Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Sunday, November 18, 2018

The Upside-Down Bird and the Creeper

Another winter, another brown creeper (Margo D. Beller)
I see here to-day one brown creeper busily inspecting the pitch pines. It begins at the base, and creeps rapidly upward by starts, adhering close to the bark and shifting a little from side to side often till near the top, then suddenly darts off downward to the base of another tree, where it repeats the same course. This has no black cockade, like the nuthatch.

-- Henry David Thoreau, Journal, Nov. 26, 1859

It is almost the same day 159 years later and the brown creeper I am watching is doing the exact same thing Thoreau saw in his woods, living up to its name by creeping deliberately up a stout tree.

I am in a small park in my town, carefully walking in the frozen slush, and I have stopped to watch some robins. Then I see movement against the brown-gray of the tree and there is the creeper, almost perfectly camouflaged, the movement of its head showing the white below and thus giving it away.

I stand and watch it a long time as it carefully climbs the tree, sticking its long, decurved bill into every crevice. It makes a faint sound that, because I only seem to find these birds in late autumn into winter, is not as familiar to me as that of the nearby white-breasted nuthatch, whose call sounds like hank. 

Creepers, according to the bird people at Cornell, build their nests behind peeling tree bark. Is this bird looking for food or a nest site? The range map shows this bird is a year-round resident of northern New Jersey. They mainly eat insects but will also come to suet feeders. I've never had one there.

That is not the case with the white-breasted nuthatch, which I see at my sunflower seed feeders every day they are out. This bird is not quiet, shy or easily missed like the creeper, it is a pugnacious little bird that stands out. It will fly to the house feeder, cling to the roof, dip its head down and grab a seed even as a larger bird such as a cardinal is sitting inside and eating. When a nuthatch flies in, the house finches scatter, as do most of the smaller birds.

I went to the oaks. Heard there a nuthatch's faint vibrating tut-tut, somewhat even like croaking of frogs, as it made its way up the oak bark and turned head down to peck. Anon it answered its mate with a gnah, gnah.
-- Thoreau, Journal, April 6, 1856

White-breasted nuthatch (Margo D. Beller)
Watching the creeper now, I see the nearby white-breasted nuthatch uses an entirely different technique. It does not start at the bottom and work its way up, it flies high and goes up the tree or turns its head around and goes down. For that reason it is called by some the "upside-down bird" because few birds will travel a tree with head down. Even the woodpeckers, climbing trees with their tails bracing them, will go backwards but will not go down head first.

The white-breasted nuthatch, despite having a whole tree at its disposal, now flies at the creeper to force it away so it can examine that spot. The creeper flies to the other side of the trunk, where I can no longer see it. Another nuthatch, on a nearby tree, calls and this one answers.

Unlike the creeper, the only one of its type, there are three types of eastern nuthatches, the white-breasted, the red-breasted and the brown-headed. (I have seen all three.) The brown-headed is found as far north as Delaware, although occasionally one hitches a ride on the Cape May-Lewes ferry and shows up to thrill birders in New Jersey. Its call is high-pitched and squeaky, more like a mouse than a bird.

The red-breasted is a bird of northern, piney woods but in some years, such as this one, it can't find enough food and so moves south. This phenomenon is called irruption, and we have them most winters although the birds flying south may vary. (One year it was snowy owls.)

Besides the red breast, this bird is easily identified by the black line that runs through the eye. Its call is another pitch entirely from the white-breasted nuthatch and usually faster. This year I saw several in the larches on the outskirts of a dog park near me for one bright morning, but it was only that one day.

If I am lucky, a red-breasted nuthatch will come to my feeder, too, but usually it is quickly chased off by the slightly larger white-breasted. That has been the case so far this season - a blink-and-you'll-miss-it visit by a red-breasted nuthatch that was just figuring out how to take a seed when it was chased off by the white-breasted. I hope it got a chance to come back and get a seed or two before heading for a pine forest.

White-breasted nuthatch about to force off a titmouse.
(Margo D. Beller)

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Renewing Vows, With Rakes

Go to any search engine and type in "renewing vows" and you'll find plenty of ideas for throwing what to me is mainly an excuse for a big party and a trip to an exotic locale. Many couples who have been married for decades like to do these renewals, as if the warranty on their marriage is about to expire and they'd better do something about it quick.

MH and I, who have been married for decades, aren't ones for big parties or exotic locales. We do things our own way. We renew our vows every Autumn when we must go into the backyard and tackle raking the fallen leaves.

Maple leaves, before the fall (Margo D. Beller)
With all the rain we had during the last weeks of summer, MH and I were not sure what we would get in the way of autumn color. When things did finally begin to color, they seemed patchy and uneven. Many trees stayed full of green leaves. But then it got cold and it seemed almost overnight the leaves started to turn. For about a week we had intense color that made it a joy to be outside.

That changed very recently when the winds started blowing and we had a brief warmup. There are now many more bare trees, or trees where the leaves are shriveled and brown, the overwhelming color.

I had to rake pods to the curb last year but not this year!
(Margo D. Beller)
When we first moved here and realized what we had on our property, we didn't know what to do with all the pods that fell from the one female black locust tree in our front yard (the other three are males; all were planted by our town, which is responsible for their maintenance). I collected them in an old garbage pail and kept it in a back corner of the property, where I now have my compost pile. What a relief to learn the next year we could put them at the curb with the leaves!

This year, there are few pods on the front lawn and the bulk of the leaves are in the back. We used to use a bed sheet in our raking but now use a very large tarp, which means fewer but heavier trips to the curb.

The other day was our first foray into this year's raking (this does not count when MH used his mower for the last time to mulch the leaves, or I collected leaves in a leaf vac to put into compost). We have a routine. I take out the blower we bought after the first year of raking and herd the leaves into piles. MH comes out with his gloves and rake and starts pulling other leaves from the edges to those piles. I grab my own rake and start putting the piles into the tarp we've spread out. He goes to the opposite side of the tarp from where I work and does the same. We hold down the tarp edges with our feet to get as many leaves in as we can. I push leaves into the center to make room for more. By the time we decide it can take no more, we have a heavy load to drag to the front of our house.

Befitting our personalities, he quietly does his job while I noisily try to get him to do something to, I think, make the process more efficient. He listens and agrees about half the time.

Black-capped chickadee (Margo D. Beller)
As we work there are birds calling around us, waiting in the dogwood tree or the shrubs to see if we will bother them as they fly to the feeders we work near. One black-capped chickadee has a more metallic-sounding call. "Could that be a Carolina-blackcap hybrid?" MH asks. Possibly, I say. Carolina chickadees tend to be in the southern part of New Jersey but who knows anymore as birds once considered "southern" now become more common up here.

Same with the raven we hear croaking its call as it flies overhead. Ravens used to be found in high elevations but we've been hearing them more often in our neighborhood, which is only about 400 feet above sea level. We stop to look for it and see its wide, spade-like tail as it sails by. I am impressed by MH. He has become more of a birder now after all our years together. Although most of the time he says he can't identify even the most common of birds without my help, there are some he now knows after being willing to listen to their calls. Having more eyes and ears out in the field is a great help to me.

Brook color (Margo D. Beller)
Otherwise, we don't talk much until we get to the curb and then we yell at each other if one's movements threatens to unbalance the other. I notice another older couple up the street are using their rakes to push leaves to the curb. They don't use a blower. They may not even use a tarp. They seem to have steel arms. If they hear me yell at MH they politely ignore it. They don't make a sound and work in sync. They're a partnership, too.

I think of how I used to do a lot myself. But now, while I can rake, use the blower (which shakes me painfully) and even put leaves into a tarp, there is no way I can drag down a heavy, leaf-laden tarp or empty it alone anymore. For that, as with so many things, I need my partner.

As if to mock us, the day after we finish our raking the wind blows and the lawn becomes more littered than it was before. Way too many leaves to use the mower on them. We'll just wait for the rest to come down, go out with rakes and tarp and then finish the job for another year. Until then, there's no rush. 

Saturday, November 3, 2018

I Am Thoreau

"Each town should have a park, or rather a primitive forest, of 500 or a thousand acres, where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation."

-- from the journal of Henry David Thoreau

There are two times when I am especially glad to be at home, working at irregular hours if at all -- when the day is gray, rainy and cold (keeping me inside anyway) and when the day is glorious (and I want nothing more than to be outside).

Autumn color, 2018 (Margo D. Beller)
In October, the weather went from September warm to November cold before settling on "normal" - whatever that is anymore. The continued rain had kept most of the trees leaves green but in the last week, with the return of "normal," the trees that hadn't lost all their leaves have suddenly popped with color. 

For the longest time in my backyard the white oak, normally the last tree to color, was the first. But now the elm is glowing gold, the red oak leaves are scarlet, the Norway maple went crimson and the small sugar maple in the corner by the compost pile is a brilliant yellow. Of course, now the wind has started howling and the trees are dropping leaves quickly.

During this week, I went out to the local park to enjoy some of this foliage while it lasted, on a clear and cold day where the blue of the sky made the colors so grand I was even more glad to be alive than usual.

"The question is not what you look at, but what you see.” -- Thoreau

Walking along the cobblestoned memorial path took me past the crab apple trees filled with berries, which were being scarfed down by robins. I don't get robins in my yard much unless they show up in the dogwood or the viburnun and other hedges before the squirrels can get to the fruit. But here they were in their glory. There were also starlings gathered at the tops of trees and on telephone wires. 

Maple in the park (Margo D. Beller)
Then they suddenly flew off and when I studied them closely I saw why - a sharp-shinned hawk was in their midst. The starlings veered one way, the small accipiter another. It wasn't interested in a starling meal.

Thoreau, in his books and journals, writes about the restorative qualities of being in nature, and the importance of slowing down and paying attention to what you see and hear. When I go into the woods now I tend to walk slowly although when I am with MH and his balky knees I tend to walk on ahead and then stop to look and listen while he catches up. Here in this park, next to my town's library, I can see the brook has risen almost to the top of its banks because of the recent rain. I can hear the soft notes of the white-throated sparrow. I can enjoy the turkey vultures sailing around in the wind.

And then one lands in a treetop before my approach prompts it to fly to the top of a telephone pole, where it spreads its wings and hangs out. I stop to watch it and take a picture to show MH. Around me are cars driving too fast in the road, people power-walking, joggers, dog walkers. None are aware of this big, black bird sitting over their heads. They are more disturbed by my standing there, presuming they notice me at all (which most do not).

Turkey vulture (Margo D. Beller)
This is the moment when I do not miss having a "regular" job that takes me away from my home for 12 hours a day and keeps me in a state of stress between my obligations and my commute. (I've done train and car; it makes no difference.) Yes, I don't make the money I once did and I don't get the benefits. Thoreau had the same problem. If he had his way he'd always be in the woods, measuring the depth of Walden Pond, watching the birds, talking to the neighbors about the animals or fish they hunted. 

But even Thoreau had to make a living once in a while to help out his family besides his writing. He ran a school in Concord. He taught the children of Ralph Waldo Emerson's brother in Staten Island, NY. He taught Emerson's own children. He lectured. He surveyed. He sold pencils made in his father's factory. "Work" was a necessary evil and he did it as little as possible.

“You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this.” --Thoreau

When I can't take hours out of my day to go outside, I feel terrible. Having read Laura Dassow Wells' 2017 biography "Thoreau: A Life," I know Thoreau never felt he wasted time walking the Concord roads during a full moon or traveling to a much wilder Cape Cod than you'd find now. He felt the wasted time was the time he spent working at a job. 

Crab apples (Margo D. Beller)
I am almost 20 years older than Thoreau was when he died in 1861. On my worst days, I can walk outside and feel better, almost as though I did not have any health problems. Of course, I feel it later. But seeing a bird I've never seen before, or seeing one I haven't seen for years is wonderful. When my city friends wonder at what I know of birds, I tell them I was not born with this knowledge, I had to seek it out in the field and then my reference books. Just as Thoreau did.

I am lucky there are so many parks within walking or driving distance of my home, and that I have the strength and stamina (and companion) to enjoy them. I am lucky I have enough money and no debt to afford this current state of my life. I allow myself to be surprised by what I find rather than tick birds off a list. 

I would never compare my powers of observation to Thoreau's. I have the advantage of strong binoculars, detailed field guides and land set aside for hiking that is not someone's private property. But Thoreau had the advantage of a (then) small town where he was known, indulged and allowed to wander. He did not have paved highways and fast cars and industrial noise and lights polluting the sky. He could see more, even if he was not always correct about what he was seeing. It informed his writing, which is why "Walden" and his other books are still read generations after his death.

You can decide for yourself if wandering has made me, like him, a better writer. But I do feel like a better person.

“How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.”  -- Thoreau

My Walden Pond - Reservoir, Central Park of Morris County
(Margo D. Beller)

Sunday, October 14, 2018

The Meadow and the Swamp

In 1966, when Cornell University's Laboratory of Ornithology published "Enjoying Birds Around New York City," it included only two pages (out of 171) on New Jersey. At the top of the list is Troy Meadows, located in Parsippany-Troy Hills Township, which happens to be just north of my town. 

Boardwalk, Great Swamp management area
(Margo D. Beller)
The short listing calls it "a justly famous freshwater marsh" and that "though gradually losing to development, it is still our most extensive freshwater marsh." However, by the time of the 2004 revised edition of  "A Guide to Bird Finding in New Jersey," William J. Boyle Jr.'s describes the state of Troy Meadows this way, in part:

Because of the proximity of I-80 and I-280, which significantly reduced the size of Troy Meadows, it is now difficult to hear the early-morning calls of distant marsh birds due to the traffic from the highways. Nearby development and consequent siltration have reduced the value of the area to wildlife. Although it is seldom visited by birders anymore, it remains an interesting and worthwhile area to bird, and can still produce many of the expected marsh birds.  

The Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge is not mentioned in 1966 because at the time there was not much of it. MH remembers one designated trail at the end of a busy road - a road that is now incorporated into the refuge. There are several such incorporated roads. As time goes by the people whose homes were allowed to stand sold them to the federal govenment and went elsewhere. The homes were taken down and the land left open. By 2004, Boyle was referring to it as a "haven for wildlife in the midst of southern Morris County's ever-expanding suburbia."

Great Swamp in winter (Margo D. Beller)
Why did Troy Meadows contract while Great Swamp expand from one trail to 8,000 acres that include a managed area and a wilderness area?  

Both are threatened by over-development. Part of one area of the Swamp owned by Morris County as a park comes right up against backyards and runs along power lines. The federally owned part of the Swamp - the greater part of those 8,000 acres - provides plenty of room to wander without seeing human habitation. (This can be both good and bad, and it is always a good thing to hike with a companion.)

From my own birding experience, I am comfortable hiking throughout the Swamp, including the area where volunteers come maybe once a year to cut back fallen trees and clear the trails. The managed area has a tour road, boardwalked trails and is very popular with suburbanites who want their kids to experience "nature" in small doses. The wilderness area, as the name implies, tends to be muddier and more of a challenge, tho' I find the birding as good if not better than in the managed area.

I am not comfortable at Troy Meadows, even though at 3,000 acres it is considerably smaller than the Swamp. (That's one reason you won't see any photographs from there. We leave our cameras at home.) There are many access points onto the Meadows property. Some are off well-traveled roads but some are at deadends that are rather secluded and frequently used by people not there to go birdwatching. At least that's been my experience. (One time MH and I were walking an unpaved trail when several cars of area college-age kids drove by to what was once an old rifle range to hang out.) Another entrance, in the middle of a housing development, takes you into wild marsh. You might find roughlegged hawks flying over the power lines in winter or sparrows and warblers in the brush. But you'll also find the walking is difficult, there is no path per se and the grass will need a good mowing in late summer. 

Great Swamp vista, management area (Margo D. Beller)
Both areas were created by a receding glacier to form what was once Lake Passaic. But now the Great Swamp is in a part of Morris County where the people tend to have more money. In the late 1950s there was a plan to put a fourth New York City-area airport in the area. A citizens group led by housewife Helen Fenske rattled enough chains and bent enough ears to get the plan stopped. When a new visitor center was built, it was named for Helen Fenske.

The Meadows' Helen Fenske is Robert L. Perkins, Jr., who died just last year. Keeping "development" at bay in  Parsippany-Troy Hills is a much more difficult matter. (The township is an amalgamation of several smaller towns, the largest two of which became the new name.)

When I was growing up in NY there was the snooty Upper East Side and the wannabes on the Upper West Side. So to me those in Parsippany are those who wanted to show they'd "made it." Being one of the largest townships in the area, development is rampant and the McMansions have sprouted like weeds.

Perkins started agitating around the same time as Helen Fenske. However, as you can see from the timeline of Wildlife Preserves, the group he led, results have been mixed.

Late 1930s— The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed Troy Meadows as a national wildlife refuge to serve the greater New York metropolitan region, but the designation was never granted. Since the early 1950s, Troy Meadows has been reduced to half its original size. Troy Meadows continues to be endangered by development all around it.
1952— Wildlife Preserves was founded and incorporated by a group of philanthropic conservationists, including the organization's long-time President and Executive Director- ("Bob") Robert L. Perkins, Jr. of Tenafly, NJ. The fledgling corporation began fundraising from within and outside of New Jersey and started buying farm lots and meadowlands in the Passaic River Basin, including land in Troy Meadows, Hatfield Swamp, and along the Whippany, Rockaway, and Passaic Rivers in East Hanover, Hanover, and Parsippany-Troy Hills.  

Redheaded woodpecker, Colonial Park, NJ
(RE Berg-Andersson)
So Troy Meadows is owned by Wildlife Preserves, a private group, with some property owned by the State of New Jersey. Although considered an important area by the federal government, the feds have no ownership. The Swamp is mainly federally owned and patrolled, with large gates that block roads to vehicle traffic after hours, a large ranger station and lots of patrols in 4-wheel-drive vehicles. Troy Meadows is maintained by individuals who have to repair and replace things on their own through fundraising. As I said, there are no gates to keep area kids out. 

Here's another difference: Nowadays the Swamp is better known. However, those who see reports out of Troy Meadows, such as those compiled by veteran Meadows hiker and naturalist Jonathan Klizas through his website, flock there. There are now breeding redheaded woodpeckers in the meadows (in the Swamp the reports are not as consistent). Recently, a Connecticut warbler - a notoriously difficult bird to find when it passes through New Jersey on its way south, was sighted there, as were Lincoln's sparrows. On the same mid-October day, 43 species of birds were found at the Swamp; 42 were found at Troy Meadows.

You can believe that Troy Meadows was a well-known marsh bird spot visited by famous ornithologists back in the day, including Roger Tory Peterson and Ludlow Griscolm. That's why, as Klizas told me, work continues to be done by Len Fariello, the manager of Wildlife Preserves, to keep the Meadows a meadow. That means putting up deer "exclosures" around the interior of the property to protect it from overbrowsing, planting trees and keeping the runaway phragmites under control.

So while you may have to work harder to shut out the surrounding noise and people watching you from their back decks, birding the Meadows won't waste your time. MH and I will have to try it again soon. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Where the Wild Things Are

When I go walking in my town, I look at the yard plants. I like to see what's growing and whether the deer have been at them. I look at what attracts butterflies and bees, what comes back year after year and what is uprooted in the fall. Many homes don't plant flowers or only buy pots of mums in gross in the fall they can throw out by Christmas. Many have the same types of shrubs.

Virginia creeper with berries (Margo D. Beller)
There is a sort of mania among some suburbanites. They must have neatly mowed grass, they must blow off even one leaf or twig that falls on it no matter the season, they must have layers of colored mulch put down around their shrubs and trees, they must put down (or have their lawn services put down) pounds of weed killer and insecticide on the grass. They want their property to look "natural" without the mess or the fuss.

I always get a chuckle out of seeing their weedy or burnt-over lawns in late summer, especially after a soggy spring. The orange mushrooms make for a nice contrast.

In my wanderings I've seen the more interesting plants in so-called "waste areas," those areas where neither homeowner nor town mow or use insecticides. Some of these areas may be designated "natural areas" and  planted with wildflowers such as milkweed and brown-eyed susans to draw those butterflies and bees. Most, however, are just weedy fields.

Inkweed (Margo D. Beller)
But weeds can also be interesting. While they may not look particularly pretty, these fields are like giant truck stops when they are going to seed in the fall for migrating and wintering or local birds.

Ragweed, for instance, the bane of allergy sufferers like me. At this time of year it is loaded with seed. So are the more benign goldenrod, joe-pye weed, coneflowers and thistle. The goldfinches and assorted sparrows really go for the seed.

Walking by one particular field I found a forest of inkweed, thick with purple berries favored by mockingbirds, catbirds, robins and other fruit eaters. There were pale purple asters drawing bees and vines of reddening Virginia creeper covered with black berries. Even my old nemesis the poison ivy was offering berries for the birds, which they will eat and spread.

To many, these "waste" areas are good for nothing except paving over. In Jersey City, where I once worked, at this time of year I'd see migrating northern parula, winter wrens, various types of sparrows and goldfinches in the weedy fields, chowing down for the next leg of their trip south (or north, in spring). I'd even find one of their predators, the endangered American kestrel. Then the light rail was built and those fields became apartment developments. The birds left and the people proliferated.

Snakeroot (Margo D. Beller)
That has not happened in my town, at least not much. These areas I visit are town or county property and not commercial. But in other areas I have seen buildings pulled down, weed fields spring up and then be paved over. Streets get clogged with more cars as more people move into "luxury" townhouse developments that spring up like weeds without the benefits to birds and insects.

My yard isn't particularly neat. MH does the lawn when it needs a cut, about every two weeks. In the backyard there are bits of wild daisy, aster, goldenrod and a nice white flower with the ugly name of snakeroot. There are also vines I try to keep under some kind of control and fruiting shrubs that seem to draw more squirrels than birds. No one will ever confuse my yard with those areas Mother Nature "developed" long before we were here. But I try. It's no waste of my time.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Flower Power

Every year at this time there is a sudden profusion of potted chyrsanthemums on my neighbors' doorsteps, usually dozens of pots that are paired with pumpkins and the occasional corn stalk or scarecrow.

Daisy-like mums, 2018 (Margo D. Beller)
This is part of the annual suburban fall ritual, along with taking kids apple-picking at the closest farm, using a leaf blower to push off the few leaves on the patio and having tailgate parties before the local football team plays.

Usually in October most flowers are fading and the only color seems to be the tree and shrub leaves or these potted mums on the doorstep. Usually. This year, thanks to all the rain and the sudden return of summer-like weather after a few weeks of cool the trees are mainly green. There are still roses and the annuals that have been out all season still blooming away.

In my yard, most of the plants bloomed and busted and have been cut back except for the late plants: pink flowers on the sedum and the Rose of Sharons, purple flower spikes on the liriope.

Mums are deer candy, so I can't understand why so many people are anxious to feed the critters. But I did have a mum once, when I was new to the neighborhood. I went to a nearby farm and bought a mum with an unusual flower - more like a daisy than a pincushion, with a yellow center and orange petals. I kept that "annual" going for years because I would bring it inside and let it winter on my enclosed back porch. Come spring, the plant - far less full than when I bought it - would go out front and bloom orange and yellow again in the fall. Two years ago, it finally bit the dust.

When I've looked for a replacement I've only found the pincushion variety of mums, which are sold by the gross at supermarkets, garden stores and the big-box appliance places such as Home Depot, usually two or three for $10. No one seemed to grow the daisy type.
Purple aster (Margo D. Beller)

I've also looked for another fall-blooming flower, a purple aster. When I created my garden after we had major work done on this house I put in a lot of plants and learned they should've been avoided. I had a number of asters and quickly found rabbits eating the foliage. So I put in a low fence to keep them from this particular garden plot. Then I discovered the shrubs behind the asters were being eaten from the top. That's when I discovered deer. I've been improving on my fencing ever since.

Once better protected the asters lasted for years until they, too, died off. Even perennials don't last forever. But when I have gone hiking I have seen and admired the pale purple New York asters or the deeper purple New England asters and thought I'd like to have at least one aster again.

Asters are not as popular as mums or even "ornamental kale," the version people put out front rather than the type they don't enjoy eating though they are told it is good for them. If I found them at all they looked anemic or were planted in fancy pots with other flowers. I could not find what I wanted.

Until last week.

There is a garden store with the grand name of The Farm. MH tells me it once was a farm - a turkey farm. But that was a long time in the rural past. it has been much, much more successful as a garden supply store catering to those with money in this particular part of Morris County, NJ. I used to buy things from here because it is not far from where my in-laws once lived. Then I discovered a lot of the same stuff could be bought cheaper closer to home.

Wild asters, Morris County, 2018 (Margo D. Beller)
But last week I decided to visit because it has been known to have plants I couldn't find elsewhere. There, to my astonishment, were two "white mums" of the daisy variety and deep purple asters that, while not wild, was close to what I thought would be nice to have again. I bought one of each. I have kept both in their pots, for now, in my garden behind the netting. They nicely color the space created after I cut back my spent perennials. They have already drawn bees and small butterflies.

The aster will be planted before winter and the mum will come inside and, with luck, bloom again in future years. Unlike many of my neighbors, the plants will be watered and not left to nature to take care of them, and they won't be thrown in the trash when the Halloween ornaments are taken down and the Christmas inflatables go up.

I am happy to finally have these plants again, even though I feel strange for giving in to this suburban ritual.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The Danger Time

Canna, with bitten foliage, 2018 (Margo D. Beller
In my yard, September going into October is a dangerous time to be a plant.

There are many resources that will tell you which flowers, trees and shrubs are resistant to browsing by deer, but if they are honest they will tell you that a hungry deer will try eating just about anything.

Take my cannas. This is a tropical plant grown for its foliage. As an extra gift it sends up spikes of red, trumpet-like flowers that have been known to draw hummingbirds. Cannas are considered "very resistant" to browsing, according to New Jersey's Rutgers University.

Dahlia, in its new spot after deer "pruning" (Margo D. Beller)
That is not completely true in my yard. Because cannas are tropical, if you put them in the ground they must be pulled out, wrapped and stored before the winter cold can kill them. After the first year, I stopped doing that. I keep them in big pots and then cut them back in late fall and store the pots in the garage. Last year, a deer came to one of the pots and chewed off the flower stalk. The plant did not bloom again.

This year, I put the pots within wired fencing to create a cage. I also put in a dahlia, a late-blooming, flowering plant that must also be stored for winter. Both pots of cannas had lots of flower spikes during the rainy, hot summer.

Then came September. One morning a couple of weeks ago I came out to discover a tall stalk of dahlia flowers had been chewed off and left on the ground, the flowers I'd waited for gone. Then the deer decided to try for the canna flower stalk. It could not reach it. As compensation it took several large bites out of the foliage it could reach, leaving some of the leaves in tatters. I moved the dahlia pot and recently saw new growth and flower buds resulting from the unintentional pruning by the deer. The cannas, however, are still in the cage and every so often another bite or two is taken when the deer comes looking for that dahlia. Soon enough the foliage will be cut off and the pots put into the garage

Rose of Sharon flowers (Margo D. Beller)
Deer are threatened at this time of year, too. Perennial flowers they like to eat have died back. People, or their lawn services, have mowed their grassy lawn to within an inch of its life, leaving nothing for the deer to graze. So this is why they start hitting the shrubs such as the euonymous (the one known as Burning Bush is a particular favorite, if my neighbor's is any indication) and the yew hedges. I've put double netting on to protect the plants in several beds because deer have either eaten through the single netting or have somehow managed to slice a big hole so they can put their heads in and eat unimpeded.

Also at this time of year, there is bow and arrow hunting of deer allowed ahead of the annual November shotgun hunt, coincident with the time when mating generally takes place. So deer are on the move and when not looking for love they are looking for greener pastures. Literally.

Pink sedum and purple-spiked liriope (Margo D. Beller)
Meanwhile, back in my garden, the Shasta daisies, joe-pye weeds and goldenrod that I've had damaged by deer before (and which are now better protected) are no longer blooming. These have been cut back. What are blooming are the purple-spiked liriope and the pink sedum, both behind double deer netting. The rose of Sharon is fading, as is the butterfly bush. The leaves of the ferns, peony and astibe are browning. I'm counting down the days until I can cut back the last of the perennials and put burlap on the evergreens that will be the only thing available to the deer.

There are few in my area who go through this winter preparation. Then again, many of my neighbors' houses are landscaped with plants designed to be "carefree" and easily replaced when the deer inevitably come to eat them.

Soon the seed and suet feeders will be back up and I will enjoy watching the hungry birds. The deer, however, are on their own.