Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The World According to Spruce

Hello, there! Spruce Bringsgreen here. The lady of the house said she needed a breather and asked me to fill in. Honestly, I have never written anything before, writing not being one of the traits one needs in a spruce tree. But I'll give it a go.

Here I am, relaxing at home, May 2017 (Margo D. Beller)
I've been here since 2007 when Margo and MH decided to spend their annual November vacation at home and ordered a number of big plants, including me! That was real good of her because it gets kinda nerve-wracking standing in a garden center far from my native state - Colorado - not knowing where I'm gonna end up, if my new home will be a good fit for my deep roots and height. I come from a family that can grow to 100 feet high back home in Colorado. Right now I'm just a kid.  

Also, who knows if the homeowner even wanted a blue spruce. We blue up as we mature; otherwise, we can be pretty green. We can be a lot to handle for the wrong person.

Luckily for me, Margo picked me and thanks to her good sense in where I should go and good planting by the garden center guys - two guys took a big device to dig a deep hole for me and another to put me and then the soil back in - careful watering by her and mowing by MH, I have been growing like a weed for the past 10 years. 

10 years. Man, how they fly by.

So Margo bought me to replace some apple trees she had cut down. I should be upset some of my tree brothers were removed but if that is the reason I'm here, so be it. Apples can be messy. Apples drop their fruit and squirrels grab them. So do those big, four-legged creatures that come through at night. I don't drop anything and those creatures don't come over and eat me as I've seen them do to some of the shrubs at the houses I can see. Maybe once one took a nibble. But with my sharp, short, hard needles, I'm not very appetizing! A good thing!

Here's how I grow (Margo D. Beller)
I will say, however, I am not happy with things right now in this place. It's not Margo's fault. I mean, I like it cool here rather than be hot and sweaty but the air has sure stayed cold longer than usual! Based on what I see of the sun, and it's always in my face (that's why I'm planted where I am and not stuck under an oak tree in the back), it should be way warmer now and there should be more flowers planted in the garden by the lady of the house. Last year at this time she was putting out pots of all sorts of things. Pretty colors too. 

But this year I haven't seen a lot of her, not since that recent warm spell before the cold and the rain. 

I am not jealous of those things in the pots. They fade or have to come inside when it gets cold. I am tall and sturdy and can take the cold real well. I also take dry periods well thanks to Margo's care in my early years. I feel loved and wanted.

MH gave me this name, Spruce Bringsgreen, for some reason. No one in my family has ever had a name. Not that we called each other anything. Sometimes, around the time of the shortest stretch of daylight I see, he starts calling me Tannenbaum. I don't really care either way. He takes care of me, she takes care of me and I take care of them. I don't shed, I look good on the lawn, I provide shelter for a lot of little birds. 

Me and the lady of the house
 (RE Berg-Andersson)
The other day I had a robin build a nest in a little gap that showed up near the top. It was going back and forth, back and forth. I was sure it would lay eggs. But no. Next thing I know, a big old sharp-shinned hawk got up there and was picking at whatever might have been in there. I guess that robin was some smart. Boy did those hawk talons sting my upper branches! 

I know sharpies, as they are called. They hang around in Colorado all year. I saw them all the time when I was a kid, before I was brought east.

Anyway, I much prefer the smaller birds. One little guy I used to see back home, a junco, was in my branches all the time it was cold this past season. Now he and the others have gone away, although it really isn't as warm as it should be. Guess there was something in them that said it was time to go. Other types of birds come and go but that robin's nest was my first in this location. Maybe one of the other small birds will use it, as long as Margo and MH keep the hawks away.

I guess you can say I've seen quite a lot in my 10 years here. I live straight, I know my place, I don't cause any problems for Margo and MH and I remember my roots. I'm glad to be alive and growing. 

Friday, May 5, 2017

5 Ways of Looking at a Catbird

The river is moving. The blackbird must be flying.   

Every spring day brings a new surprise. One day the perennial salvia looks dead from too much cold and rain, the next it's showing this year's leaves. Soon it will grow and have big spikes of purple flowers the bees love.

Birds have a way of surprising, too. Suddenly, there is a lot of birdsong in the mornings. There is still one white-throated sparrow from the winter in my yard, the nest box I thought would have a pair of house wrens as usual has been taken by a pair of chickadees (I can tell because the nest materials I see poking out at the seams are soft arborvitae leaves and animal fir, not the twigs used by house wrens) and such migrants as rose-breasted grosbeaks and black and white warblers have passed through the yard where I can see them.

But to me, it isn't spring until the catbird shows up.  One day you are wondering why you haven't seen or heard any yet this year, the next they are everywhere in the yard, in your neighbor's yard, in the local park. Come one, come all.

Catbird-2012 (Margo D. Beller)

Here are five ways of looking at a catbird, with apologies to Wallace Stevens.

    1. What is that black bird?

Actually, it is gray and its full name is the Gray Catbird. It has, as you can see above, a black eye, black atop its head and at the end of its tail. What you can't see is the distinctive red under the tail. This bird, Dumetella carolinensis, is a cousin to the robin but is not a thrush. Cornell's ornithology lab calls the catbird "secretive but energetic" and every morning I can depend on it to be singing in the dawn chorus with the house wren, chipping sparrow, cardinal and occasionally that remaining white-throated sparrow.

2. Why that name?

Catbirds have a mewing call that can sound like a cat. Its warbling song is actually an amalgam of other bird songs, similar to the mimicry of the mockingbird - another cousin - although the songs used are rarely that clear, at least to me. To me the catbird sounds like it is chattering with no set pattern, unlike the mockingbird.

3. Why would someone be in the catbird's seat?

The "catbird seat," according to Merriam-Webster, is a position of great prominence or advantage. It is a southern expression, one famously used by the sports announcer Red Barber while he was calling games for, among others, the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team. In James Thurber's 1942 story "The Catbird Seat" he notes one of the characters uses that phrase a lot, probably from listening to Red Barber.

In my experience you are just as likely to find a catbird calling from within a bush or poking for food on the ground as you are to see one in a tree, rarely as high up as the mockingbird that doesn't care a bit if you hear its complicated mimicry and can see where it is.

However, it is true that many are the times I've been weeding the back garden or digging a hole to put in a plant or moving things around in the compost pile and found a catbird sitting over my head, waiting for me to walk away so it can swoop down and see what worms or other food I've inadvertently provided it.

4. Cold-blooded killer

Birds gotta eat, be they hawks swooping down to snatch a mourning dove picking at dropped seed under my feeder or a robin tugging at a worm struggling to stay in the ground after MH has cut the lawn.

When I think of catbirds I remember the time when a sphinx moth graced my property. I did not realize it was a moth at first because it was large, dark and hovered like a hummingbird as it fed from flowers with a long, thin, hummer-like bill.

It was flying among my flowering plants one day when out jumped a catbird to snatch a meal. I was amazed and upset. Who knew catbirds (or any bird for that matter) ate hummingbirds? 

However, I had wondered about that "hummer's" coloring. The only hummingbird we usually get in my area is the rubythroat, and this didn't have the right coloring, being more brownish than greenish. That was when I looked in MH's various insect books and learned about the sphinx moth. Still, I was sad to see it go and have held it against the catbird ever since.

5. Now you see it, now you don't.

One year I was watering shrubs at the side of the house and suddenly a catbird flew out to a nearby tree. Something made me look behind and there was a nest with two or three eggs in it. I left it alone. The next time I watered I shut off the hose and looked first and there she was, on her eggs. Not long after, all were gone.

Same with the end of the summer. One moment the catbirds have descended en masse in your yard, the next they have disappeared. It seems that when the summer is over, nearly all are out of here, heading to their wintering grounds in the U.S. south, Cuba and central America.

But I know they'll be back next spring. 

Friday, April 28, 2017

The Love Song of H. Wren

The house wren singing at first light is looking for love.

Mating turkey vultures (RE Berg-Andersson)
From the smallest wren to the largest turkey vulture, this time of year in New Jersey - late April into May - is when males use particular tactics to attract a mate so they can follow their internal instincts and perpetuate the species.

The house wren uses song, a cascading series of notes repeated again and again, sometimes for hours, from the tallest trees. The song will bring over curious females while warning off any challenging males.

We humans can put words to some bird songs -- "Drink your TEA" (eastern towhee), "Who cooks for you?" (barred owl), "teakettle, teakettle, teakettle" (Carolina wren) come to mind. The mockingbird and brown thrasher mimic the songs of other birds - they are fine indicators of what can be heard in a particular patch.

Some birds use "song" that doesn't sound like song to us. The white-breasted nuthatch's high-pitched nasal "hee-hee-hee-hee-heh" is song, at least to another nuthatch. The hoots of a great horned owl are song.

The wren in my yard has discovered the nest box I hang every year in my apple tree, now in glorious bloom. So the wren is not only trying to draw a mate with its "Look at me!" song, it is also trying to protect prime breeding territory from another male. So the song is also saying, "This is mine!"

Many birds go to extremes to attract a mate. The American woodcock - an otherwise not very showy bird that spends its life skulking in the brush, almost invisible because of its mottled brown coloring that blends in with the fallen leaves, probing mud for earthworms with its long bill - attracts mates by calling out a nasal peent at dawn or at dusk, and then hurling itself high in the air, sometimes 20 or 30 feet up, before returning to the launching pad. The male that can jump the highest wins. Females will fly in to investigate and ultimately there will be a pairing, mating, young.

White-throated sparrow, not in breeding colors yet
(Margo D. Beller)
At dawn in my yard lately, I have been hearing the love/territorial songs of robins, cardinals, titmice, the house wren and chipping sparrows, which make a long, dry trill. Sometimes I'll hear the grunts of fish crows, and the "old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody" of one of the few remaining white-throated sparrows. These winter birds get a bright white throat and "eyebrow" at breeding time with a bright yellow spot near their eyes, but there will come a point when they will fly north to nest. The one (or two) still in my yard remains for the feeders but usually these birds take off when the catbirds arrive.

Like the woodcock, many birds use aerial display. Hummingbirds fly huge loop-de-loops to show a potential mate that his genes will make bigger, stronger young - very important in a species where, after the mating, the male takes off and the female does the nest building, child rearing and feeding alone.

Sounds like some humans, doesn't it?

People and birds are similar in that way, the males dressing their best, showing a potential mate he is bigger, stronger, richer than the other guy. If he attracts a female's attention and they "date" he will offer her gifts to solidify the bond - and get him what he wants. He offers, she accepts.

The main difference between birds and humans is a bird's mating season is only for a limited time each year (and doesn't take place online or in a bar). While pairs of some birds are monogamous until one dies - mute swans, cardinals and Canada geese come to mind - most birds stay "monogamous" only during the breeding and nesting seasons. Once the young are large enough to fly and feed themselves, the adult pair separates, going south to their winter territories in the late summer or early autumn.

However, like the hummingbird, many the males of many species mate and move on, trying to mate with as many females as possible. In the case of the redwing blackbird, they may have multiple mates at once. The object here is continuing the species, making more blackbirds, hummingbirds, turkey vultures and house wrens.

This morning I sat on the patio to listen to the wren sing. He flew from the apple tree to a high branch of an oak to a higher branch of an elm. But then I saw something interesting - the male called from my right and another wren, the female, flew into the nest box on my left. So the male was successful with his song and now the singing is to fight off potential rivals!

This year's house wren, singing (Margo D. Beller)
As the female adds sticks to the box for her nest and lays her eggs, the male's song will become a little softer and won't last as long, at least around her. He'll still do his "Stay away, guys" warning but the softer song will be a song of reassurance to his mate that he is nearby, watching, protecting. When the young are born the song will go very soft, so as not to alert potential predators there are vulnerable young for the taking. But he'll still sing, to reassure her he's still around, at least for now.

Different birds sing for different reasons, if you consider the hoots and howls of an owl or the grunts of a turkey vulture or double-crested cormorant to be singing.

Same with people. When I call or text MH while I am away from home, such as hiking in the woods listening to birds, I am reassuring him. I don't sing all that well, so it's the next best thing.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Here Comes Trouble

It is a universal truth that April showers bring May flowers. This year, when February felt like April and March felt like January, we have had a long, dreary, rainy period in April.

Bleeding heart, April 22,2017 (Margo D. Beller)
So it should be no surprise the rain has brought the May flowers early including the bleeding heart, the lilac, the growth spurt of the Lenten rose and the dogwood blossoms. The coral bells are sprouting flower stalks, which means the hummingbirds that enjoy the little pink bells can't be far behind.

However, some surprises are not so delightful - the purple flowers of the ground ivy in the lawn look nice, but the ivy supporting them will get everywhere in the lawn and my flower gardens. I will have to yank out what I can but it never really goes away.

There is also the garlic mustard. My book on weeds and their uses says you can cook the leaves of the plant when it is small, but I'd rather not.

Lenten rose (Margo D. Beller)
Ground ivy flowers in front lawn (Margo D. Beller)

Probably the most troublesome plant, however, is not a plant at all. It is my apple tree.

I enjoy the flowers on this tree, the last of five apple trees that were on the property when we bought it and the one with the best apples, which is why it was not cut down when the sour apples of the other trees drew too many squirrels and deer not particularly neat in their habits.

Last year, weather circumstances were such that we did not have many apple blossoms. Each flower represents a fruit. This year, however, we have lots of blossoms and that means I will be making lots of apple sauce - if I can get to the apples ahead of the squirrels, the birds, the deer and a new nemesis, the bear.

Last August, a bear nearly destroyed my pear tree while trying to get the one pear hanging from it. It was not successful. That was the last (so far) in a string of bear attacks going back to March 2015 after more than 20 years of my living in this house.

This year, despite cutting down two parts of the trunk and then my botching the pruning of the upper branches last summer, there is not only growth but the most flowers I've ever seen on this tree.

Oh boy, more pears, too.

I remember being very happy after I picked last year's pear that the few apples on the tree were gone by June. This year, however, I can expect the bulk of the apples to be ready to pick, or drop from the trees, in late June or early July unless we have a particularly hot May or June that brings out the thirsty squirrels. In the past if they happened to drop a usable apple, I'd save it. If they took a bite and dropped it, which is often the case, I would either throw it out or into another part of the yard for any creature to find.

Now, I have to factor bears into the equation.I won't be throwing apples into the corner of my yard this year.

Apple blossoms (Margo D. Beller)
I could just take down the tree but where's the fun in that typical suburban solution?

The blossoms and apples draw insects and the insects draw birds, including migrating visitors such as the Baltimore oriole, ruby-crowned kinglet and warblers of various types. The regulars - cardinals, titmice, house finches, jays, chickadees - are always around in it, too.

And then there is my special visitor, the house wren.

Every year, when I read reports of house wrens appearing in areas close to mine, the wren box comes out. Then I wait.

Wren house, 2017 (Margo D. Beller)
A week after I put out the box I was coming back from delivering items to the compost pile when I spied a house wren pulling out some debris I hadn't completely removed last winter. Would we have a tenant this year?

I got my answer this morning as I was photographing the apple tree and heard the house wren's gurgling song.

It is hard to describe the song of the house wren. It's not like the "tea kettle, tea kettle" and other repeating calls of its cousin, the Carolina wren. The house wren is a very plain little brown bird, but it will build a nest in just about anything, and the wooden house I provide in the shelter of the apple tree must look very appealing.

2017 house wren (Margo D. Beller)
Usually, by the time the apples are ready to be harvested, the wren brood has flown with their parents to the nearby bushes before eventually dispersing. Too many squirrels in the tree and me knocking apples down with a long rod would be enough to drive any new parent mad, especially one with three to five young looking to be fed at the same time.
So when the wrens fly off and the apples ripen I must hope no bears will do to the apple tree what last year's did to the pear tree, which was not pretty.

Yes, I know, the apples are just sitting there and if I didn't use them they would feed all sorts of animals, and the bear is just doing what bears do when presented with a meal in inhabited areas like my small town, be it in a Dumpster, garbage pail or a fruit tree.

The roar of the spring blower. (Margo D. Beller)
There are a lot of aggravations in suburbia - the inevitable "Spring cleanup" when the lawn services come through and use their noisy, gas-belching blowers to take out all the fallen leaves they didn't get last autumn, then put down the weed killer chemicals and the lawn fertilizer and then, of course, comes the mowing and putting down of mulch to cover where the leaves they removed had been. (I don't understand this. The leaves make a perfectly good mulch on their own.)

Now, there's bear.

My city friends think I am nuts - yes, car alarms and gun shots at 3 a.m. are far worse than the drone of any early-morning lawn mower - and my rural friends already contend with bears as well as bobcats, coyotes and many more wild animals, all coming to a wooded area near me soon enough thanks to shrinking habitat and encroaching housing developments.

I'll just have to be faster to the apple tree this year and hope for the best.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Scorched Earth, Rebirth

Scherman Hoffman, 4/12/2017 (RE Berg-Andersson)
I write during the Easter period. Easter is the time of spiritual renewal and rebirth. It coincides, most years, with the full arrival of spring.

April finally feels like April here in NJ after a February that felt like May and a March that felt like January. The early-blooming daffodils are finally at peak beauty after starting to grow too early and then stopping when it turned cold.

The furnace is off and I keep the window open a bit at night, so in the morning I hear the white-throated sparrows calling for "old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody;" the titmice calling for "Peter, Peter;" and the chickadees greeting me with "hey, Sweetie." The downy woodpeckers are drumming against a nearby tree, proclaiming this is their breeding territory now. The male goldfinches are in their more-familiar bright yellow breeding color. The male juncos that winter in NJ have taken off north to claim their breeding patches, waiting for their potential mates to join them. 
(RE Berg-Andersson)

Birds are at the feeders, getting the fuel they need to sing, defend territories and live to sing another day.

These are the expected signs of spring. But there is another, less familiar sign - the controlled, or prescribed, burn.

Earlier this month I attended a nature program with, among others, Mike Anderson, the director of NJ Audubon's Scherman Hoffman sanctuary in Bernardsville. Someone asked him about his "burn" and he replied that he had the permit but it gives only a short time to do the burning and time was running out. If it couldn't be done soon, before his planned Easter week vacation, it would have to be put off another year.

As the pictures here, taken at Scherman Hoffman this week, show, he got his burn. Conditions have to be right. It can't be too windy and hot, the ground can't be too wet or dry. That was why the burn had to be delayed until nearly the last minute.

Scherman Hoffman is not alone. The managed area of the federal Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge was burned on April 13 but, according to one volunteer, the burn turned out to be less extensive than planned.

It may seem like a contradiction to use a scorched earth policy - we have to torch this forest to save it - to promote growth in a sanctuary or refuge area, but fire is a natural part of the eco-system. Some seeds, such as those of the pitch pine, won't open unless burned. Burning dead wood allows sun to break in and new trees to sprout and grow. In the case of Scherman Hoffman, Mike Anderson said the idea is to burn the ground and when the inevitable invasive plants - the barberry, the knotweed and the like - take advantage to grow ahead of the native plants, go in and pull them out so the natives can thrive. 
(R.E. Berg-Andersson)

In the case of the Great Swamp, the idea was to get rid of the overgrowth around the various impoundments and make it attractive to migrating waterfowl. According to the press release put out by Morris County, where this part of the federally run Swamp is located:

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regularly conducts prescribed burns on refuge lands to maintain and restore habitat for wildlife. The goal of these prescribed burns is to increase the amount of open water available to waterfowl by reducing the amount of standing dead vegetation and invading woody vegetation in three of the impoundments.

Once restored, these impoundments will provide better feeding, nesting, brood rearing, and resting habitat for all waterbird species that use the refuge. In addition to improved habitat, visitors to the refuge also benefit from prescribed burns because fire promotes native species and habitats, thus increasing wildlife observation opportunities.''

Other parks use controlled burns to improve the overall health of the forest. As the Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky explains:
Due to our successful prevention and suppression efforts, fire patterns were markedly altered during the past century. In the absence of fire, massive insect and disease epidemics and various other forest health problems have proliferated.
(RE Berg-Andersson)
That's why:
The historic suppression of fire has resulted in a lack of periodic, natural fire in our forest. The absence of these low intensity fires has increased the risk of large fire events and has negatively impacted the health of our forests.
Why were burns suppressed? Because if done improperly, when the conditions are too dry and/or too windy, they can go horribly wrong. And in NJ, one of the most population-dense states in the US, if not THE most population dense because of its small size and proximity to New York City and Philadelphia - a barrel tapped at both ends, as Benjamin Franklin once said - more and more housing developments are very close to parks and woods. 

And when you have continued heat and dry weather, you have a greater danger of fire. Many burns take place specifically to take out dead wood and invasives to try to forestall the risk of a more destructive forest fire.

In the case of the NJ Pinelands, where combustible pitch pines and sandy soil predominate, there have always been small towns within. Fires were expected. However, now there are these big, nearby housing developments - many of them nursing homes and "active adult" communities - which are threatened whenever there is a fire, even a planned one.

Consider what can go wrong. In 2015 the Colorado  State Forest Service set fire to an overgrown forest near the Lower North Fork of the Platte River, about 40 miles outside Denver.  But, according to, apparently no one looked at the weather patterns and so warm temperatures and high winds fanned a fire that burned 1,400 acres, destroyed 23 homes and killed three people.
(RE Berg-Andersson)

Also, when you burn something, you have to make sure the fire is out completely. As MH and I walked around Scherman Hoffman, a breeze blew charged, black, paper-thin particles around us. These particles were cold but sometimes embers start new fires if they are not completely extinguished.

“The only reason that anybody gives for doing [burns] is that it’s ‘natural,’” a homeowner who lost his home to that 2015 Colorado fire told OutsideOnline. com. “But it isn’t natural anymore. It’s where humans live.”  

And that, of course, is the problem. Too many people living in areas where they could get burned, literally, as part of nature's cycle of renewal and rebirth.

Fire, like death, is a fact of life.

Updated 5pm, Friday, April 14.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Growing My Own

Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. -- Henry David Thoreau

Sitting on my window sill in my sunny front room are two pots filled with pepper seeds. I am being rather adventurous with what I hope to grow -- long cubanelle peppers, some hybrid bell peppers, a couple of mildly hot peppers and a lot of my favorite, a sweet, long frying pepper called Italia. 

Last year I managed to get two Italia seeds to grow and put them outside with the previous year's pot of peppers that I thought I had killed when I brought it inside, not knowing it was infected with white flies. It lived despite my hacking it back and then spending some time in quarantine on my enclosed but not insulated back porch, and provided me with extra peppers. (I tried to keep them inside over this winter but the white flies were fierce and they all had to go.)

So far this year I have had little success with the seeds.

This year's pepper seeds. (Margo D. Beller)
I gave a friend seeds from one of last year's Italia peppers and hers are growing. Of course, she has a nice window sill over her sink facing in a direction that provides bright light. She also planted them in mid-February, which is not the usual planting time in NJ but we had a spate of April-like days. She was lucky. By the time I put a few older seeds in a pot, warm February became a cold March and, despite being on a sunny window sill, nothing came up.

So now I have two pots filled with seeds that are not quite as old, and I am waiting. If any seedlings come I will wait for them to get big enough to be put in larger pots and then put outside, protected from digging chipmunks and hungry deer. 

Why do this? Because it costs me nothing but some time, soil, a pot and water and in return I get some peppers for my cooking. I buy fewer peppers and know exactly what is going into growing them. And like my flower gardening, I find I enjoy growing these vegetables.

Two of last year's Italias. (Margo D. Beller)
My grandfather was a gardener, and while I have an affinity for flowers and house plants I inherited from him, I have never been as successful as he was in growing tomatoes. Peppers have been another matter. Several years ago a friend insisted on us all going to a pepper farm he'd read about in central New Jersey. We bought plants. I potted mine and it grew and produced very well, though I wasn't crazy about the type of pepper I had bought. 

It was several years later that I bought, and grew, an Italia. Its fruits have a lot of seeds and some little voice told me to save some of them. Good thing I did because as this pepper farm got more writeups in the local foodie press, more people ordered peppers online or came to the store, as we did, to buy plants. Italia is usually sold out now. I've grown it from seed ever since. One pepper can create a garden of new plants thanks to all those seeds.

I tried other peppers but the results were mixed - one potted pepper plant grew to the size of a small tree and produced no peppers. I kept it over the winter just to see what would happen and the next year got all of four peppers, none of which were any better than the Italia. 

So that is why I grow my own.

Meanwhile, I know there are ways to induce growth. There are special potting mixes, special lights. I don't bother. My friend has bright daylight and potting soil containing her own compost. So do I. The only thing that might make a difference is the age of the seeds. Usually that is not a factor unless I've been storing them - in little packets made from paper toweling - improperly.

Anyway, I have no room for these grow lights, either in my front room or in my half-basement, where the plants would get too much heat from the furnace. 

As The New Yorker's Katharine S. White says in her 1959 column "Before the Frost" about taking care of house plants in winter without using grow lights, "Though I am willing to be a floor nurse, I have no intention of becoming an electrician."

So I watch and wait and hope April gets warmer and at least one seed sprouts. If it is an Italia, so much the better.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Onward and Upward in My Garden

After finishing a collection of letters between garden writers Katharine S. White of North Brooklin, Maine (and the New Yorker) and Elizabeth Lawrence of Charlotte, NC (and the Charlotte Observer), I was inspired go to back and re-read my copy of Ms. White's New Yorker columns "Onward and Upward in the Garden," which was the title of her 1979 collection, edited by her husband (E. B. White) and published two years after her death.
Clockwise from bottom - Christmas cactus, trout begonia, a pot holding the Chinese
evergreen, orchid, humidifier, amaryllis (Margo D. Beller)
I read this book of columns many years ago after reading an interesting biography of KSW by Linda H. Davis. I found the collection in a used bookstore in Marblehead, Mass., and the owner was so impressed by my knowledge of White and gardening (learned, in part, by watching my paternal grandfather) she gave me the book. (It didn't hurt that MH was buying other books for himself. Bookstores never go hungry when he visits.)

It was not long after reading this book the first time that I found the book of letters, in another used bookstore (this time I paid for it).

Ms. White is a woman after my own heart. She claims she knows nothing much about gardening but she knows what she likes and the simpler the better. She is not shy about stating her opinions. She complains that the harsh Maine winters kill many of her plants but she buys more anyway, for use indoors and outdoors. Despite increasing physical infirmities, she just can't help herself.

She says she has no room for the potted plants she brings inside; that is my complaint, too. Our house faces southwest and our front room (originally a company room but used mainly to hold books and CDs) holds my plants, either on the large window sill or on some nearby tables where the plants get light but not direct sun. There are several different ecosystems in this one room, and unfortunately the other south-facing rooms aren't big enough to hold a plant table along with the other furniture.

Books, geranium in its hanging pot and a small pot of cactus to its right.
(Margo D. Beller) 
The one orchid I have - a moth orchid, a gift from an orchid-loving friend who thought I would love it as much as she - would do very well in one of my humid, windowed bathrooms, but both face north and are rather dark. My enclosed porch, where every summer I put the plants that, like the orchid, need light but not sun, faces north and is not insulated for all-year use. So in winter my orchid stands near a small humidifier, which also helps the nearby Chinese evergreen and another huge plant I can't name that started out as a little guy in a pot on the desk of a co-worker who left it behind when she went to another job.

Most of my plants I did not buy but are either gifts or orphans I took in - the latter include a red annual geranium that was pulled from a window box of a restaurant in town and dropped on the sidewalk, a pot of snake plants that I inherited from my maternal grandmother, miniature cactii from an office move, a coleus pulled from a planter in the middle of Times Square (it is very easy to take cuttings and root them in water. I now have great-granddaughter plants from the original.), a trout begonia from a friend's office (this one is also very easy to root) and a jade plant from the late father of a friend of a friend who didn't know what to do with it.

From left to right: begonia (with pink flowers), rosemary, citronella plant,
rescued geranium, 2 pots of pepper seed and one of two
great-granddaughter coleuses. (Margo D. Beller)
All of these plants have thrived and, in the case of the snake plant, grown almost too well. Recently I received a gift basket of houseplants from my mother-in-law, I bought a second geranium for its hanging pot (and then couldn't bring myself to dispose of the plant when it started flowering) and a small rosemary plant that is now a huge rosemary plant, so huge I could cut some, root it and give the daughter plant to the same friend who gave me the orchid. Another friend was eager to unload some of her citronella plant and I battle it each summer to keep it from overgrowing.

It can be a hassle to take care of so many plants, but it is certainly easier than fussing with deer netting while testing my knees and my back putting in or tending to outdoor plants.

As KSW says, "I find that the chief pleasure of growing things indoors is that it can be a natural process - a simple way to bring nature into the house."

She reads garden catalogs like literature, and I reminded MH that our one visit to White Flower Farms in Litchfield, Conn., was because of her many references to the company. She also cites, among others, Wayside Farms. Both are still around and now have websites popping with plants. But KSW sought a real catalog to thumb through and dream over. You can still do that, too.

I won't be doing it, however, because, as she would be the first to admit, that way madness lies.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Signs of Leaf

When the last of the snow from the "Blizzard of 2017" finally melted or was washed away by this week's heavy rain, MH rushed out to walk the property, gimpy knees and all, to put fertilizer on the lawn.

Fading white crocus - April 1, 2017 (Margo D. Beller)
He was not alone. Several men I saw - and it is usually men, either homeowners or hired - were doing the same or using leaf blowers to push off last year's detritus. It must be some sort of innate call of the wild.

I, meanwhile, took a walk around the garden and found - once again, despite my neglect - signs of life, although in most cases these were more signs of leaf.

I am currently rereading the letters of garden writers Katharine White (for the New Yorker; she was the wife of E.B. White) and Elizabeth Lawrence (for the Charlotte (NC) Observer). Their intense discussions of flower borders, little bulbs and the wreckage in the gardens caused by weather or failing bodies that just can't keep up seems even more relevant to me now than the first time I read this, several years ago.

Glory of the snow - April 1, 2017 (Margo D. Beller)
So, inspired by them, I, too, walked the property, eager to see what was doing well and what was not.

We had a warm February and that had started some plants growing way too early. Then the cold and snow came with March, and many of the plants went into suspended animation. The yellow crocuses hung around quite a while but the snowdrop came and went. Small narcissus started blooming but several of the larger daffodils caught mid-bloom when the cold came looked bedraggled. Before the blizzard I cut them and put them in water inside, to prolong their life. I did the same with a couple of branches of forsythia, another early bloomer.

Now, more daffodils are growing; more of the white, pink and purple crocus have appeared; and a little blue glory of the snow reminded me of its existence once the snow melted. But some of the daffodils in flower are much smaller than they should be. The leaves of the butterfly bush I rushed to cut back in mid-February as they proliferated are now dried up and I wonder if they will grow again. The forsythia looks very poor and the quince buds are still waiting for the weather signal to open. Same with the dogwood buds.

Budding dogwood - April 1, 2017 (Margo D. Beller)
However, all the rain has started the ornamental onions, the bleeding heart and the lilacs growing, the irises are getting taller, the tulips that had stopped growing have restarted, and all of these should open on time.

The birds have also been active. Goldfinches visit the feeder, the males just starting to show their breeding yellow feathers and black "cap" on the head. Cardinals and titmice are singing up a storm. Robins are everywhere. I walked along the Whippany River the other day with MH and we counted eight phoebes, a very early migrant. More birds will be coming north once things warm up, the trees leaf out and the bugs start flying. 

I would love to put in more early spring bloomers for the color but, except for the daffodils, they can be eaten by hungry deer, which have been browsing on my lawn for whatever little bits of grass they can get since the smaller shrubs are behind netting, along with the budding azaleas. It takes a lot of effort to kneel down and put in plants, particularly when dealing with deer netting.

Daffodils with newly growing bleeding heart at left (Margo D. Beller)
Neither White nor Lawrence mention deer, although White mentions red squirrels and other critters getting into some of her flower beds over the Maine winter. Lawrence despairs of bringing order to unruly beds. I'd love to have that problem of too many flowers. But while I inherited my grandfather's affinity for plants, I don't seem to have his stamina, at least at present.

What I do have is a huge desire to buy plants and put them in pots, both inside (where I have many flowering plants crowding my one sunny window sill) and out (behind netting). In my garage are boxes of canna roots and one dahlia I did just about everything wrong on and yet it flowered. I have seeds I have collected from vegetables and flowers. One of my friends has pepper seedlings growing on her window sill. She put hers in during the warm spell. Mine went into soil when it turned cold and have yet to come up in their pot.

I discovered this lenten rose (helleborre) flower on the morning of April 1, the first time the plant has flowered in years. (Margo D. Beller)
Luckily, I have more than enough seeds to try again and wait for those signs of life, or leaf, to remind me of rebirth and renewal.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Owls I Have Known

One evening, I came outside to look at the night sky and an eastern screech owl was sitting on my fence post. We looked at each other. It was close enough to touch. Perhaps it realized that because it turned and flew off in that incredibly silent way owls have, thanks to the construction of its wing feathers.

That was serendipity. More typical was the other night when I was part of a group of people shivering in the dark, hoping our guide would be able to fool an eastern screech owl into calling for us as the temperature started on its long march below freezing.

As we stood in the snow waiting, I noticed the moon was nearly full and when wind blew aside the clouds I could see the constellations Gemini, Orion and Perseus. There is no Owl constellation and, ultimately, we heard no owls on this prowl.

That's the way it goes. As MH constantly reminds me, the birds aren't waiting for us -- especially when these nocturnal raptors can hide in plain sight in the dark as easily as they can when they roost in the daytime.

But it is not impossible. In fact, on the way to the Owl Prowl a great horned owl flew over the road ahead of us.

Another time, in the middle of an afternoon, walking on a boardwalked trail, a great horned owl flew over my head, landed in a tree long enough for me to identify it and then flew off. And there was the great horned owl duet I heard by chance one predawn morning in January, as the male - in one of my backyard trees - called to its mate some distance away as I was locking the front door to head off to work.

Driving in the Great Swamp one afternoon, I stopped to see what a woman was seeing through her binoculars. It was a barred owl, one of the few owls with dark rather than yellow eyes. It had a rather benign look on its face -- but that is just an illusion, just as it is an illusion to think of some of the smaller, round-headed owls are cute and cuddly.

They are not.

Take this screech owl (below) that MH photographed in Delaware in 2010. We missed it - another couple asked if we had seen it and were kind enough to lead us to it.

Eastern Screech Owl (RE Berg-Andersson)
This 8-inch owl, which looks like a great horned owl that shrunk in the wash, may look like a friendly little guy but like the bigger owls it has asymmetrical ears - those tufts sticking up are feathers, not its ears - the better to hear its next meal scurrying around, even under snow. It has sharp talons for killing and a sharp bill. Like all owls it will eat its meal whole, later regurgitating a hard pellet containing all the bones and other parts it can't digest.

Also like other owls the screech owl is not only good at not being seen at night, it is very good at hiding in plain sight in daylight. As you can see with this owl, it is in a cavity, poking its head out. Other owls hide themselves to roost by standing close to the trunk of a tall evergreen, or even a small, thickly foliaged shrub (if it is one of the smaller owls, such as the saw-whet owl). I was once in the Great Swamp, in an area where someone told me he'd seen a barred owl. I stood and looked but saw nothing...until it flew out. Its coloring and spotting had blended in with the mottled bark of a spruce.

It was likely right in front of me, having a good laugh...if owls could laugh. They do make other sounds -- whinnying (screech), hooting (great horned), barking (barred), hissing (barn owls) and tooting (saw-whet). In the middle of the night, those sounds can range from strange to downright scary, especially if you can't see the source.

Some owls hunt in daylight. The snowy owl, for instance, has the long summer days of the arctic tundra. But when the winter food supply crashes, this owl of the north will some south to find a meal. Several years ago there were many sightings of snowy owls, a phenomenon known as an irruption. This one below was seen at New Jersey's Island Beach State Park.

Snowy owl (RE Berg-Andersson)

People think snowy owls are cute and cuddly, too. They remember Hedwig, the snowy owl of Harry Potter's at Hogwarts. Gift shops run by New Jersey Audubon and the National Audubon Society will sell you a stuffed snowy. But don't let the round head and body and the big, yellow eyes fool you into doing something stupid. These are raptors, just like the redtail hawks and peregrine falcons. In fact, here is some video of a snowy fighting off a falcon.

Other owls hunt at dawn or at dusk. The first time I ever saw a short-eared owl it flew over our car as we were driving on a road through a marsh at dusk on the way to Cape May. (It was the odd silhouette that helped me identify this bird.)

When I think about it, I have seen and/or heard quite a number of different types of owls, both by day and by night. Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Drilling Down

If you keep your eyes open you can learn something you didn't expect in the darndest of places.

Rain barrels donated by Ocean Spray (Margo D. Beller)
Recently I attended a program on how to build your own rain barrel. I learned that an inch or so of rain off an 800-square-foot roof will drain about 600 gallons of water. Your average rain barrel holds 50 gallons of water. More barrels mean more water saved for your flowers and the lawn instead of using the sprinkler or the hose in the hottest part of summer when there might be water restrictions.

That was good to learn. But what I didn't expect was what I was reminded about changing sexual roles.

Ocean Spray had donated 15 barrels for this program put on by New Jersey Audubon's Scherman Hoffman sanctuary, with a Watershed Ambassador (I learned I live in Region 6) from the Americorp service partnership of federal and private groups. When it came time for the hands-on part of the program, it was fascinating to see who did what.

Mrs.  Cavagrotti drills her rain barrel (Margo D. Beller)

Shop class - using machine tools, carpentry, hands-on stuff like that - wasn't offered to girls back in my day. We had to make do with "home ec," or learning to cook and sew so when we grew up we could efficiently run a household, presumably one with kids.

Looking back, I kinda wish I'd learned carpentry. I've had to pick up knowledge of machine tools along the way via the School of Trial and Error.

Don't ask me to build my own birdhouse. I have no circular saw. But if you need a curtain rod put up, I'll bring over my tool set.

At this program there were couples and single women of different ages.

For one couple the man was the driller and the woman steadied the barrel for the hole that would eventually hold a caulked faucet. But for another couple - who happened to be Ambassador Alexandra Cavagrotti's parents - there was no doubt who was in charge of the drill.

"Have you done one of these before?" I asked Mrs.Cavagrotti (unfortunately, I didn't get her first name). "I've built whole houses," she replied. I can believe it watching her. Her husband held the barrel.

As the noise made the room seem more like a mechanic's garage than a bird sanctuary class room, I noticed a couple of women I'd put in their 40s or early 50s. One grabbed the offered drill. "I don't want to sound sexist but have you ever used one of these before?" I asked. "Yes," she said. "You get such a feeling of satisfaction from using a drill."

I can understand that feeling. No need to call and then wait for a man to do a simple project and then pay him. Once you've used a drill, you realize the power - in more ways than one - in your hands.

But that is a recent attitude, relatively speaking. One older woman waited for Cavagrotti or one of her co-Ambassadors (who speak on the importance of water and conservation at schools and other programs) to come over and drill the hole. However, one younger woman impatiently waited for one of the three drills so she could customize her own barrel.

My drill set, with bits (Margo D. Beller)
At my house, MH is a master of the electric hammer and screwdriver (I prefer the manual type), but wouldn't touch the drill when I wanted to put up curtains, finally, in two south-facing rooms one summer. I'm glad he didn't. After some mistakes the curtains are up and so is a new towel rack. I also used the reverse function to take out some old, stripped screws.

When she was growing up my mother, who became a doctor at a time when that was actively discouraged, didn't use power tools. That was the province of her brother, the engineer. When she married my father she found a man who couldn't screw in a light bulb if his life depended on it. She learned the basics of home repair from his father. Since she was my role model in many things, I took it from there. But I didn't go the final step until MH handed me the drill and said, "This is YOUR project."

So if you want to learn something about rain barrels, check the Rutgers University Cooperative Extension Water Resources Program at

If you want to learn something about yourself and self-esteem, pick up a power drill.

And take some shop classes.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Dust in the Wind

Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever. -- Ecclesiastes 1

Nothing is permanent in this world. This is a law of nature that transcends all things, including blowhards about to become President of these United States.

In my little New Jersey town I only have to walk a few miles to what used to be the property of the state-run Greystone psychiatric hospital. I have not written much about Greystone lately because once the old Kirkbride building came down, all the protests and shouting ended. The hospital moved to state land at the western-most part of the property and the much of the rest was sold for $1 to become Central Park of Morris County.

Kirkbride, as it was. (Margo D. Beller)
MH and I took our walks, thinking it odd that there was just a lot of space at the end of the road behind a storm fence instead of the hulking, stone building, a building it took close to a year to take down because it was put up to last.

There had been plans to build housing here, doing lip service to the preservationists by promising to use part of the old building to house a mental health museum. However, the whole plan died, thankfully. It would've created too much traffic and cost to provide services in one of the few, large, open spaces in a crowded part of northern Jersey. 

The other day I drove us to the end of the road and discovered the fences were gone and big boulders or huge tree logs lined the edge to keep out ATVs. However, there were no signs saying people could not walk in there. And that is what we did.

Looking south -- The ground had been frozen but recent rain made it muddy and spongy in parts. (Margo D. Beller)

Looking north -- It is hard to believe I am standing where one of the largest, continuous foundations in the world once stood. (Margo D. Beller)

Looking west -- You can't see it well here but there is a road between the hill and the field. On the other side of the road and to the right is what is now Greystone hospital. (Margo D. Beller)

Looking east -- You can see the rocks and logs put in to keep ATVs out. Beyond is Central Ave. heading back to my town. (Margo D. Beller)
I stood on this field for a long time, even as MH went back to the car. It took a very long time to take the building down, remove the mountains of stones, fill in the former foundation, put in grass and then leave it all alone until it was deemed time to remove the fences, that the danger to people like me was past.

I stood here, thinking of the human condition. Here was this huge building, built to last as I said, and then it's gone, as if it never even happened.

Dust in the wind.

We can build our monuments to ourselves, our legacies, but when circumstances intervene - a change in presidential administration, global warming, a nuclear holocaust or just everyday dying - it all means absolutely nothing in the long run.

This field, where I look forward to hiking and looking for birds when winter is finally done, is proof of that.