Friday, December 26, 2008

Holiday Treats for You

Just in time for New Year’s, here’s a round-up of fun and funny things that found their way to my inbox this month.

On the photo site Flickr, bird lover Chris Bohinski posted a “one in a million” shot of a junco on December 7. Juncos are beloved by many people in the mid-Atlantic because their arrival seems to signal the happy part of winter, and they look a bit like tiny, cute penguins. The bird he photographed is cute, for sure, but what makes this a really great photo is the snowflake that is stuck to the bird’s back. “This snowflake is not just a white dot, but a clear and distinct snowflake shape (six sides). I truly believe this photo is a miracle,” he writes.

I think the real miracle is that he was able to see straight enough to recognize the flake after reviewing some 750 shots that he took that morning. Anyhow, it’s a glorious shot that makes you want to put on boots and go hiking in a winter wonderland.

Last week, the solid waste division of Montgomery County, Maryland also gave made me smile, when they sent out their notices regarding holiday trash collection and schedule changes. Along with some important info regarding Christmas tree recycling and info about what kinds of wrapping paper and boxes should and should not be put into our blue recycling bins, there was the following quote:

In a drear-nighted December,
Too happy, happy tree,
Thy branches ne'er remember
Their green felicity:
The north cannot undo them
With a sleety whistle through them,
Nor frozen thawings glue them
From budding at the prime.

—from "Happy Insensibility" by John Keats

I think someone’s English major is being put to good use in that office. What next? Shakespeare on the translucence of glass? Longfellow to encourage us to recycle our valentines? Emily Dickinson to make us carefully wrap up our yard waste in twine? Just wondering and guessing will keep me opening those messages from the county.

Another smile came from the Kinsman Company owners, Graham and Michele. I don’t know these people personally, although they sure do write some lovely emails to advertise products from their upscale garden catalog. On December 18 they sent three photos of hummingbirds visiting their feeders this winter near Cape Meares, Oregon. Incredibly, one photo even has an Anna’s Hummingbird hovering over a feeder in the snow. (See photo above, courtesy of Kinsman's email.)

The email goes on to say:

“This has been a cold and stormy week here in the Pacific Northwest. And yet we have Anna's hummingbirds to delight us all day long. They've always been occasional winter visitors, but in recent years their winter numbers have grown as more gardeners plant winter flowering shrubs - as well as keeping feeders full for hungry hummingbirds. Some years ago in January, we saw Anna's feeding off Mahonia flowers at the Berry Botanic Garden, near the heart of Portland, Oregon. They get protein and nutrition from gnats, spiders and other winter insects, too. Since then, we've come to count on them as special guests over Christmas and the New Year. They arrive locally in late October and depart in March - just as the Rufous hummingbird migration comes through.”

I am absolutely fascinated by this whole thing. Although many articles have highlighted the changing winter habits of hummers and the fact that many (even here in the Mid-Atlantic states) have reported seeing hummers in the winter, I have never seen a picture of one in the snow. (Cornell's ornithology website does note that the winter range for these birds includes southern Alaska. )
Finally, I offer a note to point us toward January. The women who write for Garden Rant, an interesting and lively blog, have joined a campaign to green the White House. Interestingly, George Bush’s White House team reportedly did a great deal to green the interior of the president’s living quarters, by using all LED Christmas lights, for example. But with the Obama team set to move in, many organic gardeners are calling for the outside to become more environmentally sound, too. Most exciting of all, President-elect Obama has reportedly said he supports the idea. Fantastic!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Cut Your Own Christmas Tree This Year

Every season I try to take my kids to a farm. In spring and summer we pick fruit and veggies at one of the pick-your-own produce places, and in the fall we go for pumpkins at a little family-owned place up in Frederick. Now December is here and that means its time to go and find a Christmas tree.

Picking and cutting your own real tree is a great way to support family farming in our region. Most tree farms here are small operations run by people who tend some of the prettiest trees you’ll ever put up in your living room. There’s a pride to their work that most mass commercial lots are missing.

When you shop for a tree to cut, you visit farms where a crop takes years, literally, to mature. During that maturation process, the farm can be a haven for wildlife. Birds nest season after season in those trees, and other animals forage and live in and around the crop while it grows. A well planned tree farm can reduce run-off, and tree farmers say pine trees will often grow in places that would not support other crops.

According to the Christmas Tree Farm Network, one acre of Christmas trees produces enough daily oxygen for 18 people. “With approximately one million acres producing Christmas trees in the US, that translates into oxygen for 18 million people every day,” proclaims the association website. The group also points out that real Christmas trees are a recyclable resource, unlike artificial plastic trees that never biodegrade and sit in landfills forever.

I favor a white pine tree, partly because I can readily recycle most of it in my garden. White pine needles are super soft and long and make a fantastic mulch for young shrubs and trees. I carefully remove each branch, then place them under my hedges. The main trunk of the tree is put out on the curb as yard trim.

Several years ago there was some worry among gardeners that pine needles used in the garden would cause the soil to become acidic. Research later proved that this was not a real concern. In fact, the long needles of a white pine can be wonderful in the garden because they shed water so readily and allow air to circulate at the soil level.

I think the birds also like to use those needles in their nests. We often see them pick up beak-fuls of our old tree in the spring and fly off to the tree tops.

Gardening friends who use other species of Christmas trees like to add them to brush piles for wildlife. Ground nesting birds, among other things, will use such areas to raise their young.

In our urban area, where yards are tiny, there aren’t many people who have an area that can be devoted to such a pile. Most of us treasure every inch of our yards and see every inch of our properties when we look out our windows, which can make piling up old Christmas tree problematic. Even if they do support wildlife, they don’t always look so great.

If that is your situation, you need to make sure to put your tree on the curb after the holidays, where it can be picked up by the trucks that collect yard trim on garbage day. In fact, we are lucky to live in an area where old Christmas trees are shredded and turned into free mulch, so you can put out your tree without feeling guilty. (Montgomery County notes on its website that the January and February are excellent months to come take mulch from their “neighborhood mulch preserves.” )

Although some people think that they are helping wildlife by throwing their trees into municipal green spaces such as Sligo Creek Park and the trails along the Northwest Branch, they are actually littering. Think about it: there are millions of us who celebrate Christmas. If everyone who had a real tree threw it out into the park in January, these spaces would be full of nothing but odd-looking dead Christmas trees which take a long time to rot. The trails would quickly become ugly, and understory plants would really suffer.

There’s another good reason to cut your own Christmas tree, I think. My husband and I have been trying to keep the focus of our family’s holiday celebrations on experiences instead of things. That is to say, we want our kids to be excited about the events related to Christmas, the traditions, the special foods, and the time spent with family. We are trying to de-emphasize the toys and gifts.

Going on a big field trip out to the tree farm is one of our favorite parts of the holiday. We drive along back roads, looking out over cold-stubbled, empty farm fields, quietly thinking our own thoughts. Someone always starts an interesting conversation, and we almost always end up very lost on the way to the farm. Once there, we debate the attributes of different trees, tease each other about our poor tree cutting skills, and enjoy some time running across huge green fields filled with the fresh smell of pine that no scented candle can ever match. We have a great time together, far away from noise and crowds and shopping malls. We take pictures, goof around, and relax. We come home with a big, green trophy that becomes the centerpiece of the living room for the entire month of December. As my husband always points out, all this comes for a price that remains smaller than the price of the average flower arrangement from the local florist.

Some farms really go all out, too, selling hot cocoa or snacks to customers once they bring their tree back to the barn for payment. One farm we like even has its own costumed Santa, who will pose for pictures with your kids for free (!)-- if you bring your own camera. He sits in a beautifully painted wooden sleigh, and hands out candy canes to those who come by for a visit.

Many of the local Christmas tree farms provide tools for cutting, but if you have a nice bow saw you will want to bring it along with you. Bringing your own string is also a good idea.

The best farms also have shaker machines, which will dislodge any unwanted guests (such as mice) from the branches of your chosen tree while you wait. This also helps to remove loose needles from the branches, which makes decorating a lot easier.

To find a Christmas tree farm visit:

Christmas Tree Farm Network

Pick Your Own Christmas Tree

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Any acorns falling from your trees this year?

The Washington Post today noted the strange lack of acorns that seems to be afflicting our region this year. You can read the full story online.

I have to admit, I hadn’t noticed the lack of nuts– probably because the oak nearest to my own house was cut down a few weeks ago.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Berry Beautiful

Last week it was very cold, and we had a lot of days where temperatures hovered around the freezing point. We even had some snow flurries, which is unusual for November in the DC area.

Because of the cold temps and some very big wind gusts that came with them, I lost what remained of the leaves on my shrubs and trees. The few annuals which remained in bloom faded and shriveled up.

I kind of miss the reds and oranges each year when autumn ends, and this year was no different. But with the leaves gone, the berries are now taking center stage in the garden.

My American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana, pictured at left) has never had as many berries as we’ve got this year. I planted it about four years ago, after buying it from Sam Jones of Atlantic Star nursery. You can find the Japanese ones at almost all the garden centers, but I had heard the American one was out there somewhere. After years of searching I saw that Sam had some for sale at the National Arboretum during the Lahr Symposium back in 2003 and I snapped up a small one for about $5. Although it has grown well in the partial shade of my side yard, it never really had a lot of berries until this year. Now it is a show-stopper, and I have to say it was worth the wait. The berry clumps are bigger and rounder than their Asian counterparts, which I have seen along the path at Brookside Gardens.

The beauty berries are attracting lots of bird attention, too. Before the weather turned, we had loads of catbirds at this shrub each morning. They came in large number but only ate a few berries. Now we are seeing cardinals there a lot, and different kinds of native sparrows. The combination of red cardinal feathers and purple berries is unbelievable. I suspect that the frost has helped to sweeten the berries for them, or perhaps their other food sources are diminishing as the cold increases.

Meanwhile, on the sunnier side of the yard we’ve got mockingbirds devouring our native Winterberries (Ilex verticillata, pictured left).

Some people call these Sparkleberry bushes, and I can see why; the color really pops in the winter garden. They are extremely cheerful looking, and when we had five solid days of grey skies last week I found that I was extra glad I could see them out the kitchen window. It made the dreary days and doing the dishes both a lot more bearable.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Will Termites Invade Compost Piles?

Someone recently inquired on one of my favorite listservs about whether or not their newly established compost piles would attract termites.

I would not worry about termites as much as rats and raccoons. Termites want standing dead wood. Healthy piles of compost are not what they like best.

After years of experimenting with completely open bins, I found that unwelcome animal visitors were a real problem. The one I have now is rat and raccoon proof. (I also was lucky enough to buy it for $10 a yard sale...recycling at its finest!)
The bin works well, although because it is small I cannot do all of our yard waste. I can do kitchen scraps year round, though, and most of our garden waste except the leaves.

The leaves are staying put around the root zones of my larger trees. I've raked them neatly with a sort of a serpentine edge, so that it looks like a garden, and not like someone just forgot their chores. They are forming a border to my yard, basically, with grass in the middle. (In past years we raked them to the curb where they were vacuumed up and recycled into leaf mold for gardens by the county.)

Some people say you should shred the leaves before winter, but most of the info I read from cooperative extension offices online said that wasn't really necessary if you were leaving them under their trees. I'll see how it goes. Admittedly, my leaves are mostly small maples and break down pretty quickly, so they won't blow away or anything. I might spread some finished compost on top in a few places, just to give the breakdown process an extra jumpstart.

In the spring I plan to augment some of the native wildflowers under the trees, by planting more Virginia bluebells. I already have white wood aster, violets, golden ragwort and snake root plants that come up in those areas. We also get some lovely green moss, which I think is dreamy-looking in early spring. All of these native plants have proven themselves to be kid proof, and come back stronger each year, providing an area where my kids can run through wildflowers any day they want to, just because. It is so shady, no lawn would grow under there anyhow, and I have not mowed under my trees for three years. I just have to constantly make sure the invasive exotics don't pop up and take over. This takes constant vigilance on my part, and a pretty good knowledge of the differences between native sprouts and non-native sprouts.

I hope that now the leaves will help feed the soil and the trees. I also think it will increase the food available for birds, because the number of worms and other insects available will increase.

I keep my closed compost bin away from the house, but its on rollers and I can move it through the year. During winter we put it right over top of the veggie garden, which is now at rest. That way, any excess moisture that runs out of the bin feeds the soil, and the worms and come and go as they want on warm days, in and out of the bin's little air holes. (Two days ago when I opened it there were hundreds of them going crazy in the warm, fresh, rainy air at the top of the bin. )Also, on cold or rainy winter days we do not have to walk far out the door to put our kitchen scraps in there, which means we are more likely to actually make sure to put them in the bin at the end of the day.

In the summer, we roll it back to its base by our shed in the far back of the yard, where its smell cannot permeate the play areas. I am proud to say our bin is alive and well and that the smell is one that is supposed to be there... It is a smell I actually like because to me it is like smelling the freshness of a garden in summer, akin to the way some people feel about the salty smell of the beach. But I am sensitive to the fact that my guests to not always have the same happy associations. (Also, it is important to note that the back of my yard is not close to my neighbor's house, so they don't have to smell anything in summer, either.)

You can find a lot of the basic info on compost by hunting around, but the
EPA's compost site is a good place to start.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Trees, trees and more trees

By the time you read this, the leaves will probably be off the trees, and you might be out there with a rake in hand, cleaning up your yard and getting ready for winter. I find that I have a few less leaves to rake this fall, and I am not too happy about it.

Last month a tree that I loved had to be cut down. It was an old oak that sat right across the street from my house, and when they cut it down I wrote about it for the the Voice newspapers of Silver Spring and Takoma. I also asked readers and friends to tell me stories about trees they love in the Sligo Creek watershed of Montgomery County, Maryland.

Nancy Schulz of Takoma Park, MD wrote to tell me that the trees which stand in her yard are like family members. “Of the elder generation, of course,” she quipped in her email. Neither of her trees is actually an elder, though. She has one beech and one oak, and they are both more than sixty years old.

Two years ago, when the drought was so awful in our area, Nancy says she worried constantly that her trees wouldn’t make it. An arborist recommended using drip hoses to give the big giants a chance against the dry weather. Her stewardship seems to have paid off, and unlike the oak across the street from me, both of her trees still survive.

“Each spring,” she confessed, “I feel so excited when they gradually leaf out, and don’t mind at all the sap and tree debris which falls on our cars. They are at their finest in the fall, and honestly I never mind the raking as it is a small price to pay for their presence in our life.”

Some people go even farther when it comes to the raking. They don’t just enjoy doing it – they choose not to do it. The idea may be startling at first to some suburbanites, who think leaves left lying about are a bit untidy.

But Lauren Wheeler, a DC landscape designer (and arborist certified by the International Society of Arboriculture) advocates leaving the leaves where they fall and incorporating them into the designed landscape. If done right, they can become an integral and beautiful part of a well-designed garden. She talks about arbor care a lot as a part of her work with
Natural Resources Design, a company based in Takoma Park.

“The tree seems to make for itself what it needs,” she told me recently. Overtime, the leaves decay and feed the tree. The decay also feed the microbial life below, in the root zone. The leaves also provide insulation for the roots during cold weather, and help the soil break down and become more “fluffy.”

“It is fascinating to me,” Lauren continued, “how trees are used as metaphors by some of the leading environmental thinkers, like
William McDonough, who talks about trees as a perfect metaphor for recycling.”

For those that are aware of tree’s environmental importance, it is extremely hard to watch a lovely old specimen get mistreated. A lot of friends and readers last month mentioned trees on public property that they wished they could “save” from destruction.

One neighbor has been particularly dismayed this month to watch as the county’s tree crews have removed no less than 11 trees from the park closest to her house. Some of those trees were diseased, and dying. But others seemed relatively okay, which caused me to wonder about some overly-stringent liability policies floating around out there. I kept thinking: were all the trees they took down really dangerous, or was someone just really nervous they’d get sued if a branch fell? Either way, one of our favorite spots to play has gotten a lot hotter and a lot less pleasant since those chain saws went to work.

Joe Howard says it was concerns about trees being unnecessarily cut down that prompted the formation of the Tree Champion registry a couple of decades ago. It seemed to Joe and others that the only time trees ever made it into the news was when big ones were removed.

“We thought if we could give a positive reason to put trees in the news that we could possibly save them,” he said.

Joe serves as the coordinator of the county’s
Champion Tree Registry, although before retiring he was also a teacher and a school principal. He’s served on the Forestry Board since 1979 and each year in early October gives a tour of champion trees of the county through Brookside Gardens.

Interestingly, Joe says that “there are more champion trees in the suburban sprawl part of Montgomery County – the southern area where there are houses built right up next to each other -- than there are any where else.” He notes that over a dozen of them are located in the Sligo watershed.

When asked why, he speculates that lots weren’t always completely cleared years ago when much of housing in this area was being built. He also notes that homeowners in this immediate area are often extremely proud and fond of their big trees, and take great personal pride in them.

To be an official champion, a tree must meet strict guidelines involving measurements of circumference, height and the spread of the crown. Despite the fact that many trees are being cut down in the county, Joe notes with enthusiasm and optimism that there are new champions being added to the registry next year.

If you want to read about the Tree Registry and see a slide show of a walk Joe gave about Sligo’s champions last year, visit the Friends of Sligo Creek website at: Be sure to link from there to the Champions homepage, where you can get details about how to register your own big tree.

Although large, old trees are great, almost everyone I talked to and emailed with this month seems to agree that planting trees for the future is a good idea. There is still a lot of time left to do planting in November, so if you are still thinking of planting, you can put away the rake and get out the shovel. Plant something native that will get nice and big one day. Someone seventy years from now will be glad you did.
(Thanks to Mike Wilpers for letting me use his awesome tree photo, which originally appeared on the Friends of Sligo Creek website in 2007.)

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Lost Ladybugs

The ladybugs I used to find when I was a kid seemed to be a lot darker than the ones I find now in my garden. For a long time I’ve wondered if that was because my memory was just enhancing the experience, adding a little bit of Technicolor glow to my 1970s suburban childhood. But a recent release from the USDA Agriculture Research Station made me think that there was more to the story.

Seems that the ARS actually thinks that some of those red and black bugs from my childhood are disappearing from the landscape. They may be getting displaced by the transplanted Asian lady beetles. The Asian ones often come out when we get a cold snap followed by a warm spell in the autumn. During the cold they nestle under siding on the sunny, southern side of buildings. When the warmth returns they emerge, sometimes covering entire walls in massive number.

The Asian ladybugs are often sold in the US as garden helpers and bio-control for backyard gardens. They are sometimes even advertised as a healthy step toward organic garden control, and gardeners will sometimes take bags full of them home from the hardware store, hoping to control pests on their flowers and vegetables. But little research has been done on them until recently, and so it has remained unclear what affect their presence was actually having on the larger ecosystem.

Other things may also be displacing the native ladybugs, such as land use change and urban sprawl and increased pesticide use. It is unclear what exactly may be happening to the beetles, particularly since it is unclear how many are still out there.

Now the ARS research group is asking citizens to do some casual field work on the topic. Scientists working for the ARS in conjunction with Cornell University are asking people to photograph the ladybugs they find in their backyard and send the photos to their lab.

“Besides being incredibly cool and charismatic ladybugs are also essential predators in both farms and forests that keep us from being overrun with pests (like aphids and mealybugs). In many areas the native ladybugs are being replaced by exotic ones. This has happened very quickly and we don't know how this shift happened, what impact it will have (e.g. will the exotic species be able to control pests as well as our familiar native ones always have) and how we can prevent more native species from becoming so rare,” said a recent press release about the project.

For more information about this citizen science project, visit “The Lost Ladybug Project” at

For more information about Asian ladybugs, you can visit the ARS fact sheet at:
(Ladybug photo courtesy of the Lost Ladybug website and press release.)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


“We should all know the birds of our backyards,” the veteran bird bander told me one misty morning long ago. “We should know everything about them, study them, learn their habits and their ways, know where they live, what they like to eat, what they need to survive.”

She had steel blue eyes and wore and old man’s flannel shirt, and as she talked she looked out across the tree-lined ridge beyond the cornfields where we were working. The steam from her coffee thermos rose around her cheeks as she took a sip. Then she looked me in the eye. “We know nothing about the most common birds, most of us, and that is a damned shame.”

“When I was a little girl more than sixty years ago,” she continued, “Wood Thrushes were a dime a dozen. We saw and heard them everywhere. Now, they are considered one of the most threatened species in this part of the world. What the hell happened?”

Her point was not lost on me that morning. I was the inexperienced newbie, the greenhorn, and I watched her pluck songbirds and was very intimidated. Even touching a live bird would make me squirm. But to see her pluck a bird gently from the net in order to carefully weigh and band it for surveys was like watching someone unpack Christmas ornaments from a cardboard box.

Within minutes the birds would be wearing new jewelry and be off into the cold blue of October over our heads, headed off for their winter homes no worse for wear. Years later, she might discover them again in her nets, the bands still encircling their legs with numbers to identify them. This, she said, made her shiver with delight. They had returned home again, and survived to nest in the same place for another year.

Many years have passed since that autumn morning and still I find myself trying to live up to her command: learn the birds of my own backyard. And the butterflies, bees and beetles. Know what they need to survive. It is no small task. It will take a lifetime, I’m sure, just to get started.

So far my desire to learn has taken me through wooded trails and garden centers, past compost piles and rocky outcroppings along creeks, even driving down highways trying to identify wildflowers at 65 miles an hour. And here is the thing: observation never stops and is rarely boring. Once you get started it is like an addiction; you are hooked for life and you never stop wondering about the sights and sounds of nature, even when you find it in the oddest places. You start asking yourself why a creature does something, or why a plant survives in one place and languishes elsewhere, and you can’t stop wondering.

Long ago I dreamt of moving far away to someplace exotic and picturesque. Now, I realize this is where I was meant to be planted. I have to grow here, and make it possible for other things to grow and thrive here, too. Every year I work a bit more to make it beautiful, and hospitable to wildlife. In the process I have fallen in love with what lives here with me. Those cardinals out the window might be the same ones I watched at the banding nets so long ago. The thought of it makes me shiver with delight, too.

Welcome you to my new blog. In the coming posts I will work hard to write about what I observe, and provide info on all kinds of wildlife native to the backyards of the Mid-Atlantic. I hope to write about the research of scientists working in the field of ecology. I’d like to promote some good deeds done by those who care about the local environment. And I hope to inspire you to grow where you’re planted, too.
(Special thanks to Dr. David A. Rintoul for the use of his bird banding photo.)