Attract chickadees to your garden

by Sandy Swegel

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.

 

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

 

Why Grow From Seed

by Sandy Swegel

We all know it’s a good idea to grow from seed. Every winter I fantasize about the amazing garden I could have if I just got started earlier. And every year I somehow end up buying plants that I know I could have started on my own with a little more planning.

This year will be different she says. To strengthen my resolve and not fall into winter doldrums, here’s my list of Why Grow from Seed.

Native plants.
Native plants are better for pollinators, better for the environment, and more likely to survive and thrive in our yard.

No neonics
There’s only one way to be sure our plants haven’t been treated with pesticides that will hurt pollinators or poison your food. Grow it ourselves from seed. It’s also the best way to keep down unwanted pests like whitefly and thrips that thrive in crowded Big Ag type greenhouses and then come to live in our home gardens.

Diversity.
If we want a standard garden that looks like every other garden on the block, we buy plants where everybody else buys them. Beautiful but kinda conformist. Growing from seed gives us a nearly infinite palette of possibilities. I love having a garden where someone stops and asks “What is That amazing flower?”

More Flowers.

This is the obvious Number One reason to grow from seed. For just a couple bucks we get dozens or hundreds or thousands of plants. The gardeners at the Denver Botanic Gardens often let some reseeding annuals seed themselves all over until their acreage. Last year snapdragons were allowed to grow wherever the wind and birds planted the seeds. We can get the same effect at home. One $2.50 packet of snapdragons has over 14,000 seeds. That’s a lot of adorable low-care flowers to have throughout the garden.

And why do we want more flowers? My first impulse is because they’re just so pretty. But as I happened to read on the front page of our website this morning in big red letters:

“Remember, the more flowers a garden can offer throughout the year, the greater the number of bees and other pollinating insects it will attract and support.”

 

First seeds to plant in the New Year

by Sandy Swegwel

Winter Solstice has come and gone, so it’s safe to start planting outdoors.

And the first seeds to plant outside in cold climates are POPPIES!

My farmer friend gave me the best advice on how to seed poppies: the night before a big snow go outside and strew the seeds on top of old snow or dry earth. Let Mother Nature do the rest.

 

Under the blanket of snow that’s about to fall, the poppy seeds will be insulated and get a nice cold spell. As the snow melts the seeds will be nicely hydrated. Warm spells will stimulate germination at exactly the right time. The first flowers show up for me in May. Plant a mix of different poppies like the “Parade of Poppies” and you’ll have poppies of some sort till frost.

Photo credits
https://www.99roots.com/en/plants/iceland-poppy-p40063
http://www.magazinzahrada.cz/galerie/krasne-zahrady-plne-barev/10.html#contentw
http://www.hgtv.com/design/outdoor-design/landscaping-and-hardscaping/how-to-plant-a-poppy-container-garden

Plants as Conversation Starters

by Sandy Swegel

One of the awkward parts of the holiday season is ending up at gatherings where you only know the person you came with and everyone else is a stranger. There’s always the option of getting a plate of food and finding a comfortable chair to sit in and people watch but it can be awkward. I recently had a great time at a party I was going where I didn’t know many people or have much in common with them and it was entirely thanks to plants. So I know you’re supposed to bring a small gift when you are invited to a dinner, but wine or even grocery store flowers can set you back $15- 20 and I’m frugal or cheap or broke, depending on my mindset that day. So I’ve taken to making my own flower arrangements from gathered natural items and thrift store vases. These can turn out quite creative and cute (I used ornamental cabbages as the center “flowers” recently.) or so unusual that my family says things like “What weird thing is that?”

So at this recent party, the hostess took my cabbage flower and evergreen arrangement politely said thank you and put it on an out-of-the-way table. I sat on a comfortable chair with a plate of food and stumbled over small talk. As my mind idly looked around the room I looked up at the ceiling and saw a stray ivy vine tacked up along the beams near the high ceiling. Its pot was on a narrow ledge about ten feet high and I blurted out without thinking, “Who gets up to water that pot?” The husband came over and said proudly, “That’s my job.” And together the two of them started an animated story about this little vine had grown over 40 feet long in just the past year and now was entwined across the ceiling like a spider web or halo over their living space. We had a great bonding conversation about the marvels of this ordinary little vine and its impact on their lives as they had to find new places to attach it every month. They appreciated that I noticed and admired it too.

The nice part of this brief encounter was later in the evening when the hostess stood by the little arrangement I brought and looked at anew and commented how beautiful the cabbage and juniper berries were.

It was a win-win-win situation. We came to appreciate each other in a new way because of how we each appreciated nature. And the ivy? Well, you know how vain plants are…it loved being the center of attention.

 

You can use plants as a conversation starter in your own home by having unusual plants like a string of pearls or bloomers most people aren’t familiar with like a clivia. At other people’s homes, you can just take a moment to remark on the plants that grow there. Turns out the plants we live with and manage to keep alive are important to us.

Photos:

http://carlaaston.com/designed/swap-holiday-decor-for-indoor-plants
https://www.pinterest.com/pin/41376890297731993/

Gifts FOR the Garden

by Sandy Swegel

Growing up in the South, we always had a wrapped gift under the tree just in case we needed an extra gift. This was in part a combination of Southern graciousness and straight-out guilt. What if someone brought us a gift and we didn’t get one for them? Or what if someone brought a guest to Christmas and we felt sad that everyone was opening presents except that person. The extra gift was just perfect to make the holidays smooth and happy for everyone.

This year I’m thinking I need gifts under the tree for the one who gives me so many gifts but I don’t have anything for them. The Earth. The Garden. Gaia. Mother Nature. Whatever name you use.

I was reflecting on the many lists of “Gifts from the Garden” like jellies and preserves, or flower arrangements, or just the pine cones I use instead of bows in gift wrapping. And I thought of all the food the earth gave me. And the daily gift of earthly beauty.

Nature provides naturally for herself so I’m not sure what to give her. Other cultures have traditional gifts in their spiritual rituals. Native Americans offer tobacco or burnt sage, cedar or sweetgrass. Some Hindu traditions offer rice and ghee in fire rituals.

What can we modern Americans offer? A shamanic friend tells me the gift itself isn’t as important as the intention behind the gift. My intention is gratitude and acknowledging that my relationship with Nature is two-way…not just us receiving but also us giving. I haven’t decided yet what to give, but here are some of the gifts I’m considering:

Gifts For the Garden

A Gift for the birds. A feeder for the tiny birds that live in the tree across the street. Or a birdbath heater to provide water when the temperatures are far below freezing in January. The nearest lake or creek or ditch is over a mile away.

 

A Little Bag of Leaves. This is a symbolic gift to represent all the leaves I left unraked this year in out-of-the-way places….behind the shed, under the deck, in the garden beds…to provide winter homes for the crickets and ladybugs and all the beneficial insects…and even the aphids.

A Bigger Compost Bucket. I love to compost but sometimes in winter, it’s easier just to let things go down the disposal or put it in the City Yard Waste container. It’s still getting recycled, but the garden that gives me so much would probably appreciate extra food for its microbes and earthworms.

A Heart-shaped Stone. A friend collects these while hiking. She has at least twenty rocks in natural heart shapes that she’s run across over the years. She puts them under a tree to remind the earth how much she loves it and appreciates it.

A Little Pair of Shoes. Something for dolls or some discarded kids’ shoes. This would be a reminder to me to walk more often and leave the car at home.

You get the idea. What gift would you like to give Nature in Appreciation this year?

Garlic: Last crop of the season.

by Sandy Swegel

It’s still unseasonably warm in many parts of the country. Most but not all leaves have fallen. Tomatoes are miraculously still ripening…there won’t be many green tomatoes this year. But the easiest crop of all can be planted very quickly if you haven’t gotten it in the ground yet.

Garlic gets planted in the fall because it does best with a cooling period before growth. Garlic grows very easily and will grow even in poorer soil. But give it good garden soil and good moisture (winter rains and snow usually take care of the moisture) and you’ll have fabulous tasting fresh garlic all year…scapes in Spring and cloves in summer. It really does taste better than the traditional store-bought.

If your soil is fairly soft and porous, you can just poke your gloved finger down into the soil and drop a single clove in…pointy side up. My soil is tough so I carve a hole with my hori hori knife. You can leave the paper on the clove. Space the garlic about six inches apart. You can do rows or a grid. Press the dirt back on the hole. Mulch if you have some leaves or compost. Water if your soil is dry.

 

Truthfully, planting garlic takes less time than chopping up garlic for dinner. The traditional time for planting garlic is October-November. Our local garlic market farmer says she’s been known to be in the fields Thanksgiving morning brushing away snow and pressing the cloves in. Just get it done. If you don’t have fancy planting cloves, just use some organic garlic from the grocery store this year.

 

You can get fancier and fussier about planting garlic and amend the soil or pre-soak cloves or dig perfectly measured trenches. But I’m outta time and interest this year….thinking about Thanksgiving already. So I’m going for “good enough” because I’m just so busy this year and garlic is very forgiving.

The garlic will be finished maybe late June so choose a part of the garden you won’t need until them. Someplace the squash will eventually grow over is a good spot.

Photo:
http://www.rodalesorganiclife.com/garden/trick-planting-healthy-garlic

Drought again?!

by Sandy Swegel

Unseasonably warm weather means I finally had time to get some more bulbs planted this week.  It has been warm and sunny this fall but I didn’t fully realize how drought had snuck up on us until I went to dig the deep holes for the daffodils.  In decent garden soil that has had regular if modest irrigation all year, the soil below six inches was dry dry dry.  Pulverized dirt dry.  During times of drought, the soil all over dries down.  The water table recedes and deep-rooted trees and grasses have used up whatever water is available.  We can keep irrigating with an inch of water a week on the surface, but it’s not possible to water enough to keep the soil moist deep in the ground if there’s no natural rainfall.

Drought really snuck up on lots of the US this year.  Except for poor southern California, most of the country started the year with good water.  Now significant parts of the plains and southeast (as well as southern California which started the year dry) are experiencing moderate to severe drought.  See the drought monitor for your area.  http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu  In my area, we went from an awesome spring to virtually no rain since July.

So what’s happening in your garden now?  Here’s what happens in moderate drought:

Soil with clay in it turns hard and cracks open.  (The clay shrinks when it dries out.)

Soil critters go into self-preservation mode.   During times of drought, they have varying survival techniques from as simple as laying eggs for the next generation once conditions improve.  Earthworms go into a hibernation-like state called estivation.  Balled up little earthworms are what I found in my garden bed when I was planting bulbs.

What can you do besides pray for rain or snow or freeze?

Give your trees and shrubs a good long slow-watering now.  Trees need 10 gallons of water per inch of trunk diameter once a month.  If your irrigation is still turn on, you can run it longer than usual.  Or put a light sprinkler on for several hours.  Here’s a great fact-sheet on ways to water trees during drought.   http://www.colostate.edu/Dept/CoopExt/4dmg/Trees/caring.htm

Otherwise, leave the soil alone.  Digging in too dry soil ruins soil texture just like digging in too wet soil.  The soil I had dug for the daffodils was like dust when I filled the holes back in.

Pay attention to rain or snow this month.  If you aren’t getting significant precipitation, water the trees and shrubs once a month even if the ground is frozen.

And pray for rain.

Trapped by Nature

by Sandy Swegel

Traffic jams and Mother Nature conspired yesterday to make me notice. I had to get to work early and as I reached the top of a hill I could see the traffic on the single highway was at a dead stop for miles. In my hurry that day I had also let my cell phone battery run down and the car charger was suddenly broken. I decided I was too impatient to wait and tried a detour but soon it was obvious a thousand other people were trying this too. So I was driving about five miles per hour for 45 minutes with no smartphone, no music or news to listen to, and it was the best thing that happened to me all week.

Forced idleness tricked me into simply being and observing. My detour took me thru areas of small farms just after sunrise. So many wonders.

There was a hundred-year-old cottonwood tree with only the outer three feet of all the branches turned bright yellow. Every other leaf was dark green. It looked like a punk rocker hairstyle. Then traffic inched on and I saw fields of organic kale. Some frozen solid and white frosted. Others just an acre away but three feet or so upslope were dark green. Cold sinks into low areas and that morning the frost line ran right through the field of kale. Traffic inched forward and I saw flocks of chickens put out to free range surrounded by the flimsiest electric fence. I laughed out loud and remembered my first chickens where we installed one of those portable electric fences. We stood back proudly and watched as our chickens figured out right away that even with clipped wings they could fly up to the top of the short electric fence and not get shocked because they were birds and didn’t have a foot touching the ground to conduct electricity. They just jumped off into a neighboring field.

 

The rest of the slow ride gave me dozens more magical moments. A hay field already finished for the year had hot air ballooners just starting to inflate tiny collapsed balloons. Down the way, llamas stood at fierce guard between the big noisy cars and their sheep munching quietly in the background. Hawks and huge birds of prey were swooping as if on roller coasters on the winds coming off the mountain

I hope events conspire to give you a rest sometime. Life is so busy and full of thinking and doing that we grown-ups don’t get delighted so often. And much as we’d like, we can’t force the magic. I drove the same way home that day. The cottonwood tree had turned more normal yellow during the day. The chickens were locked away safely from coyotes and I forgot to look for the llamas because I was thinking about dinner. So if you have a moment today when the grandeur of Nature breaks through the mundane…be sure to notice and be happy.

Free Peony Bushes in Ten Minutes

by Sandy Swegel

In the last post, I talked about Grandma’s method for making rose bushes. Today, I have a method for peonies taught by my older friend’s great-grandmother who was born in the 19th century. It’s not a method I’ve been able to find on the internet but it is VERY reliable.

Most people propagate peonies by digging up the roots, dividing and replanting. That definitely works but often the peonies go into a sulk and don’t bloom the next year. Plus an old root ball is huge and it takes a lot of effort to dig it up and cut it up.

 

Great-grandmother Pat’s method was to take a sharp shovel and cut through the peony root around the edge to grab a small chunk of eyes and the roots that go with them. I usually aim for 3-5 eyes and am sure to push the shovel deep to get their attached roots. This may seem brutal to the mama peony plant, but I have done this for years and every time, the mama plant puts out even more new eyes there the next year. On a big old root, you can take several cuttings from different sides of the crown.

 

This process takes ten minutes because it is worth your effort to prepare the soil for the new peony and make sure the soil is loose and fertile. I mix in some compost. I usually have a spot at least twice the size of the peony roots. It is important if you want blooms in the future to plant the rhizome so the eyes are 2 inches or less from the surface. I do mulch for winter protection here in zone 5 but pull the mulch aside in spring.

The new plant doesn’t always put out a bloom the first year and not every transplant survives, but most survive and manage to put out a few blooms. In another year, the peony looks fully developed. The best part is that the original mama plant is completely undisturbed by the process and looks as gorgeous as ever.

Simple. I think these old methods are so effective because our grandmothers and great-grandmothers were too busy working without all the modern conveniences to have time to be fussy with their gardens. They needed simple fast methods to make their gardens beautiful.

Photos:
http://www.theplantexpert.com/peonies/PlantingPeonies.html
https://www.gardenia.net/guide/peonies-that-do-not-require-staking

Food for Fall Pollinators

by Sandy Swegel

Fall is a great time for birds and bears.  Gardens and natural areas are full of seeds and berries for getting the calories needed for winter.  Pollinators like bees, flies, butterflies, moths and insects need nectar and pollen food sources.  When I was in the foothills this weekend I noticed that native sources of nectar weren’t very evident. We haven’t had much rain so some late-season flowers finished earlier.  There were still tiny white aster blooms and stray late blooms of Penstemon, Liatris and Gaillardia, but this is nothing like the abundant feast of spring.  Poor pollinators…Fall must be a difficult time…addicted to sugar all summer and then have it all cut off.

 

Fall is one time when it’s good to have nice irrigated areas with annuals and non-native plants so that you can feed the pollinators of fall who are still active.  In home gardens this week I saw dozens of butterflies, bees and moths on late-season annuals like Verbena bonariensis, Cosmos, Zinnias.  Our love of home gardening is very helpful to pollinators.

 

Cornell University released a study this year about monarch butterflies.  While it is true that milkweed is the only food of the caterpillars, adult butterflies eat from all flowering plants.  This time of year the monarchs need a lot of nectar and pollen to give them the strength to migrate back home.  The monarchs can find nectar in areas gardened or farmed by humans.

 

So for those of us who love pollinators, providing some fall habitat with blooming flowers is very helpful to butterflies and all the pollinators. The longer in the season they eat, the better the chance they’ll survive winter.  To get ideas for what to grow, notice what might still be blooming in wild areas and where the pollinators are actively feeding in gardens.   Each year I give out awards to the plants I know for things like “First Bloom of the Year” or “Best Season Long Performer.”  The last award of the growing season is “Last Bloom of the Year.”  Sometime in November long after a hard frost, there is still some little single perennial flower that had several bees visiting it.  Most years it is blue Scabiosa, but Borage is putting up a last-minute burst into bloom.  Who won the last bloom of 2016 in your habitat?

Photos:

http://monarchbutterflygarden.net/are-native-only-wildlife-gardens-starving-fall-pollinators/

http://diet.yukozimo.com/what-do-honey-bees-eat/