Everyday Gardeners

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Birds & Wildlife

signs of spring

I heard them yesterday on my lunch-hour run near the Raccoon River. The spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) were chirping in full chorus. These tiny little frogs are one of the sure signs of spring. The males create a cacaphony of music in their attempt to attract mates who will lay their eggs in small ponds that often dry up later in the year.

Yellow crocus (Crocus flavus)

Yellow crocus (Crocus flavus)

Those spring peepers made me think of other signs of spring that I noted in my yard this week, and wondered whether they could be consistently connected. These cheery yellow crocus came into full bloom in my backyard, where they fill two quadrants of a boxwood parterre. Other crocuses also have come into full glory this past week. Pale blue ‘Blue Pearl’, deep purple ‘Grand Maitre’, and creamy ‘Romance’ snow crocus brighten the garden beds.

I also noticed some of the early irises blooming. This bright yellow danford iris (Iris danfordiae) greets me as I walk to the mailbox. Deep blue ‘Harmony’ reticulate iris (Iris reticulata) and purple ‘George’ Spanish iris (Iris histrioides) popped through the winter mulch this week, too.

Danford iris (Iris danfodiae)

Danford iris (Iris danfordiae)

Could these early-season crocuses and irises be indicators of the awakening of spring peepers? I’ve not necessarily made the connection before. Phenology, the correlation of biological phenomena with climatic conditions, can be used by gardeners to watch for or treat certain pests. For example, recommendations to apply crabgrass preventer when forsythias are in bloom stem from the need to get the weed preventer in place before the ground warms to 55 degrees F, the temperature at which crabgrass seeds begin to germinate.

Have you made connections between bloom dates in your yard with other natural phenomena? If so, we’d love to hear about them.

those wascally wabbits!

Now that the snow is finally melting here in Central Iowa, the extent of damage to shrubs from rabbits is woefully apparent. Snow cover was deep for so long that bunnies fed on almost any plant that protruded from the white stuff.

Two forms of rabbit damage show up on this viburnum. Smaller shoots have been nipped with an angular cut. The larger branch has been stripped of its bark.

Two forms of rabbit damage show up on this viburnum. Smaller shoots have been nipped with an angular cut. The larger branch has been stripped of its bark.

It’s discouraging to look at receding snowbanks and see glaring white stems of shrubs stripped of their bark. Often, the shoots near the ground are fine because they were protected under the snow.

It’s too late to protect these shrubs now. But they can be salvaged with a little pruning. If stem tips are gnawed, cut the remaining stem just above a bud. A new shoot will emerge from that bud. If the bark of larger stems is damaged, the amount of pruning needed depends on the extent of the damage. The rule of thumb that I use is, if the bark is stripped more than half way around the stem, remove that shoot. If damage extends only 1/4 (or less) of the way around the stem, it will probably continue to grow fine without any care.

I usually opt for removing damaged stems. Shrubs with multiple shoots resprout readily from the base and grow back fuller and lusher than ever. It’s a great opportunity to rejuvenate old, overgrown shrubs. Make cuts 6 to 12 inches above the ground. If you make the cuts higher, the shrub will develop tufts of new growth at stem tips and be relatively bare at the base.

Wire caging protected this barberry from rabbits.

Wire caging protected this barberry from rabbits.

One technique that I’ve used to protect shrubs from rabbits is to place homemade tomato cages around smaller shrubs. They’re cylinders made of rabbit fencing. The lower wires are close together, preventing rabbits from getting in. Wider wire spacing at the top allows easy access for tomato harvest in summer. Normally this trick not only solves the problem of where to store cages over winter, bit it also prevents rabbit damage to the shrub it encircles. However, deep snow this year let the rabbits wiggle through the wider wires. Next year I’ll be more vigilant and spray rabbit repellent in addition to fencing off favorite plants.

All the Snow

webrabIt’s snowing again this morning here at BHG headquarters. For the most part, I don’t mind — the snow is lovely to look at and makes a great mulch for my perennials.

But it does have a downside (other than being difficult to drive or walk in): A lot of snow makes it difficult for rabbits and other critters to find food.

So if your area has snow, you might want to check your shrubs and young trees to see if rabbits have been nibbling.

Bunnies essentially cause two types of damage: They chomp back small stems (and in some cases, can cut a shrub back to the ground… or snow level).

The other type to watch for is nibbling on the bark. The tubes plants use to transport water and nutrients from the roots to the leaves and stems are just underneath the bark. If rabbits gnaw on the bark, they damage those tubes. If they eat all around the stem, it’s girdled, and that’s essentially like putting a tourniquet around the tree.

You can protect your plants by wrapping the stems in tree wrap or using chicken wire or another material to essentially cage out the rabbits. Rabbit-repellent products may also work, but follow the directions carefully as some may not be effective in cold temperatures.

In my yard, rabbits seem to be the most fond of viburnums, witch hazels, dogwoods, and sumacs.

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The Creatures Were Stirring

Winter Scenes 008Winter Scenes 002All was quiet inside the McKeon house as we slumbered through the predawn hours of Christmas day. While reindeer danced through our dreams, white-tail deer partied the night away in our backyard. We awoke to, not the sound of hooves on the roof, but to the sight of tracks in freshly fallen snow. And to our wondering surprise, four does were lingering in the garden—a flower border planted last summer for birds and butterflies, not grazers.

We had no eyewitness accounts of rabbits, but dozens of telltale hopper trails were all the evidence we needed to prove that a family of cottontails was spending the holiday sleeping off their midnight meal in the cozy warren of our brush pile.

In the wild, deer and rabbits survive cold winters by nibbling on the tender branches from the previous year’s growing season. Called browsing, this method of search-and-devour is Mother Nature’s way of providing food for her flock and pruning crowded vegetation. For gardeners, however, losing plants to hungry critters can be a lot harder on the pocketbook than window shopping, the more common definition of browsing. If left unprotected, young trees and shrubs can be nibbled to nubbins in no time.

I’m all for creating backyard wildlife habitats. Selfishly, though, I like to protect my landscaping investments. The secret to a landscape that caters to both people and wildlife is to reach a respectful balance. I figure if I can successfully keep deer and rabbits from dining on new plantings for the first few years, the trees and shrubs will grow big and strong enough to tolerate a chewed-off branch here and there.

Many gardeners use barriers, such as cages made of stakes and chicken wire, to keep winter browsers at bay. This method is very effective, especially if you have just a few specimens to protect. For large numbers of trees and shrubs, a good alternative is one of the natural wildlife deterrents, such as Liquid Fence and Messina Wildlife Products. These manufacturers offer formulations for just about every critter. The trick is to apply them regularly (every 30 days) when temperatures are above the freezing mark.

What Earth-kind methods do you use to protect your plants from wildlife damage? We would love to hear from you!

Garden Collectibles

My passion for all things gardening extends well beyond the confines of my garden beds. It fills every nook and cranny of my Arts and Crafts bungalow. It crowds my mantel and lines my porch steps. It fills my bookshelves and decorates my walls. I am, after all, an inveterate collector. And I collect all kinds of cool garden-related stuff, like old hand tools and watering cans, out-of-print garden books, terra cotta pots, vintage garden prints and postcards, black-and-white snapshots of strangers posing with plants, wrought iron garden figurines, even old seed packets and, of course, garden magazines.oldpostcard

Which is why I’m excited about some of Country Garden’s upcoming garden collectibles stories for 2010. In our Early Spring issue (on sale January 12th) we explore floral frogs, in the Spring issue (on sale March 9th), we tackle Bybee Pottery from Kentucky, and in the Summer issue (on sale May 18th) we showcase one of my personal favorite collectibles, Roseville Pottery. We even paired each of the featured floral patterns with the corresponding cut flower. For the Fall issue (on sale in August), we’re trying to decide between antique seed boxes or purple bottles. Which would you rather see featured?


Here are a handful of glazed garden-related tiles that I’ve recently started collecting. I’m thinking of working them into the backsplash of my upcoming kitchen remodeling. The ones above came from a trip I took to Spain years ago. I found them in a little shop in the Prado Gardens in Madrid. And, if I remember correctly at least two of the tiles below came from Left Bank Antiques in Anacortes, Washington. What garden collectibles catch your eye?


for the birds

I have a strong nesting instinct. As a mother of four, the need to feed is a full-time occupation. When the Blizzard of the Decade was predicted to hit the Midwest this week, I stocked up on necessities.  Milk, chocolate chips, flour, sugar, butter, vanilla…sunflower seeds, Nyjer, suet. The first six items are the basic ingredients for survival food in my house. (After all, my kids have come to expect Mom to bake cookies on snow days.) The last three are for my extended family, the birds that seek out my backyard feeders when snowdrifts cover autumn’s leftovers of seeds and berries produced by native species, such as coneflower, switchgrass, viburnum, dogwood, serviceberry, and beautyberry.

Apparently, my backyard isn’t the only restaurant in town. At last count, more than 54 million people in the U.S. feed wild birds. Birds have a much higher chance of surviving winter when supplemental food sources are available. According to the Audubon Society, human handouts are bringing about northward range expansions of many seed-eating birds, including the Northern Cardinal, Tufted Titmouse, Mourning Dove, and Red-Bellied woodpecker. A few scientists even believe that bird feeders are causing evolutionary changes in some bird species.

Quality counts when it comes to bird seed. I’ve learned that the inexpensive brands sold at many grocery stores aren’t really saving me money in the long run. They often contain cheap fillers, such as milo, that get rejected in favor of high-energy grains: sunflower seeds, millet, and cracked corn. I stick with reputable brands of bird-feeding products, such as Cole’s, Wild Birds Unlimited, Droll-Yankee, and Duncraft.

Seed mixes are great for attracting a variety of birds, but less goes to waste when each type of food is served in a separate feeder. I’ve watched many a cardinal scatter seeds hither and yon to get to the sunflower hearts—equivalent, I suppose, to one of my kids picking out all of the M&Ms from the trailmix. Presentation is everything in my avian restaurant. I offer a variety of feeders to accommodate different dining preferences. For the Mourning Doves, I scatter cracked corn on the ground. Cardinals favor sunflower seeds served in hopper or platform feeders. Finches flock to tube-style thistle feeders. And chickadees and woodpeckers are drawn to hanging suet.

As we watched dozens of birds enjoying breakfast in the blizzard, Grace (my 11-year-old daughter) said, “I wish we could let them come inside for awhile to warm up.” Yes, I thought to myself. A warm chocolate chip cookie may be just what they need.

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