Save milkweeds, save monarchs. March 7, 2014Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading, pets, wit and wisdom.
Tags: milkweed, milkweed for monarchs, monarch butterflies, Monsanto, save the monarch butterflies
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Another reason to hate Monsanto. Our friend Ben read an article on LiveScience this morning that said that monarch butterfly populations were being driven to extinction because of Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup (generic: glyphosate). Because Roundup is so widely used in this country, milkweeds are being killed countrywide. And because milkweeds are the only food of monarch butterfly larvae and the only plants on which monarch females will lay their eggs, the monarch population has declined drastically, from over 1 billion to 3.3 million in just ten years. Our yard used to be full of monarchs; last summer, we didn’t see one.
People sometimes ask me why I hate Monsanto. Is it because of their “Frankenfoods,” GMO (for “genetically modified organisms”) like corn and soybeans created out of things like mouse DNA to withstand massive applications of Roundup, with no thought to how these so-called foods might affect the animals and humans that eat them? No, not really. Is it because of the trick Monsanto pulled on farmers, forcing them to buy the GMO seeds, which they produce and sell, AND the Roundup in ever-increasing quantities every year to keep weeds at bay? No, not really. Surely farmers are smart enough to figure out this devil’s bargain for themselves.
What really frosts my flakes about Monsanto is its ruthless pursuit of world domination. When its horrible GMO pollen gets into the field of a small farmer who’s nurturing an heirloom strain passed down in his family for generations, instead of the farmer suing Monsanto for contaminating his crop, Monsanto sues him for “stealing” its seeds. And wins. Money talks, and Monsanto has ever so much of that. Every time a state wants to have GMO ingredients listed on food labels so its citizens can make an informed decision about whether to buy them or not, Monsanto throws big money around and buys so many votes that not one of the many GMO-labelling initiatives has passed.
Worst of all, Monsanto goes to Third World countries and persuades its small farmers, who have grown crops suited to their areas for thousands of years, to give them up in favor of Monsanto’s supercrops. And suddenly, they too find themselves paying for seed every year instead of saving their own, seed that isn’t suited to their climate or their diet. Or else.
Meanwhile, the rest of us are faced with Roundup residue in our food and water and soil and pet food, whether we want it or not. (Soon to be combined with 2,4-D, one of the herbicides used in Agent Orange, to give its waning efficacy a boost.) And we’re seeing the die-off of beautiful species like the monarch butterflies as a result, and wondering why our own cancer rate and our pets’ is shooting up.
I’d like to encourage everyone who loves monarch butterflies to stop using Roundup on your property and to plant milkweed. If you feel the need to fight weeds on your property and don’t want to pull them up, use one of the flamethrower weedkillers, sort of like a bigger version of a grill starter. (Except in the case of poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac; you really need to keep after these while they’re small and pull them up wth latex gloves, then toss them and the gloves out in a plastic bag. Flame could blow the active ingredient, urushiol, on you, and give you a rash like you can’t imagine.)
We have encouraged the growth of our native milkweed (showy milkweed, Asclepias speciosa) here at Hawk’s Haven, as well as planting the aptly named butterfly weed (A. tuberosa). Both are highly decorative; showy milkweed has dense heads of pink flowers, and you can now find butterfly weed in every shade from yellow through orange to red. Showy milkweed will form sturdy colonies if you let it, and butterfly weed is one of the perennial joys of summer. Please try to help the monarchs. And defeat Monsanto.
The giant rat(s) of Sumatra. February 27, 2014Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading.
Tags: killing rats, mouse traps, rat traps, rat traps that work, rats, rats in the house, Tomcat rat trap
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Fans of Sherlock Holmes may recall that the tale of the “Giant Rat of Sumatra” was one of those stories for which, according to his biographer, Dr. John Watson, “the world was not yet prepared.” (If you’ve ever heard the profane, bawdy version created and performed by The Firesign Theatre, you’ll know that he was right.)
However, our friend Ben is not, alas, referring to the adventures of the Great Detective, but to the giant rats that recently took up residence in our mudroom here in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. Surrounded by farm fields as we are, Silence Dogood and I expect that a few mice will venture indoors once winter arrives, and that our cats will make short work of the poor things. But we never expected rats.
Our mudroom is adjacent to the furnace room but is unheated, so it provides us with much-needed cold storage in the winter, staying at least as cold as our fridge but never freezing. We keep everything from canned, jarred and bottled foods and beverages to fruit and storage veggies like winter squash, onions and potatoes in there. It’s like having a pantry, root cellar, and extra fridge.
So you can imagine Silence’s distress when she noticed that something had gotten into the parrot treats, knocked over various items on shelves, and gnawed on some of the potatoes. “Ben! There are mice in here! We’ve got to set some traps!” (The mudroom is off-limits to our cats and dog; too many things to knock over and break.)
I dutifully baited two snap-traps, using only the finest sticky stuff, Brie and egg salad, and positioned them strategically. (Which is to say, within easy reach of mice but out of reach of nosy cats or a dog who might try to barge in there.) Like clockwork, the traps were sprung and the treats removed, but there was no sign of the culprit and the demolition of the mudroom continued.
“Ben, look! The thing ate through the cartons of almond milk and silken tofu, as well as the packages of quinoa and millet! Eeewww, you should see this mess! It’s even eaten into two of the winter squash!” Silence regarded me darkly. “I don’t think this is a mouse. We need a rat trap!”
If you think of rats as residing only in subways and on docks, let our friend Ben tell you that farmers’ corncribs are a rat’s paradise. It was because cats kept rats from ransacking the granaries of ancient Egypt that they were deified by the grateful pharoahs and priests. But rats in our house?!! Why would rats be in our house? (And needless to say, no well-fed housecat in its right mind would take on a rat.)
Needless to say, our friend Ben soon found myself in our local Tractor Supply looking for a suitable trap. Silence had given me strict instructions: no glue traps, which were cruel, and no poison, both because of our pets and because the rat could eat it, then go off and die in some inaccessible place like inside a wall, where it would stink to high heaven for months to come. A sudden and relatively painless death was in order.
I found a great, reusable mechanical trap, the Tomcat Reusable Rat Trap. Made of plastic, it had plenty of built-in safety features (which are necessary, since a trap strong enough to kill a rat can break every finger in your hand if you inadvertently trip it on yourself). You could bait it before you set it, and set it with your hand or foot. I put peanut butter in the bait cup, set it up as directed, and waited to see what happened.
As it happens, I didn’t really think the creature was a rat, despite Silence’s having taken to referring to it as the Giant Rat of Sumatra. Rats? Here? Nonsense! How would one get in? And the mudroom adjoins our bedroom, and though I tried to keep an ear open all night, I never heard a trap snap, and neither did Silence.
But in the morning, I was greeted with “Ben! The trap worked! Please come get this rat out of here!” Sure enough, the trap had worked like magic, breaking the rat’s neck when it went for the peanut butter. Its large, heavy body (a good 10 inches long) and long naked tail lay still on the mudroom floor outside the trap.
After disposing of the rat, I was ready to call it a day, but Silence insisted that I reset the trap and replace it where it had been. A day passed with no further sign—no dead rat, no disturbed shelves, no new attacks on food or even organic fertilizer (the rat’s final foray). “See? What are you worried about?” I asked.
Well, plenty, as it turned out. On the third morning, Silence informed me that a second rat was in the trap. Then, this morning, it caught a mouse. The trap is once again reset and in place. We’re hoping that this has taken care of our rat population and will continue to control the mouse population. Better safe than sorry! And if you find yourself in similar circumstances, we highly recommend the Tomcat Reusable Rat Trap.
The Pope, the parrot, and the porn star. February 1, 2014Posted by ourfriendben in critters, wit and wisdom.
Tags: Amore, pope and parrot, pope blesses parrot, Pope Francis
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Silence Dogood and our friend Ben aren’t exactly up on the world of porn. It frankly amazes us that people would spend so much time watching it when there’s a whole world out there to explore, but then, we feel that way about lots of things, like, say, video games, Facebook, and reality TV.
Anyway, you’ve probably heard by now that Pope Francis blessed a parrot in St. Peter’s Square recently, and that it turned out that the parrot, named Amore, belonged to an Italian male stripper-turned-porn star. The parrot, a yellow-naped Amazon like our own Plutarch the Pirate Parrot, even went so far as to chant “Papa!” along with the crowd. (Yellow-naped Amazons and African greys are considered the brightest of all parrots, and are quick to pick up language, especially when they’re excited as Amore must have been in the midst of the chanting throng.)
We of course think bringing pets of all kinds for Pope Francis to bless, in the tradition of his namesake, Saint Francis, is a great idea. We wish we could take our entire menagerie to Rome for a papal blessing.
What surprised us wasn’t the parrot but the porn star. He had come to see the Pope not just with his parrot but with his wife and two daughters. The whole family loves Pope Francis.
The thought of porn stars having pets seems perfectly normal to us; even Paris Hilton has her chihuahuas, why shouldn’t porn stars? But the thought of a porn star having a wife and kids, perhaps leading a perfectly normal, mundane life when not filming, really rocked us back on our heels.
True, we love the movie “Independence Day,” where star Will Smith’s on-screen sweetheart is a stripper and loving partner and mom to her child. But we thought that was just a clever plot twist. Clearly, real life and love are a lot more interesting than we give them credit for. That’s Amore!
Animal rights done right. January 28, 2014Posted by ourfriendben in critters, wit and wisdom.
Tags: animal rights, dove attack, doves, peace, peace doves, PETA, Pope Francis
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Silence Dogood here. There’s a folk saying, “It’s easier to catch flies with honey than with vinegar.” This isn’t literally true; fruit flies love vinegar. But the meaning of the saying is that it’s easier to win people over to your view by being nice than nasty.
As a lifelong lover of animals and vegetarian for moral reasons, it has long horrified me how the animal-rights groups, PETA being the poster child for this, fail to internalize this lesson. Is throwing blood-colored paint on rich women’s fur coats or harassing Vogue‘s editor, Anna Wintour (the role model for the monster boss in “The Devil Wears Prada”), likely to win them to your side? History suggests that vandalism of any kind, and especially fanatic, intolerant, strident, one-dimensional violence and vandalism, is unlikely to win converts to your cause.
I was relieved to read that Italian animal-rights organizations didn’t make this mistake when two doves released by children at the Vatican in an annual peace ceremony this past Saturday were attacked by a predatory seagull and crow. (Fortunately, the doves only lost a couple of tailfeathers.) Instead of flooding the media with gory photos of animal abuse or suing Pope Francis for cruelty to animals, they mildly suggested that this ritual release of the doves, the symbol of peace, be stopped, since there are now too many predatory birds for the doves to be safe.
I hope Pope Francis heeds their call. The ceremony is full of symbolism and meaning, and I don’t think it should be stopped. But there’s no reason why the children can’t release origami doves to float down to Saint Peter’s Square, unmolested by hungry predators, as symbols of eternal peace.
Honey, not vinegar.
‘Til next time,
Mouse-proof your house. December 29, 2013Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, pets, wit and wisdom.
Tags: dealing with mice, hantavirus, keeping mice out, Lyme disease, mice, mice in the house, mouseborne diseases
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Silence Dogood here. Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home our friend Ben and I share here in the precise middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania, is surrounded by farm fields. Farm fields mean field mice. A plentiful deer population means white-footed deer mice. And when it gets cold outside and the food supply starts to dwindle, their thoughts turn to a warm, cozy cottage home.
Mice—especially white-footed mice—may look cute, but there are two very good reasons to keep them out of your house. One is the horrible mess they make if they do get into something—shredded cloth, ripped-up packages, spilled food, massive amounts of droppings and the stench of mouse urine. The other is disease. White-footed deer mice are the actual carriers of the ticks that spread debilitating Lyme disease. In the Southwest, mice carry the often-fatal hantavirus. It’s easy to blame rats for the resurgence of plague in the U.S., but who’s to know? Maybe plague-carrying fleas have made the short jump to mice.
Needless to say, when you grow up in rural, mouse-friendly houses, as OFB and I both did, you learn some standard anti-mouse procedures early on. And here at Hawk’s Haven, we’ve developed others.
Yes, of course you can smear something sticky, like peanut butter or Brie, on mousetraps and set them where mice can get them but you and your pets and kids are unlikely to get snapped. If you use mousetraps, I suggest you dump the poor little carcasses in the shrubbery so your overwintering wildlife can get some extra protein. For my part, people who use glue traps can rot in them themselves in a hell of agony, terror, and slow death.
If you don’t have kids or pets, you can set out poison bait, as my father always did. Unfortunately, this process involves a step they never advertise on the packaging: The mice don’t die right away. Instead, they inevitably crawl into the woodwork or somewhere else where you’ll never find them, then die and proceed to rot and stink for months on end. It’s just amazing how strong a tiny little mouse carcass can smell. Eeewwww!!! And don’t ever let anything, pet or wildlife, eat a poisoned carcass, unless you want to inflict more death.
You can of course also try your hand with live traps, and good luck to you. Please check them often, or the mice will suffocate in terror. And please have a humane release plan that doesn’t involve dumping them on someone else’s land. Good luck with that!
I guess it’s obvious that we don’t use poison or traps here at Hawk’s Haven. We prefer a simple program of deterrence. Our first line of defence is our two indoor cats and beloved black German shepherd, Shiloh. It’s true that every now and again, one of the cats will catch a mouse. But far more often, their pursuit of the mice, launching themselves against the heating ducts or whatnot with Shiloh in hot and happy pursuit, is enough to make the mice rethink their strategy. Retreat suddenly looks like a great idea.
We’d recommend cats to anyone. But our longterm strategy is much simpler and more passive: exclusion. First, we try to make sure there are no openings, however small, into our home, such as a tiny space around a pipe. We’ve heard that mice can squeeze through an opening the size of a dime. Though this is hard to believe of our fat country mice, we take no chances, filling space where pipes and the like enter the house with steel wool, then duct-taping over it.
Next, we store mouse-friendly foods in mouse-proof containers. Cheeses, butter, produce and nuts live in our fridge until it’s time to eat them. Grains, pasta, beans, and cereals are in large glass or hard plastic click-top containers. Everything else that’s out is in cans, bottles, or glass jars. We keep our pet food in huge tins, and keep our black-oil sunflower seed and suet cakes for the outdoor birds in a tin as well. (Note: If, like us, you thought mice were vegetarians, you’ll be shocked to learn that they appear to love meat-rich cat-food pellets as much as any cat.)
We’re also mindful of things that wouldn’t strike us as edible, like soap and candles. Mice love ‘em, so we keep them in secure, mouse-proof storage. Ditto for all natural fabrics. Mice are especially fond of wool—knitters, guard your yarn!—but cotton is fair game, as is paper, cardboard, you name it. Don’t risk it! Store your goods in those big plastic staorage bins you can get at any pharmacy or discount store or office supply store when they’re not hung up in your closet. And check your dresser drawers weekly.
Finally, if you do have pets, please dose them monthly with Frontline, Advantix, or some other flea- and tick-repellent. This will help you do an end-run around mice that might be carriers of disease via fleas or ticks, and save your pets as well as you.
‘Til next time,
The miracles of each moment. December 1, 2013Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
Tags: everyday miracles, great blue herons, Kazuaki Tanahashi, natural wonders
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Silence Dogood here. I’d been complaining to our friend Ben all day that we hadn’t seen the usual array of birds and other creatures that usually come to or live in our yard, making it colorful and fun. I kept going to the back door to check on them, but they just weren’t there. Where on earth had they all gone?
Then, a miracle happened. I saw our beloved black German shepherd, Shiloh, staring fixedly out the deck door, so I came over to see what had attracted her attention. And just then, two great blue herons rose up from our little creek, Hawk Run, and circled the yard before departing for parts unknown.
Great blue herons are called “great” for a reason: They can reach nearly 5 feet in height and length, with a wingspan that can reach 6 1/2 feet. I see great blue herons in flight, their long legs trailing behind them, maybe once or twice a year. And I occasionally see them in my neighbor’s yard, poaching a free meal from the fish and frogs in his water garden. But I’ve never, ever seen two at a time, and I’ve never seen one in our yard before.
OFB and I are privileged to own a beautiful piece of calligraphy by the master Kazuaki Tanahashi called “Miracles of Each Moment.” This was definitely one for me.
‘Til next time,
How to tell if a pawpaw’s ripe. October 10, 2013Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading.
Tags: eating pawpaws, pawpaws, ripe pawpaws, what to do with ripe pawpaws, zebra swallowtails
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Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I have quite the little pawpaw grove here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home we share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. We planted three different varieties in the hope of getting a good crop (pawpaws need a second variety to cross-pollinate in order to set fruit), and last year, for the first time, we finally got some fruit. But before we could harvest them, the critters made off with them all.
This confused us, since the wily wildlife here at Hawk’s Haven usually strikes our berries and other fruiting plants the second they’re fully ripe, but not a second before. And these pawpaws were still green!
We’d become intrigued by pawpaws, a native fruit also known as “banana custard” because of its texture and flavor, when a friend brought us some ripe fruit from her trees a number of years ago. The big fruits are oblong and about the size of the small yellow mangoes you sometimes find alongside the large variety in the produce aisle. They have golden yellow flesh and large black seeds, which are easy to remove. Then you can scoop the flesh out and eat it as is, add it to muffins, cookies or bread (a la banana bread), or use it to flavor homemade ice cream.
The pawpaws Deb brought us had a noticeable yellow flush over the green skin, and we were waiting for our fruit to change color when it vanished. This year, we have a bumper crop of pawpaws, and OFB and I are eager to get a few for ourselves this time. But, once again, they’re still green. So you can imagine our shock when our friend Leslie stopped over and announced that our pawpaws were ripe and, in fact, she’d just eaten two of them!
“But Leslie, they’re still green!” I exclaimed.
“They’re definitely ripe, or at least the ones that have started to soften up are,” she responded. “They’re delicious! You’d better get out there and pick some.”
What the bleep was going on? I went online and Googled “when are pawpaws ripe.” Sure enough, it turns out that the skin of some pawpaw varieties will blush yellow when ripe, but others just stay green. Ways to tell if the green ones are ripe include checking for a slight give when pressed, like a ripe mango; putting your nose up against the fruit and seeing if you can detect a fragrance; and twisting the stem sideways to see if it detaches easily from the tree. Other folks just wait for the fruit to fall, then harvest it quickly before something else does.
Not that we begrudge our wildlife their share of pawpaws. The reason we grow them is that their leaves are the sole food of the caterpillars that become the gorgeous zebra swallowtail butterflies. We love butterflies, so we grow pawpaws for the zebra swallowtails and milkweeds for the monarch butterfly caterpillars. We just wish the critters would leave a few pawpaws for us to enjoy!
If it ever stops raining, we’ll be out there checking for ripe fruit. OFB and I will probably go for the scoop-and-eat method rather than making bread or ice cream. One final warning from the web: Apparently pawpaws can go from lusciously ripe to black-skinned and inedible within days. So once you pick them, eat them ASAP or scoop and freeze the flesh to use later.
‘Til next time,
The frogs of winter. October 8, 2013Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
Tags: frog hibernation, frogs, frogs in winter, why don't frogs freeze in winter
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have been enjoying the company of two frogs who took up residence in our deck’s half-barrel water garden this spring. They’ve stayed with us all season, and their occasional commentary and antics have kept us amused when we sit out on the deck every dry evening to relax and watch the sunset with our beloved black German shepherd, Shiloh.
But now, with the weather cooling rapidly and the leaves falling, we’ve become worried about them. After all, if the winter is cold enough, that water garden can freeze almost to the bottom. (We move the water plants to a similar half-barrel in our greenhouse to overwinter.) Would our frogs have the good sense to head to our little stream, Hawk Run, which runs beneath our deck bridge, and burrow into the mud bank for their winter hibernation?
Our friend Ben felt that research was in order, so I turned to my good friend Google, which revealed some truly amazing facts about the winter habits of frogs. First, while they do hibernate, they don’t burrow into the mud to sleep the winter away. Instead, they just remain suspended on the pond or stream floor.
But what if the water freezes? Well, of course the frogs freeze with it. Only they don’t, or not exactly. According to frog expert Rick Emmer, writing in Scientific American, frogs come with their own antifreeze, which keeps them from dying even if they freeze.
“True enough, ice crystals form in such places as the body cavity and bladder and under the skin, but a high concentration of glucose in the frog’s vital organs prevents freezing,” he writes. “A partially frozen frog will stop breathing, and its heart will stop beating. It will appear quite dead. But when the [water] warms up above freezing, the frog’s frozen portions will thaw, and its heart and lungs resume activity…”
Yowie kazowie! That explains why frogs are found as far north as the Arctic Circle. Let’s hope it’s enough to protect our resident frogs if they decide to hibernate in our water garden this winter. We’d be very happy to see them again next spring!
Cedar waxwings at last. October 6, 2013Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading.
Tags: attracting birds, backyard birdwatching, birdwatching, cedar waxwings, red cedar
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Our friend Ben was surveying the morning scene from our deck door yesterday, enjoying the view across our plant-filled deck and backyard. As I watched, I became aware of a large flock of grey birds on the privet that borders Hawk Run, the little creek that runs behind our house.
Mind you, I’m not referring to those horrible privet cubes people love so much, but to a tall (as in 15 feet), graceful, open, airy plant, left to grow the way God intended. A privet left to its own devices is a delight in all seasons, with its exquisite form, clusters of tiny, highly fragrant white flowers that turn into clusters of deep blue-black berries, and bright yellow fall foliage. In winter, the berries cling to the shrub, and I love to watch the mockingbirds enjoying them.
But I digress. Observing this flock, I noticed several things. They were bigger than chickadees, who have already arrived for the winter with their cousins, the titmice. Titmice are grey, too, and are bigger than chickadees, but I’ve never seen more than three or four at a time, and here were at least 12, maybe 20.
The crown feathers of a titmouse’s head form a crest like a cardinal’s, giving it its name, tufted titmouse. I thought I could see something crest-like about these birds’ crowns, too, but the triangle seemed to be flattened, pointing backwards. Could it be, could it finally be, that I was seeing a flock of cedar waxwings?! Our friend Ben raced for the binoculars.
Yes!!! These amazing birds, so common in the northern half of the country in fall and winter, had never been in our yard before. In fact, Silence Dogood and I had never seen one. And here was a whole flock! Resisting the urge to hog the binoculars, I called Silence and we stood at the sliding glass doors, just revelling in our good fortune.
How did I know these were cedar waxwings, when the birds I was watching appeared to have dark grey backs and whitish underparts, and the pictures in our bird books show brown backs and cream underparts? Their tails gave them away. In fact, our friend Ben thinks they should be called cedar waxtails, not waxwings. The tips of the tail-feathers of waxwings look like they’ve been dipped in deep yellow candlewax, and our binoculars showed that clearly. (The secondary wing feathers are tipped in red “wax,” giving them their name, but our binoculars didn’t reveal that.) I’m sure the birds really are brown and cream, but take this as a caution as to what light conditions can do.
I don’t know about you, but there’s only so long Silence and I can stand still and hold up even small binoculars to our eyes, and shifting focus constantly makes Silence dizzy. So after a few minutes, we decided to risk it. Arming ourselves with our steaming mugs, we slipped out onto the deck as discreetly as we could manage and sat down. And then we were really amazed.
Not only were the waxwings clustering on the privet, alternating between it and some nearby evergreens, but the air was literally filled with birds and birdsong. We’d begun filling the feeders again a few weeks ago when it got cold. And because our large yard is wildlife-friendly, we always have lots of birds. But this particular morning was entirely different. There were the chickadees, goldfinches, titmice, cardinals, mourning doves, and the last robins. There were our nuthatches, and we could hear the resident woodpeckers at work high in the tree canopy.
But here, too, was the first bluejay of fall! (We love big, bold, colorful jays.) And the air was full of warblers, flying from tree to tree, and the waxwings, and myriad other birds, coming so close to us in the branches overhead, I thought at any moment one might land on us. Silence and I agreed that it was the most amazing morning either of us had ever experienced.
I guess it’s not surprising that we finally got our cedar waxwings: We have two huge red cedar trees in our front yard, which bear thousands of waxy blue-black juniper berries, providing food and shelter for myriad bird species over the winter. And cedar waxwings get their name from this evergreen. The question is, what took them so long?
Why grow native plants? September 26, 2013Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading.
Tags: butterflies, milkweed, monarch butterflies, native plants, nurturing life, pawpaws, pollinators, zebra swallowtails
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Silence Dogood here. Sitting on my deck yesterday afternoon, I saw the clearest explanation possible for why we should choose to plant the often plainer native plants, or allow them to live and thrive on our properties, when much more stunning cultivated varieties (known in horticulture as cultivars) and species are available.
I’m by no means a native-plant purist. I love my peonies, irises, roses, spring bulbs, chrysanthemums, hostas, Japanese maples, you name it. But I make room for the natives alongside the others: the asters and goldenrods, the gorgeous white-flowered nettles, the milkweeds, the pawpaws, the rudbeckias (black-eyed Susans), the jewelweed along our creek.
Why? Well, because they support life. Last week, at our farmers’ market, I bought some stunning cultivated asters and mums, rich and full, bursting with purple, cream-and-yellow, and red blooms. I wanted to add some color to our deck and eventually plant them out in our yard. Wow, were they colorful!
So there I was, sitting out on the deck enjoying the beautiful afternoon, as the sun began its descent and lit up the leaves of our trees and the foliage of our deck plants. It also happened to light up the blooms of native asters, much paler and lankier than the ones on the deck. And I could see that the blooms were teeming with life, as bees and other insects swarmed over them, collecting pollen and sipping nectar. Looking to the side of the deck, I saw bumblebees galore visiting the orange jewelweed blossoms. Nearby, the white blooms of the nettles were alive with insects.
Meanwhile, there was not a creature to be seen on the souped-up asters or mums on the deck, despite the wealth of flowers. Not one.
I love plants that support all life, not just our life. I allow milkweeds to flourish here because they provide food for monarch butterfly larvae, not just because their flowers are amazing. I grow pawpaws because they provide food for zebra swallowtail larvae, not just because their fruits are so delicious they’re known as “banana custard.” I allow red cedars, generally viewed as a weed tree, to grow here because they provide food and shelter for birds in winter. And I love the clover that grows in our lawn, adding beauty and inviting bees.
I hate it when the nuts crash down from our black walnut, butternut, and shagbark hickory trees every fall. I’m always convinced one of them is going to brain me or our friend Ben or our beloved black German shepherd, Shiloh, or cause us to slip and break our necks in the dark. Yet these trees provide a wealth of food for squirrels and other local wildlife, just as winter is closing in and they need to build up fat reserves to survive.
Seeing those native asters, lit by the sun, inviting so much life, and seeing the sterile though much more showy version on our deck, really brought the point home to me. Life isn’t just about us. It’s about sharing our beautiful earth. And providing food and shelter for our fellow creatures, rather than creating a sterile landscape solely for our own enjoyment, is the way to do that. No, we don’t have to plant exclusively native plants. Yes, we can allow natives to share our yards with the exotics and cultivated varieties we choose to add for show. In the end, we’ll all be better off.
‘Til next time,