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Signs of spring. March 23, 2014

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Finally! Spring is here, though it’s hard to believe here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home our friend Ben and Silence Dogood share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. We still have patches of snow on the ground. Ugh!

However, spring is making its presence felt. Snow geese and Canada geese are migrating overhead, filling the air with their distinctive calls. Our trees are full of squawking starlings (alas). We’ve yet to see the first robin, but it can’t be long now.

And, an annual delight, the first of our spring bulbs—the winter aconites and snowdrops—are in bloom. Winter aconites have small, starry, glossy buttercup-yellow blooms born on glossy green feathery foliage just a few inches tall. They’re bulbs in the genus Eranthis, not to be confused with the perennial aconites (genus Aconitum) with tall spires of purple flowers that look like upside-down foxgloves, giving them the name monkshood. These perennials are deadly poisonous, also giving them the name wolfsbane and many another referring to their poisonous attributes. But they’re still great perennials for the late-summer garden; just don’t feed them to your wolves!

Anyway, getting back to the cheerful little winter aconites, they couldn’t look less like the perennials and aren’t even related to them. How they acquired the same name is one of those botanical mysteries our friend Ben will have to look into. But I’d recommend them to anyone; the joyful clumps of yellow flowers slowly grow bigger every year, and seeds will give you new clumps nearby.

Best of all, they bloom at exactly the same time as snowdrops (Galanthus spp.), another small bulb with strappy leaves and downturned white flowers. These bulbs also spread, and grown with winter aconites, they create an Easter patchwork of yellow and white, cheering winter-worn eyes before the grass turns green or even the hellebores bloom.

They also require absolutely zero maintenance from you after you plant them. We started with a shovelful of snowdrops from a colleague that just happened to include a couple of winter aconite bulbs. We planted them in our shrub border, and over the years they’ve grown into the cheerful display that reminds us that spring really has arrived and many more glorious blooms are yet to come.

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Seek and ye shall find. March 2, 2011

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“Ben, it’s March, have you noticed?”

“Uh… ” Our friend Ben knew what Silence Dogood was about to say next, since she says the same thing every spring. Adopting an “I-can’t-hear-you” attitude, I quickly slunk into the mudroom to get some seed for the outdoor birds.

“BEN!!!!”

“Oh, sorry, Silence. You were saying?”

“It’s time to recycle our Christmas wreath and put out the grapevine wreath instead.”

“But, Silence! That wreath still looks as fresh as the day we hung it up! And besides, there’s still snow on the ground…” Our friend Ben managed to find two tiny spots where the ice hadn’t completely melted. “Besides, didn’t you see the forecast? It’s supposed to be in the 20s every night this week. Don’t tell me it’s not still winter!”

“Ben, it’s MARCH. You’ve managed to drag Christmas out to record lengths this year, but enough’s enough. Even you have agreed to stop putting seed in our cabin feeder so the bulbs that make such a gorgeous display underneath that tree every spring won’t be trampled and buried in birdseed. Maybe instead of fighting the inevitable, you should start looking for signs of spring.”

“Oh.” Our friend Ben is nothing if not sentimental, and Christmas is such a beloved season that I hate to see it end. But I had to concede that Silence had a point. Heading to the front door with the birdseed, my eyes came to rest on our mantel. “What happened to our Valentine’s cards?!” I wailed.

“Ben. It’s. March.” At this point, Silence’s eyes were rolling back in her head. “I’ve put them away until next year. But look, there’s the wonderful photo of our black German shepherd, Shiloh, that you gave me as a Valentine’s present, still up on the mantel. We’ll leave that up all year as a reminder.” She handed me a bag for the ornaments, bow, and solar Christmas lights from our wreath, and the grapevine wreath to hang in its place, and shooed me out the door. “Look for signs of spring,” she reminded me, closing the door.

After dealing with the wreath issue, I wandered over to fill our tube feeders, stopping on the way to check for the tips of bulbs poking through the soil beneath the cabin feeder. Nothing. I filled the feeders, then continued on around the side of the house to see if any of the hellebores had started to bloom in our shade garden. The plants looked healthy and even seemed to be putting on new growth, but so far, there was nary a bloom in sight.

Making the most of the snow’s retreat, I began one of our more constant backyard chores, pick-up-sticks (we have lots of mature trees, so falling twigs and branches are an unending fact of life). At least the firepit had emerged from under its snow blanket so I had a place to deposit the sticks. It was on the way back around the side of the house that I noticed that the bed beneath our home office windows was showing signs of life. Sure enough, a telltale clump of healthy green shoots had pushed up through the groundcover. Snowdrops!

Where there were some snowdrops, there had to be others. Rushing to another bed, I saw more clumps pushing up. Rounding the other side of the house to fill the backyard feeders, I saw that our ‘Ice Follies’ daffodils were up and running. I raced to several beds in the back where we’d planted bulbs for a colorful spring show. Yes!!! There were the shoots of crocuses, mini-daffs, and even tulips pushing up. And in the bed beneath our shrub border, I saw that the delightful chrome-yellow winter aconites and snowdrops had actually started to bloom. 

“Silence!!!” I rushed back in the house.

Silence, who’d been deep in composing a thoughtful essay, leapt to her feet, her face going white as chalk. “Ben! What’s happened?!!”

“The first aconites are blooming, and there are buds on some snowdrops!”

“Oh my God, Ben, I thought for sure Shiloh had escaped and run into the road!” Silence glared at me, clutching her heart. But she did let me take her outside to show her our first signs of spring. She even suggested that it was time to take our shiitake logs outside for the season, and pitched in with an armful of pick-up-sticks before returning to her essay.

“See, Ben, signs of spring! Don’t you think that it’s time to pack Christmas away and prepare to welcome the return of life to our land?” Silence may not live up to her name, but she’s a born psychiatrist. I had to agree. Spring is not just in the air, it’s in the ground. It’s time to turn our backs on winter for another year and celebrate the arrival of spring.

Kicking ice. March 7, 2010

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“OWWWOOOOO!!!”

Silence Dogood here. “Who’s hurting Shiloh?!!!” Dropping the broom I was using to sweep up birdseed while cleaning the cages of Plutarch the Parrot and our three parakeets, Taco, Belle, and Laredo, I rushed to the deck door. I’d exiled our friend Ben and our black German shepherd, Shiloh, to the Great Outdoors so I could clean the cages unmolested. I’d assumed that OFB had parked himself in one of the deck chairs, with the Sunday paper and a margarita, while Shiloh gamboled contentedly around him.

Then I heard that noise. Before I could even get to the door, I heard the long, plaintive wail again. Hysterical, I hauled open the sliding glass door, ready to beat whatever was hurting Shiloh to death with the dowel we use to secure the door, when I saw… our friend Ben kicking the remaining snow and ice on the deck into chunks. And Shiloh, beside herself with delight, leaping around, trying to grab every ice chunk, and wailing as if in extremis. “OWWWOOOOOOOOO!!!!”

Well, it didn’t use up more than five of my remaining lives. I couldn’t even take it out on OFB, who, after all, was not only doing us a service by getting that snow and ice off our deck, but was treating Shiloh to the time of her life. Just, I tried to tell myself while willing my heartbeat to return to normal, another sign of spring.

We’ve had a number of signs that were less upsetting: Our snowdrops, winter aconites, and early hellebores are in bloom; our greenhouse overheats at this point so we have to open windows and doors for daytime ventilation; birds are courting (we know this because the hawks are pairing up, the starlings are raiding our studio for insulation for their nests, and our winter birds’ calls have changed dramatically as courtship commences); the days are longer; and the snow has almost melted.

Welcome spring! Welcome every second of additional light, every moment of high-thirties warmth that lets me sneak out for the paper or to run errands in my tee-shirt sleeves, and every inch of snow-free ground.

“OWWWOOOOOO!!!!”

Shiloh, the cages are clean and I’ve swept the kitchen floor. Please come back inside, calm down, and SHUT UP. And OFB, here’s a little hint: Stop kicking ice, or I’ll start kicking ass.

          ‘Til next time,

                   Silence

It smells like spring. March 26, 2009

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Silence Dogood here. Today has been a grey, miserable experience here at Hawk’s Haven. It looks like exactly like it’s about to snow. And, since it can snow here as late as May, that’s no big surprise. So here I was, feeling sorry for myself and holing up in the house until, finally, our golden retriever, Molly, informed me that the mail had arrived and anyway, she needed to go out for a bathroom break.

Okay, I thought as I bundled into my coat and Muck Shoes and gathered the recyclables for our bin. It looks like it’s been raining a little out there on the deck; let’s hope it’s not too, too cold out there. As I opened the door to take Molly, the recycling, and my bundled-up self out, while trying to keep the indoor cats from bolting for freedom (“NO, Layla! Get back, Linus!!!”), I stepped outside and…

It was spring. Yes, it looked grey, threatening, snowy. But no. It was warm, and you could smell the soil. I could see buds on the clumps of daffodils as I went around the side of the house to collect the mail. Our little stream, Hawk Run, was burbling along without a trace of ice. Our outdoor cats were playing in the yard instead of holing up in our outdoor cat house. Life was good.  

I collected our Mollycule and, praising outdoor cats and threatening potential indoor escapees, returned inside to take up the burdens of life as a responsible adult with bills to pay and work to do. But somehow, everything’s different now. It smells like spring.

           ‘Til next time,

                       Silence

Let’s get dirty. March 21, 2009

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Silence Dogood here. No, I’m not trying to change our “G” (for “Gardener-friendly”) rating to an “X” here at Poor Richard’s Almanac. But sometimes you come on something so priceless you just have to share it. Our friend Ben did that just this morning when he stumbled on the saying “A nation of sheep shall be ruled by pigs.” (See his post “I wish Ben had said that” for more on that.)

In my case, I was heading to the sleepy little town of Kutztown, Pennsylvania this afternoon to pick up some groceries (arugula, green onions, Brussels sprouts, green and yellow beans, Romaine lettuce, and cilantro) when I drove by Foliage Farm, a local nursery. And they had a big sign at the road: “Let’s get dirty.”

I couldn’t have put it better. Gardeners everywhere are doing just that this very weekend. Here in PA, our soil is finally thawed out enough to work. Farm fields have gone, seemingly overnight, from the beautiful bleached beige of shorn cornstalks and winter wheat to a rich, fertile brown as farmers turn the soil. Bunching onions and garlic are producing clumps of exultant green exclamation points in our raised beds, and daffodils are following suit in the ornamental beds around our property. It’s all we can do not to rush out and get our hands dirty. (A bad idea with nights still dropping to 31 degrees F.)

Warm-season gardeners, reach in and grab a handful of sunwarmed compost or dig into the soil with your fingers as you plant seeds and transplants. Gardeners here and farther north, let’s pot up some houseplants or at least give them a good drink of organic nutrients. Let’s sow some seeds, order berries and fruit trees, and dream of rich, exultant harvests to come. Come on! Let’s get dirty.

           ‘Til next time,

                         Silence

The robins are back! March 14, 2009

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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today with an exciting announcement: This morning, I saw the first robins here in my Pennsylvania yard! I was getting a cup of coffee when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a movement that engaged my foggy brain. It’s a movement I’ve only seen before in robins.

Rushing to the window, I saw that, sure enough, a pair of robins in the backyard was doing this particular funny dance: They face off, and then they leap into the air, sort of smacking each other in the face before fluttering back to earth and starting the whole sequence again.

I don’t know if these are males fighting for territory or a male and female engaged in an eccentric courtship ritual. But what I do know is that these are the first robins I’ve seen in 2009. Finally, spring is here!

The birds say it’s spring. March 2, 2009

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Looking at the ground surrounding Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home Silence Dogood and our friend Ben share in the precise middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania, you would swear it was winter. Several inches of snow and sleet have blanketed the ground with white. But our birdfeeders tell a different story.

Yes, we still have a few of the winter regulars—the juncos, titmice, purple and house finches, and chickadees—that brighten our lives through the coldest months. And our year-round regulars, the cardinals, woodpeckers, sparrows, blue jays, mourning doves, and nuthatches, are still out in force. So is our large resident flock of goldfinches. But we’ve noticed they’re starting to look more gold and less olive-drab as the days lengthen into March. And as we’ve mentioned in a previous post, our Carolina wren has begun singing his courting song (“Judy, Judy, Judy”) loudly every midmorning. (“Judy” must be taking her time about answering.)

But today brought two first-of-season species to our cabin feeder: We saw a single red-winged blackbird, his epaulettes all yellow rather than the brilliant red-and-yellow of courtship plumage.* And there, bold as brass—or in this case, bronze—were a whole flock of the big, bold grackles with their iridescent plumage.

The poor grackles have now been lumped into the demoralizing designation of “common grackle,” where before they flaunted their colors as purple grackles and bronzed grackles. These are definitely of the bronzed persuasion, with bronze backs and blue heads. They are handsome birds, and they know it. But while most of our feeder birds hang back while the grackles feast, the sparrows know no such restraint. They boldly forage among the bigger, brighter birds, who don’t deign to acknowledge such drab little things. (Much like teens at the mall pretending not to see, much less know, their parents. Or perhaps Regency dandies swanning around while their valets hover unobtrusively in the background.)

And yes, lest our friend Ben forget, yesterday I saw several pairs of red-tailed hawks, my favorite and totem bird. Redtail courtship has begun in earnest. Soon enough, a new generation will be taking to the skies over Hawk’s Haven.

Like the snow geese that make us glad to be alive when they pass over our home as they make their springtime progress northwards, the arrival of spring’s regulars lifts our hearts. We begin to think of mockingbirds and bluebirds, of the occasional oriole and tanager to come. We experience a greening of our thoughts, a fever for new plants, spurred on by such sights as the first snowdrops in bloom and the first daffodils breaking ground.

The snow says that winter is still with us. But our friend Ben and Silence are siding with the birds and the daffodils.

* Oops, I lied, and did I ever! Though it’s true that there was only one red-winged blackbird for most of the day, the gale-force winds that blew the storm through here must have brought all his friends and relations in its wake. I now count more than 30 red-winged blackbirds at the feeder, including one stripey immature, one female, and several males sporting both red and yellow epaulettes. These seem to be the honor guard of the flock, always guarding the perimeter. I also saw the season’s first starling, still in its fresh, spangled plumage, and one cowbird.

Ben Picks Ten: Signs of Spring February 17, 2009

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Spring is in the air here at our friend Ben and Silence Dogood’s little cottage home, Hawk’s Haven, located in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. How do I know, when my calendar tells me it’s over a month before the official first day of spring? Well, Mother Nature isn’t too big on calendars, and she has her own ways of letting us know what’s going on. Here are ten signs of spring I’m seeing (or hearing, or smelling) outdoors right now:

1. The snow geese are here! Our friend Ben knows that spring is in the air when the beautiful snow geese fly overhead or light in the fields around our house on their way back North. They cover the ground like snowfall, and to my mind, there is no more glorious sight in all the world than seeing a huge flock of snow geese fly by on a sunny day. 

2. Snowdrops are in bloom. I saw our first snowdrops blooming this past weekend. Soon the winter aconites will join them in a brilliant (if low-lying) yellow-and-white display that always lifts my heart. The gardens have survived another winter!

3. The wrens are courting. The perky Carolina wren that’s been a delightful fixture at our cabin feeder all winter suddenly began serenading me with “Judy, Judy, Judy” as I work here at the home office computer. I hope “Judy” is suitably impressed!

4. The days are longer. Our golden retriever, Molly, is bravely battling liver cancer and is on a bunch of meds that keep her ever hungry and thirsty, and consequently ever in need of a bathroom break. Our friend Ben and Silence are so sleep-deprived at this point that we’re almost punch-drunk. Our friend Ben takes the dawn shift, taking Molly outside and then feeding her and giving her her meds in a peanut butter sandwich (a huge treat). Molly is ready for breakfast between 5:30 and 6:30, and as you can imagine, I’ve been lurching around in the dark trying to take care of her needs. But this morning, it was actually light. So light, in fact, that I was convinced the clock was off. But it wasn’t! Our friend Ben welcomes and celebrates every minute of increased daylength morning and evening. I’d like to think Molly does, too.

5. The hens are laying. Increased daylength has also worked its magic on our little flock of six heritage-breed hens, who take a break from egglaying every winter so they can conserve their energy in the cold. But this week, they’ve started up again. Silence and I enjoyed our first homegrown eggs of the season for Sunday brunch, and Molly got one, too. 

6. The farmers are manuring their fields. This isn’t exactly one of the joys of spring, but it certainly is a sure sign when the farmers around Hawk’s Haven haul the manure out of the barns and spread it on their fields. It doesn’t take Punxsutawney Phil to tell us that in a few weeks, the first plantings will start.

7. The hellebores aren’t frozen. We have a shaded property here at Hawk’s Haven, so we grow a lot of shade-loving plants. Hellebores are favorites because of their evergreen foliage. But when it’s bitterly cold outside, the plants try to defend themselves by sort of folding up their leaves, much as we would pull our overcoats tightly around us. Just looking at them makes our friend Ben feel cold. But glory hallelujah, the past few days the hellebores have spread their leaves to the sun. It won’t be too long before the so-called Christmas roses (Helleborus niger) and green-flowered hellebores (H. foetidus) begin the beautiful hellebore flower show, which reaches full glory when the Lenten roses (H. orientalis hybrids) join them a month or so later.

8. Neither is the cats’ water. Constantly running out to replace frozen bowls of water isn’t our friend Ben’s idea of a good time. But when our little stream, Hawk Run, is frozen over, and the outdoor cats’ water dish quickly follows suit, we don’t have much of an option. What a relief to look out the back door and see a bowl full of sparkling liquid! I know the cats feel the same way. 

9. There aren’t as many birds at the feeders. Hawk’s Haven turns into a virtual city for birds in winter, with dozens at every one of our feeders and on the ground beneath them. We love our feathered visitors and welcome each and every one, be it cardinal, junco, bluejay, chickadee, goldfinch, titmouse, woodpecker, or sparrow. So one sad sign of spring is when the feeders don’t need refilling quite as often. Far from running ourselves (and our bank account) ragged filling feeders twice a day as we have all winter, Silence and I see that now a couple of days pass before the feeders are empty and requiring our attention.

10. I can see the ground. Our friend Ben has put this one last, but it is by no means least. Silence and I are transplanted Southerners, and though we know in our heads that a solid covering of snow protects our plants, our hearts continue to tell us that snow, ice, sleet, freezing rain, and hail are abominations that threaten our lives (through falls and wrecks), our livelihoods (through power failures), and our security (through crashing trees, loss of heat, frozen pipes, and the like). If we had one nice snowfall on Christmas Eve, and it was between 60 and 70 the rest of the year, our friend Ben would be ecstatic. So you can imagine how thrilled I was when the snow finally melted off this weekend. Yes, it may be back, and be back many times between now and April. But I’ll take every snow-free day I can get!

Has spring sprung where you live? What are the signs that let you know it’s spring?

Waiting for snow February 12, 2008

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The weather guys are calling for a horrific snow/sleet/freezing rainstorm to strike here at our friend Ben’s home, Hawk’s Haven, this morning. Of course, our friend Ben has many homestead chores yet to do, not to mention errands in the tiny nearby towns of Kutztown and Trexlertown and urgent deadlines involving bookmaps yet to mail off. So I’m looking nervously at the sky and wondering if those are flakes I see or simply a cobweb on the window. No, they’re definitely flakes. The chickens, who hate snow, will not be pleased with this turn of events, and temperatures in the single digits the past few nights have been causing their eggs to freeze and crack in the nestboxes, a sad return for their efforts. (Of course, my golden retriever disagrees with this view–she gets any cracked eggs with her breakfast.) But a flock of brown-headed cowbirds turned up at the feeders yesterday, which my friend and ornithological guru Rudy says is a sure sign of spring. Our friend Ben can only hope–and get moving with those chores!