Friday, March 28, 2014

Gettin' Down eeeee

Downy Woodpeckers may be the hyperactive children of the bird world.  They don't soar, glide, perch or coo.  They hop, jerk, bounce and are energetically perky.  I like the punk hairdo on this little guy.

Some facts about this little bird:

The Picoides pubescens is the smallest woodpecker in Illinois, measuring just over six inches. It's found year-round in all but the very lower portion of a few southwest states and the very northern part of Alaska.  I think we can assume they are pretty durable and easily withstand adversity.

Female downy navigating up to the feeder.
Males and females look similar except the male has a bright red bar on the back of his head.  As you can see from the photos, they are black and white in a very bold pattern.  Their coloring may slightly vary in the Pacific northwest and Rocky Mountain areas.  Juvenile Downy have a red cap on top of their head.

They are considered "common" which means they are most everywhere and not endangered.  I'd call them opportunists because they not only live in wooded areas but also in suburbs, gardens, roadsides, parks and most everywhere!

They will frequent feeders and suet stations.  Their favorite meal is insects found beneath tree bark or in and among weeds.  Good news:  They eat pest insects such as  corn earworm, tent caterpillars, bark beetles, and apple borers  I've never heard they cause tree damage by extracting insects.  75% of their diet is insects and the rest is seeds and fruits.  If fed during the winter, they will remain quite loyal to your location.  In addition to suet feeders, try black oil sunflower seeds, mullet, peanuts and chunky peanut butter.
Downy hanging upside down on beef suet.

While most woodpeckers are pretty standoffish, the Downy comes the closest to being friendly by taking advantage of the food from humans and joining mixed flocks of chickadees, nuthatches, creepers and kinglets especially during the winter.

Once a year, the female lays four to six pure white eggs in a hole in a tree.  The hole is excavated by the pair in a dead limb or tree and it takes 1-3 weeks.  The cavity is larger as it drops down to hold the eggs and nesting mother.  It is lined only with wood chips.  They also roost in these holes in the winter.

This is an especially good time to again tell you that a totally perfect stand of deciduous trees doesn't attract a wide variety of birds.  Killing every insect without your sphere will drive the Downy and other insect eating birds away.  Say "no" to indiscriminate chemical pesticide use.

  • Male Downy making sure the coast is clear before
    grabbing a sunflower seed. 

    More interesting facts:  

    When farmers stopped using wood fence posts and either went to metal or removed them altogether, the population declined.  It has now increased to over 14 million in the US and Canada since they have adapted so well to new growth woods.

    When mating they fly between trees making their flight look like that of a butterfly.  

    Their eggs are about the size of a woman's thumb nail.

    The baby bird has a hook on the end of it's bill so it can break out of the shell.  That hook goes away.

    The male is dominate over the female and will chase her away from prime feeding places.  They typically bond for life sharing incubating and feeding duties with the kids.

    To attract this bird to your yard try planting serviceberry, dogwood, mountain ash or Virginia creeper; all berry producers 

    If you wonder why this has an odd white background that makes it more difficult to read, I tried to paste a really cool link to a recording of the Downy and it did this to part of the article and wouldn't come off.  I know I know - someone (probably a 12 year old) knows how but I don't - SORRY!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Faux Terrarium

Miniature Garden Shoppe inspiration
I love the current garden decor phase:  terrariums!  I've seen them in stores, catalogs, at my friend's houses, in nurseries and on line.  OH MY are the B-E-A-U-T-I-F-U-L!

OH MY I totally do not have the talent or perseverance to keep them alive.  I do pretty good with summer miniature fairy gardens.  Until fall and then I'm over it and so are they.  So here's the story:

I enjoy helping at my daughter's wine store ( and it allows me to be creative.  You see, for a person who MUST (absolutely must) be creating, but no longer has room or wants more in their own home, creating for someone else is a blessing.  I've made enough wine charms for every glass in the free world.  I've made enough wine sacks to celebrate every birthday in Illinois.  You get the idea?

When I went to the QC Garden Seminar, the Miniature Garden Shoppe - Designs by Kathyrn ( had a display.  And there before me were little wine glasses filled with little red glass wine - be still my beating heart!  Did I have to create a wine garden terrarium?  Well yes I did!
Miniature Garden Shoppe inspiration

When creating something for a small business, it's partly a guess on what will sell.  I've been fooled more than once.  In case this brilliant terrarium idea didn't sell, I knew my daughter was too busy to care for the thing.  Plus, because of my inexperience in creating them with real plants, I didn't want her to sell something that wouldn't live a long and healthy life.

I found a beautiful container (part of the beauty of the piece.)  Then I used dried moss for the grass and pieces of a beautiful dried wine colored hydrangea flower for bushes.  I found a few pieces of garden furniture, fence and some other stuff.  Check out miniatures at on line shops, garden centers, miniature displays, hobby shops (dollhouse and model train) and thrift shops.

If this little baby sells, I'll do another.  It was fun and my six-year-old granddaughter thought it was like looking into a fairy land.  Plus, it will never die of neglect.  AND it provided a few days of creativity for dear old mom.  Success!
This is my little creation.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Spring Has Not Sprung

No, spring's definitely not close today.  We have a temperature this morning of 21 degrees and had about half an inch of snow last night.  Even for a "love-winter & changing-seasons" kind of person like me, this winter has pushed it's welcome mat once too often.  A year ago I was in the garden cleaning and getting ready to plant.

I've always considered owning a plant nursery one of the most fragile occupations around.  Gardeners know what it's like to be at the mercy of the weather, but, a nursery's whole yearly income is hanging onto seasonal healthiness.

Greenhouses' have fallen under heavy snow, heaters fail during a cold winter night, insect or disease attacked a species, and the even more fragile whim of the American buyer.  This year the beautiful nursery photos posted on internet sites may tempt you to rush out and get something to perk up your lagging garden spirits.  Don't do it unless you have greenhouse conditions at home.

Why you ask?  Sitting plant sets in your garage, window sill or other home location can only mean they aren't cared for optimally and will either get leggy or die.  A "leggy" spring plant will need pinched and it will set it back A LOT.  Professional nurseries have the conditions and care to keep these plant sets perfect - let them care for the plants during this late spring.

If you're concerned some fabulous new plant will be sold out by the time warm weather rolls around, most nurseries will let you reserve plants (with some payment) and they will continue to care for them until you're ready to plant.  They will also do hanging baskets and planters with healthy new plants and by the time you pick them up, they will already be lush.  Hint:  Bring one or more strong teenagers to lift these planters into the back of your pick-up or into your trunk and out again.  You may ask if they'll deliver (for a fee) if you're fresh out of young laborers.

For those of you planting seeds, most need warm soil to germinate.  Left too long in/on cold soil, they  may rot or be destroyed.  There are a few vegetable seeds that may withstand the cold; read before you spend your money.

It's not too early to visit nurseries - most open April 1.  Get ideas and enjoy the wonders of their hard work.  Reserve plants if you want to get going on your purchases.  Here's some local family owned nurseries - all have web sites with addresses and more information:

Nature's Creations, Galva IL:
Spring opening:  April 1
Open House: April 19-20.
Garden Party:  May 3-4

Sunnyfield Nursery & Greenhouse, Galva IL
Spring opening:  April 1
Scents of Spring Celebration:  April 12

Distinctive Gardens, Dixon IL
Spring opening:  Garden center is now open - greenhouse plants as they mature
Springfest:  May 3-4

Hornbaker Nursery, Princton IL
Spring opening:  April 10
Open house and hosta walk:  June 13-14-15

Hoerr Garden Center, Peoria IL
Spring opening:  Garden center is open all year - greenhouse plants as they mature

Red Barn Nursery, Sheffield IL
Spring opening:  April 15

Green View Nursery, Dunlap IL
Spring opening:  Garden center is open all year - greenhouse plants as they mature

Steve's Nursery, Geneseo IL
Spring Opening:  Open all year - trees and shrubs dug as ground permits.

Yes, these are all family owned - some relatively new and others generations ago.  I encourage everyone - every single gardener who reads this blog to shop at locally owned and operated businesses.   You support your neighbors, they reinvest in your community through tax monies and hiring local contractors and employees and they care deeply about their community.

Friday, March 14, 2014

R.I.P. Polar Vortex

One of our many blizzards.

According to the “Midwest Wine Press”, our wine grape crop (used to make wine) is predicted to be substantially curtailed during 2014 due to the cold winter.  Those predictions may set the price or availability of your favorite local wines.

University of Illinois Extension predictions for winter wheat and oats jumps around as they try to guess if the majority of the crops will have a yield.  Locally, our winter of snow cover may have helped that situation.
Our country road got a little deep at times.

Although there’s been much talk of a ruined orange crop, it appears Florida’s fruit and vegetable crops have not been damaged as much as originally thought.  I mention this as a cost issue for consumers.

Illinois peaches, apricots, nectarines and sweet cherries may fail to produce this year because the extreme cold has destroyed the buds.  Apple, pear, sour cherry and plum buds should have survived.  Later in the spring other factors such as extreme temperature changes, how sunny a freezing day is, how late in the spring these cold temperatures continue, the amount of freezing wind, and whether you turn around holding your nose with your left hand will tell the tale of this year’s fruit production.

If you’ve planted a tree, bush or perennial that is almost cold hardy in our Zone 5 with complete success over the past few years, those plants may not survive or will be damaged this year.  Some plants that may not survive the “Winter of 2014” are southern magnolia, nandina, pieris, and crape myrtle. If any “almost” warm climate trees die – you will have at least celebrated a few years of exceptionally lucky growing. 

There's an 18 inch raised garden bed under the windmill
and a driveway buried in front of the bed.
The extreme cold may not kill your plants, especially with the ample snow cover, but the fluctuations (especially rapid fluctuations) between warmth and cold is a plant killer.

Freezing and thawing may cause a plant to “heave” out of the ground exposing the roots to cold and drying winds.  Strawberries and chrysanthemums are prone to heaving.

Extension specialists are predicting spring flowering buds on forsythia, dogwood and lilac will not bloom but the plant won’t die. 

Plants in containers are toast and the pots will probably have cracked. 

Holly, boxwood, some Japanese maples and rhododendrons are especially prone to winter burn from wind.  Unless protected from cold wind, most will have to be pruned severely to remove the dead.  Evergreens continue to lose water through their leaves even in cold weather.  An extreme windy cold can cause needle drop at best or kill the tree at worst.  We may see many white pines loose their needles and eventually die this year. 
Snow pillows on the garden bench

Insects will have had a tough winter, too.  Those that winter above ground (or their eggs) may be killed.  Praying Mantis eggs may be killed unless they are under snow or protected.  The good news is the deep frost level may have killed grubs including Japanese beetles.

As the snow melts faster than the ground warms, some plants may sit in water too long and it will smother the root system or cause root rot.  A fast melt could cause most moisture to run off, taking precious top soil and little will be absorbed to combat drought.  Good news is it will eventually enter our waterways.  The bad news is large ice jams may do tremendous damage by ripping out vegetation as it moves.

Are spring and summer going to be a garden bust?  I’m sure there are many perennial plants getting ready to be absolutely beautiful.  Deal with the damage or death of those that were just too fragile for the Polar Vortex 2013-14 and move on to something else.   It may be of little comfort as you tally up the cost of damage in your yard or fields but it’s given the Midwesterner an opportunity to talk weather like crazy and feel slightly superior for having personally survived.


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

It's Good For You!

Did you have a mother that used to say, "Eat it, it's good for you!"  This article is this mother saying the same:

SPINACH:  Among the many benefits, it promotes clear radiant skin.

RED BELL PEPPERS:  Fights off germs and bacteria and promotes collagen production for fewer wrinkles.

TOMATOES:  Fights free radicals, shields skin from sun damage and protects against some cancers.

BASIL:  Helps cervical cancer cells to self destruct.  Supports healthy cell growth.

SWEET POTATOES:  Encourages clear skin and healthy hair.  An anti-inflammatory.  Repairs damage from UV rays and reduces risk of developing age-related macular degeneration.

EGG PLANT:  Battles free radicals that lead to cancer and aging (early tests are showing it fights development of Alzheimer's disease.)

Cherry tomatoes
BRUSSELS SPROUTS:  Helps our genes block tumor growth.  Reduces inflammation.  Lowers cholesterol.

GRAPES:  Helps the skin and may protect from UV-radiation damage.  Eat fresh or in red wine.

BARLEY:  Helps shed belly fat.  Helps keep blood sugar levels in check.

OATS:  Best carb for pre-exercise sustained stamina.  Purges bad cholesterol.

OK, friends, plant as many of these in your garden as you can this summer and eat as if your life depended on it - cause it does.

For those fighting a health issue, try substituting one of the above for something you currently eat that's not all that healthy.  Substituting just one at a time won't seem like you are in major denial.  Once that becomes a part of your lifestyle, work on another.  One of my favorites:

I wash and pick off grapes, lay in a single layer on a rimmed cookie sheet and freeze.  Once frozen, put in a zip-lock bag and keep frozen.  Substitute a handful for a a snack loaded with refined sugar, carbs and fat.  Grapes really do satisfy a sugar craving, they are healthy and because they are so full of water, they don't contain loads of empty calories.  WIN-WIN

Monday, March 10, 2014

Channeling My Inner Georgia O'Keeffe

"Bowl of Beauty" peony
Georgia O'Keeffe magnified nature in her paintings in what was then a new and shocking way.  Often showing vivid colors of such a close-up of the plant it was sometimes distorted.  Absolutely beautiful and is widely popular today.

Some photos I take in my garden are not perfect in the whole - they show plant damage or are not placed well.  Some just beg to be magnified and it's a little bit of fun and the results are pretty amazing.  I've posted a few and suggest you click on them and slide show it for up close and personal.

Donkey Tail Spurge with a dew drop

American Toad
Rugosa Rose leaves after rain

Daylily "White Temptation"

Zinnia color magnified

Caltalpa tree flower.

 The “Modern Nature” exhibit at San Francisco’s de Young Museum features 55 works from early in Georgia O’Keeffe’s career.  

Sunday, March 2, 2014

March Snow

March 2, 2014 and morning has dawned.  A beautiful bright snow filled morning - again.  I estimate we received at least four plus inches of very powdery snow.  I know it's powdery because the birds are sinking up to their bellies when they land.

We've had at least five families of American cardinals this winter.  Occasionally we'll have a tree full and then I've counted up to seven of the males.  Anyway, let's just say, "We've had a bunch."

This morning they are among the jewels of this late winter snow.  Yesterday the snow was dirty and trampled with the only hope at beauty was if it melted.  Today all is covered again in white and my wintering little birds are hungry.

It's been a difficult winter for wildlife as seen by these pictures of a raccoon raiding our front bird feeder.  It's unusual for a raccoon to be so close to the house, in the daytime and in spite of our guard dog.  He's a huge old thing and must be mighty hungry to take the risk.  Because of all the damage these guys can cause, he may be tempting fate a little too much.

Often by the first of March we've had enough thawing and the birds can begin to find insects instead of depending totally on feeders.  This year they've had so much snow and cold, it's been difficult to find natural foods.  While the cardinal population has been high, the blue jay population has been limited to only two big boys.  One came to the feeder right after the huge rain we had a week ago and right before everything froze over again.  His feathers were soaked and I wondered what kind of a night he would have as the temperatures again dropped below zero.

Because we are blessed with an old growth wild woods in the back, we do provide (or rather nature provides) habitat that helps winter survival.  We haven't bothered to cut down dead trees (standing or fallen) unless it damages the fence or are across the paths.  I've let the brambles form thick stands of wild roses and raspberries.  Hardly the pristine landscaping of gardening magazines but I think it encourages birds and unfortunately a critter of two.

We've seen evidence of deer sleeping in the snow in a hallow of trees and brush, apparently while our guard dog naps away the cold winter night.  Night time offers a busy environment to owls, critters and that little bunny.

Time to get ready for church and make our way out of our little cozy environment.