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Archive for February, 2011

When the call came in that a spruce tree was ailing in a way that baffled the local nursery, I was intrigued.  Garden center staff see a lot of strange plant things, and in order to stump them, the problem is usually a puzzler.

Any time a tree behaves badly I rush out to see it, like an ambulance chaser following a crew armed with chainsaws and chippers.  To avoid the disappointment of arriving to find the tree is normal, I’ve learned to ask for a description of the problem over the phone first.

“It defies description,” said the kind man on the other end of the line, “I honestly don’t know where to begin.”  Now, normally people have no trouble putting their plant’s distress into words, usually relying on such phrases as “bugs are eating my tree,” “weird oozing,” or the popular “I just woke up this morning and it was dead.” 

Here was a man who was speechless to describe it, and because he was referred to me by the nurseryman, I drove over.

 That nurseryman was right; one had to see this to believe it.  Under a mature spruce tree, thousands of small twigs littered the ground, falling from a tree towering more than 30-feet tall.  They were short tips of the branches, still green and succulent with life, covering the ground and lower branches.

The rain of twigs had been happening since mid-December, and to keep up with it, the couple had been sweeping up the twigs, collecting bushels full to take to the tree mulching yard.

I did the reconnaissance a tree diagnostician should do when coming upon a new patient – stood back and looked at the tree.  There were no obvious signs of stress – it looked healthy, top to bottom.  Stepping closer, the twigs scattered across the ground showed no signs of insects or disease.  But there was one, odd thing: A pattern to the cut ends.  They were all clipped at an angle. 

I’d seen this before, just not on such a large scale.  That angle was familiar, and slowly my eyes lifted to the fence line, upon which two squirrels were sitting and giving me the stink eye.  “You’ve got squirrels,” I said, “nipping your branches.”

Squirrels will do this, in winter or spring when food is hard to find.  They also do it at random times of the summer too, for no apparent reason.  Some foresters have suggested boredom.  And because the squirrels aren’t stripping the bark or eating the wood, I believe them.

There’s nothing to be done to stop the problem, but the good news it that the tree will be fine.  Although the damage seems alarming, a healthy tree can take a bit of twig loss.  If you find your tree suddenly losing its tips, check the discards closely for the tell-tale angled cut; if you find it, you’ll know it’s those squirrels, and not a disease.

This post was previously published in the Longmont Ledger.

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"Tenodera sinensis" Chinese mantis

Image via Wikipedia

As Valentine’s Day rolls around, a frenzied celebration of love grips us.  Wooing and winning take center stage as lovers come out to play, booking cozy restaurants and spending time on activities to heighten attraction.  These snuggles bring smiles to almost every face; that is, unless you’ve been burned by cupid like Lady Gaga, and caught in a bad romance

Like the famed pop diva, not every date is roses and candy, especially if you’re an insect.  The next time you’re feeling blue, look at our six-legged friends, and you might not feel so bad about your love life.

Follow my lead

Dancing With The Stars might be a popular show, but it could be a lot more interesting if they’d pair the dancers with a preying mantis.  The hypothesis that the female rips the head from the male during copulation is not entirely true; it all depends on how hungry she is.  If not fed prior to her date, she might tear the male apart, to nibble on as a post-coital snack.

To overcome this unfortunate fate, the Chinese preying mantis waltzes the female around, hoping to turn her thoughts from dinner to delight.  If he’s light on his feet, the male escapes to woo another lady, but if he trips up, he won’t be returning for a reunion show.

She’s just not into you

Picking up on her mood is hazardous for ground beetles, who say no with a chemical weapon.  When bugged by amorous suitors, less inclined females rebuff would-be mates with an anti-aphrodisiac, methacrylic acid, which knocks males out for hours.  Stunned and helpless, the males serve as a warning to others.

Date my daughter, or else

Blind dates can be hit or miss, but if you’re a honey bee, they’re downright life threatening.  In a typical small hive, one queen oversees twenty thousand female workers.   Males, called drones, are few – up to 200.  Though outnumbered, young drones’ lives are cushy, tended by workers, pampered for the day their services are needed. 

When that day dawns, drones are offered a choice: go forth and mate, or stay here and die.  On their own, they gather in groups, lounging around a bee equivalent of a pickup bar until young queens take flight.  When this happens, males launch, streaking after them to mate. 

If growing up an idle boy toy sounds grand, consider the bride; queens hatch with an attitude.  Those emerging first destroy any un-hatched queens, fight rival royal siblings to the death, contemplate matricide, then take off on a mating flight.  They say personality is everything.

If males are lucky and catch her, the job is a death sentence; unable to disengage, they break off their appendage and plunge earthward, dying.  She sails on, entertaining drone after drone until sated.

Despite these cautionary tales, love is still a many splendored thing. But just in case, remember to pick up the roses and chocolate.

This post was previously published in the Longmont Ledger.

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Today’s post can be heard on the public radio show Crop to Cuisine, hosted by Dov Hirsch.

Crop To Cuisine

These days, feeding the birds is like running a dining establishment.  The right menu must be offered with unique selections, or birds just won’t come.  You can’t possibly serve a mixed kernel ‘hash’ to the fussy feathered flock; to be successful you must serve only the finest and freshest seed for discerning avian tastes. 

Although birds eat like trolls, gobbling food quickly and conducting loud family quarrels, they’re more judgmental about food than any critic.  After all, critics don’t usually throw what they dislike off onto the floor. 

Seed is specialized to feed very specific species, no doubt due to modern birds turning their beaks up at blends that lack a nice chew.  Simple, filling fare is out.  Like great waiters, staff at local bird feeding bistros can help you make the right selection for finicky eaters.

Thistle is excellent for smaller birds, especially finches, juncos and sparrows.  They find the crisp crack of the husk absolutely delightful.  Others prefer the rich, earthy flavor of sunflowers (black oil and striped) along with safflower and white millet.  Separate feeders serving each type of feed will bring a variety of birds to the backyard.

Having grackles arrive is like watching a busy evening at a trendy eatery.  They’re loud, the feeder is crowded, and quieter birds just try to dine and flee.  You might as well be serving Rocky Mountain Oysters and beer, they way grackles go at it.  Should you wish to give the less raucous birds a chance, feed safflower seeds.  The big grackles don’t like it and will move on.

One essential menu item is suet.  Like a decadent slice of pie, suet is pure fat (with some seed), providing high energy in winter when birds need lots of calories to keep warm.  Glazed with fruit or studded with insects, make suet a signature dish to attract woodpeckers or chickadees.

Appealing bird establishments will offer both water and food.  Sources of water are critical to birds in winter for drinking, but birds bathe in it as well.  I don’t recall that the latest craze in restaurants includes a bath with the meal.  Still, baths are important to birds’ ability to stay warm.  Break the ice each day and keep fresh water in the basin.

There’s no talking bird feeding unless you include squirrels.  I’ve never seen such enthusiastic eaters.   Squirrels launch themselves bodily at their food, something I’ve observed people do at an all-you-can-eat buffet.  Because they jump high (to 6 feet) and wide – up to 10 feet – feeders are always under attack. 

 I admit I draw the line at feeding squirrels.  They annoy me, mostly because I have one in my yard that I believe is planning my demise.  At least, that’s what I think it’s plotting every time I see him staring intently at me while gnawing a decorative deer antler down to a lethal point.

This is probably the squirrel’s revenge for my finding the solution to their feeder raiding.   A hanging baffle half way up the feeder pole stops them cold, provided the pole is located eleven feed from the nearest launch pad. 

There’s a wide selection of seed and feeding stations available for the backyard birder.  This is because not all birds prefer their food vertical.  Some like their seed spread out on a platform so they may experience their food with both beak and feet.  They also glean the ground for seed and especially love sunflower or millet. 

Inevitably, there will be spillage from the feeders onto ground underneath.  To prevent seeds from sprouting and growing plants no one recognizes, try the partially steamed mix that has been heated to stop germination.

Despite the effort going into food selection, feeding birds in winter is sure to add life to the garden.  Just don’t take their criticism personally.

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Plastic flamingos in a yard.

Image via Wikipedia

On February 11, Walt Disney studios is releasing a new movie, Gnomeo and Juliet, bringing to the big screen two icons of the garden, superstars with devoted fans across the globe: garden gnomes and pink flamingos.  These pillars of pop culture are adored by gardeners, unlikely legends that spark passion in people. 

Those that adore one usually scoff at the other; the few who festoon their gardens with both are looked upon as needing to change their medication.  These cheerful, brightly colored statues are beloved by many; others, such as Britain’s Royal Horticultural Society – organizers of the premier Chelsea Flower Show – ban them for life.  But love them or hate them, they’ve carved a niche in garden lore.   

“The appeal of gnomes and flamingos lies precisely in the fact that they’re tasteless art,” says Dr. Brian Ott, Visiting Professor of Media Studies and pop culture expert at the University of Colorado, Denver.  “Our older generation may have put them into the garden with a straight face, but now – particularly with pink flamingos – people are doing it tongue in cheek, as a means of irony.”

Gnomes became popular centuries ago, first being produced in Thuringia, Germany, by Philip Griebel, who based his sculptures on local myths of gnomes helping gardeners at night.  From there, the gnomes caught on, with societies promoting them and fan clubs devoted to ‘freeing’ them.  Though Travelocity’s gnome mascot travels the world willingly, most gnomes are victims of pranksters who steal them to send abroad.  Recently, two teenagers in Gillette, Wyoming, allegedly pilfered over 140 gnomes before they were nabbed.

Flamingos are newer, introduced in 1957 by Don Featherstone, an artist who worked for Union Products.  Sold in pairs, with one standing tall, the other with head lowered to eat, flocks of these fowl are often used as a prank, planted onto lawns as a surprise greeting to the homeowner.  To celebrate one famous flocking, the Madison, Wisconsin, Common Council declared the plastic pink flamingo the official city bird in 2009.

 “I have no idea why people love flamingos so much, but we get calls from across the country from people who want them,” says Claude Chapdelaine, Vice President of Cado Products Company, makers of the original plastic pink flamingos. “We make plastic frogs, turtles, penguins, but the flamingos are the thing people want.” 

Purchasing the copyrights and molds in 2010, Cado Products are keeping the American icon alive after a brief stint out of production. “It’s taken us a little time to get ready for full production,” said Chapdelaine, “we had to put an addition onto our factory in order to make them.  But demand is huge, and this year we expect to sell over 100,000 pairs of them.”

Gardeners are drawn to displaying this kitsch for two reasons, says Ott: to make an ironic statement celebrating tastelessness (which we actually really love), and as a conversation piece in particular spaces.  Stumble upon one in the garden, and you’re sure to question the gardener about their sanity. 

Are the differences in devotees of gnomes or flamingos?  Ott believes so, speculating that what you display says a lot about how you want the world to view you.  Someone who favors gnomes is projecting a playful personality, one of ironic sensibility.  Gnomes are whimsical, but because they’re small, they’re less noticeable.

Flamingos tell a different story; the neon pink ornament is in-your-face, projecting a sense of counter culture and flaunting of rules.  “By displaying flamingos, people are being transgressive; there’s almost a subversive element that’s less true of gnomes,” said Ott.  “They’re socially edgy; the adult version of being a punk rock teenager with colored hair.”

Subversive or subtle, your garden is richer because of these ornaments, so choose them with care and display them proudly.

This post was previously published in the Boulder Camera, Longmont Times-Call, and Loveland Reporter-Herald.

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When you’re a gardener, there’s a rhythm to the seasons.  A time for sowing and for harvest, months of plenty and those of quiet; days spent laboring and weekends preserving – all these make up the year for us.  As February dawns, the season stretches before us, one heralded by two things: seed catalogs arriving in the mail, and my husband taking my credit cards from me.

Late winter is the time for dreaming and setting our sights on the summer ahead. Seed companies know this, and feed our obsession with publications filled with seductive descriptions of leaves or fruit, and photographs so luscious and enticing, gardeners refer to it as “plant porn.”   We might not wrap catalogs in plain brown paper, but we’re careful about where we whip them out:  opening the pages is enough to set a room full of gardeners into frenzy, crowding in to get a glimpse of the promising plants.

If you’ve never ventured out of the stores and into the world of catalogs, let me lead you into temptation.  In those pages are a bevy of choices, from flowers to vegetables, trees and shrubs.  You’ll find choices that take a ho-hum kitchen garden and transform it into a gourmand’s delight. 

There’s no need to stay with the standard “Better Boy” tomato, when Pruden’s purple, or zapotec will win your heart.  Potatoes transcend russet or Yukon gold into Colorado rose, purple majesty, or German butterballs.  You can grow a different bean for every type of cuisine on your table, and you’ll never look iceberg lettuce in the eye again after you’ve tastes the crisp, sweet flavor of freckles or grandpa admires lettuce.

This is why my spouse has to hide the credit cards and checkbook.  I’m easily swayed into placing so many orders I outstrip the size of my garden, and so far the neighbors seem oddly reluctant to let me plow into their yards for expansion. 

In the midst of catalog frenzy, keep several things in mind, the foremost of which is that the seed companies pay good writers to come up with descriptions that convince you that each and every plant in the catalog is a must have in your garden.  Other factors to consider are the size of your garden, the cost of the seeds, and whether you want to start seedlings indoors, under lights. 

If you’re not into seed starting, peruse those catalogs anyway; many of our local garden centers grow these varieties for you, and you’ll know what to look for when you shop.  Stay in or get out, either way, get shopping.  You’ll find a new world opens to your kitchen.

This post was previously published in the Longmont Ledger.

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