Everyday Gardeners

Plant. Grow. Live.

February 2010

WinterSceneBlogBirdbaths are big draws for feathered visitors in every season. Set out a saucer of fresh water and you’ll soon have an avian party in your backyard. Birds need water not only for hydration, but also to clean their feathers for optimal insulation and flight. I used to store my birdbaths in the garage in winter. Now I know that providing birds with fresh water can be even more important than food handouts during cold months. Around my home in central Iowa, most natural drinking sources for wildlife—puddles, creeks, and pond edges—have been frozen solid for weeks. Birds will resort to eating bits of snow when they’re thirsty, but they prefer to wash down their meals of seeds with water. Wouldn’t you rather drink a glass of cool water than chomp on ice cubes?

To keep water in a birdbath ice-free, purchase one of the many heated birdbaths available. I use one that I found at my local Wild Birds Unlimited store. Mounted to my deck railing, the 20-inch-diameter plastic bowl features a built-in, 150-watt grounded heater that keeps water at 40-50 degrees F. The bowl tilts for easy dumping and cleaning. In warm months, the chord coils out of sight inside the base. If you already have a birdbath, you can augment it in winter months with a commercial water heater, available at many garden centers and wild bird supply shops. Use a heavy-gauge outdoor power cord plugged into an outdoor power source. Because water heaters increase the rate of evaporation, check your birdbath daily and add fresh water as necessary.

Birds will flock to your yard in winter if you serve both food and beverages. Before we know it, nature will release its icy grip, making life easier for all of us. I’ll drink to that!

beeAs you’re putting together your mail-order plant wish list, think about species that sustain bees. I know what you’re thinking: “Bees might ruin my picnic!” Here’s my reply to that: “Cover your beer, and plant flowers that sustain bees anyhow.”

I just got a press release from the organizers of National Pollinator Week reminding us that one out of every three bites of food humans consume is dependant on bees and other animals for reproduction. Now you can see why it’s so important to protect these critters (even if they do sneak into our open cans of PBR when we’re not looking).

Colony Collapse Disorder, a mysterious situation that has caused a drastic decline in honeybees, still continues to stump researchers. And honeybees are not the only pollinators in peril; bumble bee species in the East and the West also are vanishing from their customary habitats, according to the sponsor of National Pollinator Week, June 21-27.

By planting for pollinators we can rebuild their habitat and make a positive impact on the survival rates for honeybees and other pollinators. Pollinators obtain vital nectar, pollen, and nesting resources from key plant species—especially natives—which can be incorporated easily into nearly all landscapes. Click here to find good native plants for your region.

101046572National Pollinator Week is a project of the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign (www.nappc.org), which is managed by the Pollinator Partnership. To learn more, click here.

PhalaenopsisIn his last post, my boss Doug Jimerson mentioned how he saw pussy willows as a sign of spring coming. Outside my home landscape is still pretty bleak and cold (the wind chill was -21F when I went to work this morning), but inside I’m happy to also be seeing signs of spring.

I became hooked on orchids a couple of years ago, and now a table in my back porch houses a collection of about 30 or so different varieties of easy-to-grow moth orchids (Phalaenopsis). For me, most of these beauties bloom once a year and that’s in early spring. The plants are just starting to send up spikes now, so I know the spring season really must be right around the corner.

When my moth orchids begin showing off their lovely blooms, it’s a cue that I can start fertilizing my other houseplants again after their winter rest. I always start out slow, giving them about 1/4 the recommended dose for a month or so.

If you’re a cold-climate gardener like me, are you seeing signs of spring? If you’re a warm-climate gardener, what’s blooming in your yard now? Share by commenting below!

Pussy Willow catkins

Pussy Willow catkins

In late winter, I’m like an expectant father, pacing around my gardens looking for any signs of spring. Usually, by now, I’d be seeing some early bulb foliage poking through the soil or some green leaves unfurling in the perennial border. But this year it’s different. Deep snow still blankets the landscape. Winter has been relentless with snowstorms every few days adding new layers of fresh snow on top of drifts that are already chest high. All my garden beds are deeply buried, so unless the weather warms up quickly, we probably won’t be seeing our early bloomers such as hellebore, crocus or snowdrops until April or May. But, this weekend, I finally found some hope. In the back of the border, buried in 4 feet of snow, is a very large pussy willow shrub I planted several years ago. And, on the very top branches, the pussy willow catkins are beginning to peek out. It’s not much, but after one of the bleakest winters on record, it improved my spirits tremendously.

Surprisingly, you don’t read much about pussy willows anymore and the plants themselves can be difficult to find either via mail order or at the nursery. Certainly it doesn’t have large or fragrant flowers or interesting foliage, but in the early spring it earns its place in any landscape. It’s a blue collar shrub that works hard, has few pests, and requires only an annual pruning to keep it in bounds (un-pruned this shrub can grow 15 to 20 feet tall). Plus, you can cut the pussy willow branches and use them in fresh or dried arrangements. Pussy willows are also available in weeping forms or with pink or black catkins.

It’s been a while since I blogged on rabbits, one of my perennial favorite topics. So…..

This photo shows what used to be a spirea shrub. There’s nothing in my yard that is a bigger favorite of rabbits, year after year, than spirea.  (Tulips and lettuce come close, though.)  There is a whole row of spirea plants, and they all look like this one. At least they look rejuvenated each spring, although they don’t ever get much bigger.

Rabbit damage

My neighbor, “Wilson”, has a barberry shrub in his front yard. Barberry is another rabbit favorite—the thorns don’t seem to matter a bit. The poor plant never could grow much before getting mowed down again. I finally talked him into putting some chicken wire around it to give it some protection. In  a year or so, it had grown quite a bit and once the wire was removed, the rabbits mostly left it alone. That’s the funny thing about rabbits — they always go after the small stuff, the plants they can eat without having to stand up. I guess they’re as lazy as they are hungry. In spring, newly sprouted perennials tend to get demolished, but if they have a chance to grow and get larger, then the bunnies leave them be.

This year, the snow drifts are pretty high, so the critters are getting to a lot branches that are normally out of reach. I’m trying to just relax and not let it bother me so much. As long as the plant doesn’t get mowed to the ground, I guess it’s not the worst that could happen. The spirea earns that prize.

While our friends on the West Coast may be enjoying an early spring, here in Iowa we’re still in the deep freeze with record snow cover. By mid-February, I’m ready for a break from the snow and cold. Most years I travel to a warm-weather destination for a few days to lift my spirits. That won’t happen this year. Instead, I just walk out the door of my basement and into the attached greenhouse. I took this shot of Vista Bubblegum petunias this morning when the temperature outdoors was in the teens.

petuniaSeeing the bright flowers in bloom is a great way to adjust my attitude. Gardeners are naturally optimistic–how else can you explain the leap of faith that it takes to plant seeds with the expectation of beautiful flowers or bountiful harvests of produce?

On sunny days the greenhouse truly is tropical. It often reaches 80 degrees even when temperatures outdoors remain below freezing. I love to open the basement door and allow the scents of springtime to fill the entire house. But overnight and on cloudy days, temperatures frequently dip into the 40s in the greenhouse, even with the triple wall acrylic covering and insulating bubble wrap.

In order to start seeds in the greenhouse, I have a germination chamber that keeps the seedlings warmer. This germination box is large enough to hold five standard nursery flats (plus a few extra plants). germ-chamberA heating mat supplies bottom heat, and maintains a constant 70 degrees F. The 8-inch deep box fell short for growing stem cuttings, so I added a 1-foot tall extension made of treated deck rails. Usually it’s draped with clear plastic, to hold in the heat. But the plastic rolls back to make it easier to water and work with the seedlings. This photo shows that the grassy onion seedlings are growing nicely, as are half a dozen types of perennial flower seedlings. I’ll soon start more annual flowers and veggies. By then the perennials will be able to move to the cooler greenhouse benches. And with improving weather conditions (I remain optimistic!) they’ll be ready to transplant to the garden when the snow finally melts.

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