Thursday, April 17, 2014

Spring Squirrel in White

A frolic on the maple freeway.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Wildlife and Human Delight--Crabapple

Fruiting trees can get a bad rap. Some might say that these trees are messy. Some might be right--especially, for instance, in the case of mulberry or fig trees. But fruiting trees deserve a second look by homeowners and city planners for a couple of very, very good reasons. Maybe more than a couple.

First, there's psychological delight of a tree in bloom. No perennial is going to do the same thing for you that these trees do. You can experience this delight even on the move in a car--the power of that mass of blooms can break into your gloomy day with a smile-generating smack upside the head. And who doesn't want more of that? 

There are plenty of fruiting trees out there, but today I want to sing the praises of the crabapple. I'm not alone in this obsession-- the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University has a permanent collection of crabapples that includes 445 specimens. I don't reckon they planted them because they were ugly. 

When a crabapple blooms, it can be difficult to see the leaves. Blankets of blossoms cover mature trees. Since the average mature crabapple is roughly 20 by 20 feet--well, that's a little more than a handful of flowers. And when you DO see the leaves, they appear to be trying to masquerade as blossoms! New growth comes on with a red blush that fades to green as the leaves mature. 

Crabapples come in many sizes. True natives can be susceptible to scab, rust and other maladies, especially in humid areas. Modern cultivars, however, can be highly resistant to these same problems. This makes them excellent small trees for gardeners who wish to add species with high wildlife value and predictable growth habits. In my own yard, I selected a cultivar known as "Prairie Fire" (also called "Prairifire") which has deep coral red blossoms, followed by small (.5 inch) purple-red fruits that become more red as winter approaches. This cultivar, like many others of its size (twenty feet or less) is safe to plant under power lines, and I can happily report that it receives an inordinate amount of attention from my songbirds after the first frost or two softens up the fruits. 

The wood of all Malus species is dense, both harder and heavier than cherry. It is finely grained, and generally straight--but can have "wild" sections. If you or a friend turns wood, this can be an excellent wood to turn, provided you allow for shrinkage. Color of the wood can vary from reddish to grey to brown. Growth rate of these trees is medium, and while most varieties prefer partly sunny locations, some will do fine in full sun, especially if they are sited in soil that remains moist much of the time.

A honeybee takes advantage...
Crabapples are considered "of special value" to native, bumble and honey bees. If there is not a crabapple in your neighborhood--you get to have the standout! Blossoms on different varieties range from white to pale pink to almost red, so there is bound to be a cultivar that will fit with your color scheme. In addition, these trees can be found in forms that mature to only ten feet tall, so you are certain to find one that can work in the space you have. While most forms are rounded, there are also more oval forms and also some weeping forms. Have it your way! Check both the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the Ohio State links for detailed information on "top ten" cultivars. Three recommended varieties are available through the Arbor Day Foundation.

Fruit size is also a consideration for some gardeners. Crabapples can have fruits up to two inches in diameter... after that, they become "apples." If your site location will put this tree next to a driveway or street, you may want to select a variety that has smaller fruit to reduce the amount of mess. Smaller fruits also provide more "portability" to songbirds, enabling them to dash in, snag a fruit and dash back out. Unless they just like to sit and graze like my robins did this winter. 

Seriously. Can you find the leaves?
In caring for your crabapple, two factors are bound to come up. The first is the species' predisposition to suckering in a vertical fashion from branches that start to bend because of the fruit load or general exposure to sunlight. The second is the clonal tendency to sucker from the roots. Native forms of these trees "thicket," and provide great nesting sites to songbirds because of this. However, modern cultivars will not "thicket true to form," so both of these types of growth will need to be pruned out annually to promote tree health and aesthetics. 

Among the species which can feast on the crabapple--bees, butterflies and birds--don't forget to add the human species. Apple cider (the original reason for colonists to bring the seeds over in the first place), jellies, jams, apple butter...there are plenty of ways we can take advantage of the gifts of these trees. If you get there before the birds do. 

*The crabapples in these images are located at an apartment complex in town. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

No Shocks, Please!

Shopping at our local Lowes, you would probably be surprised to learn that tamper-resistant electrical outlets were now part of the National Electrical Code. Youd probably be even more surprised to learn that the code changed to adopt theseback in 2008. Why would you be surprised? Because tamper-resistant (TR) outlets must be searched outthey are not the standard for purchase.

What, you may ask, is a tamper-resistant electrical outlet? They were developed in response to the nearly 2,400 children who experience severe shocks or burns every year when they stick objects into electrical outlets. And yes, there are a few fatalities amongst those numbers. A TR outlet has spring-loaded INTERNAL gates or shutters that prevent insertion of foreign objects into the outlet. These shutters are effective because both of them must be pressed simultaneously for them to relinquish access. If you have a child who has already learned to remove those plug-in protective caps, you know why an internal shutter would be a Good Thing. My fourteen-month-old granddaughter has certainly learned this skill.

When you attempt to plug in some device or another to a TR outlet, you will meet considerable resistance. This is one way of identifying them. A visual inspection reveals a kind of cloudiness where you would ordinarily just see a black hole. This opaqueness will not be in evidence over the grounding plug (the one that looks kind of circular), as it is not capable of harming a child (no live electric current is generated).

Tamper resistant outlet with useless plug at bottom.
The National Electrical Code of 2008 requires TR outlets in all new construction and renovations. It is important to note that not all provisions of the code have been mandated. And like many things, enforcement of this code is dependent upon local building inspection departments, electricians AND homeowners who may or may not pull a permit for upgrades. And of course, if a homeowner is completely unaware, or doesnt have young children, he or she may not be invested in paying extra for a feature perceived as unnecessary.

The portion of the code which IS mandated is for new construction and for hospitals and other institutions that serve pre-school age children. All else is dependent upon individual state adoption. If you live in a state that prides itself on reduced regulations, than more than likely your home doesn't reflect the new code unless it was built after 2009. 

If youre thinking these things may cost an arm and a leg, I can happily report that this is not the case. The difference in cost between a TR outlet and an old school outlet is about $0.50. Given an average of 75 outlets in the typical American home, you would be looking at an increased cost of about $40. This is what I like to call Cheap Insurance. Especially in a lawsuit-happy country.

Now some folks may object to this code, saying that these burns and fatalities are the result of poor parenting and parents should be more responsible in teaching their children not to poke things in electric outlets. What most of us accept is that kids are curious (as they should be!) and it only takes a moment when dad or mom is taking care of some other necessary task (like supper) for disaster to occur. Knowing my own track record I just got lucky. Lord knows I accomplished plenty of other harms to myself at that age. That and Im old enough to come from a time when the code didnt require an electrical outlet every six feet on each wall, so I had fewer OPPORTUNITIES to do myself harm. How many of you have caught your child moments away from disaster? Now you know a solution to at least this one potential disaster. Please share this information with your friends, and help save some other families some agony. 

A nice fact sheet on the code from the National Fire Protection Association here.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Preserving Space for Pollinators

Megachildae species on snapdragon
Last weekend I shared a talk at our local community services building on the topic of bringing pollinators to your garden. (photo at left: NOT a hornet--leaf cutter bee!) Initially, I had offered to email the presentation to all the folks who showed up--then realized, with the photos I had used, that the presentation was over 26MB in size. I don't think they would really appreciate that if it dropped into their inbox.

SO--I am posting the short version here! And the first thing I shared with my lovely audience was a photo of a sliced apple. A very lopsided apple. Which is a symptom of incomplete pollination. In other words, not enough bees were on the job to see that every portion of the flower blossom got pollinated on that apple tree. The scary thing is--it is really difficult, at least at our local grocery stores, to find an apple that is NOT lopsided. (Learn more about the bee above here.)

In the larger context of things, this nation is faced with a likely scenario this year of a drop of 50% or more in food production coming out of California, due to drought. Cue the scary movie music here, and picture what is going to happen to the average food bill for families across the country. In a way, this may be a good thing, as it may force us to decentralize food production. Decentralizing production would reduce the petroleum impact of the average grocery bill, but more importantly would help to reduce food insecurity nationwide. For more on this topic, check statistics and other information on the USDA site here.

So how do you make an impact? You can, of course, grow some of your own food. But top of our priority lists has to be preservation of the species that do the work of pollinating those groceries. And the first way for us to preserve them is to stop killing them inadvertently. So the preservationist's yard is going to have to stop the use of any long acting pesticide (this should be obvious), stop using RoundUp (not so obvious, but the stuff washes into our waterways and kills the plants many pollinators need as habitat), and finally--at least for awhile--stop purchasing garden plants at the Big Box stores.

Let's look at these a little more closely. Pesticides/insecticides are actively designed to kill pests, which, in the context of gardens, are the insects that chew on our plants. Some things can be used safely (like insecticidal soap on aphids) because they wash off the plant when watered and act as desiccants--they dry the insect out, killing it. The vast majority of the new pesticides you find at your local big box, however, are designed to be long acting. They hang around, and work by interfering with the nervous system of the insect. I won't even get into the unfortunate impacts this can have (with continuous or prolonged exposure) to humans--especially children. But if you would like to know more, you can start your research at this page from the EPA. So. Don't use them. Blast those aphids off with the garden hose, and work on creating a yard where the beneficial insects and songbirds move in to keep your pests in check.

RoundUp--the big sin is that commercial agriculture uses huge volumes of this stuff on "RoundUp Ready" plant crops. Unless you buy only organic produce, you are ingesting this stuff. And all of the "weed" plants that used to grow in and around the fields of commercial farmers who use RoundUp as a method of increasing yields (which may just be a sales pitch by the chemical industry) are no longer available to pollinators. Fewer resources for pollinators means fewer pollinators. 

The Big Box Stores--gardeners everywhere have been appalled to discover recently that suppliers to Lowe's and Home Depot (and some other big chains) have been pre-treating their plants with neonicotinoids--the pesticides wreaking havoc on so many of our insect pollinators. They do this to make sure the plants look "perfect" and have not insect damage. Even many of the employees of these stores are sick at heart. Find a local nursery that does not use these products, or you are simply introducing an attractive lure to kill pollinators.

That pretty much covers the downers. Now for the fun and easy things to do!

Old spruce log chunks embedded in slope.
Logs & Dirt: Two big assets to native pollinators! When larger branches come down or a tree is taken out, plug some chunks of these into your yard. They create instant habitat space for beneficial insects. In this image, we plunked some chunks of log into the hill to help create better soil--the milkweed to the right of the logs needs a more well-drained soil, and we have an abundance of clay. Putting logs in next to the milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa, here) allows the insects to improve the soil their way, and we don't have to do any real work.

When planting, leave some open soil exposed is certain areas away from your home's points of entry. Many native bees are ground nesters. If yellow jackets move in on you--that's a threat to your family's  health and of course you would need to do something about a nest like this. But small patches of soil will give some of our bumblebees a place to hatch out the next generation.

Female sourwood tree at peak bloom.
Plant Trees. This picture of a sourwood in full bloom would make honeybees and our native bees salivate. Think of how many perennials you would have to plant to have the same impact as one mature, flowering tree. Or even one immature tree. Or a large flowering shrub, instead of some of the typical "foundation" shrubs. Visit this excellent page from the University of Georgia to see a list of native trees and shrubs that benefit our pollinators. *Note: this list includes butterfly bush, which is now classified as an invasive plant in many areas of the country. I do not personally recommend it.

Two monarchs on a large pile of open-form mums.
In the same vein as planting trees: Plant Big Blobs! For a pollinator to find your lovely offerings, she has to see it or smell it. Just like you have your favorite odors, pollinators have theirs. Generally, they react most strongly to plant perfumes that they evolved to pollinate. This requires a mass at least three feet in diameter, and preferably four. Imagine if you had to find your next meal based on your nose. The more aromatic perfume, the better! Masses, in general, will provide you a more attractive landscape anyway, by avoiding the "chopped up" look of Too Many Different Things. To accomplish this, you may have to do away with some lawn. What a shame. Flowers are much more fun!

Native bumblebee on native JoePye Weed
While you are planning where to put your Big Blobs, plan to BLOOM ALL YEAR LONG. Or as close to it as you can get. Here in Western North Carolina, it is possible to plant for a progression of blooms that extends from late February to early November. The first place to look for advice on what to plant to create this progression is at, where you can punch in a zip code and receive a customized list of native trees, shrubs and perennials that will help you provide food for pollinators. If you have a small property as we do, look for cultivars of natives at your local nursery that will be more appropriately sized to your lot. You don't need to plant everything on the list. Choose one thing you like for every month that matches up with the conditions of your growing site and then plant a blob's worth. If you do that, you WILL have pollinators move in to your garden. And songbirds. You're welcome.

Provide Clean Water: bird baths, water features and rain gardens can all help support pollinators. Bird baths need to be kept clean (rinse them well if you use any type of cleaning agent besides elbow grease). Water features need to have a "still" portion for insects to take advantage of them. Both of these need to have stones or other unglazed surfaces that bees can use to crawl down to the edge of the water safely. There is nothing more depressing than a batch of drowned bees in your bird bath.

Coneflower seed heads being dined on by goldfinches.
Finally, Settle For Sloppy. Most of us are far too fastidious about our gardens. The phrase "well manicured" is held up as the ultimate compliment. Well manicured, however, usually means we have tidied up things that should be left alone if we want to support our native pollinators. Spent blooms mean seed for birds (that eat garden pests). Those spent blooms are perched on stems that may be bored into by pollinators to lay eggs or to just escape from cold weather. If a plant you have is struck by disease, then naturally you will have to clean that up to keep things from spreading. But unless you leave a little litter--leaves, stems and spent blossoms--you are removing housing opportunities for a well-balanced home ecosystem. So give yourself permission to be a little lazy and leave those coneflower and rudbeckia stems standing until spring! This practice fits into what the Pollinator Partnership refers to as S.H.A.R.E. : Simply Have Areas Reserved for the Environment. Learn more at the link--and thanks for helping to save pollinators!

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Weathering Winter

Around the yard, there are at least five stations for wildlife chow set out. Like many others, we put out birdseed and suet for our songbirds. We also set out a little corn on the cob for the squirrels. There is no doubt the gesture is appreciated, because the squirrels don't actually nest in our yard, and most of the birds don't, either (though some do).

One of the wonderful things about snow is that you can see the tracks of those who have visited. In addition to knowing these creatures have been on the property, we get to see what it is that drew them to our yard. Which today tells me that the number one reason to show up in this yard is... water. And I disappointed them, because my old heated birdbath croaked. You can see the numerous tracks across the frozen bowl of the birdbath in the photo (left). This will no doubt accelerate my digging of a small "watering hole" or shallow water feature. I've had the liner and pump for a while, but it just had not made it high enough up the priority list for me to allocate the necessary time. Anybody else have a project like that?

Chasing the various tracks around the yard revealed that our occasional bunny had been in evidence. His tracks can be seen in the lower left of the photo above, but also (if you look hard) in the snow by this pile of brush, on the right side of the frame. The tracks led directly into the bottom of the brush pile. We started this pile the first year we occupied the house. It is placed up and out of the way under some mature trees (fir and maple). We frequently place pruned branches onto the pile, which began with a Christmas tree if I remember correctly. Not all the pruning goes to this designated pile, but a large portion of it does. Somehow the pile never seems to grow much larger.

During hatching season, young wrens will hide in this brush pile. Other birds do also, I'm sure--I just happen to have photographic proof of the wrens! Go here to read the post, if you like. From the house side of this pile, it is rarely if ever seen. If you walk past the back of our property, you'll see something like the photo at right--nothing very remarkable. We took advantage of the natural slope of the land when we placed the first parts of our Official Wildlife Hiding Place. Squirrels, chipmunks and at least one black rat snake have hidden out here before. This pile is just part of the "shelter" we provide in our backyard habitat--we also put up bird houses, have a few rocky piles and several logs littering the landscape providing lodging for toads, insects and other necessary creatures.

Based on the tracks, it looks like there are two bunnies around the neighborhood. A small one that went into the brush pile, and a larger one that hopped off into the sunset through the snag behind our neighbor's house. Guess our brush pile isn't big enough!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

A Different Kind of Pest Control

Ever had to wade through a passel of pigeons?

Maybe you've just had a murmuration of starlings swing through and left you with an unusually white windshield. Either way, it makes you wonder where the hawks are when you need them.

Oooo, now there's an idea...

Some municipalities or large business are making use of falconers to deal with this problem. One such, in Los Angeles, we recently visited. A lovely greenspace is surrounded by high rises--we entered the area around lunchtime, and most of the tables around the area were occupied.
I never saw a pigeon until we got to the parking garage. A pair of them were hiding out on the second level.

Apparently, this fine fellow shows up with his hawks (3 of them) a couple of times a week. I never got a really good image of the hawks themselves, but I think they are Harris's hawks (illustration here). That would make them non-natives to California, but an excellent choice for the task at hand. Harris's Hawks are more successful when they hunt cooperatively, and they nest in social groups.

Terrific lunch time entertainment--never saw a pigeon, but just watching the hawks was great fun!

Friday, January 3, 2014

Appliance Choices and Socks

Many of us who strive to make ethical consumption choices have been migrating to High Efficiency (HE) washing machines as our old ones give up the ghost. Since my partner and I have a rental house in addition to our own home, that means we we have two sets of these puppies. We purchased the rental home prior to moving to Brevard, NC--and installed a set of HE appliances immediately, primarily because the rental was outside the city limits and therefore had a septic system. Septic systems don't actually like lots and lots of water, as excess water reduces the effectiveness of the bacteria that power the system. Since we had no desire to see the septic system back up into the house, this seemed like cheap insurance to us, in addition to making better use of our natural resources. There are other things to consider about HE washing machines, and having learned a few of them, I would be remiss not to share.

An HE washing machine is a unique animal. If you own one, and have not read the manual…well, finish up this article and then go get it and read it. The money you save could be yours!  You are looking for the maintenance instructions, which are quite a bit different from “old school” washing machine maintenance instructions. As in, you really have to do some. Maintenance, that is.

The first common issue with HE washing machines is mold or mildew. In most machines, you should be running a cleaning cycle at least once a month. This cycle is designed to reduce/remove the grime, soap scum and clothing fibers clogging up your system. There are a few places in your machine that will be cleaned with this required maintenance—one of the most obvious is the large gasket around the door on front loaders. This large gasket, also known as a “door seal,” will evidence mold or mildew spotting fairly quickly if you don’t perform the weekly/monthly maintenance. It is possible to replace these gaskets, but they don’t come cheap. Many start at around $75 and go up from there. (Plus the repair fee!) So keeping it clean is a good thing, and will contribute to a harmonious household. These machines also need you to leave the door open after each load to allow that seal to dry out. And many recommend wiping out the seal with a towel to remove excess water after each use.

Cleaned out drain and "marmot." Also some loose change. :)
Your HE washing machine also has a filter/drain system. A local appliance repair pro recommends this filtering system, associated with the drain, be pulled out and cleaned at least annually. Confession time: he told me this after I had to call him to our rental house where a Kenmore HE washer had been in hard use for six years and suddenly wouldn’t drain. He slowly opened the drain access at the bottom of the unit with a shallow baking pan in position to catch the water and other debris. It took several trips to the sink to remove the water. In the attached photo, you can see the lump of crud that eventually came out of the drain. In this machine, the drain was accessed by removing a panel at the bottom of the machine and then unscrewing the cap. My hired pro unscrewed this very slowly, so that we never had too much water to deal with at one time. 

This tenant was a cyclist--short sock that got sucked down the drain.
Miraculously, the washing machine worked just fine after removing the marmot (joke). Further investigation revealed that a large portion of the marmot was actually an athletic sock that had managed to make it down the drain hole—which is hidden in the door seal gasket.

Long story short—these machines require routine maintenance. And if you’ve started missing some socks…it may be time to clean out your drain.

P.S. If you've owned one of these washers for a while and perhaps have not been religious about your maintenance, there are some good tips at the link below on HE Washers--What You Should Know.

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