Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

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 OutsideOnline.com, 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.