Monthly Archives: January 2014

A Wintry Morning

011Winter came back yesterday, it boy oh boy is it ever beautiful here. Wet snow fell throughout the day and is   falling lightly  again this morning  covering everything in the most picture perfect fluff…quintessential New England!024

017The flock of robins that have been visiting to strip the berries off the hollies are now in the crab apple trees,and the feeders have all been very busy. Looking out at the gorgeous  view  and the show being put on by our feathered friends while enjoying my morning coffee in the warmth house on a lazy Sunday is just about my favorite way to start a day. Add in the fact that later there will be chili simmering and playoff football TV, does life get any better?014013 014 015

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Confessions of a reformed Zone Pusher

We all have  our dark pasts, our skeletons kept securely hidden in the closet. There are many many things I have done as a gardener that I am woefully ashamed of. The sin I shall reveal to you today is that of being a Zone -Pusher.

Here in the Burrow which is nestled sweetly in the heart of MA surrounded by conservation land, state forest and Rail Trails lives a  dirty little secret….although the current USDA maps give our  growing zone as a balmy 6a, due to our elevation and exposure it can be more accurately  described as 4a. Depressing? Maybe, but like any other problem, awareness is half the battle. When we first moved here, I belived the lie, and in my zeal to garden on the edge and impress, I pushed the zone.

Let’s just say, it did not go well.

Woody plants ( like shrubs and trees) are the most valuable assets of our landscape. They cost the most, they grow the biggest, and they are the hardest to remove if and when necessary. Most trees and shrubs go through two stages of dormancy from late fall to spring. The first is called endo -dormany or acclimation, and it occurs when the combination of shorter days and cooler temps “tell” the plant to stop growing. This is why we get the colorful leaf displays as the trees quit sending the green chrlorophyl of life to their leaves so the less dominant colors show (then they fall of f and we grumble and rake). The plant is now entering a very deliberate and determined dormant period when no growth will occur.

While dormant, the plant is keeping track of how many hours the weather is above freezing, these hours are called chilling units. Each plant/ tree has a set number of chilling units its needs for it’s winter dormancy and it will remain completely free of any growth during that time. Only after it has tracked those required chilling units it will break endo -dormancy.( eg An apple tree may need 700 chilling units  in the winter, so after the temp has gone above freezing that many hours …not in  a row mind you, but as a total, it is now ready to break bud and welcome spring).

After the endo dormancy requirement has been met ,the plant/tree is in what is called eco- dormancy , in which it remains dormant SOLELY based on the cold weather. It does not matter if it is January or July, chilling units complete, the “real” is dormancy done. Warm weather that occurs after  eco -dormancy has started  will stimulate growth. Most trees that are hardy around here will break endo- dormancy in January.

Wild temperature swings that occur during this time when the tree has acclimated to growing weather again, say like the -15 to 56 we had in one 25 hour span one day last week, will severely stress the plant as it has no ability to re-acclimate to the really cold temps now, and death may very well happen.

Most woody plants also have a specific temperature that is their breaking point  and below which they will die.  A sort of combination of dormancy requirements and bottom temp will tell you how hardy a plant is in your area.

Adventurous gardeners find a thrill in trying to outwit these biological facts. They will plant a zone 7 tree( after systematically tracking the warmer more sheltered areas of their yard), then mulch like crazy over roots that were not meant for such conditions , then pray they will be rewarded in spring when the tree survives and they can show admiring visitors their amazing feat!

I shamefully admit I was one of them.

When  I planted my first garden, I included a red bud , (cercis canadensis)…but not just any red bud, a cultivar called ‘Forest Pansy’ .Unlike the species, ‘Forest Pansy’ has dramatically colored leaves AND is a zone 6  (maybe even  a 7  …don’t believe the lies on the tag), so successfully growing it here would elicit gasps of praise. It died.

Ever the attention seeker, I planted another. It survive three years, then it died as well.

Third time is the charm I have heard , so I tried again, and guess what? Yep, death.

Meanwhile , I was now left with a whole in the garden that was five years behind in growth than the rest , not to mention the digging and planting effort wasted. So , I finally gave in and planted a straight species Eastern red bud, hardy to zone 4 and have enjoyed it’s delightful red covered branches every spring since.

This very scenario was repeated ad naseum over the course of my first few years in the garden. Chances were taken, weather was brutal,many  plants were lost. As I look back over my garden journals, I grieve my mistakes ( and the loss of cash). As an aside, the brutally cold weather and temperature swings are not unusual nor should they be unexpected, just in case you were going to tell me that this winter has been colder than the norm . It has not been, the meteorologists are more hysterical as a bunch,  that’s all. It has been cold here for eons, know it ; embrace it …or move ;)

So now I am reformed. I live the cold, love the cold, plant for the cold. I do not seek out the pleasures of microclimates in the yard in which to experiment,  I do not push the zone anymore and I am all the happier for it.

*this blog post is dedicated to my fellow zone pushers that have yet to see the light including one dear garden friend who has been taken to the dark side by  a monkey puzzle tree araucania araucanca . Peace and blessings Paul, we will know very soon.


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Watch Out! I Am Back to Work

After my little hiatus over the holidays, I have returned to work , which means lots of travel, and feel as though I am long overdue for a rant. I am also feeling a tad bit snarky today, so here goes…

We are all lucky to have easy access to driving licenses, cars, highways and other related infrastructure and as such it becomes all too easy to take for granted the roads and traffic laws that regulate them. (into the definition of the word “laws” I will add “Cheryl’s rules” and expect you shall follow them as suggested).

-Each and every day the sun rises and sets ; east to west it travels across the sky in a very predictable pattern ,so plan accordingly. Carry sunglasses that you can reach without looking away from the road and veering in to my lane and please please please take all of your coupons, folded papers and other emphemera out from behind your sun visor. It should come as no surprise to you, dear driver, that unsecured paper will rain down on you if you flip said visor when driving eastbound on any and all roads in the am and westbound in the afternoon.

-Your car may be small enough for you to think you can dart in and out of any lane you choose at whim but guess what? My vehicle is big. If you try to cut into the lane I am in I WILL hit you, and let’s just guess who may bear the brunt of the hurt.

- See that little red sign that looks like an upside down triangle with the letters Y I E L D on it ? If you can see and read it , it is meant for you. Act on it

_-The very large green signs announcing exits and lane merges conveniently  placed directly in your sight  line are meant for you too. Read them, use the information provided to make smart decisions none of which include waiting until the last 10 yards before an exit to get in the proper lane or remaining in a lane that is about to end until you pass all the cars who did what they were told when the merge sign appeared.

-We live in New England, our weather changes are notoriously well known. If you went in the house and it was 50 degrees at night, that does not rule out the fact that snow may have fallen after you dozed off for the evening and is now covering your car . You can find this out by

a.)watching the local weather , all of our local stations go absolutely bananas when even the most scant of frozen precipitation falls so you can be sure to catch it no matter when you tune in

b.) get weather alerts sent to your mobile device or

c.) look out the GD window.

If snow has fallen you must ready your vehicle for safe travel by clearing it of said snow, not doing so and creating a mini-blizzard for cars around you as you speed down the highway  is rude and self-absorbed. We all have schedules to keep, but squish in a few extra minutes to use the snowbrush. Doing so will insure I will not tailgate and beep/swear at you which would start  your day in a negative fashion.

-Before you get behind the wheel, do a  quick self-assessment. Do you have all day to get where you are going? Do you drive with your hands placed at 10 and 2 on the steering wheel carefully eyeing the speedometer lest you go above 55mph? Do you ride your brakes down every incline you encounter? Are you proud to announce you have never ever been g iven a speeding ticket? If you answered “Yes” to any of these questions, pull into the right lane. The left lanes are for faster traffic, those of us who have places to go and people to see and want to get there in this century. If you are in the left lane and are not the fastest person in the road then put your blinker on immediately and GET THE HECK OUT OF THE WAY! Do not commend yourself for following the law and saving me from myself,I am watching for the police and as a bonus  I know how to pay a ticket and it’s not your money I am using. Worry about yourself while simultaneously driving in the RIGHT lane.

-Put,The.Phone.Down. You can tell your friend Eddy about the crazy lady that just passed you on the road later form the safety of your desk or home. To be truthful, Eddy is not all that interested anyway , and he already looked out his window this morning so he does not need your weather update either.

-I also have a personal rule “Never drive behind a Subaru” , but you can feel free to follow that one or not at your own discretion.

That is all, I am done now. Yes, I do realize there is nothing even remotely garden or plant related in this particular rant, but I needed to vent, and here you were to listen. I thank you for that.



P.s A shout out to the lovely ladies at Southborough Gardeners  this morning, they ROCKED the workshop!




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Bird Watching 101

010Well, I could drone on about all the reasons I have not been here for a while, but instead I will tell you I certainly enjoyed my little vacation and now ,I am back. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Late in fall I decided I was going to improve my bird watching and ID-ing skills and set out  to do so. I asked for and received this new book

  from Bill for my birthday. I have traditionally used The Audubon Societies Field Guide for the Northeast, but found that especially little brown sparrow looking birds were very difficult for me to distinguish from one another , and I could also get tripped with male and female of a species, or even thrown off if there were young birds, or winter plumage, or really just about any slight deviation from the one photo in the Audubon book.

Stokes, on the other hand is much more detailed , and a better reference book  for a novice like me. For each species there are multiple  photos showing males, females and  young birds, as well as a shot of winter coloring if it differs from the norm. The writing is descriptive and often contains little helpful identifying tips, and there are maps showing the range of each species by time of year. All in all a much more comprehensive guide, and add that to  the fact that it is a field guide for birds and only birds so I never accidentally open to to a page with    a S-N-A-K-E on it, as I often do in my other field guide,  and it is perfect for me.

I also joined the Cornell Lab of Ornitholgy’s Project Feeder Watch…well sort of.

Project Feeder Watch is designed to help ornithologists keep track of bird populations , the scientists at Cornell  use the data collected  by back yard birders to help in their understanding of bird distribution and population trends . Observers, once registered , submit tally sheets they record on two consecutive days of each week  of birds that visit their feeders and the immediate habitat around them as well as the weather conditions . Reports can be submitted via paper and snail mail or online .

I registered, received my packet full of instructions and  feeder tips , a calendar ,and best of all, a large color poster of common feeder visitors in my area. Then I chickened out. I still do not feel confident enough when I look at many of my feathered visitors to call them by name or accurately count their  numbers. I am working on it. I am practicing, taking photos to capture details better, and writing down numbers even if I am not submitting them.

So far a couple of cool things have happened. One day we had a flock of about 40 robins show up here and camp out for most of the day. They are not generally what you would call feeder birds and not always around in winter here so a little research was in order.  Well,it  turns out most robins do hang around here in the winter it is just that their habits are different so we see fewer of them. In the spring and summer when they are mating they are very territorial. We generally we see them in pairs showing up to dig for worms in the lawn , and being territorial they will be spread out all over the area to feed and mate. In the colder months they gather in flocks and head to where the food is , so only the places  where  the flock can find ample berries and fruit will have them as visitors. So ,in spring it is pairs spread out all over the place ( more sightings of a few birds at a time ) and in the winter it is large flocks foraging ( fewer sightings of many birds). They like it here because the willow hedge gives them a place to hang out and take turns swooping into the yard to eat the berries and fruit  off all the hollies  and crab apple trees. They eat hawthorne, sumac, and bittersweet berries as well  and will come to the feeders if you offer cranberries or blueberries or raisins that have been soaked in water for them. They look very different in the cold temps too,like most birds they ruffle up their feathers to trap air as added insulation so they look  almost furry.010

We have also had visits from two different woodpeckers ( a female Hairy Woodpecker below) which I think are fascinating to watch.005

As of today we have hosted every one of the different bird species on the Cornell Lab poster in varying numbers, including for the first time a visit from the nasty European Starling. The invasive starling and the cowbirds are my least favorite part of bird watching, but having them here is a small price to pay for the entertainment value of the feeders and the antics that surround them.013

I just found out about this app  for the iPhone called Merlin Bird ID , which will help you identify any bird you see using questions that narrow down the type of bird by size, color and location using data just like that collected by my fellow backyard scientists! I have to wait for the droid app to be released in spring 2014, or maybe  I can convince Wil he needs this installed in his iPhone ! I can hear you all laughing from here :) 002



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