Friday, June 27, 2014

If You Build It, They Will Come

House Wren
When we first moved to Mexico, NY,  in the winter of 1974, I was a stay-at-home Mom. I loved it! Back then I would cook and clean (not too much of that anymore though- hahaha), and I had several crafting hobbies. I used to knit and crochet, and sew quite a bit. I still have a lot of crafting hobbies only they changed a little over the years.
Male Ruby-throated humming bird
(female does not have red on throat)

I can remember sitting in our living room while working on some craft projects and hearing or seeing some birds that I had never seen before. When you live in the city you are excited to see a red-winged black bird because that's about the only bird with the color of red in it that you were lucky to see. I never saw a cardinal, blue jay or humming bird before until we moved to the country. And I can remember seeing goldfinches when we would vacation in Canada and we thought they were escaped or wild canaries.

Downy Woodpecker and Goldfinch

Well, this was my first experience of "living in the country" so to speak. Lots of wide open spaces, cows grazing across the road and in the fields behind our property, and tractors going up and down the road. Coming from an urban area (originally from Niagara Falls and living a few years in Liverpool, NY), I never really experienced country life before. When you live in an urban area you don't see the birds of the fields, or the ones that live in orchards or woodlands unless you go on a field trip. They were not everyday sightings.

Tree swallow that nested in PVC Pipe next box.

I first became interested in learning about some of the birds that were hanging around our pine trees and eating pine cone seeds. Like the chickadees and blue jays. And there were lots of blue jays. Blue jays live in the edges of forests and I guess with all the trees that were in the area it could be considered a "forest edge".

Blue jay

It was exciting to see the blue jays visit our yard so we decided to put up some bird feeders to attract them and maybe some other birds as well. That was the start of bird watching for us. We're not professional "birders", but we do enjoy the wildlife and birds that have visited our yard and area over the years. I purchased a very simple bird book at first (a small pocket book) to help identify the birds we were seeing in our yard. It was a basic beginner book, and when I started seeing a lot of different migrating sparrows in our backyard it was time to get another bird book, one that listed more varieties of birds.

What also helped in identifying the birds that we were seeing was that the bird book would show you a map for each species of bird on where you can find it and where it spends its winters and summers, and also where it is a year round resident. For example if you are trying to identify a bird and look it up, if you look at the residency map it will show you if that bird frequents your area. If it doesn't, then you probably didn't identify it correctly. That was a great help in identifying migrating birds. In some cases it also tells you when they arrive and when they leave your area. We have several variety of birds that might not stay in our area year round, but migrate through to spend their summer in Canada and winter in the south. These birds will stop and search for food, rest, and drink from our little pond or bird bath.
Robin on a nest in a grapevine wreath
 and she thinks we can't see her.

If you want to attract birds to your yard the most important things to consider are they need food, water, and nesting sites.

Eastern Towhee* (see note below) visiting our little waterfall 
One of the major ways to attract birds is running water. They can hear running water when they are flying over and will stop to check it out. We've had robins take "showers" under a sprinkler. All birds need water. We have a very small, man-made pond  with a little waterfall that attracts the birds, and there is a little bird bath not too far from that.

Site a birdbath away from shrubs where predators can hide, but not to far away from areas where they can preen themselves after their bath (like low branches from a tree). When their wings are wet they can't fly too well.

Eastern Towhee taking a bath

Here is the story of our pond: After reading that birds are attracted to running water I thought it would be a great idea to have a little pond in the back yard with a fountain or a little falls. So I decided to get a pond for my husband for Father's Day one year, but I had to ask him if I bought him a pond would he dig the hole and install it. So that's the story of the pond. We've replaced the liner a few times, and have had some goldfish over the years (and for several years one of my friends, Rose S., fed the goldfish for us while we were away). It's a very relaxing place where we often enjoy our morning cup of coffee or tea on the swing behind it. A few times around dusk, we've had the wood thrush visit the pond and sing their beautiful songs. We also get other wildlife (and domestic animals) visiting the pond too, like the raccoons, frogs, dragon flies, chipmunks, and neighbors' cats will stop by too.

Robins nest. Twigs and shredded paper for outside,
and lined with grass.

Nesting areas. I think one of the most important things to consider for attracting birds to your yard is to not have a 'spotless' yard. By that I mean that a bird needs materials to make a nest.They will use twigs, grass clippings, yarn, string, moss, dead leaves, animal fur or human hair, feathers, pine needles, shredded paper, etc. Each species of bird uses material specific to their individual needs on where they site their nest.

Four baby robins 

Baby Robins (you can see shredded paper making up the nesting materials)

Baby robin (fledgling) that learned to fly and left the nest.

Oriole's nest suspended from small branches.  She makes a little hammock nest. You can see a little of her on the top of the nest. I couldn't knit something that intricate. And how does that nest stay on those branches when exposed to
 50+ miles per hour winds?
Male Oriole eating grape jelly from feeder

Oriole feeders:
Jelly feeder on left (pattern thanks to Carolynn & Ron Dunn)

Female Bluebird

And I took these photos of the bluebirds while visiting our friends in Florida, Barb & Andy. They have attracted beautiful bluebirds and several other varieties of birds by keeping their bird feeders and bird bath full. You will always see several beautiful birds at their place.

Male Bluebird

"To the philosopher, as well as the naturalist, and to every man of feeling, the manners, migration, and immense multitudes of birds in this country, are subjects of interesting and instructive curiosity."
~Alexander Wilson (1766-1813) 
poet, ornithologist, naturalist, illustrator

Some of my previous posts on birds:
This One Is For The Birds
Spring Flowers and Summer Residents
Birdhouses - Think Spring

Other related links:
How to Attract Birds to Your Yard
Attracting Birds with Nesting Materials
Facts on the Baltimore Oriole

*Note: The Eastern Towhee was previously named the Rufous-sided Towhee. The Rufous-sided Towhee species of birds were split into the Eastern Towhee and the Spotted Towhee. Birdwatching- Recent Name Changes

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Friday, June 20, 2014

Peony or Paeonia

One of my earliest recollections of flowers has to be of the peonies (pronounced pee-uh-nees or pe-o-nees depending on which area of the country you come from). My mother had peonies. I think just about everyone's mother or grandmother had peonies.

I bet you can all remember your mother or grandmother picking peonies and bringing them in the house to adorn the table and provide a wonderful floral scent. And how many of you remember bringing a bouquet of peonies to school for the teacher??? And for the teachers out there, I bet you received lots of peonies every spring/summer for your desk.

Such a carefree plant with a beautiful fragrance and so easy to grow. To me they actually smell like a rose. And the colors- from deep reds, hot pinks, light pinks, yellow, white, and two-tone.

They are hardy from zones 3 through 8. Sorry southern Floridians-

They will grow in full sun or partial sun. Mine don't get a lot of sun, but still bloom pretty well. They like well-drained soil, but don't like it when their roots are sitting in a water-logged area. They probably don't do too well in clay soil for that reason. I have never had to fertilize my peonies. Some plants will live for over 100 years.

Not a great photo of my tree peony, but this show a peony hoop being used.
Actual size of this tree peony flower was about 8 inches across.

Peony Hoops. The peonies can look pretty messy after a hard rain or wind so the use of a peony hoop works well with them. This helps support the large blooms when they are top heavy and wet. I usually install the peony hoops when the plants are up about 10 inches and when the buds are just starting to form. It's a lot easier to put them around the peony before the plant has fully leafed out. Peony hoops are available in nurseries or at your big box stores like WalMart, Lowes, or Home Depot in the garden department. I've also used the peony hoop for other perennials that benefit from support. A double peony hoop is available for the large or taller peonies.

"Bowl of Beauty" Peony (Japanese style, single flower)
The photo above is of a peony called "Bowl of Beauty". It had never bloomed for me so I transplanted it about two years ago. This is the first year it flowered, and it only has one flower on it. I'm hoping to have a few more flowers on it next year.

If your peony hasn't bloomed it could be for several reasons.

  • If your plants are new it may take quite a few years for them to get established and bloom.
  • Your peony could be planted too deep. The eyes shouldn't be more than 2 inches below the soil. If this is the case, dig up the clump and replant it.
  • Your peonies are too crowded.
  • Buds were killed by disease. A fungal disease called Botrytis may cause the failure of the buds to develop. If your plant is severely diseased I suggested getting rid of it. If it's not too bad you could try a fungicide. 
  • The soil conditions were too dry.
  • Your mulch is too thick around your plants. Pull some of the mulch away from the plants. 
  • Not enough sunlight. If you planted your peonies several years ago, you could have trees that are now shading your plants.
  • Buds turned brown and never matured. This could possibly be from the weather. Cold and freezing temperatures after the buds have formed can damage the buds.

A good time to transplant or divide peonies is in September or October. Divide the plant into no less than three (3) eyes. Plant them no more than 2 inches below the soil.

Don't be too quick to cut back your peonies in the fall. The green leaves are storing up energy for next year's growing season. Wait until after a few hard frosts and then you can remove the foliage.

Ants and Peonies. Ants like the juice that's formed when a peony bud is developing. They do not damage the plant, and are usually gone when the flower bud opens. Of course I have brought ants into the house on peonies though.

Ants on peony bud

Tree Peonies. Tree peonies are actually shrubs with woody stems that grow from thick roots. Tree peonies are usually plants that are grafted.  Plant tree peonies with the graft union about 6 inches or more below the soil. The leaves and flowers are produced each year on new growth. These flowers are usually larger than regular peonies, but the plants themselves may not be as large.

Tree Peony flower (about 8 inches across) 

I have one tree peony. I couldn't understand why it wasn't growing very tall. I expected it to grow tall, like a "tree". After all, it's name is a "tree peony". Well, they only grow about 3 to 4 foot tall. After transplanting it a few times, and doing some additional research on it, I figured that out. But the size of the actual flower makes up for it's height. Also, you can't divide a tree peony because they are grafted. You can try propagating it from seeds. (I was going to try to collect the seeds last year, but forgot).

This year my tree peony failed to bloom. I'm guessing it has to do with our severe winter we had this past winter. If you missed my blog post from early January and the ice storm we had, here is the link to it: Welcoming in 2014. My tree peony has leafed out and appears to be very healthy so maybe next year I might have to protect it a little better. The photos of my tree peony in this post were taken last year.

"Show me your garden and I shall tell you what you are."
~Alfred Austin

American Peony Society
USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map
Growing Peonies
Ants: Small Workers With Large Roles

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Friday, June 13, 2014

June's Blooms!

Rhododendron bud
This time of year is so beautiful because everything is coming into bloom so fast. Some of the early spring flowers are still around and the late spring flowers have arrived to share their beauty with us.

This post will feature flowers that are currently blooming in the area of Oswego and Jefferson Counties and other counties in Central and Northern New York.

A lot of our flowering perennials only flower for a short time, but they usually leave us with some nice greenery throughout the rest of the growing season. Some spring perennials will die back completely (as described in the bleeding hearts information in one of my earlier March blog posts), but others will stay green until the fall. If it's a hot, dry summer some of the perennials will start getting crisp edges (like astilbes and ferns) and die back earlier than usual, but will return the following season.

Rhododendron in bloom

Iceland Poppy
Iceland Poppy (Papaver nudicaule). This spring I purchased the Iceland Poppy. It's a good thing I'm writing this blog post or otherwise I probably never would have looked up the care of this plant. As per Wikipedia, "the Iceland Poppy are hardy, but short-lived perennials, but are often grown as biennials. All parts of the plant are likely to be poisonous." I probably would have cut the seed pod off and discarded it if I didn't know that this plant was a biennial. I hope to propagate it because the flowers are very stunning with the yellow centers. I hope that these flowers aren't as invasive as the other orange poppies. Poppies prefer light, well-drained soil and full sun. This variety that I purchased has a flower that opens bright orange and then as the flower ages the petals turn to a salmon and/or pink color. (Not sure of the name of this variety - it might be Champagne Bubbles.) It also lasts longer in the garden or when cut for a flower display.

Buds on Iceland Poppies

Cranesbill Geranium
Cranesbill Geranium (Geranium macrorrihizum). This is a wild geranium in Europe, but we grow it here as a perennial. These plants form large clumps and spread by underground rhizomes (or runners). It is very low maintenance, and although the plants form large clumps they are great for filling in areas. They grow about 8 -10 inches tall and they produce clusters of bright pink flowers in the spring. After they flower, the plant will stay green until fall. They do great in the sun, but also perform well in the shade. If the clumps get too large they are easy enough to split up.The leaves have a musky scent that I don't particularly care for, but you only notice the pungent smell when you divide it up or tear off a leaf. And I don't think the deer care for it either which is a good thing. They probably don't like the smell either.

Cransbill Geranium growing with hostas

(Common) Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum Multiflorum). The Solomon's Seal are perennials that have flowers similar to the Lily-of-the-Valley (they are a relative of them) only taller. It can grow to about 35 inches high. They prefer light, moist soil in shade or sun. They are categorized in the Asparagaceae family, and you can see the resemblance to the asparagus in the photo below of the new shoots emerging in the spring.

Variegated Solomon's Seal coming up in ivy. They look like something out of a sci-fi movie.

Solomon's Seal
I like using it as a backdrop in certain areas of the garden. It has tall arching branches that will stay green throughout the season. The flowers only last a few weeks though. I have this plant growing in ivy and on the side of our house that doesn't get any sun at all and it does fine.

Flowers on Solomon's Seal

Snow-in-Summer (Cerastium tomentosum).   Here is a perennial for you if you have a dry, sunny area with poor soil. We planted these in a rock garden that is exposed to the sun all day long. Because it is a raised bed it also has very good drainage. Snow-in-summer form a clump of silvery, grey foliage with white pretty daisy-like flowers in late spring/early summer. It does spread rather easily, but it's also another plant to easily keep under control with transplanting and dividing. It is a low-growing ground cover (grows to about 8 inches), and looks nice edging a garden. The photo below demonstrates it at the edge of a stone wall. After your Snow-in-Summer flowers, trim it back to a few inches to keep it neat looking. Another deer resistant plant.

Snow-in-Summer  blooming with Intermediate Bearded Iris

Clematis. I planted a Asao Clematis near a Viburnum Shasta (pictured below). The Viburnum Shasta spread out and the Clematis grabbed onto it forming a nice display of the two flowering plants. This was a great surprise because when I purchased the clematis I had no idea when it was going to bloom. Lucky for us it blooms at the same time the Viburnum Shasta is flowering.

Asao Clematis blooming on Viburnum Shasta 

Male Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) butterfly (males have blue and orange spots near the tail) on wild phlox

"Flowers always make people better, happier, and more helpful; they are sunshine, food and medicine for the soul."
~Luther Burbank

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Friday, June 6, 2014

Some Simple Natural Garden Design Tips

Here are a few ideas for planning and planting your gardens.

Wharton Memorial Gardens, Bedford, Virginia

Odd Number Plantings: When deciding on flowers for your gardens, it's always a tough decision. How many should I buy? Do I have room for three or more? Is one plant going to look too scrawny in the place where you want to plant it. Is the cost of one specific plant more than enough for your current budget.

If you are able, and you have room for them, and it fits in your budget, it's always visually appealing to plant your flowers in groups of odd numbers. By planting in groups of three, five, etc., of the same flower, that is usually more satisfying to the eye, and gives a more pleasant visual appearance.  This can also be achieved by using an odd number of the same color of plants that bloom at the same time.

When you plant in odd numbers they look more natural than an even number of plants. But of course I don't always abide by that rule myself. My garden beds are not that large and also because of cost, I might only buy one plant of a specific species. I'll try that plant to see how successful it is in my garden environment, and how it holds up with our severe winters. I also like to see how big the plant gets, and if it spreads very much. I tried planting three Siberian irises one year, and they just about took over the whole garden area where I planted them in. I must have ended up with over 50 Siberian irises when I split up that grouping of three.

Balancing your garden with symmetry by using an even number of plants is more suitable for the formal garden. When you have an even number of groupings like two, four, etc. your mind is always trying to balance out the flow of the garden.

Here is an interesting article on planting your garden in groups of odd numbers: Planting in Odd Numbers; The Secret for a Beautiful Garden

Mass Plantings of the Same Plants: You can achieve a very coordinated look in your yard/gardens if you use the same color of plants throughout your flower beds. When using this technique your plants should be hardy and low maintenance. I've attempted to achieve this by using sundrops (Oenothera Frutiose 'Fyrverki') around my house which a friend of mine shared with me (thank you, Tammy). Well, I have to say that this is one of the best flowers ever. They thrive in full sun, but will also do fine in some shade. They do re-seed easily, and will spread out from runners in the shape of rosettes, but they are easy to pull out if they start getting invasive in an area. I've planted them all over and they add spots of color and highlights in my yard. They seem to do well in just about any soil condition. And the leaves have some red on them. They do not do well in poorly drained soil. I just wish the bloom time was longer for them. However, the stems and leaves stay attractive until fall, and the leaves will have additional red coloring in them. Here is some additional information on Mass Planting.

Sundrops (yellow flowers)

Foliage Texture and Color: You might try adding various plants that have a different leaf texture or color. This creates a contrast and adds interest in your garden. One way to achieve this would be by adding some variegated plants. You can also mix it up by adding some different colored hostas or coral bells (Heuchera). The heuchera are now available in several different colors of reds, rust, lime green, and mixed colors of all of the above.

Left- Hosta (unsure of variety), Burgundy Heuchera, and Campanula Blue Waterfall (not in bloom yet)

Variegated Solomon's Seal, ferns growing behind them, and ivy at the base. 

Curved Borders and Edgings: Another simple design principle is the use of curved edges surrounding your flower beds, lawns, and borders. When you have a curved edge in your garden, your eye is following it and not stopping at the 'end' of the line. It creates a softer line while a straight border appears to create a hard edge. It also creates mystery about what's going on around that curved edge, and it appears to be a more natural border with a nice flow.

Curved walkway and borders. This photo and the one below is from the Wharton Memorial Gardens, Bedford, Virginia

While both walkways are visually appealing, the curved walkway in the photo above this one offers more interest.

You do not have use bricks or stones to add a path. You can do it with your grass/lawn by mowing an area into a pathway. There are several materials you can use as well such as gravel and mulch. Here is a link with some photos of garden borders and paths and the materials used for the paths: 9 Ways to Create a Garden Path
Even if you are not interested in doing a path the photos are beautiful and demonstrate the curved borders very well.

This is one of the paths in our backyard. 
The photo at right is one of the paths that my husband 'mowed' through our ivy. I wanted a place to grow some hostas without having the ivy take it over. After mowing, the paths were covered with pine needles or mulch. When the ivy starts coming up through the mulch my husband will mow it. The paths only have to mowed a few times a year.

There are really no rules when it comes to YOUR Garden! It's your garden and you can do what you want and what appeals to you. If you don't like something after a few years or if you have a plant that's too fussy, dig it up and give it away to a friend or toss it out. Or if it's doing great you can propagate it and increase your number of plants.

Here is a list (alphabetical order) of Common Plant Names and suggested uses for that specific plant: Common Plant Names

Eastern Phoebe with bug in it's beak
Eastern Phoebe: The Eastern Phoebe is a flycatcher. The flycatchers are a family of birds that catches flying insects. Insects are their main diet. They are pretty funny to watch sometimes because they will fly in patterns similar to a hummingbird, and occasionally will fly around your windows or doors trying to catch spiders or flies. They will sit on a perch or branch and scout for something flying around that looks good enough to eat. They will also return to the same perch or branch. Also when sitting they will flick their tail up and down.  They also catch their insects off of branches and leaves. When I saw one of these birds for the first time I was able to identify it by it's call. It sings out a raspy squawk of "Phoebe".

The Phoebes construct their nests of mud and grass, and usually in a protected area such as under a bridge, a barn, house or shed. The bird in the photo above is using the same nesting spot that they did last year which is on the side of our pole barn (pictured at left). I haven't been able to get a photo of them on the nest (yet). Right now I'm pretty sure their eggs have hatched because they've been busy flying back and forth to the nest.

The Phoebes are found in open woods such as parks, woodland edges, and yards.

"Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works."
~ Steven Jobs

You can never have enough toads in your gardens!

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