Wednesday, May 12, 2010

So this is spring???

       Is this spring? What a roller coaster we have been on weather wise. From all that snow to highs in the 80's in April; in a two week period we went from winter to a brief glimpse of what summer may become. This has been a bizarre weather pattern and plants and animals are having trouble adjusting.
      The gardens are a haze of green and we already have lots on bloom. The Wisteria finally bloomed, or should I say after all these years the arbor was loaded with blooms and it has been worth the wait. This is an invasive plant and we will be containing it so it doesn't "escape" into the woods. We also have a native variety, Amethyst Falls, which should be blooming shortly- even prettier than the Chinese ( invasive).
       Now that I have told you how pretty it was I should mention that Jack Frost visited on May 10th and those blooms were nipped. Mother Nature has a way of reminding us who is control with a chilly 29 degrees, oh well there is always next year.The ground in the woodland garden is awash with the white blooms of Sweet Woodruff and a golden mass of Golden Alexander. The Hummingbird friendly blooms of our Red Buckeye are magnificent standing above the purple of Woodland Phlox and yellow of Epimedium. The white blooms of the Doublefile Viburnum round out the chorus and we are most fortunate none of these were affected by that quick freeze the other night. Hopefully those same Viburnum will berry shortly and the birds will have their long awaited feast. This is what it looked like last year.


      This time of year we get the most comments about our Opaka Viburnum, which is adorned with huge 5" white globe shaped blooms which makes it appear to be a  Hydrangea. I should have a "Guess this shrub" contest. Everyone usually sees it and I hear" Where did you get the snowball bush?" or " My snowball bush isn't blooming now- why is yours?" When I purchased this shrub it was in a 4" pot ( yes it was tiny) and I have been unable to find another one, so for all of you who are coveting it I am currently propagating it and it will be available in the fall. One thing to keep in mind, it is sterile- all bloom no berries.
       The gardens are  awake and so are all the critters; birds, bees and butterflies. The Ajuga bloomed late and has been a favorite of the bees. The Scarlet Honeysuckle has been claimed by an aggressive Hummingbird and Bluebirds are busy feeding their young in the boxes.
        We hosted a Wildlife Mapping Class at the farm last Sat. and we had a guided hike after it was over. We heard and saw a variety of birds, salamanders, frogs, tadpoles and newts. We did see the Jefferson Salamanders  which were discovered at Beagle Ridge last year in their larval stage.  We had two amazing naturalists/experts on the hike; Lou Verner from DGIF, our instructor, and his wife Holly Walker a wildflower expert who is now retired from DCR. It's great to see things through a new set of eyes which discover things we never see as we take the same trails.
        Yes I guess spring is finally here and summer is looming. Let's hope we can enjoy spring until June 21- probably a pipe dream but I will hope anyway. I am anxious to see our first fawn  it will not be long now.
       Well I had better get busy, This Saturday is the opening of Flying Flowers at Beagle Ridge. If you would like to hold and release a butterfly be sure to join us at Flying Flowers at noon. All participants will attend  a brief program on butterflies and their needs and  receive a Monarch, which they will release  upon entry into the butterfly house. Where else can you experience such an amazing creature up close? The cost for adults is $10.00, children under 12 will cost $5.00. Participants will receive a coupon for a free visit for future visits to Flying Flowers throughout the 2010 season.
       More shortly, I need to get back to work, so much to do, so little time.
Thanks for reading,
Ellen

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Nature Rules- Part 2

        Now that you have assessed your yard and checked your strengths and weakness you can decide on the next step. What do you want to attract? Would you like to see cardinals, chickadees, nuthatches and the more common yard birds? You may not have seen many birds but what might you see once you create the right habitat? Don’t forget those migratory pass through visitors who need to refuel on either their northern or southern legs of the trip.  Cedar waxwings are a prime example of migrants who will appreciate a meal in any of your berry producing bushes, strip the berries and leave in a couple of days. They put on a wonderful show and you and the bushes will reproduce next year.
       I can still recall seeing a bright speck of red in our Holly and assuming it was one of resident Cardinals. I was lucky enough to have a birder friend visiting and she was so excited to see the Scarlet Tanager, which I never seen. A Scarlet Tanager is a brilliant red which is so much brighter than a Cardinal and once you have seen one you will not forget it.  It was on its northern migration, yes we do have some local residents now but they arrive later. These first sitings are always the first week of April and then approx. 3 weeks later the residents arrive. Every year we are watching as they come through and it never ceases to make me smile. After all isn’t this isn’t this why we do all this work?

        I have decided to focus on Butterflies but that doesn't mean I don't get excited when I find the first frog eggs or even salamander eggs in the pond. The peepers are almost deafening at the moment and  we have eggs everywhere, so lots more of the frog and toad chorus to come.  We have eggs wherever we have water, even a small 60 gallon water source which Gregg installed for the deer in our wildlife area. Here on the left is a shot from that tiny water source. You don't need a perfect water garden or even a huge pond.  On our Facebook page I have added more pictures of some of the other egg masses including ones in our irrigation pond which at the moment it is an algae filled mess. Now I am saying it is a mess, to me it looks wonderful because it is natural and all the critters love it. Birds, mammals and amphibians are there so if they are happy we can ignore the algae, which will be gone in a couple of months anyway.
        If you don't want to attract frogs or toads that is fine, just keep in mind a complete ecosystem is a healthy one. These amphibians are veracious insect eaters and  mosquitoes are their favorites. Why not have a wide variety of critters? The more the merrier and then the healthier for you and them.    
        If you know anyone who has a certified habitat garden go see what they have done; Beagle Ridge is such a site and we will be having classes this summer if you need help. Otherwise feel free to ask questions, sharing is what we do. Check out what plants attract insects, which plants produce bird edible nuts, grains or berries and which plants are needed for shelter.
      
       Education as to what grows in your area is the most important step. If you do not know what plant zone you live in, contact your local extension agent and ask about what publications they can provide. Local folks always should be your first stop and the local Master Gardener group would also be huge pool of folks to get involved with. In addition, in Virginia we have a Master Naturalist Program and if you are local be sure to come by and see our habitat areas and we will be glad to provide lots of info to get you started. In addition we have a Master Naturalist Chapter at Beagle Ridge so again are you are local come join us.
  
        Depending on your location, zone and what you want to attract, check with local nurseries for your plant materials too. Even though we are all sucked in by the photos in the national magazines, they usually show us a myriad of plants we are unable to grow in our area. Beagle is in zone 6 and our list of hardy plants is quite small compared to those of you snow birds which live in Fl. Don’t let pretty pictures dissuade, you with a little education and elbow grease will turn anywhere into a birding habitat. By providing container plantings, bird baths, feeders and some houses, even balconies on the 17th floor NYC have been certified by the National Wildlife Federation.

       Hope you are enjoying these writings and it inspires you to get out there and create your own oasis,

Ellen

Monday, March 22, 2010

Backyard Habitat- Creating an Oasis at your home

Part one of Nature Rules- Creating an Oasis at your house.
                
I am asked often how I have such a variety of birds and butterflies in the gardens. Quick answer "plant it and they will come". The long answer takes a bit longer, read down through this blog and hopefully you will see it isn't rocket science and you will enjoy it while you are creating it to boot! 

Let's start with providing a place for birds, bees and butterflies in our garden. They all need food, water, shelter and a safe place to raise their young. Optimally you will have trees, shrubs and plants for nectar/seed producers. Also, let a patch go wild- be sure to go to the website and look for insectary plantings or click here to go to directly to the link http://beagleridgeherbfarm.com/706/23301.html to learn how to plant a weed patch.  Yes, purposely plant a weed patch!  After all, a weed is a plant in the wrong place.  Every plant has a niche, which is its purpose in its environment. The plants which many of us hate are important plants in another part of the world and that will be addressed in another post. Getting back to my “weed patch” … this will produce a habitat for beneficial insects and a place for insect eaters to find lunch. In a future post I will address some of these insects we all love to hate and you may be surprised what you have living in your yard.

Regardless of where you live apartment, condo, estate, urban area or a small suburban lot- you can create your own oasis for wildlife. Many states have their own version of a Backyard Habitat program; here in VA we have Habitat Partners which is handled by Carol Heiser from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF). Here is the link  to Carol’s program http://www.dgif.virginia.gov/habitat/  lots of VA info and yes the same info will work in any of our neighboring states. Nationally there is the National Wildlife Federation, I have this link on the website under links and yes Canada even has a program for you folks up north. So wherever you are, there are local resources which can guide you, and if you can’t find someone local let us know and we should be able to help from this end.

If any of you plan on attending the Garden Faire in Abingdon in April be sure to stop by the Habitat Partners Booth which our Beagle Ridge Master Naturalist Chapters will be manning for VDGIF. So stop by and pick up info and be sure to bring your questions.

Alright you are ready to go so where so how do you start?  You need to ASSESS what you have so you can make yourself a blueprint.  Assess your property- print off a Habitat Checklist ( I will be uploading this to the website shortly under the Gardening tips link and look for gardening/wildlife).   Take an honest look at your yard. Remember those of you who are apartment or condo dwellers don’t despair, you can participate too. Once you see what you need you can make changes, addition and deletions as part of a road map to your Backyard Habitat project.

See what you have, and see what you are missing. Do you have a water source, a bird bath, a saucer of water or even just a small dripper, a pond, anything will suffice. Water is a basic need and will attract a wide variety of visitors to your gardens. One thing to keep in mind is it needs to be clean water. Birdbaths should be cleaned ( after all would you want to drink where someone took a bath), if you have a pond do not use any chemicals, and if you have a dripper be sure to refill when necessary. Yes, these are all common sense moves but when we get busy we tend to forget these small but important steps. 

Let me be a bit more specific about Food – how many food sources do you have? Feeders are good but what types of plants, shrubs, trees and grain producers have you found? Berry bearing shrubs are a huge plus; everything from holly bushes- great because it is also an evergreen and will provide shelter (2 uses from one plant). Viburnums, an another amazing berry producer, seed providers- Echinacea are a great source of winter food if you aren’t a neat freak and allow them to stand over the winter. Coreopsis,  Anise Hyssop even Ornamental grasses are a great source of seed for your over wintering guests.

Shelter-evergreens are vital to the bird’s survival in the winter, local birds will use cedars, as well as the wide variety of needled and broadleaved evergreens and even though bird houses are fun; the right evergreen can be shelter as well as a nesting site. Cardinals like thorny deciduous shrubs to nest in but they will live in an evergreen all winter for protection from the winds. Butterflies need protection from wind, a fence can be a perfect windbreak for birds and butterflies too.

Birds use nests when they lay eggs and raise their young, they seldom use a nest the rest of the year. Wrens nest anywhere they want. Yes, we have had wrens nest on the ground in the southernwood as well as in a wreath on the front door- Gregg was not amused.  We also have had a phoebe which will nest over our front steps, and during the time she is waiting to fledge we go in the back door- again Gregg is not amused. The fact that this is repeated every spring leads me to realize her progeny have decided this is their space!! Blue birds, Swallows and Purple Martins among others will need a house/nest in the spring, but they will need shelter year round.

One thing that may be news to homeowners who are landscaping for wildlife is to stop spraying. No Pesticides! Yes many birds are seed eaters but lots are also insect eaters. So pesticides can be very detrimental to the whole food web. By poisoning insects not only do you eliminate their food sources but some birds may still eat them and become poisoned themselves. Not what you are hoping for you I am sure.

Well that should keep you busy for a bit. Hope you enjoying these first vestiges of spring as much as we are. I am going out to clean up the areas which are no longer snow covered- yes we do finally have visible ground.
Part 2 will follow next week and we will finish up the requirements for attracting birds, bees and butterflies to your garden.

Enjoy spring, I sure am!
Ellen


Monday, March 15, 2010

Deer proof plantings

I heard lots of comments about the deer post. Well let me try to address some of the questions.

Deer proof plantings- is there such a thing? Let’s say deer resistance. 

Well the easy answer is No- there are plants which deer do not eat, like tobacco and supposedly daffodils. Depending on what you read you may find various lists of plants, everyone has their own lists.   In spite of what is written and what you read, including this posting, your yard may prove a bit different. Over the years my mother in law would buy whatever deer proof plant book she could find for me. I now have three and all the lists are a bit different; if you are local they are at the lending library at the farm and you are welcome to check the books out. Regardless, I can disagree with many of those lists.

Your critters eat what is available, so if they have never tasted boxwood and you bring it in they may not like the taste but it will be new and they may develop a taste for it. Nothing is off limits. Mountain Laurel is toxic to deer, well, be that as it may in a bad winter they will nibble the tips, browse the stems and eat just enough to not get sick. By spring the shrubs are roughly pruned but they recover- This has been happening for millennium and will continue into the future. One of the many things you deal with if you live in the natural. I am pretty certain silk flowers would be deer proof but even that is not a certainty. 

I have the deer proof planting area outside our restrooms and all summer long they thrive, the deer graze the grass around them and do not touch a single herb.  Lavender, southernwood, sage and Elijah Blue Festuca are planted along the path and thrive in the heat and rock. Once the first frost arrives the flavor must change (this is strictly my hypothesis- nothing scientific at all) and they will begin to nibble. At first just a bit then by the time the grass is brown or covered by snow, the sage will be stripped bare and eventually 18” stems will be pruned down to several short stubby inches. The Southern Wood is stripped and Festuca is cropped right to the ground and finally they begin on the Lavender. They do not decimate it but it does get more of a hair cut than it needs.

This winter we have had more snow cover than ever and no open ground for the grass so they nibbled on anything they could. Our Lavender has even been pruned, we will see how everything bounces back and be sure to check out these plantings when you visit. I think you will be surprised how well they recover and yes all summer they will once again be deer resistance ( I believe only silk flowers are really deer proof)  Gardening in deer country is always an adventure.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Caring for the critters

Yes, we still have snow on the ground, however the weather is finally beginning to make me feel spring.  I am hoping to see some signs of life when we go to the farm tomorrow, possibly daffodils, definitely crocus, maybe even a snowdrop. If this winter has done nothing else, it should remind us that nature rules, of yes, in so many ways.


Last weekend the deer, turkey and birds showed up like clockwork; we joke that they recognize the sound of our vehicles as we drive down the road. Gregg had been shoveling spaces in the snow so they could find the corn he spreads for them, and within 5 minutes and a couple of whistles we get a crowd. Let me address some questions which always come up.   Why do you feed them? Doesn't it make them come eat your garden?

First of all, in VA it is illegal to feed deer during deer season, it is called baiting! Once season is over, in early January we do feed a variety of visitors, deer, turkey, squirrels, an ever wider array of birds than I ever expected and even the errant raccoon ( much to our dismay). We love to watch wildlife and the way they have survived this winter with this copious snow is a testament to their tenacity. What's some corn to get them through the winter? Of course I wish I had taken pictures of Gregg as he proceeded outside snow shovel in one hand and buckets in corn in hand so he could provide for his deer. Now do you know why I call him the deer whisperer? He calls and they come! It always makes me smile!

The snow has been so deep that according to VDGIF they are already finding dead deer in Bath county and I am sure the rate of starvation will be great this year.

We feed at our home, not the farm and once there is grass in the fields on the other side of the mountain they will ween themselves from the corn ( which isn't their preferred food). The deer will eat whatever they can, hence  browsing thorough landscaping in the suburbs. When we first built in Wytheville I had brought all sorts of shrubs from NC and the deer ate them to the ground. Gregg's answer was well , they have been grazing on the salad bar and you just brought up all sorts of new desserts, wouldn't you? It would have been nice if he would have shared that gem before we planted them. Well live and learn.

The birds and the turkeys don't seem to have fared as poorly, in fact they look great and not stressed at all. Of course since they can fly, there are pine cones, berries, some drupes in the Dogwoods and even seed heads in the Sweet pepper bush which the Juncos have been enjoying all winter. We feed black-oiled sunflower seeds in several platform type feeders and of course suet for those high energy woodpeckers.
The birds fend off the squirrels when possible but everyone gets a seat at the table, so to speak.

We do only feed the birds in the winter once the bear go to "sleep";  those of you in bear country understand. In the past bear have destroyed our feeders, they aren't exactly shy and retiring- they just go for what they want and take no prisoners. After all they are trying to get ready for winter and our feeders were fair game, I am learning.  The feeders stay out until the weather warms up and then the birds diet changes once again, scratching in bare ground- they are back to earning their keep.

If you would like to learn more about creating an oasis for wildlife in your yard, Okay no deer, just birds and butterflies, stay tuned. Lots more to come including a 3 week class on Habitat at Home  this summer at the farm.

Enjoy your day and make the most of it,
Ellen

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Spring


I thought that title would get your attention. No, winter is still with us and I am counting the days.

Even thought the ground is just as covered in the gardens, I am sure many of you are itching to get outside and start a new planting area for spring. I definitely am, and with a 12" across the front of the Butterfly house I still can’t get in to even get started.  The snow may not look deep but if you check out the electric fence post there are only 3 wires showing, the other two are BELOW the snow. We are afraid to mess with it since the one wire we tried to dig out on the electric fence around the main gardens was frozen into a layer of ice and Gregg snapped it- yes he had to fix it.
Well once the snow is gone; it will not be too late to get a new bed started this spring. Although ideally you would have staked your claim to the area in the fall you can still have a new area this spring. Read on to see how we set out a new area for planting.

Let me tell you how we have planted all but our first garden at Beagle Ridge. My last blog topic was about the Soil Web. Well this is a continuation of how valuable these critters are and how you may actually be harming them with some of the most often used practices.

I call this improving from the top down. You may have heard of Lasagna Gardening. Pat Lanza coined the phrase and  even wrote a book about the method.  In a nutshell, place several layers of newspaper or cardboard on the area to be planted and cover with 4”-6” of leaves, mulch or anything organic which will break down.  This will smother the grass below and as it decomposes, it will add organic matter to the planting area. No tilling required just dig down and plant right through this wonderful layer and within a season you will be on your way to healthier soil. This is what we will do in the planting areas of Flying Flowers- if we see the ground any time soon.

Gregg and I have planted all our beds this way and even our weed problems area minimized and slowly but surely our soil is improving. By allowing worms and the myriad of organisms in the soil to do their job they make our work easier.  Think of how many worms you would kill if you tilled; not to mention all the weed seeds which are brought to the surface when you till. In addition tilling can destroy the “tilth of the soil.”

Tilth- well, what is it and why should we care? As a gardener you should care. The soil is full of burrowers- yes you may not see them but there are lots of insects, reptiles and even mammals which actually aerate the soil in your garden. Worms, bees, moles, even lizards and frogs all dig down allowing air and water to penetrate the hardest poorest soil. Roots do the same thing as they seek water and nutrients. Waste from your “visitors” and decaying roots after harvest or seasonal changes add to the organic makeup of your soil, provide nourishment as part of the Soil Food Web (see previous blog posting). With natural processes of freezing/thawing, drying and spring rains wetting the soil it makes structure which allow for water to percolate and air to penetrate, both of which are necessary for your plants and the critters which live underground.  Tilling can actually do irreparable damage to your soil so unless you are growing vegetables please reconsider before cranking up the tiller this spring.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

This being said, by creating an organic layer, allowing the structure of the soil to be maintained your existing soil can be improved by the above mentioned actions.  What type of soil do you have in your garden? At Beagle Ridge we have a rocky blend which is made up of rocks, broken down Sandstone and lots of pockets of clay. Not exactly what I hoped for but you work with what you have.

The area which is now gardens at the farm was once a parking lot! No, it wasn’t paved, but it was a parking lot none the less. 40 hunting campers were parked on that same spot for up to 6 months out of the year. God only knows what may have been tossed from those trailers but compaction was the major problem. Our gardens still have a rocky blend but that now provides drainage and we have lots of worms (nature’s amazing soil scientists). We use dirty rock a small non washed limestone based both to break up our soil and as mulch for all the herb beds. Be sure to click on the dirty rock link and scroll through pictures of the gardens to see what it looks like.

I realize many of you think Clay is a terrible, and those of you in Florida or on the coast who have Sand are just as miserable. Don’t despair, clay is nutrient rich- sand is well draining and somewhere is the middle is what we all want, Loam. Loam is a humus rich blend which is full of micronutrients and lots of microorganisms.  How do we improve drainage in Clay? Well begin by adding an aggregate, a small rocky substance, even small gravel- NOT SAND. Sand and clay makes brick! In addition if your plantings 
need a richer soil, lots of organic matter will be ideal. If you are stuck with a sandy soil you too need to add lots of organic matter. It will allow the plants to retain some moisture while providing some nutrients to an otherwise sterile (lifeless planting medium- I can't call it soil). Since none of us have perfect soil why not let Mother Nature and her amazing workers create it for you.

By providing lots of organic matter regardless of the type of soil you are “stuck” with; you can encourage worms and their helpers in the food web. They will aerate, fertilize and create “soil” that even Martha Stewart will covet.

Yesterday we finally did get some rain but we still have more than 4” of snow on the gardens and so patience is still needed at my end. Hopefully many of you are able to get out and see the ground and start working on those new beds for spring once things dry out a bit.

Those of you can get busy, enjoy yourselves. The rest of us will be wishing for spring.
I am counting the days,
Ellen

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Winter tightens its grip

I hope wherever you are you are safe and warm. Winter continues here in earnest with an additional foot of snow this last week, should I say they are calling for more this week? Will it ever end?

Well, with Dallas receiving a foot,  DC over 4 feet and even Lakeland Fl. having a high of 47 today things are more than a bit topsy turvy weather wise. One good thing about all this snow will be the addition to the water table which has had many years of drought. Another is that with this long term cold spell should mean less insect damage to our gardens next spring. Hopefully this will be the case.

I don’t know about the rest of you but I am ready for spring. Garden catalogs tempt me with their wonderful descriptions of new cultivars and I am itching to get my hands dirty. I made the mistake of saying dig in the “dirt” at a program and was quickly corrected (as well I should). Let me put my teacher hat on for a moment… Soil is alive and dirt is dead and is basically what is under your fingernails. That is a simplistic explanation but since good soil is something us gardeners all covet it helps to understand this important concept.
1 tsp. of soil contains over a million micro-organisms, yes I did say over a million. These little critters, which are obviously too small to see, are part of a complex soil food web which are the basis for healthy soil.


This graphic of the Soil Food Web illustrates the interaction between the various components of the web. “They range in size from the tiniest one-celled bacteria, algae, fungi, and protozoa, to the more complex nematodes and micro-arthropods, to the visible earthworms, insects, small vertebrates, and plants.This definition is from the  NRCS site. With healthy soil we will have healthy plants, less disease and even less insect damage. Healthy plants are better able to ward off fungal problems and this healthy environment invites beneficial insects which will feed on “bad” bugs.

An Insectary will provide the necessary habitat for beneficial insects and they can be your next line of defense. Beagle Ridge has several areas which are Insectaries, click here for a list of plants and the various insects they require to set up residence in your garden. For those of you who are glazing over at the moment think of it this way. When you provide certain plants, beneficial insects show up, eat those insects which are eating your plants, which require less sprays, less toxins in the garden, less work etc. I don’t know about you but anything that makes less work while having a great benefit is a win- win in my book.

Nature has a way of working until “we” butt in and decide we know better. The more we do which breaks the cycle the more problems occur and I hope when you can finally get outside you will look at things a bit differently, see the whole picture and how things can and will work together if we allow it.
Until next time, let's hope spring will be here soon,
Ellen