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