Sunday, June 27, 2010

Bluebird Update

Our first crop of babies didn't make it. Blame it on incomplete predator protection. Our old house protected against snakes, squirrels and raccoons. We did not have protection in place against starlings or house sparrows (both invasive species), which will also make a meal on baby birds.

Obviously, we do now.

And we have a new nest spot. Mom and Dad have taken over a nest box in the front yard which is nestled into the branches of a spruce tree. It is also on a post with a predator guard, but does not have the "depth" protection on the entrance hole that it really could use. This feature is designed to extend the length of the 1 1/2" hole so that bigger, larger birds can't reach in to prey on babies or eggs. It is possible to add that feature even after egg laying, so I'm going to have to see just how disruptive that is to the parents and give it a shot.

Loss of habitat is probably the biggest reason for reduction in songbird population. This habitat loss is evident in the suburbs of America and also in reduced winter habitats of migrating songbirds. Campaigns, some of them by individuals with a personal passion, have had quite an impact on raising awareness for the need for nesting boxes, particularly for the Eastern Bluebird. One of the primary losses has been dead or dying trees which provide cavities for all kinds of critters. As homeowners, we really don't want those dead trees in a position to damage our homes. Likewise, we may not want a big, messy "snag" of shrubs with sticker vines in it gracing our yards. Both of these are prime songbird real estate, however.

And this is why we need to put up good nest boxes/birdhouses. There are a number of places you can buy from--Duncraft is one I have used (just got a predator entrance protector from them). Another option, which gives a little money to Audubon when you purchase through them, is WoodLink.  Finally, a reader favorite, is Wild Birds Unlimited--they have a great variety. In addition to nest boxes, you can build a loosely-constructed brush pile in an out-of-the-way corner, as recommended as part of the Backyard Habitat program from National Wildlife Federation. This will help those ground-nesting birds gain some protection from predators--especially neighborhood cats.

One last resource for bluebird lovers--Sialis. Scary amount of research. Not for the faint of heart. But if you wish to really make bluebirds at home, it is a great resource.

Thanks for reading--

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Our Daylily Addiction

Last year in June, our neighbor Kathy suggested we go to the daylily show at the NC Arboretum. Oh, I thought to myself. What an innocent diversion. The Arboretum is always fun to go to anyway, and a show of competition daylilies? How bad could it be?

Truly Evil.

Before we could get in, they had to finish the judging. And I really had No Idea. Three tables of such variety I would not have believed it if I weren't staring at them. I had, of course, seen yards of daylilies with lots of colors other than orange. But I really hadn't stopped to look--I was usually on the way to work or some other such thing, and unless you are walking, there just isn't time to *see* what is whizzing past.

The show greatly improved my awareness. Unfortunately, it also opened me up to a new habit. Outside the education center where the judging is held were tables of daylilies brought in by growers/breeders who had their wares for sale, mostly bare root.

I hadn't even brought cash.

Kathy bailed us out so we could bring three new treasures home, and an annual habit was born. We began shopping by name (Fire on the Mountain, Desperado Love), by color--it was hard to behave. This year we were prepared with greenbacks and another friend to "share the love" with. The back end of the Subaru came home full.

Daylilies are not natives, as may be believed. They were introduced from Europe and Asia so long ago that we tend to think of them as natives. The hybrid cultivars that we were indulging in at the Arboretum are clumping species that spread slowly and are no threat to native environments. The taller roadside variety, however, can be a problem. It had been used for erosion control--not nearly as bad as kudzu!--on slopes, especially. But on most invasive lists, it is no where near the top ten, and it is relatively easy to remove, unlike vinca or kudzu.

When we purchased our property, the previous owner had used some of these roadside daylilies to great effect in the front of the house. It's going to be hard, but as our new additions gain in stature, we'll be able to divide them and replace the invasive varieties with new, guilt-free hybrids. Daylilies with single blooms are enjoyed by hummingbirds and other pollinators, so there is no reason for you not to have a few of the thousands of available cultivars worked into your landscape. So find yourself a "Best Kept Secret" or a "Peacock Maiden" and enjoy a great ground cover!

(No names for the first two, but the last two images are "Desperado Love" and "Illini Princess.")

The Accidental Cucumber

It erupted beside the sourwood tree earlier this spring. We didn't plant it, and we weren't quite sure what it was. Another unintended plant had come up in the backyard--revealing itself early on as a pumpkin plant--but we knew how that happened. The squirrels planted it from the remains of a holiday pumpkin I had tossed out as a little dietary diversity for them. So nice of them to participate in the gardening!

But we weren't sure about this one. Squash? Cucumber? They look so similar. . . . We decided it wasn't in the way and left it alone.

So today I head out to take some new pictures--and realize there are some large green fruits under the sourwood! May just have to expand the veggies into this space more deliberately, next spring!

Friday, June 11, 2010

We Have Babies

Our first year here we put up a bluebird house, on a post, with predator protection. Now, in our third summer, we reap the reward--baby bluebirds!

They have just begun to stick their heads up for dinner. Photos will be nigh on to impossible. The birdhouse, a gift from my mom, was set facing into an older cemetery next to a small access road.

Sorry there are no baby pictures. But here, for your viewing pleasure, is dad.

Water in the Garden

Yesterday was a big day at the birdbath. Every evening, I can generally count on the song sparrows to go for a dip, but the temperature was high enough yesterday that lots of folks came out for a splash in the pool.

We have two birdbaths. One is a shallow plastic dish perched on top of an upside-down ceramic pot. The plastic is filled with small stones to reduce the water level. The whole assembly is within the "cutting garden" bed... we've had to give the beds names so that we can be sure of which one we are referencing, even on our .25 acre lot. The second, more used bath is at ground level.

A ground level birdbath must be sited very carefully so that the birds don't become dinner for various predators, but it is definitely worth the effort. Cover should be close but not too close, or the birds and other small things can't see when trouble is headed their way. If they feel safe, they will bunches.

Our ground level bath brings the cats, the squirrels and many, many birds. Bluebirds, doves, cardinals, robins, sparrows, towhees, finches--all have been down for a drink or to otherwise test the waters. Yesterday, a robin was really hunkering down and enjoying himself when he was interrupted by a brown thrasher. He popped out of the bath really quickly (I probably would too, if I were faced with that beak) and retreated a couple of feet, obviously upset that he had not been able to complete his bath.

The thrasher proceeded to have a drink and splash a bit, but in moments, the robin was back, trying to get back in. The trasher stuck his beak in the robin's direction and made him back off--they danced back and forth like this for a few minutes...and then the thrasher gave up and left. Our robin popped back into the bath and got himself happily and thoroughly soaked. So happy!

Birdbaths are not the only water in the garden, of course. We occasionally pull out a standard sprinkler--especially if we're starting new seed--and we use the hose to water in new plants. The most effective water management we've got, however, is our micro-irrigation system.

These things are really, really easy to set up. I've got ours set up with hose ends so that I can hook up a standard garden hose to them when its necessary and let them rip. I begin with a standard drip line that is essentially a 1/2 inch hose with drip valves every 12 inches. At one end I attach a hose connection, and the other end of however long I want to make gets bent over on itself with a figure-eight type fastener. We have two of these setups in the "meadow" area of the yard--one uphill of the path and one downhill. On the uphill, the standard drip line makes loops around the spicebush, mountain laurel and oakleaf hydrangea but otherwise meanders from the black walnut over to the deep shade of our ferns without too much interruption. The downhill drip line is just one big meander.

Drip irrigation, what happens with the standard drip line, delivers just drops of water at the roots of the plants. Placed under the mulch as ours is, you wouldn't even know that the "hose" was there. [An uncovered example is shown at left.] If you need extra drips (moisture-loving plant, for instance), you can punch holes in the line with a tool that comes with starter kits and pop in extra "buttons." Different buttons that produce different flow rates allow you to really customize your irrigation to your plants.

The other type of micro-irrigation is composed of different types of sprayers. Some of these are very low profile, and, like the bare drip system, are designed to put water just at the roots--keeping evaporation to a minimum. These and other sprayers are attached to the main 1/2 inch line by means of 1/4 inch line with barbed plugs. You decide where you need one, punch a hole, plug with a barb, push on the 1/4 line, attach the sprayer--and you're done with that fitting. While our downhill drip line is strictly drippage, our uphill line makes use of a number of different sprayers in order to keep all our different plants happy.

The benefits of drip irrigation are many--no water on the leaves means you can water in the evening without encouraging disease. But micro-irrigation with miniature sprayers can have some benefits, too.  One benefit is an increase in bathing opportunities for cardinals. They really like a fine spray and will come to your irrigation on a schedule if you follow one.  Just give them time to learn what you're doing. As someone who pays for city water, I like to cut consumption where I can--but I'll leave it on a little longer if one of those red fellows shows up!

Photo above left: this micro-spray keeps our ferns and foamflower happy when it isn't indulging cardinals.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Asheville Botanical Garden

I was determined to forgo "the list" today. We checked a few items off of it that had to be accomplished, but then it was time for a field trip. So we scooted up the road to the Asheville Botanical Garden. While it sits on land owned by the University of North Carolina at Asheville, it is not run by the University. The Botanical Garden just celebrated its 50th anniversary.

Asheville's Botanical Garden fosters native plant habitats on ten acres. A number of plants on the grounds are rare, uncommon or endangered. Admission is free--the gardens are open year round--drive in, park, and take a walk. Do not bring your dog, however, as no pets are allowed. Given the fragility of some of the plants they are trying to protect, I understand. One good chase of a rabbit could annihilate a colony.

This botanical garden is not a display of some landscaper's prowess, necessarily. What it does well is to create the microclimates necessary to support specific species of true natives. When I say "true native," I mean a plant that is not cultivated from a native, or native to another part of the country, but native to Western North Carolina as it was decades or centuries ago. These plants were and are the raw material of many things we plant in our gardens today by fancier names.

One of my favorites from today's walk is Indian Pink (spigelia marilandica). It's a good example of why some people don't want to plant natives, in that it requires some "special attention." In this case, soil that supports Indian Pink can't be allowed to dry out.

In some ways, those who choose to promote and support the planting of native plants are successful because of their passion. People walking past our yard will frequently say something to the effect of how we "work all the time." It doesn't feel like work, however. It is a real joy to be in the garden and watch the number of participatory species go up--more birds, more bugs, more plant species...the occasional new surprise like the gray tree frog we stumbled over hiding under a log. We give names to some of the critters (like "Snowball" for a pure white squirrel, or "Mullethead" for a white-breasted nuthatch) because they have become our familiars. They reward us for our familiarity by ignoring us, even as we get a bit closer to them in their comings and goings.

We go to the trouble of planting natives because they support the life that belongs in these mountains. We use cultivars of natives because we will not steal plants from a habitat in which they are happily growing, and a cultivar may be the closest thing we can get to that "real thing." As long as it supports the same insect and bird species, it gets to set down roots.

If you've been reading this blog for awhile, then you know I have a thing about bunnies. Well, today I got to see a couple young ones, foraging in the clover at the Botanical Gardens at Asheville. Which means I have to give the gardens a round of applause. Because its not just the flora that benefits from an untrammeled landscape. It's the fauna, too. And as numerous studies are now starting to show, its not just the bunny fauna that benefits. Its the people fauna, too.

A One Bird Argument for RESPECT

Here, you will listen to a bird with such a refined skill for mimicry that you can only listen in amazement. Sitting out back and listening to the birds is one of my favorite activities (preferably with a glass of something appropriate), but I've never heard anything quite like this!


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