2012: The Year in Rodents

When I first envisioned the results of wildlife gardening, I thought of clouds of butterflies, flocks of colorful songbirds, all punctuated by dragonflies and hummingbirds darting about. The thing is, wildlife gardening does not work like an exclusive country club, only letting in the most desirable sorts of critters. And so you also can end up with more than your share of more or less pestiferous rodents, namely squirrels, rabbits, skunks, possums, mice, and chipmunks.


Squirrels were certainly plentiful in the garden this year. They are not as much of a nuisance now that I’ve figured out how to keep them out of the bird feeders. I hang all the feeders from poles with squirrel baffles from Wild Birds Unlimited. These metal cylinders work pretty well, and they provide entertainment as you see the squirrels climbing into them, then come back out looking, well, baffled.

Luckily for the squirrels, the birds are extremely messy eaters, so there’s plenty of food dropped to the ground even if the baffle keeps them away from the feeders.

For a while, though, I did have a problem with Commando Squirrel. Commando Squirrel would climb out on a telephone wire, then drop down at least 8′ to the platform feeder attached to the pole below. I finally removed the platform feeder, thus depriving Commando Squirrel of his landing pad.

The other criminal activity of the squirrels this year consisted of biting the flower buds off the crocuses. I am convinced that this was their way of getting even for the squirrel baffle.


LOTS of rabbits this year. Also, they seem to be getting awfully unconcerned around people. Now it seems I have to shoo them, instead of having them hop away at my mere approach. I swear one of them looked right at me, yawning and looking nonchalantly at his paw as I neared. I blame the rabbits for chewing many of my woodland phlox plants (Phlox divaritica) down to the ground, as well as nearly nibbling my new black chokeberry bushes (Aronia melanocarpa) to death.

The rabbits are getting a little too comfortable, and much too numerous, around the garden.


We had skunks living under our back porch landing this spring. Had to trap three of them before we could have the landing skunk-proofed. Enough said.

A fuzzy cell phone picture of a skunk in the backyard.


Now, I think of possums as beneficial rodents. If this is not an official ecological category, it should be. Mostly they come out only at night, they don’t smell bad if you don’t stick your nose right up to them, and – this is important – they eat other rodents, like mice and rats. Judy thinks they’re creepy, though. She used her cell phone to take a picture of the one below while drinking her early morning coffee. I’ll admit that albino thing they’ve got going  on with the naked tail is not exactly endearing.

Another fuzzy photo of our friendly neighborhood possum. They at least do something useful, yet chipmunks get all the love.

Mice and Chipmunks

The mice are pretty harmless until the weather turns cold, when they decide they’d rather move into our house. So far we’ve caught three of them inside. I am advocating for a new cat, or even better, two new cats, though these we would have to keep inside unlike our last cat, Phoebe, who passed on some time ago.

Chipmunks. They think they’re so cute.

Everybody thinks chipmunks are cute, but I don’t buy it. They seem to expect people to think they’re cute. Personally, I think the cuteness is just a cover, and I’m keeping an eye on them.

So there you are, my year of rodents. Could be worse, I suppose. I am profoundly grateful there are no deer in this area.

2012: The Year in Birds (Part I)

Backyard bird watching has had its rewards and disappointments this year. Among the high points were the first ever appearances of cedar waxwings and indigo buntings. The cedar waxwings just hung around for a week or so, but I’ve planted a number of their favorites (including serviceberry and both black and red elderberry), so I’m optimistic they’ll stay longer next year.

Cedar Waxwing

Sadly we didn’t get any good pictures of the indigo buntings, who were also present for just a brief time in spring. I have lots of asters, Rudbeckias, and other plants that leave seeds loved by buntings and other small finches. I also spread some millet seed on the ground. Not sure which of these did the trick.

We have had some exciting visits from a number of predator birds, such as this red-tailed hawk. We’ve also seen kestrels and, on one occasion, an owl – but no pictures of those.  It seems if you attract enough birds, the predators will show up. Now and then we see a clump of feathers or other grisly evidence of a successful hunt. This doesn’t really bother me, though I wish they would confine themselves to starlings, grackles, house sparrows, and rodents.

Red-Tailed Hawk on the back fence.

One disappointment this year was the scarcity of rose breasted grosbeaks. Last year we’d have five or six at a time, and they were present for at least four weeks in May and June. This year we only saw one or two at a time, and for a shorter period.

Rose Breasted Grosbeak

On the other hand, Baltimore orioles have become a very common sight in our garden from May into September. They first showed up in our yard about three years ago. They normally live high in the tree tops but will come down for the love of grape jelly. We love watching the orioles feeding: how they seem to smack their beaks, then try to wipe their beaks on some hard surface to scrape off the sticky stuff.

Male Baltimore Oriole
Baltimore orioles, adult feeding juvenile.

Robins seem to love our yard, as they are very plentiful. You can see them eating wild currants or hunting for bugs on the lawn or in the mulch. They may be a common bird, but I find them very endearing, especially the young juveniles like the one below.

Juvenile robin at the edge of the bird bath.

So how was the bird watching in your garden this year?

Preparing for Halloween

One of the nice things about kids in their twenties is that you can trust them with adult responsibilities. For example, carving the Jack-O-Lantern for Halloween. Last night Danny and his girlfriend Kaitlin came over for dinner, after which Danny worked on the pumpkin. Judy and I sat in comfortable chairs, observing and offering constructive criticism.

Pumpkin carving requires both technical skill and inspiration.
Alas, poor Pumpkinhead, I knew him well.
My girlfriend the Pumpkinhead.
The finished product.

Afterwards we ate pumpkin seeds toasted with salt and olive oil.

The Day of the Giant Brown Stalky Things

It was late October just about ten years ago, when my younger son looked at me with considerable exasperation and asked, “Dad, why do we have the only house with giant brown stalky things in the front yard?”

This is as good as any introduction to the issue of autumn garden clean-up. More specifically, is it better to cut back the dead stems of your perennials now or wait until spring?

There’s a lot to be said for not tidying up too early. Some perennials, such as upright grasses, stay attractive through winter. Seedheads of plants like Rudbeckias and Echinaceas provide food for birds, and many desirable insects overwinter in stems and garden debris. In addition, dead plant material provides winter insulation for perennial roots.

Some people have strong opinions in this regard. The famous Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf wrote that a thorough fall cleanup in the perennial border was “unnecessary and destructive.”

The Rudbeckias and Echinaceas are done, but the Nepeta is still reblooming.

However, even if you have no regard for the embarrassment you inflict on your teenage children, there are some downsides to leaving everything up until spring.

In my opinion, it is extremely easy to overstate the attractiveness of most perennials during winter. Grasses, sure. Coneflowers, maybe. Most other perennials, not so much. This is especially true of the really big plants some of us like to grow – the Cup Plants (Silphium perfoliatum), Joe Pye Weeds (Eupatorium sp.), and Sunflowers (Helianthus sp.) that add majesty and color to the late summer garden, but that have also made the phrase “giant brown stalky thing” a byword in our family.

Sweet Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum) in its pre-brown stalky phase.

The other practical consideration for me is that Spring is a very busy period at work, and so leaving all of the clean up until then can create a difficult time squeeze for me.

So I spent a few hours this weekend cutting back the dead stems of my really tall plants. The birds won’t miss them, since almost all the seeds were already gone by then. I cut the stems into 6-12″ lengths and either let them lie in the flower bed or throw them under the shrubs like mulch. I also removed all the bamboo and metal stakes, including the 10′ rebar I use for the Cup Plant and Joe Pye Weed. The grasses, asters, coneflowers, and lower-growing plants I pretty much leave until spring.

So until then, there will be only mid-sized brown stalky things. That’s OK, though, the kids don’t live at home any more.

So how about you? Do you clean up in fall or spring – or some of each?

A Compost Post

On Sunday I observed the bi-annual Changing of the Compost Bins. That means two things. First, that I will empty one bin of its more or less finished compost. And second, that the other bin will receive no more lemon rinds or slimy lettuce, and should consider itself under strict orders to start decomposing in earnest. The emptied bin will now start accumulating our kitchen and garden waste, and so the cycle continues.

Compost, Composting
Home decomposed compost.

For a long time I felt that my composting was inadequate. The bins I speak of are just rolls of chicken wire attached to metal stakes. What’s more, I don’t do most of the things that you’re supposed to do in order  be an efficient composter. I don’t pay attention to the ratio of greens to browns, whatever that means. I never turn the compost piles, nor do I moisten them. My water bill is high enough, thank you very much.

At one time, I was a more ambitious composter. In fact, I bought one of those rotating plastic compost barrels on a stand. Unfortunately, I never remembered to rotate the rotating barrel. For that and possibly other reasons, when I opened the barrel I found a dense sludge that smelled like an extremely unhygienic bus station bathroom. I couldn’t use the sludge because, even if I could tolerate the smell, I was afraid it would waft over to the neighbors. I ended up driving my rotating barrel out to a landfill (with ALL windows open – an unpleasant trip, I can tell you) and emptying it out there. I hope the EPA never catches up with me.

So that leaves me with my current minimalist approach. I do throw a shovelful of garden soil into the bins occasionally, and I do remember not to throw in any fats or meat scraps.

My chicken wire compost bin.

What I get in return is about half a dozen buckets of compost twice a year. For a long time I had a nagging feeling that if I was more diligent about composting, I would get more compost. Then it hit me: even if I used the most sophisticated and complex techniques, I would still end up with the same amount of compost. We only have so much in the way of kitchen scraps and garden waste, so who cares if it decomposes faster or slower?

As is often the case in the garden and in life, you ultimately get the same results whether you fuss with something or not. What about you – are you an ambitious composter or a lazy one like me?

Wordless Wednesday: Sally Holmes and Friends

Rosa Sally Holmes


Swamp Milkweed


Serviceberry Autumn Brilliance


Garden Art, Concrete Chicken





An October Stroll Through the Garden

Let’s start in the backyard. Rosa ‘Sally Holmes’ still has a few blooms, and even some buds straining to open before the frost.

Rosa 'Sally Holmes'
‘Sally Holmes’

Most of the asters have gone to seed …

Big Leaf Aster
Big Leaf Aster

But the dwarf New England Aster, Symphyotrichum novae-angliae ‘Purple Dome’, is a very late bloomer – it’s just hitting its stride.

Aster 'Purple Dome'
Aster ‘Purple Dome’

Rosa ‘Darlow’s Enigma’ is still blooming on the arbor.

'Darlow's Enigma'
‘Darlow’s Enigma’

The last shiny seeds of Blackberry Lily(Iris domestica) will drop soon. Too bad they aren’t edible.

Blackberry Lily
Blackberry Lily

Now let’s head out to the front. The birds have eaten most of the crabapples, but there are a few left.

Prairie Dropseed (Sporobulus heterolepis), Aromatic Aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium), and ‘Profusion’ orange Zinnias make a nice fall combination.

Prairie Dropseed, Aromatic Aster, and ‘Profusion’ Zinnias

Most of the Cleome have long gone to seed, but ‘Senorita Rosalita’ is still blooming. I guess this is  one advantage of sterility.

Cleome 'Senorita Rosalita'
Cleome ‘Seniorita Rosalita’

The Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’) is tall but airy.

Switchgrass 'Northwind'
Switchgrass ‘Northwind’

The Northern Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) has outstanding seedheads. It also has way too many &%$#@ seedlings.

Northern Sea Oats
Northern Sea Oats

We’re getting into late October, and still no frost. It’s coming, though. Best to savor these mild days while they last.

Book Review: Painting with Flowers

Monet at Giverny, by Caroline Holmes; Cassel and Co., 2001.

Monet’s Passion: Ideas, Inspiration, and Insights from the Painter’s Gardens,by Elizabeth Murray; Pomegranate Communications, 2010.

Some of you know that Judy and I were lucky enough to visit Monet’s garden at Giverny in April of this year. Despite the clouds and chill, we were completely bewitched by the garden. When we visited, it was overflowing with tulip, crabapple, and other spring blooms.

Grand Allee, Giverny,
The Grand Allee in the upper garden at Giverny, during our April visit.

Since then, I’ve been reading up on Claude Monet and his garden at Giverny. For those most interested in replicating aspects of Giverny in their own gardens, I highly recommend Monet’s Passion. The author, Elizabeth Murray, helped to restore Giverny in the 1980s after it suffered through a long period of neglect.

Murray provides an enticing description of Monet’s garden through the seasons. She discusses both the upper garden, with its rectangular “paintbox” beds, and the Japanese-influenced lower garden with its mirroring pond, bridges, and water lilies. In the book and in person, I was most enchanted by the upper garden, with its dramatic grand allee, as well as the contrast of geometrically shaped beds filled with exuberantly undisciplined masses of bloom.

The paintbox garden

For gardeners who seek to emulate Monet, Murray provides a wealth of resources. In addition to the gardens, information is provided on the plants growing on the house and balcony. Murray discusses Monet’s favorite plants, including irises, sunflowers, and wildflowers such as the red poppies native to the area. She reviews his color schemes, such as combining blue with yellow, and his preferred plant combinations. All this is described with the aid of drawings complete with overlays.

For those more interested in Monet the man and his art, then Monet at Giverny is the better choice. Monet had a complicated but mostly happy personal life. He was essentially penniless when he moved to Giverny in 1883. In addition, he was supporting not only his own family, but the wife and children of his former patron, who had fled the country to escape bankruptcy.

Reflections in the pond of the lower garden.

Eventually, Monet became a wealthy man. He was a very social type and enjoyed friends and family. He eventually married Alice, the patron’s wife, after his own first wife died.

Holmes’ book is beautifully illustrated to demonstrate how Monet’s garden and his paintings shaped each other. She shows how Monet sought to paint not just objects, but the atmosphere and light around objects, and how this made both his gardens and his paintings uniquely dynamic and alive.

Thanks to Roses and Other Gardening Joys for hosting these monthly book reviews.

Careless Gardening, or Planting 200 Crocuses in 2 Minutes

Well, maybe 5 minutes. I’d wanted to get these corms of Crocus tommasinianus ‘Lilac Beauty’ planted for a while, but could never find the time when the weather was decent and the ground wasn’t a muddy mire. (How odd to write that after enduring this year’s drought.) When I woke this morning, I was possessed by an overwhelming urge to plant my crocuses before I left for work.

Crocus tommasinianus Lilac Beauty
Crocus tommasinianus ‘Lilac Beauty’
Photo: John Scheepers

It was simple enough:

  1. Dig shallow hole, about 5″ deep.
  2. Throw a bunch of crocuses in the hole. They should be about as crowded as the Red Line “L” train at 3 PM, but not as crowded as it gets at 5:30 PM.
  3. Cover up the hole.
Crocuses thrown in hole, about as crowded as an “L” train at 3 PM

In this way I was able to deposit the 200 crocuses, about 80 in one hole and 120 in the other, before heading to the office. (I took the picture above with my cell phone, so it is not up to Judy’s usual standards.)

This episode reminds me of one of the big changes in my approach to gardening since I started. I used to be a very careful gardener. If the catalog said space plants 14″, I would try to measure out 14″ – not 12″ or 16″.

With crocuses, the instructions generally say plant 3-4″ apart. As a result, you could find me on a blustery fall day, making little individual holes three inches apart, dropping a crocus corm in each hole, then smoothing over the ground.

That was before I had a startling revelation: plants, if they’re in the right kind of spot, are pretty resilient. For the most part they do not need to be coddled. They certainly did not evolve in nature depending on exact spacing provided by the elements. And the ones that do, to hell with them. I have prospered as a gardener by acting on this philosophy.

Admittedly, this is not a good approach to growing, say, orchids. But I have no interest in growing orchids.

But I do like growing crocuses. (And I checked and the plural is either crocuses or croci, in case you were wondering.) I’ve been fond of crocuses since I was a little kid. They provide a bright splash of color in early spring, when the landscape is still mostly brown and tan. Crocus tommasinianus is supposed to be more squirrel resistant. You need to plant them in big bunches to have an impact, though. And that’s where careless gardening makes life so much easier.

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