sunflower photo courtesy of Christy Short.

Gorgeous Sunflower Photo Courtesy of Christy Short

Sunflowers (Helianthus sp.) are such a great annual for so many reasons. First of all, they are so darn cheerful with their big, bright blooms during the hottest part of the summer.  They are also easy to grow.  Just poke them into the ground and keep them well-watered until they germinate and then stand back because they thrive in rich soil and heat.  The pollen is loved by bees and the seeds are attractive to birds.  Sunflowers come in so many varieties with sizes ranging from 12” to 15‘ tall and the colors vary from pale lemon yellow to bright yellow, orange, red and bronze.  The petals can be single, double or in fluffy multiple layers (check out Teddy Bear Sunflower).

Tag for Teddy Bear Sunflower packet with bushy foliage has multiple 3 - 6" golden-yellow, double blooms

It can be fun to watch the birds eat the seeds or you can make a fun project out of roasting them. To do this: soak the seeds in salted water for 24 hours, then roast in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper at 350 for 35 minutes, stirring frequently. Let them cool and store in an airtight container. If you want to serve them warm after roasting toss them with a bit of melted butter for a delicious treat. Sunflower seeds are high in vitamin C, E and are high in fiber which supports digestion, they also contain antioxidants, magnesium (for bone health) and can help lower cholesterol.

The roots of sunflowers have an allopathic quality which inhibits the ability of other plants nearby to grow properly. This makes them a great choice for weed suppression but keep them away from other flowers that you love.

Half awake sunflower photo courtesy of Christy Short.

Half Awake Sunflower (Photo Courtesy of Christy Short)

 

 

LISTENING WALK

Take a Listening Walk

By: Sandy Swegel

The skies were gray this morning.  The landscape was brown and dead.  I kept looking for Spring but at best there were just the green tips of bulbs appearing among dead leaves. Maybe the buds were swelling on trees.  It was cold, but it still felt like Spring.  How could that be?

The loud demanding chirping of some birds interrupted my thoughts and I realized I could HEAR Spring. So I took a walk to a nearby pond and while I couldn’t really see Spring…the pond scenery was just as brown as my yard was…but now I knew…nature is waking up.

I could hear the male birds in rapt mating calls…doing their best to make some new baby birds.  Lots of mating and birthing going on in Spring.  I could hear some tiny chirps that I think were baby sparrows or finches.  There was rustling in the winter leaf debris.  I couldn’t see anything but I could guess there were baby caterpillars and insects under there that the birds were scratching to find.  I suspect there were little mice in there too.  Which meant that snakes were waking up and slithering in the grasses.

They’re wasn’t much to see, but I could hear nature erupting in new life. Spring is noisy.   A nature walk in January is pretty quiet except for some chickadees and perhaps large animals running off, startled by a human invading their wild territory.  But Spring makes an absolute racket.  Even the water is noisy.  A week of warm weather had melted ice and brooks were babbling again.

Very early Spring is subtle.  I know from the sounds that new life is starting.  But it’s a slow lazy waking up.  Snow is coming later in the week and I’m reminded of the adage that March is the snowiest month.

The avid gardener has just a few tasks in early Spring.  One is to enjoy nature without having to work to weed or control it.  Another is to do some pruning while the trees and shrubs are still dormant.  But after a cold morning walk, the best thing this gardener can do is go inside and start some more seeds under the lights.  Outside, Mother Nature can call the shots.  Inside, I’m getting a head start on all those seeds that I want to grow now!

Photo credits:

cuddlesandmuddles.wordpress.com/2013/03/06/world-book-day-activities-taking-a-listening-walk/

www.twrcwildlifecenter.org/volunteer/baby-bird-program/

 

Attract chickadees to your garden

by Sandy SwegelChickadee

Chickadees are out and about on warm winter days.  They are the tiny white birds with black heads that are flittering and chirping vocally on sunny January days.  I often see them in the top branches of evergreens.

Chickadees are small birds that don’t migrate but hunker down in tree cavities to survive the winter despite their tiny bodies.  You can have lots of chickadees in your garden if you keep a simple tube feeder with seeds (they love black sunflower seeds.). You can also feed them with your garden by leaving the seed heads on all the plants for the chickadees to sit on or hunt and peck for.  Chickadees need a lot of food …. the eat about a third of their body weight per day.

Chickadee

And that is why you want them to live in your garden.  They may rely on seeds in winter but come early spring and mating time, they get about 80% of their diet from insects.  They eat so many insects, some wildlife fans call them the pest exterminator of the forest.  And their favorite insect?  Aphids!  Tiny aphids are the perfect food for tiny chickadee beaks.  The birds are very systematic and will cling to a plant stem eating one aphid after another until they clear the entire stem. In spring before your plants are even sending up new stalks, the chickadees will pick in leaf litter finding the baby aphids just as they hatch or even just eating the yummy aphid eggs.

 

Photo credits

https://www.nwf.org/News-and-Magazines/National-Wildlife/Gardening/Archives/2016/Help-Birds-Stay-Warm.aspx

 

http://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/black-capped-chickadee

 

 

Bird Baths

Eight critters you can find in your bird baths

by Sandy Swegel

Cute little birds hatched out of a nest in my roof eaves this spring so I decided to put a bird bath in the front yard so I could watch strategically from the window. I didn’t have traditional bird baths so shallow stone bowls on the ground had to make do. It’s been a couple of months and I have yet to see the birds in the bath although they may splash about when I’m not home. I have discovered lots of critters need water in the heat of summer. Here’s who shows up if you have a water source in your yard.
8. Wasps
OK, so they’re not my favorite although they have an important role in the garden. Wasps aren’t just insatiably thirsty, the water is crucial for keeping their nests cool.

7. Mosquito Larvae
Duh…standing water attracts mosquitoes. Since West Nile is prevalent around here, I empty out the water whenever I see the tiny larvae swimming around.

6. Raccoons
Fortunately, we don’t have too many raccoons in my yard, but if the birdbath is all muddy or knocked over, it’s a sign the raccoons were there.

 

 

5. Bunnies
We have a bunny overpopulation this year. Officially, I hate them. They chow down on young garden plants and my favorite flowers. Secretly they are so cute. It’s been so hot and dry who could deny a baby rabbit a sip of water. I guess the baby squirrels can drink too.

4. Bees
I always make sure there are rocks in my bird bath for the bees to stand on so they don’t drown. Bees need lots of water for digestion and to cool the hive.

 

3. Butterflies
Be sure to have nice shallow water to attract butterflies. These are so delightful! Even the cabbage moths are cute.

 

2. All the other mammals
Neighborhood dogs, deer taking a break from eating your flowers. If it’s a big enough bird bath, you might get a bear or two in bear country. My friends used a motion detector night camera to catch a bobcat drinking from their little water pond.

1. And finally birds!

Photos:

http://www.scoontemplations.com/2012/06/bunny-with-death-wish.html
http://hillsidegardencenter.com

http://animalwall.xyz/bird-bath-fun-water-hd-background/

 

The Aster

The Aster

by Sandy Swegel

July is when the aster begins to shine in the garden.  We were walking around a hot drought xeric garden yesterday where many flowering plants were going to seed (ah, flax and larkspur we miss your blues already) or had complete browned and been cut back (goodbye poppies).  Amid the browning foliage, there were splashes of color we forget about each year like the amazing Zinnia grandiflora, a very short aster, native to plains and foothills, that thrives along hot concrete walkways.

 

Standing near this tiny aster, we could look up to the back of the garden where there was a bit of shade and moisture and see tall asters in full bud.  In the sunny grassy open space nearby, purple asters had already bloomed and were feeding pollinators and butterflies. We looked to a neighbor’s irrigated garden and saw a splendid patch of Michaelmas daisies ready to bloom with hundreds of flowers.  Aster may have small individual flowers, but they cram dozens of flowers onto each flower stalk.

 

Asters aren’t very picky about location and in cities, you’ll see they seed themselves into alleys and sometimes into your flower beds.  In fields, the purple asters often grow one plant here and one there out among uncut grasses.

The very best thing about asters:  butterflies love them.  And we definitely want to keep the butterflies happy.

Photos and information:

http://swbiodiversity.org/seinet/taxa/index.php?taxon=1961

http://2.bp.blogspot.com/

http://gaiagarden.blogspot.com/2011_10_01_archive.html

https://photoflurries.wordpress.com/2010/09/

 

Pesticide Applicators CAN Protect Pollinators

By Sandy Swegel

Most of the visitors to our Facebook page and website are already among the converted. We know how important pollinators are and we’re doing everything we can from avoiding pesticides to planting pollinator gardens in hope of preserving our pollinators.

Sometimes as activists for the things we feel passionate about, we human beings have a tendency to make the people who oppose our opinion into our enemy. The reality is that right now, everyone isn’t going to quit using pesticides no matter how much we want that. We all have spouses or neighbors or friends who are going to use pesticides no matter what we say. Garden and tree businesses are going to spray. So what the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign (NAPPC) is doing is bringing together government agencies like the EPA, pesticide manufacturers, licensed pesticide applicators, and non-profits like beekeeping associations to develop guidelines to teach pesticide applicators how to choose pesticides and how to spray while causing the least harm to bees and pollinators that end up as collateral damage.

A couple of obvious things pesticide users can do:

Schedule your pesticide application when bees aren’t active. Saturday morning or in the evenings after dinner before dark are the worse time to apply pesticides. Bees and pollinators are foraging then and likely to get sprayed or eat pollen or nectar that has just been sprayed. For some pesticides, simply applying it at night protects the pollinators while still killing the pests. You have to wake up before the bees or stay up after they go to sleep.

Plan your pesticide applications when plants aren’t in bloom. This isn’t always possible but some bloom times are short and you might find that waiting another week until the bloom is finished will still kill your pests and protect the pollinators.

Avoid drift and runoff.
Don’t spray on windy days. The wind carries the pesticide into neighboring areas or into your nose and eyes.
Don’t spray when it is about to rain. Many pesticides will dry within a few hours of application and be less toxic to pollinators. If you spray when rain is coming, those pesticides are going to be washed away into storm drains or rivers.

Keep the pesticide spray on the problem area….don’t keep spraying the rocks or sidewalk because you’re walking from one area to another. Use only as much pesticide as needed to achieve your goal. Drenching everything isn’t necessary.

Read and re-read labels. The formulations of your favorite pesticides can change Some are very toxic to bees. Others are only toxic under certain conditions. Know exactly what you are spraying and how it affects bees.

Pesticide applicators aren’t out there spraying because they hate bees. They want to get rid of their pests in the most efficient way. Print out this brochure for friends and neighbors and even companies you see applying pesticides. Help the people who INSIST on using pesticides learn that they can still protect pollinators.

Photos and more information:

Photo credit  http://www.pollinator.org/PDFs/NAPPC.pesticide.broch.Consumer%20FINAL%2005%2027%2010.pdf

www.Environmentalleader.com/2013/08/16/epa-launches-bee-protecting-pesticide-label/

 

Garden Delight

I have new neighbors: the birds moved in.

Flowers, butterflies, lush landscapes under shady trees, and vegetable gardens full of organic heirlooms are what we hope for when we put so much of our time and work into creating our little habitats. Today I noticed a delight I don’t always think about: the birds have moved into the yard. This garden has lots of native plants and trees and a little pond, but I was thinking more about pollinators and bees. But it’s mating season in the bird kingdom and looking around with an experienced birder I discovered a world I didn’t really notice before because I was busy looking at plants..

Downy woodpeckerDowny Woodpecker

One sad part of the yard were the cherry trees mostly dead from harsh frosts the last two years. But a couple of weeks ago, this tiny (less than four inches high) little guy started to whittle a nest from a dead part of the tree trunk. It took quite a while for him to make a perfect round 1/8th inch deep hole but now all I see are his little tail feathers as he pecks and then kicks all the sawdust from his nest that is about three inches deep now. He is the hardest worker and whittles industriously from dawn to dusk. His girlfriend is seen flittering in the neighboring trees but he’s doing all the home building.

Chickadees
Long resident in the neighborhood, a mating pair of chickadees has moved into an abandoned bird house hanging in view of the kitchen window. I’m not sure if mating has happened yet…there’s a lot of coming and going by both the male and female. But they are adorable and their classic “chick-a-dee” song is delightful over morning coffee

House Wren

House wrens

Our city lost many trees from climate fluctuations the last couple of winters so a free Spring Cleanup weekend was announced so everyone cut put all the dead trees and branches in the street and the city would pick them up. Town was looking a little scrappy so we were happy about this. The birds weren’t so happy. About twenty little house wrens were living in the mountain of downed limbs that waited for pick up. I guess these trees had been their homes. Several of them decided to quite literally become my house wrens. They have moved into the eaves of my wooden house, delighting me and entertaining my cats (who have to stay indoors in Spring.) Wrens make their nests from sticks and debris so they collect lots of little sticks and tiny piles of dropped or rejected sticks end up on the walkway from time to time. Next year I’ll put a proper wren house there.

Now I see birds everywhere. Doves (non-native noisy ones) congregate in the neighbor’s tall trees. Little broken robin eggs post-hatching are deposited in the lawn. Hummingbirds flitter around the neighbors flowering horse-chestnut tree. A neighbor spotted a bright oriole but I have to figure out how to lure them here. The morning mating calls are beautiful and loud….there’s a lot of mating going on in my neighborhood.Hummingbird

I’m so happy to live in my bird community. Thank you to my native plants, shrubs and trees who help support them. Thanks to the insect pests that I tolerated that now feed the baby birds.