Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Just Add Water

Back, way back, back into time, there was a Bugs Bunny cartoon with Marvin the Martian. At one point he needed reinforcements in his battle with the Bunny, and he turned to a bottle labeled "Instant Martians." Below, the simple instructions: Just add water.

After over a week of extremely sunny, warm and dry weather in my part of New Jersey - so dry at one point the humidity was the same as what you would normally see in the Arizona desert - we had a major rainstorm. This has been the pattern the last few years thanks to climate change-induced warming. The El Nino on the west coast managed to spawn what the weather gurus calls an Omega Block, which moved to the east coast and just sat there.

But then, finally, it moved, allowing the rain to come in Friday night.

I came outside Saturday morning to discover my dogwood tree, which last year only produced a couple of flowers, completely covered in blossoms. Friday morning the buds seemed to be in a state of suspended animation. Until that day it would get hot, they'd start to expand and then the temperature would drop and everything would stop.

It was the same with the azaleas, the lilacs and many of my other plants. Until it rained.

Just add water.

Dogwood flowers (Margo D. Beller)
Suddenly, the bare trees were covered in leaves and flowers; the dogwood, lilac and azaleas bloomed or are about to bloom, the drooping perennial geranium stood up happy and the hostas and hellebore doubled in size. Not only was there columbine growing where I planted it, there was columbine growing where I didn't expect it. I am leaving it alone. When I collect the seeds later this year I'll spread them to more areas in the garden.

It is amazing what a deep, drenching rain will do.

However, I have several concerns. The last few years we've gone long stretches with no rain only to be doused with several weeks of rain in one day. My other concern is with suburban sprawl. There are constant battles with people who want to tear up farms and put up housing, which stresses land and water, adding to traffic and town costs.
Columbine between the paving stones (Margo D. Beller)
In northern New Jersey, to protect the important watersheds, the state passed the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act in 2004 to keep development under control. Some people in the area are OK with protecting the environment but there are always others upset they now can't sell their increasingly valuable land to the highest bidder, split for (already overdeveloped) Florida and leave the mess behind for the rest of us to absorb.

 As James Brown once sang, I got mine, don't worry about his.

I try to use as little water as possible. Most of my plants are perennials and can take dryness. But my neighbors have already started with their lawn sprinklers. Lawns are sacrosanct in the suburbs, and not mowing them every week whether they need it or not and watering them every day even when rain is forecast is like a religion to many people. Those of us who THINK are looked at like pariahs. (My neighbors appear to be more concerned about their grass, based on the money they waste on lawn services, than the nondescript shrubs they put in front of their houses. Flowers are just too much work, especially in Deer Country.)

Luckily, it isn't too hot yet. While my daffodils and other early flowers are now done, the irises are getting ready to rise. And the forecasters say more rain is expected later in the week. It is, after all, only April, where the showers bring May flowers.

Just add water and amazing things happen.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Return to Life and My Stand Against the Disposable Society

Every spring, when the worst of the cold is over and the snow has finally melted, I am amazed at what survives in my garden and saddened by what does not.

Despite neglect or doing something wrong out of ignorance, the perennials come back and I am both humbled and thankful.

The same is true for house plants. When I accept a house plant as a gift from a friend or rescue a plant someone has cruelly ripped from a planter and then thrown on the sidewalk - the bulk of my house plants are one or the other - I have to think long and hard about where to put it so it can get the most (or the least) amount of light. I have to hope the plant doesn't mind being watered only once a week or that in winter there will be a lot of dry heat and not a lot of moisture.

One of those plants is an orchid I thought I had killed because I uprooted it when it didn't have to be uprooted, cut back what I later realized was a lot of its root system and then fed it at the wrong time. Somehow that plant has survived, and this year is the second straight it will flower.

Last week, I wrote about the mistreatment of my peppers and my cannas. The cannas saddened me in particular because I knew better. I knew that if you took a tropical plant and put it on a porch where it can get down to the single digits overnight, it is not going to be happy. What I didn't realize was putting a plastic sheet or two and a blanket over the pot would keep in moisture on a plant that was supposed to be allowed to dry out.

I moved the pots indoors, into a sunny part of the one room where I can place all my house plants, and hoped for the best.

Two of the five pieces of growing canna, April 2016 (Margo D. Beller)
Well, when I wrote about them last week I thought they were dead. And then one evening I looked into one of the pots and saw two signs of life! Two little bits of green poking out of the pot, which was solidly packed with roots and corms. A few days later, I pulled the pots onto a tarp on my enclosed porch and started poking around -- which meant dumping the solid clump from the pot, using a saw to cut into it and then a spade to pull the sections apart.

I found five growing pieces of canna. I had planned to divide what was in the pot this spring anyway and so filled the pot with soil and put in the five pieces so they would have plenty of room to stretch out and grow. Cannas can get pretty big and after a few years they grow into each other to create a solid mass.

I looked very carefully at what I turned out of the other pot but saw nothing growing.

Now, it is always possible there will be growth in what I'm composting. My keeping it in the deep freeze might've put the plant into a deeper hybernation than I realized. If that is the case, when I put it all in the compost pile I won't be surprised if I see a mass of large, green canna leaves growing, which I can then either pull up and plant elsewhere or leave alone, a kind of zombie canna graveyard.

Why do I mention all this?

First, because I am relieved I am not a plant killer.  Second, because once again, Nature will take care of itself if Man (or me) doesn't mess around with it.

Most times people buy plants, keep them for a while and then throw them in the trash. This is a waste of your money, the plant grower's time and the compostable material in the plant.

When I take care of my plants, when I keep them going far beyond what the label says (and that includes "annuals" I've kept going for years), I am taking my stand against being part of a disposable society that doesn't think twice about putting in the garbage furniture, bicycles, plants or other things that can be donated to others for repair and resale or gifting.

My front room is full of life, and it is another thing that gives me a reason to live.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Owning Up to My Mistakes (Garden Division)

When something goes wrong, I'm the first to admit it/The first to admit it, and the last one to know
-- Paul Simon, "Something So Right"

Throughout my career I have always owned up to my mistakes. If through arrogance or misunderstanding I cause an error, I admit it.

That is why in this post I am going to own up to a couple of major garden mistakes that have resulted in the death of all but two plants. That is also why I am not going to show any pictures. I don't see anything interesting in showing a pot of dead plant.

There garden fatalities involve two types of plants that need warmth to survive: canna and pepper.

I'll start with the pepper.

For years I've ignored conventional wisdom that says you grow your pepper plants, you harvest the peppers and when winter comes you pull up the plant, put it in compost and either start new seeds or buy a seedling the next year.

I have always grown peppers in pots. I have not cared to endure the rigors of digging and fencing a vegetable garden, although I always envy those neighbors with the time, energy and strength to do so. Putting a plant in a pot and putting that pot behind deer netting is much easier, plus I can keep it in the sunny front of my house and it looks like just another plant to those neighbors who are anal about "keeping up appearances."

When winter has come, I have brought those pepper pots indoors and put them in my sunny front room. The plants usually do better the next year when I put them back out front. One year I was foolish enough to bring in five different types of peppers. No more. I play God. If it is a plant whose peppers I enjoyed, it will get saved.

This past winter I had inside one plant I was hoping to keep going for the third year and another I had grown from seed.

Unfortunately, last year I bought a basil from a grocery store and either the plant itself or the weather conditions created a major whitefly infestation. The flies themselves are annoying but when they are busy sucking on the leaves and laying eggs they create a "honeydew" that will eventually kill the host's leaves and thus the plant.

As I dealt with the basil, the flies took flight and infested the tomato I had growing. As I later found out, they also were all over the two peppers I had in the house.

During the worst of the winter the flies were either dead or dormant. However, as the days turned warmer and longer, the flies made themselves known all over the plants (which were still producing small peppers). When they started flying to my other house plants, I knew it was time to act.

I put garbage bags over the peppers and got them outside and behind the netting. I took out the plants where flies were going - they like the underside of big, soft leaves - and made sure to inspect and clean out the plants before bringing them indoors. I sprayed the peppers and left them in what at the time was a pretty warm day.

Unfortunately, the weather turned windy and cold and despite my best efforts at protection, the older one died. Peppers need overnight temperatures of at least 50 degrees to survive. They weren't getting them. So I put the pots on the enclosed back porch, where there was sunlight for about 6 hours in the morning, composted the dead plant and left the other one - until yesterday, when I saw the forecast called for daytime and evening temperatures way below 50 degrees.

So that plant is in the kitchen, where the natural light is dim and defuse but at least the plant is warm. The flies are dead and gone but the few leaves I didn't rip off look terrible, and I don't know if this plant will survive until, say, May. So I have three seeds of this type of pepper (I save seeds for this reason) in a pot on the sunny window sill as a hedge.

And now the canna.

Cannas are tropical plants grown more for their foliage than their flowers, which tend to show up in spikes during the hottest, most humid part of the summer. When I was first given them by a now-former friend, she told me that after frost killed the foliage to dig the plants up and wrap them in newspaper and put them in a cool, dry place.  I did that and lost about half of them.

The next year I put the cannas in a big pot. They did almost too well -- soon they were so crowded together I had to divide them. Now I had two big pots. I would give them away or compost them. Composting them created what I called "zombie" cannas - they were growing in the compost pile. So I would dig them out and put them in the ground and just leave them there over the winter. They would die, but I would still have my pots because I would bring them into my sunny front room and put them in a corner out of the sun. Inevitably, they'd start growing anyway.

Well, this year I didn't want them taking up space in the sunny front room. I had no room in my overjunked garage and my small basement is quite warm because of the furnace. So to my shame, I put them in the warmest part of my enclosed porch and covered them with plastic sheets and then a blanket. This was the absolute worst thing I could've done.

First, the temperature on the porch, even in the warm area against the kitchen where I put the pots, got down to the teens at one point. Second, the plastic sheets kept in the moisture rather than letting the plants dry out, as they would've done wrapped in newspaper. By the time I pulled them into the house and put them in the sun in the front room, they were dead. I have watered them to see if there is life but there has been nothing. By the end of the week, they'll be composted.

Ironically, I did one other wrong thing that has kept one canna alive. This was a zombie I pulled out of the compost at the end of last summer, potted and then brought into the house and kept going over the winter. It got no "rest" in its pot, which is the reason why you dig them up and let them dry out in the first place. It seems to be growing just fine.

No one is every going to confuse me with a master gardener. But I do learn from my mistakes -- once I realize them.

Monday, March 28, 2016

My Cathedral of the Pines

I wish I could make you hear the quiet I heard the other Saturday when I was standing in the middle of this pine grove at Rancocas Nature Center. I wish you could smell the fresh piney air.

The only thing that would've made this grove better would have been a few pine warblers calling their sweet trills, as there were the first time we came to Rancocas and stood in this grove six years before.

Pine grove, Rancocas, NJ (R.E.Berg-Andersson)

Rancocas is in Westhampton, N.J., abutting the much larger Rancocas State Forest. The nature center was once part of New Jersey Audubon but NJ Audubon went through one of its frequent financial shudders and closed down or gave up several of its nature centers, claiming not enough people were visiting. Rancocas is in central Jersey, so compared with the north Jersey location of NJ Audubon headquarters, it must've seemed on the other side of the Earth.

(Another center NJ Audubon shut down - the one on Sandy Hook, one of the best areas for birding in the state but rather elongated, so perhaps not as many folk got to the northern part where the office was located.)

This pine grove is interesting because the trees were planted in straight rows. However, the saplings were never thinned and so all the trees grew straight and tall, competing with each other for the light. "Forestry management" is what the pros call thinning out the trees. So if you look at the trees at eye level you can walk from one end to the other and not run into a tree. (You can't see it as well in this picture looking up at the sky.)

MH and I drove here one other time before Saturday, years ago, and found the placed gated shut. It was after NJ Audubon left. However, it didn't sit shut long - the site is now run by Burlington County and several groups, including the Friends of Rancocas Nature Center, which runs the visitor/education center.

Owls are here, and warblers and robins and woodpeckers of various types. There are trails through woods, marshes and uplands. But what I like about Rancocas is what made NJ Audubon give it up -- not many people were around. Hence the quiet.

In our travels MH and I were once driving in NH, near Rindge to be exact, and there was a sign for "Cathedral of the Pines." I made him take the exit to investigate. It turned out to be an actual, ecumenical church, open to the skies in some areas, enclosed buildings elsewhere.  

We did not stop but I remember being disappointed that it wasn't just a large grove for silent contemplation.

I am glad to say that many years later I found my Cathedral of the Pines in central New Jersey, at Rancocas.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Dazed and Confused

In my part of the U.S., it was 70 degrees F at Christmas 2015. Everyone loved it, except people like me who knew that being warmer in New Jersey than it was in Daytona, Fla., was not normal.

snow from another year (Margo D. Beller)
Today, on the first day of Spring 2016, I write as it is 35 degrees outside, cloudy, snow and a nor'easter off the coast and the house heat on. I wear fingerless gloves as I type.

 I could go on about this abnormal weather and global warming and such, but right now I am wondering about the birds.

When we had warmer than usual temperatures last week, I saw many reports of first migrants arriving - phoebes, pine warblers, redwinged blackbirds. (I have seen two out of three; no pine warblers.) There were lots of bugs and the flowers were opening. Forsythia, daffodils. The iris is starting to grow, the crocus and snowdrops are finished. Magnolias and cherry trees have started flowering. The garden stores have started selling fruit trees and pansies for the color deprived and early vegetables for those itching to start their plots.

I would hope these store plants have been covered because the cold must be a shock to the system.

pine warbler (Margo D. Beller)
Same with the birds. They came up on southwestern winds and found a feast of bugs (aside from my feeders - I rarely get migrants at the feeders for some reason). Now they have come face to face with a cold front. What do they do? Turn around and head south again? Head north and hope for the best? Die?

I don't know the answers. I do know the yardbirds have been visiting the feeders a lot, and they've been singing territorial songs. With the clock now set ahead an hour, it is just light when I rise. Outside I can hear singing song sparrows, titmice, cardinals and American and fish crows. But these are not the migrants.

We birders can only hope that when the warm weather returns, so will the migratory birds.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Road to Nothing

February 2016 (Margo D. Beller)

You might wonder what you are looking at. Obviously it is a road on a snowy day. The road seems to go on forever but if you look closely you see it ends at a fence. Through holes in the fence you can see much dirt and rubble.

This is Central Avenue, a road that begins in Morris Plains and runs into Parsippany, N.J. Until recently this street led to the front door of the administration building, known as Kirkbride, at what was once the Greystone Park psychiatric hospital. Unless you are a local, as I am, it's nothing worth noting.

However, the calm belies the history of the place. This was a major psychiatric facility at a time when it was considered healthy to let patients walk and work in the open air. There was a farm here, behind the administration building, but soon people complained about "inmate labor" and the more common practice of keeping people in massive wards took its place. Then the deplorable conditions were publicized, the facility closed down and the hospital moved to the west. Most of the land was sold, for a $1, to Morris County to turn into a park.

But while the stone wards came down on the county property, the buildings on the state land, including Kirkbride, stood and deteriorated while there was debate on what to do with them.

There were battles, public hearings, newspaper columns and court fights to "save" the second empire structure that is Kirkbride. But in the end, the State of New Jersey, after talking to consultants and developers, decided it would cost too much to keep the old hulk standing and there were too many protests by local area governments against letting a private group buy the building and turn it into a massive housing complex. Luxury housing, yes, but housing all the same, whose residents would put a major strain on Parsippany for services while increasing traffic everywhere, especially into nearby Morris Plains.

The building came down in pieces all summer - those grey stones were built to stand the test of time - until the front door and the central tower were all that was left. Then that was gone.

Despite winter's dark, cold and snow, every morning at 6:30am trucks start picking up rubble and move dirt around. We still don't know what will go on the site. The land on either side of the road leading up to the destruction site is owned by Morris County. What had been Greystone has become Central Park filled with playgrounds, soccer fields, a dog park and even a couple of walking trails.

When the above picture was taken, we had had a blizzard that dropped several feet of snow. The county crew plowed the streets but not much else so one had to walk in the street unless you were wearing boots or cross-country skis.

(Margo D. Beller)
So MH and I were walking along the avenue. When we turned around I beheld what you see and took the picture. We had used Kirkbride as a landmark, the way some in Boston use the Kenmore Square Citgo sign not far from Fenway Park. It made an otherwise drab, uninteresting area more distinctive.

Now, Central Ave. is just another road.

When the state let Kirkbride deteriorate after building the smaller, more modern facility in the western part of its property, I knew it was a matter of time before it was taken down. The state has pulled this before. I wish it could've remained standing but that would create a liability, an attractive nuisance, an eyesore.

Still...

So the state pulled down the old trolley station along with the "cottages" on the state land and finally Kirkbride. There are no longer any traces of the old hospital. Even the "road to nowhere" that once was the driveway of one of Greystone's biggest wards, Curry, no longer has the street sign I photographed above.

This is the road to nothing now.

Kirkbride, end of Central Avenue. (Margo D. Beller)

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Desperately Seeking Signs of Life

We've had a hard frost and the ground is frozen. There is still snow on the ground in spots, remnants of our most recent blizzard. Cold is a given in February and the birds are eating seed and suet to give them the fat they need to survive another day.
Blizzard, January 2016 (Margo D. Beller)
 The cold has brought a female hairy woodpecker to the suet. Unlike her smaller cousin the downy, this woodpecker takes big hacks at the frozen suet cake until she breaks off a piece she can take elsewhere and either eat or cache. The same is true for the male redbellied woodpecker who comes next. These two big woodpeckers soften up the suet for the smaller downys with their tiny but hard taps.

I see all this from a chair on my northeast-facing enclosed porch. Despite being able to see my breath, sitting in the sun with my warm robe and my coat on I am very comfortable. It is the first time I've been able to sit out here this winter.

February is a strange time in the northern hemisphere. In the year I was born my February birth day was the coldest day that year. Even with the clear evidence of global warming and it being an "El Nino" year, we awake to temperatures in the low to mid 20s and consider that a good thing. We've had very few night temperatures in the single digits this 2015-2016 season, which is a blessing compared with last year when the polar cold had us in its grip. Of course, that could change in a hurry. Daily we hear of another potential snowstorm, another visit from the Polar Vortex.

In a reversal from the autumn pattern, the cold allows me to leave the four feeders outside overnight because the bears are hibernating. However, I must take the hanging water cooler inside so it doesn't become a block of ice.

But if you need a sign that winter will end at some point and spring warmth will return, you can find it in February.

February is when you suddenly realize you're not shutting the sun room's shades at 4:30 pm but almost an hour later. You discover you no longer wake to pitch dark at 7am. The plants overwintering on enclosed porch are now getting several hours of direct sunlight where before they were lucky to get 30 min. because the sun is coming up earlier and its arc from east to west is changing to give us more light.

My favorite photo of a cardinal pair in winter. (Margo D. Beller)
If you like man-made signs, while the football season has been prolonged into February - it's Super Bowl Sunday as I write, the secular American Thanksgiving - we can look forward to baseball's pitchers and catchers showing up in Florida and Arizona to give us renewed hope.

Things are changing for the birds, too. After the blizzard, temperatures rose above freezing for about a week and then heavy rain took down most of the snow. Suddenly there was birdsong - cardinals, titmice and house finches in particular. More daylight and temperatures above freezing started them thinking of spring and what a bird does in spring - find a mate.

The cold had already made the usually skittish cardinals more assertive about dislodging the sparrows and the finches to get some seed. They had to be or they'd have died.

But they are more territorial. They want my yard, with its usually stable food source, as their territory when it comes time to mate and breed young. At the house feeder one dawn, a male cardinal sat on one side and a female on the other. Usually one would chase off the other. Was this a pair? A second male flew in and dislodged the female; the first male took off after him. Yes, the female and the first male are a pair.

Under the frozen ground, the daffodils, ornamental onions and, I hope, the glory of the snow I planted late last year are waiting for the signal to start growing. The warmer than usual December into January fooled some of the daffodils into poking their noses above ground. This happens every winter. Despite the eventual snow and cold the flowers will come back.

Skunk cabbage (Margo D. Beller)
Along the stream banks, the skunk cabbage is also waiting for the signal. Most people don't notice skunk cabbage, and if they are smart they don't step on it or they'll get a noseful of why it has that name. I like it because it is something green growing after a season of white. It's a sign we survived another winter.

Yes, there will come a point in the middle of the year when the heat and humidity will get to me, the daffodils will have faded, the grass will desperately need to be mowed and the weeds will overrun the garden despite my best efforts. But right now I am happy to see some signs of life in the middle of this dead season.