Monday, April 26, 2010

How Owl Hollow Got its Name

An old high school friend of mine was up visiting from New Jersey many years ago. She is an enthusiastic gardener and loves to get an outdoor tour of the garden when she's up.

While we walked around, she remarked, "Boy, you sure have a lot of birds around here."

"Yes," I agreed, "I like to feed them in summer because I get a lot of birds I don't see in winter."

We continued talking, and she confidently told me that where she lives in Rockaway, New Jersey, she has a lot of owls. I raised my eyebrows a bit, maybe because I know owls do not form flocks!

"Really?" I said. Do you see them?"

"No, but I hear them all the time."

Later in the day, we were outside again, and this time a pair of mourning doves cooed above us as they perched in the sugar maple.

"Fran, is that what the owls sound like at your house?," I asked.

"Yes, yes, that's it! Exactly like that," she said excitedly.

Trying not to smile too broadly, I gently explained that what she was hearing was mourning doves, not owls. I pointed to the tree branch above us.

Fran was visibly disappointed, but I have to admit to having a really good chuckle at her expense. In fact, the memory of this exchange makes me smile every time I think of it, and so I decided to name my property Owl Hollow, as a perennial tribute to my friend's lack of ornithological knowledge.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Juneberry Mystery

Healthy June berry on left;
struggling June berry at right, with blue deer fencing.

This is a story of two juneberries, purchased at the same time about eight years ago from my favorite nursery, St. Lawrence, in upstate New York.

For most of their time here, both seedlings have languished. They survived, but despite various descriptions I've read of their "pest-free" disposition, they struggled with an annual, early spring infestation of small, black inchworms which used the leaves to wrap themselves tightly in pencil-shaped cocoons. This left the trees defoliated.

The seedlings remained stunted at about four feet high, small enough that I could painstakingly unwrap each leaf and hand-pick the worms. Still, the trees suffered.

Last year, one of the seedlings took off. I don't know what happened, but it experienced a growth spurt and actually now looks like an attractive young tree at about eight feet high. Yet the other seedling remains stunted.

Even more curious, last spring I found the stunted tree was again beset by those little black worms. The healthy tree was not, even while it stands just five feet away!

Yesterday, I noticed another oddity: The healthy tree is leafing out now, but its blossoms are still not ready to bloom. The stunted tree IS in bloom and has only a handful of its leaves unfurled. You would think both trees would follow the same pattern of either leafing out first, or blooming first.
This is the healthy tree, not at all ready to bloom
but sporting plenty of foliage.

This is the stunted tree, in full bloom but with just a handful of leaves unfurled.

What gives?

I have been watching both my bluebird boxes but have been somewhat concerned to see no activity. Imagine my surprise when I approached the one box and saw that it was so stuffed with nest building materials that it was actually pushing the front-facing door open at the bottom!

Still, I've seen no activity at the box. From the messy look of the nest, I'm guessing it's house wrens. I know that some birds build more than one nest and the female makes the final selection. I do hope this was not a reject nest.

Yesterday was another day of satisfying yard work achievements. I finished turning over sod where my expanded vegetable garden will be located, let the sun dry the overturned clods and, later in the day, began shaking out the loose soil, squashing cutworm grubs as I found them.

I also make good progress continuing to clear out invasives....Japanese barberry, Asian bittersweet and burning bush, mainly... on the north side, in the area where I discovered, rescued and fenced off two cherry tree volunteers. I think I also spotted at least one June berry volunteer and there are certainly more cherry tree seedlings in there. There's still much work to be done, but with shovel, loppers and a misplaced set of hand shears, I am making headway.

I also pulled out batches of garlic mustard as I found it. I've said before, simply controlling the spread of invasives could take up all my time in the yard. Sadly, it will be impossible to ever totally eradicate them.

Still no sign of returning hummers at the feeder. My first spring sighting last year was April 24...that will be this Saturday.

Ahh, so much to do. I have a corkscrew willow I want to transplant. I had planted two of them in an area that gets plenty of moisture, but not so much sun. They want more sun. I'm also itching to pull out another largish patch of pachysandra near the snowball hydrangea tree and sun room, but I will need things to plant there after the pachysandra comes out or I will have created yet another weeding chore for myself.

I'd like to finish up readying the expanded veggie garden and plant my potatoes and put up a second pole support for the beans. I saved some relatively straight, seven-foot-long pruned branches from my winter's work on the giant burning bush and found it fairly easy to create a tripod support for beans by tying the top ends together and sinking the ends in the ground.

Happy gardening!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Springtime Projects

Peonies: Not a native, but still a trouble-free and attractive plant.

Soon, the peonies will fill out this garden bed.

Knowing that a rainy weekend was in the forecast, I set about last Thursday to finish one of my many current "projects:" raking out the area in front of the forsythia (a space about three feet wide and 20 feet long) to plant (horrors!) grass seed. The forsythia threatened to close off the walkway between them and the large rhododendron in the backyard.

So I pulled up the last of the expanding forsythia plants. (They came up more easily than expected when pulled by hand.) I used a hard rake to gather up all the cuttings on the ground, raked them onto a tarp and hauled away three tarp-fulls to a dumping area for brush behind the tool shed. It's not feasible nor practical to try to haul this little stuff to the landfill, not without a pickup, anyway.

Not wanting to chance sowing grass seed that wouldn't germinate (the stuff in my garage was dated 2001), I ran down to Ace for a new bag of the stuff, passing by the pricey Scott's grass seed for the more reasonably priced no-name variety ($6). Grass seed is grass seed, right? But Ace didn't have any hay bales, and since I have lots of birds around that will likely eat up that grass seed, I headed down to Agway for the hay bale ($9, ouch) and then to Ring's End, for 4 7-foot-high metal stakes, needed for my expanded veggie garden.

I got the grass seed down, and then the hay, spread thinly. I also reseeded a smaller area of lawn directly under the bird feeder. It wasn't the sunflower seed that killed the grass there, it was damaged when I had my brick patio expanded a few years ago. I thought weeds would just fill in the bare spots (as long as it's green), but that didn't really happen, so....

I also got my hummer sugar water feeder out and hanging. Seems to me I recall the male hummers returning as early as mid-April, and since it's still quite chilly these nights, I wanted to make sure the welcome mat was out and hanging when the little guys return. I just checked my Nature Journal...yup, in 2007, my first hummer sighting was on April 25.

I keep feeling like I am SO far behind on spring vegetable planting when I read other gardening blogs. (I have 49 bookmarked and usually go through all of them a few times a's very inspiring.) However, I have to remind myself the average last frost date here in western Connecticut is May 15. I do plan, however, to plant my lettuce plugs and spinach tomorrow and hope for the best.

I'm not sure what others do, but on relatively warm days, I've been shuffling all my little seedlings outside to a sunny spot, then bring them back in at night before it gets too cold. It can be a little tedious.

The crab apples are ready to bloom.

Any day now...

While in Wal-Mart today, I spotted a cardboard bin of Elephant Ear tubers. This is something I wanted to try this year after seeing another blogger's photos. They look so lush and tropical. I don't think you can overwinter them, but I plan to investigate that at some point. So I bought two tubers for $3 each and hope to pot them up this week.

I am still on the hunt for reasonably-priced Fox Valley river birch and I wouldn't mind getting a native honeysuckle.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Woodchucks, Turkey & Manure, Oh My!

This is the time of year I usually make my first woodchuck sighting. Sometimes, I see more than one.... babies. I've been figuratively holding my breath because I hadn't seen any. Until two days ago. Sigh. I spotted him off in the distance, foraging contentedly on my neighbor's lawn. Let's hope the furry guy stays there. In the woodchuck's eyes, I have already "ruined" two good burrows: one behind the massive thicket of forsythia I just recently hacked back, and one in a brushy area on the other side of the house which is now more exposed than before.

There was another, more welcome visitor to Owl Hollow yesterday. Luther and Waldo saw their first ever wild turkey, and he saw them as well. In fact, as they peered at him through the sun room windows, Luther's tail a twitching wildly, the not diminutive-sized turkey approached the windows as close as five feet, clucking and tilting his head this way and that. Was he trying to determine if the cats were a threat? Was he just curious? I guess I can't know for sure, but after a good 10 minutes of clucking on the one side and twitching on the other, he pecked at a few sunflower seed shells below the bird feeder and then ambled up the back slope, eventually hopping a stone wall and disappearing into the neighbor's yard.

This past weekend, I headed down to the Second Company Governor's Horse Guard for some free manure. I grabbed 2 or 3 buckets as I headed out the door and had to ask at the stables where the manure was piled. I followed a paved road past the fields.

The road soon deteriorated into a badly gullied gravel road which led me to a massive pile of aged manure so high it completely shielded from view the other gardeners and their cars. The manure, I was told, was five years old, and I couldn't believe how great it looked: rich, dark loam with no odor and no indication it had ever been manure. This stuff is black gold!

One of the volunteers invited me to come back for more, and indeed, I made two more trips with more buckets, my recycling container, a cement mixing basin and as many other receptacles as I could fit in my car. It was well worth the small donation they asked for!

I have started expanding my vegetable garden. When finished, it will expand my space by approximately 50%. Right now, I'm turning over sod and letting the sun dry it out before shaking out all the dirt. It's back-breaking work.

But I had another thought. Now that I'm done cutting back the forsythia...

...the next step there is to rake out the new space now covered in debris and pruned branches. I never thought I'd hear myself saying this, but I want to plant grass (!) in that area to widen the pathway between the forsythia and the rhododendron.

I test-planted a handful of grass seed I had on hand to see if it would sprout. I'm embarrassed to say the seed is from 2001, so I'm guessing it won't germinate too well. But a quicker way toward a green lawn would be to simply dig up the sod from my expanding vegetable garden, drop it in pieces into the wheelbarrow and bring it to the southwest corner where the forsythia are. It will help me accomplish two purposes more quickly.

In the meantime, I'm trying to get through my inaugural mowing, but I forgot that my battery-operated mower (yes, my third season using it on 1.5 acres) doesn't do well with high, dense grass, and while at least 50% of my "lawn" is a variety of wild violets and other "weeds," there are some areas of lawn that are already overgrown grass. The mower konks out and and the total amount of lawn area I get cut is drastically reduced. So this was my second day of mowing and still I'm not done with the front yard.

One of my weaknesses is wandering around the yard, discovering some little "project" that needs doing, and dropping other things already in progress to tend to the new chore. Such was the case yesterday when I observed bittersweet and multi-flora rose taking over my clethra (summersweet), over by the back corner of the tool shed. So, donning Deet-sprayed, knee-high rubber boots but forgetting my gloves(!!), I waded into the overgrowth, clipping things as I went to clear a tick-free path for myself in order to access the clethra. I ran into bittersweet everywhere, yanking things out for some time before noticing something burgundy-colored and ominous sending six-inch shoots straight up out of the leaf litter. Poison ivy! Despite washing my hands with Tec-Nu (which I highly recommend), I already have some spots rising on my skin, but that, I'm pretty sure, is from an earlier exposure when I cleared the brush from around my cherry trees. (I was wearing gloves then!)

I did a decent, but not complete job of clearing some of the vines away. Unfortunately, some of them were growing right at the bases of the clethra, and digging them out would injure the clethra. It would also require me to crawl in there and brush my head against all sorts of stuff, and I'm too tick-paranoid to do that.

I note with some satisfaction that the clethra is spreading.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Wild Garden

Doesn't everyone have some corner of their yard that resists all attempts to tame and control? Like an unruly child, my 'wild garden' requires constant vigilance, and while it stubbornly demands my attention with threats of truly returning to the wild, I have yet to coax it into submission, even after 15 years at Owl Hollow.

I spent a good part of yesterday pulling out thorny brambles that had a field day last summer as they spread throughout this wild garden of mine, a 20 x 40 foot fenced-in plot on the north side of the house. It's always the last priority, after mowing, weeding and tending to other perennial beds and general yard work. And last year, for the first time, I didn't touch it at all. My experience with Lyme Disease (twice) has made me very cautious about tangling with overgrown areas that brush against your arms or sides, or gets in your hair.

But... this seemed like a good time to do battle with the brambles, as they're just starting to leaf out. Wait much longer and they'll be too much to handle.

Even wearing a double set of work gloves didn't prevent me from absorbing an invisible pricker in my finger, right at the get go. Still, I worked on, systematically trimming back the long, arcing branches, then using a shovel to bring the bramble up from the soil, then yanking it free at the roots with my (gloved) hands.

As I worked, the builder who did such a nice job with my sun room last year made a surprise appearance after being a no-show this past weekend, so since he was working in the same area as me, we chatted as we worked. I'm paying him to reposition the outlet pipe from my sump pump to allow for better drainage. I also asked him to block off two old, below-grade window wells with cinder blocks and cement.

Back to the wild garden. I have a host of nice plants in there, but it all gets so overgrown with weeds each summer it just gets beyond me. I'm thinking I might be better off to plant grass in and around what's there now, and just plan on maintaining it by mowing. Ironically, there was a beautiful bed of grass there when I bought the place, but I set about to dig it all up immediately because I had the naive notion that, already fenced in, it lent itself to becoming a picturesque, idyllic garden.

Here's what's growing there now: 5 high bush blueberry, 3 "dwarf" cherry trees (now in bloom and about 10 feet high), a large willow shrub that needs shaping, a spreading gooseberry, a rapidly growing mulberry tree (a volunteer from a few years ago), lady's mantle, bleeding heart, columbine, hostas, astilbe, Jacob's ladder and wild oats that are showing signs of becoming invasive. Most anything I plant there seems to thrive, maybe a little too much.

Years ago, I laid a rectangular brick walkway about 2 feet wide, planting shade-loving perennials outside the walkway. They enjoyed the shade cast by the house and 2-story high rhododendrons. On the inside of the walkway went the cherry trees, a bird bath and assortment of other things over the years, including some asparagus that I believe has finally been wiped out by the ever-expanding willow. However, the waist-high picket fence doesn't deter deer or woodchucks and, being on the north side, not all portions of the spot get as much sunlight as would be desirable.

It just seems like one invasive or another gets in there and tries to take over. For a while, the black-eyed Susies were really spreading, though I didn't mind that too much. Last year, the brambles made their move and I see now, too, that the vinca, which I accidentally transplanted when I moved a sedum from elsewhere, has taken over an incredible expanse of land in a very short time. Complicating matters is the large bed of adjacent, mature pachysandra which regularly creeps into the fenced area in its own quest for expansion. I've tried sinking tin flashing along the fence line, the kind used on roofs, by digging a trench about 6 inches deep and burying the flashing as a barrier against the spreading pachysandra, but it hasn't worked.

Elsewhere in the yard, I regularly battle the ugly garlic mustard with the tiny white flowers, along with the ever-present Asiatic bittersweet. I'd hate to see either make a foothold in my wild garden. As for the wild oats, well, they look nice, but they're a mess to clean up in spring, as all the dead foliage needs to be raked up and hauled out of there. And they may provide attractive
shelter for mice, something I'd like to discourage since one side of the wild garden lies just six feet from the foundation of the house (and yes, I do get mice in the basement each winter).

If anyone has any suggestions for how to tame this wild garden, I'd be glad to hear it. I'm looking for a lower maintenance way to grow this garden. I'd love something manicured and "tidy," though experience tells me that may be unrealistic.