Bird Lessons from the Soulful Gardener

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Did you know that domestic cats kill more birds than insecticides? That’s the story from the American Bird Conservancy.

It’s news to me. I thought letting the cat out was a rather harmless activity. I found out the Bird Conservancy has a “Cat Indoor Campaign” in which owners sign on to keep the cat indoors. Of course it’s only half the problem because there are many unowned cats roaming the countryside and feral cat communities that contribute to the slaughter of about 2.4 billion birds every year in the United States alone.

I was lucky to be a guest at the May meeting of the Master Gardeners of the Eastern Shore. The speaker was Heather Zindash, a Certified Professional Horticulturalist. She spoke to us about the need to keep the birds in mind when planning a garden. Her website, The Soulful Gardener is a “gardening and therapy-through-horticulture stopping place to help connect people with gardening and nature.”

 

Heather was a font of bird and garden information. I’d never heard of “nature deficit disorder.” Now I know there’s a name to the epidemic of time spent staring at a screen be it cell phone, tablet, computer or television. Connecting our children to the outdoors sounds like a preeminent goal for parents.

She talked about birds being “biological indicators”. Remember the proverbial canary in the coal mine.  Birds need much more oxygen than humans because of all the flying they do.  Therefore they are bioindicators, detecting toxic gases before we do. The state of their health is a good forewarning of environmental decline because they carry measurable toxins in their feathers.

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As gardeners we should consider the three elements needed to attract birds to our gardens: food, water and shelter. All we need to think about are berries, nuts, seeds and nectar for our feathered friends and water in the form of bird baths, ponds, creek or rain gardens. Adequate shelter would be our shrubs, evergreens and thickets. Pay attention to these three elements and the birds will reward you as a natural insecticide. The circle of life will be complete.

Heather talked about the Christmas Bird Count, the longest running citizen science project, sponsored by the National Audubon Society. It’s been going on for over a century.  Every year the count runs from December 14 through January 5. To participate check the Audubon page for a circle of counters near you. This is not a count that you do on your own, you must officially join a circle.

Possibly many of the master gardeners already have much of this bird information in their heads, but Heather loaded me up with new knowledge of the importance of birds in our gardens.

The Gardens of Onancock

Onancock1Virginia Historic Garden Week began in 1927 when the Garden Club of Virginia organized a flower show to save the trees Thomas Jefferson had planted on his Monticello lawn. This year, continuing the tradition of fundraising for restoration and preservation of Virginia’s historic public gardens, the Virginia Garden Tour Week ran from April 27 to May 4.

The Garden Week Guidebook is available online.  This year there were 31 tours hosted by 47 Garden Club of Virginia member clubs. The guidebook describes with pictures each of the 156 properties on tour this year. Over 3,000 volunteers work to make this oldest of garden tours a success.

For one blogger’s take on the Virginia garden tours read Kristin’s post on the topic in her her Countdown to Friday blog. She took the Richmond tour in 2018.

The garden club women of Virginia sure know how to arrange flowers. We were not allowed to photograph their arrangements but here is a peek at some posted on their site.

So three of us got in the car and journeyed down to the Virginia tip of the Eastern Shore on the last day of garden week. Our rewards were glorious spring sunshine, spectacular views of fields and bay, delightful creeks, historic houses and beautiful flowers. The docents, with their soft Virginia accents, were gracious and informative at every site.

 

Our first stop was 30 miles south of Onancock:  Eyre Hall plantation in Cheriton. It’s a National Historic Landmark that has been lovingly maintained by 8 generations of descendants of Littleton Eyre who inherited the King’s land grant and built the manor in 1758. Tall, ancient boxwoods  surround flower bed parterres. A peony garden overlooking fields and Cherrystone Creek was in full bloom. Crepe myrtles tower over mixed borders. The family graciously keeps the garden open to the public yearlong for free and without reservations.

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Ker Place

We motored back to Onancock where the rest of the Eastern Shore gardens were on view. Ker Place on Market Street served as the tour headquarters. It’s an elegant Federal style mansion that is now the home of the Eastern Shore of Virginia Historical Society. We enjoyed the pleasant grounds while we ate our bag lunches.

Then it was on to other houses, all walking distance in Onancock.

Scott Hall is the oldest house in town, built in 1769. In the back yard

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Scott Hall Cemetery

 

a gated iron fence encloses the family burial plot where the headstone of Commodore Zedechiah Whaley rests. Whaley died in the last naval battle of the Revolutionary War while chasing the British Royal Navy down the bay to Onancock. The British had been continuously harassing the farmers on the Maryland and Virginia creeks. That was the Battle of the Barges and took place on the day Great Britain and the United States signed a Treaty of Peace.

The Benjamin Fosque House was next. It’s a Victorian built in 1883 and has a serene garden of white-only flowers surrounding a swimming pool.

Onancock22The Grace Ames House is a relatively new vintage craftsman home. It’s a Montgomery Ward kit house built in 1927. All three homes have restful views of Onancock Creek.

Onancock4In Virginia we learned from the best. They know how to present a garden tour worth traveling to.

 

Getting to Know the Natives

Wow!  Maryland is in the business of helping residents buy trees.  I was so lucky to visit a great nursery in Eden, Maryland a few weeks ago. I was told about it by the man who brought me four truckloads of dirt for my swampy backyard. No telling what you can find out by asking questions. The nursery is called How Sweet It Is and it is one sweet garden shopping experience. I’ve never before been to a garden center that sells wine, craft beer and oysters as well as local scraple to name a few unexpected items.

But that was just the beginning of sweet. They told me about the Marylanders Plant Trees Program.

“We launched Marylanders Plant Trees in 2009 to encourage citizens and organizations to partner with the State to plant new trees. Today, citizens can still take advantage of our coupon program to receive $25 off the purchase of a native tree at 86 participating nurseries across the State. The State cost of $20 per coupon is funded through a settlement from a major power generator for Clean Air Act violations, in partnership with the Office of the Attorney General, and Maryland’s participating tree vendors are generously absorbing the remaining $5.”

I was there to purchase water-loving shrubs for a hedge around the back yard. I came home with the car bursting with 30 three-gallon Inkberries (Ilex glabra) and one Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana). The magnolia qualifies for the $25 state coupon. The tree must cost at least $50 and also must be on the Maryland list of natives.

I am getting to know the natives.

I checked out my choice of Inkberry at the Missouri Botanical Garden website. They are the go-to  website for all plant info and a goldmine. Inkberry is native to the eastern U.S. from Maine to Florida and partial to wet, swampy sites. Just the ticket for my yard. A low hedge is what’s needed to define our strangely shaped plot. Inkberry takes well to shaping and will grow from four to eight feet. It’s the perfect backdrop for a perennial garden. Hopefully among the thirty plants there will be one brave stud of a male to do the pollinating to produce the inky black berries the birds will devour. Interesting fact: these berries provided the ink for civil war soldiers to write letters home from the field.

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I’m not real good with straight lines.

The Sweetbay Magnolia is for the corner between the hedges on each side. Again this tree is more of a swamp-lover than the Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) and a better size for a small garden. It can be kept shrub size with multiple stems or let grow into a twenty-five foot vase-shaped tree with creamy white, vanilla spiced flowers in June. These are followed by rosy, elegant fruit in the fall. I’ll watch the perimeter grow this summer and wait until next year to fill in the plan with the water-loving garden of my dreams.

Plastic or the Real Thing

aloeRemember how supermarket cashiers used to say ‘paper or plastic?’ Now, thrifty shoppers bring their own bags. We’re encouraged to cut down on disposable plastic. Young, environmentally-conscious waitresses don’t want to give you straws. People frown on plastic bottled water and carry their own reusable carafes.

Still, so much that we use to decorate our homes is made of plastic and chemicals. Upholstery and carpets give off fumes from flame retardants, stain protectors, and moth repellents. Cabinets come plastic-coated.  It’s just part of modern manufacturing.

houseplant plastic

Photo by Madison Inouye

In the spring, when you walk into Home Goods or Michaels, (After the Christmas plastic has been moved out) you’re greeted by plastic spring plants in every size. Some look really good. It’s tempting to decorate a dark corner with a man-made rubber tree that will never drop a leaf. And succulents! The real ones even look like plastic. I’m positive someone in China could make a plastic kalanchoe that would fool a bee.

I must confess I bought a Christmas tree from Balsam Hill. They make beautiful fakes.  Mine looked like a perfectly grown spruce with natural-looking winter decorations artfully perching on the limbs. Only when you reach out to feel a bough do you realize you’re petting plastic. And of course no woodland scent wafts through the room. That I miss.

Artists have been copying nature for centuries in jewelry design, china and silver patterns, wallpaper and fabric. Why not? Nature is artfully beautiful.  They work in every medium, so why would they not use plastic as a medium?

This is my question. Do you really want to add more plastic to your home? If you have space for a real plant, get one even if it’s a philodendron or snake plant. I posted previously on plants’ amazing ability to clean the air. I can’t emphasize that enough.

 

Who Knew? Tax Day is for the Birds

 

hummingbird 1Maureen Kennedy spoke to our garden club this week. She said the easiest way to remember is tax day. Put out your hummingbird feeders on April 15. Any earlier in the Mid-Atlantic and you are wasting your sugar water.

Kennedy is the owner of My Backyard, a shop in Ocean Pines, Maryland dedicated to her love of hummingbirds. She sells all sorts of feeders, bird houses, bird baths, flags and even gift items such as local honey and handmade soap. She shared her vast knowledge of these littlest of birds. They are so tiny; they weigh about as much as a penny. They fly through the air at a top speed of 60 mph, beating their wings about 80 times a second. They need a lot of food for all that exercise and for their long migration down to South America each winter. You will not see flocks of hummingbirds on the migration trail. These beautiful feathered creatures may look romantic, but they don’t mate for life. They’re loners, making that extensive trip solo. They have feet but can’t walk. These are meant only to get a grip on their perch. It’s good to get a feeder with a landing spot, as it gives them a rest.

hummingbird 3Hummers have excellent vision and are attracted to flowers by sight. They are partial to bright reds and yellows.  Scents won’t attract them because they have no sense of smell. Think salvia, butterfly weed, cardinal flower, scarlet bee balm, trumpet vine, honeysuckle, columbines, daylilies, and lupines; biennials such as foxgloves and hollyhocks; and many annuals, including cleomes, impatiens, fuschias and petunias. Their long beaks are capable of getting way into tubular flowers for extra large doses of pollen.

Their tongues can thrust three inches out to lap up your sugar water. No sucking, just lapping with tongues made especially for that purpose. They definitely have a sweet tooth, but need protein for energy. You can help by putting an apple in a separate feeder. They won’t go for the apple, but will choose the fruit flies that the apple attracts. That’s their protein. When they fly they keep their beaks open. It’s like a non-stop net that scoops up tiny insects all day long.

If they like your feeder, they will remember your location and return and teach their young to find you too. They lay one to three eggs twice a season. The chicks break out of the shells in thirteen to twenty-two days and are gone from the nest by thirty days or sooner. They will never return to that tiny nest their mother so carefully made of plant fiber and spider silk.

Remember the new reason to look forward to tax day.

 

My Backyard is at the Southgate, Ocean Pines and on the web at http://www.gotomybackyard.com.

You can find out everything about hummingbirds at Hummingbird.net.

The Biggest Little Farm

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This is not Emma

We were off to the movies this weekend – The Ocean City Film Festival. Yes, Ocean City has a film festival. The feature film on Saturday was The Biggest Little Farm. It was directed by Worcester County native John Chester.

What a delightful treat for anyone to see, especially gardeners. Talk about being entertained by a documentary on farming while getting an appreciation of the natural world. But, they did it. Apricot Lane Farm pulled at our heart strings with a rescue dog named Todd and a pig named Emma whose best friend was Mr. Greasy the rooster. It was plain-spoken and direct and all about balance. How do you get snails to stop devouring fruit trees and coyotes to stop murdering chickens? Come to find out, ducks love snails and coyotes do just as well bumping off gophers, who, by the way, have been doing a number on tree roots. As I said, it’s all about balance. However, you can forget about birds and stone fruit. That’s all about sharing.

farm scene

This is not Apricot Lane Farm

John and Molly Chester start out with a utopian dream – create the most diverse farm in California and live an idyllic life on the land. Chester is an award winning director, filmmaker and cinematographer. It shows. There is graceful drone footage of the land, night vision shots of four legged intruders and delicate close ups of flora and fauna unfolding. We are so entertained by the story, we don’t realize we’re getting a lesson on how to live on our planet. There is a moment in the film where Chester looks up at the Milky Way and realizes he is part of that spinning system. This thought is a far more effective teaching tool than a preaching documentary on the demise of our planet.

The subtle takeaway is we can all do our share in our own community.  I came home and swore off Roundup.

The Biggest Little Farm will open in theaters in May. You’ve got to see it.

Do Houseplants Really Clean the Air?

Palm

I had to find some way to show my husband  that my obsession with plants is something good. I found it – Phytoremediation. The more plants I bring into the house, the healthier our home will be. Plants clean the air. NASA said so In 1989. They were looking for a way to scrub the air inside space stations for the health of astronauts. They wanted to get rid of formaldehyde and benzene and other cancer causing compounds that are part of our indoor manufactured environment. . Experiments showed that plants actually do the job, some better than others. So I’m off to the races with my obsession.

Boston fernMy Boston fern (Nephrolepis exalta Bostoniensis) in the sun room has thrived through the heat of last summer and the damp cold of this winter. It’s on the list of the ten most effective plants in devouring formaldehyde which gets into our houses in plastic garbage bags, paper towels, facial tissues, rugs, adhesives, gas heating and tobacco smoke. Whew. Would a Boston fern in every room be going overboard?

For many years in another house, a Weeping Fig (Ficus benjamina) lived a very long time with very little attention. In twenty years it grew to six feet. I reluctantly passed it on to a young plant-loving neighbor when we moved. I’ve just gotten another which is much shorter. I’m urging it onward and upward with my new grow light.

houseplants1I’ve had Umbrella Trees before (Schefflera arboricola) and always liked their lush foliage. I added one next to an east window. It should get enough light there for photosynthesis. Then I couldn’t resist a palm. It’s funny, when you buy small houseplants at home centers, they don’t bother to list the botanical name on the tag. They just say “tropical.” I can tell it’s a palm, but the variety is a mystery. I’m hoping it’s an Areca (Chrysalidocarpus lutescens) because that palm is supposed to be the best at eating up the chemicals that come in paint thinners, nail polish remover, glue and the solvents used in the printing, rubber and leather industries. Sounds good to me.

aloeA friend moving to Florida gifted me with a little Aloe Vera plant . This lovely is also known as the “first aid plant.” Great for sun burns at the beach. It’s also on the list of air-improving plants. It is thriving in a sunny window in a guest bedroom.

Kamel Meattle, a New Delhi businessman did a TED Talk on how he cleaned the air in his office building, air that was making him sick. He has been a pioneer in the movement to make work spaces more healthful. He promotes three plants that can change the quality of indoor air: Areca Palm –converts carbon dioxide into oxygen during the day, Mother-in-law’s Tongue -converts carbon dioxide into oxygen at night (good for the bedroom) and Money Plant – devours formaldehyde and VOCs. If these studies are true, that’s wonderful. But if the claims are a little overblown, I still love my houseplants. Their beauty is enough.