Spring Birds

Molting & Paring

As much as Mother Nature doesn’t want to let go of winter weather, birds in our garden don’t want any part of it.  Their songs are much louder now and they chase each other around in the garden a lot more too.  There are a couple of things indicating spring has arrived: American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) are molting and the arrival of Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor).

American Goldfinches are gregarious birds.  They flock together and never stop chirping. Sometimes we have 20 or 30 of them crowding around the feeders.  A male Goldfinch has very bright yellow feathers with black and white stripes on the wings in summer but he’ll molt to a greenish brown in winter.  He’ll put on his brown winter coat in autumn.  Many of them have that ‘rolled in the soot’ look now.

American Goldfinch
This male Goldfinch is in the middle of molting which gives an impression of a dirty bird. He’ll turn bright yellow with a black cap in a few weeks.

Many birds like the Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) and the House Finches (Carpodacus mexicanus) have already paired up.  The Northern Cardinals are still chasing one another around, claiming territory and mates.

Mourning Dove
I can’t tell which is male, which is female. This pair of Mourning Doves cozy up next to each other and then…
Mourning Dove
The one on the left kept grooming the other for quite a while. The recipient seemed to enjoy the service.
House finch
There was a snow storm on April 2nd and this House Finch couple waited for their turn at the feeder.
Eastern Bluebird
The Eastern Bluebird also is house shopping now. Last year they were the first to build their nest in a nest box.
A pair  of Tree swallows were checking the nest box. This photo is from last April. They’re on time this year though the weather is not quite on their side.

We heard and saw Tree swallows that flew back from the Carolinas and only to be hit by snow the next day.   They haven’t come down to check on the nest boxes yet.  Hopefully they nest early enough and will not to be chased out of their usual nest box by the Bluebirds.

Spring At Last

Some Colors In The Garden

I see the spring light at the end of the tunnel, a little dim but still a cheerful light of hope.  Snow still covers the majority of the garden but in the bare specks there are colors.  Crocuses in the front yard bloomed nicely this year.  Last year they became deer food.  At least deer left the bulbs alone so they came up with a variety of colors.  We planted a lot of crocuses in the previous two autumns to provide early spring food for our honeybees.  Many of them became food for squirrels, chipmunks, deer and rabbits but the survivors continue to come up in spring before disappearing underground again.

This deep purple crocus was planted by a squirrel. It’s in the middle of the iris plot by the garage. I know I didn’t put it there.
Light purple crocus in the front yard
Pale yellow with beige coloration under the petals
Deep yellow with brown stripes under petals
White

Our back yard is still covered with snow but it’s melting fast with high daytime temperatures.  Some tulips and daffodils braved the cold pushing themselves up above it.

Daffodil pushing up through the snow
A clump of tulips I rescued years ago enjoying the cold spring

And, look at the busy girls.  Yes, we call them girls because the worker bees are all female and they’re like our children.  The weather is warm enough for them to go out foraging and most of them came back with baskets full of pollen.  They’ve also taken in water from the birdbaths.

The majority of honeybees that flew back in carried big loads of pollen. I’ll have to check on them this weekend to see if I have to give them more sugar or not. It’s still too cold to feed them syrup.

Spring is here after all.  Thank you Mother Nature for giving us a break from the Nor’easter in the last few weeks.

Spring

It’s ‘Officially’ Here

Today is ‘officially’ the first day of spring.  That’s what it says on the calendar but in reality our garden is still snowed in.  The temperature is hovering a little bit above 30°F and there will be more snow coming down tonight and continuing until Wednesday night. We expect a foot of wet snow accumulation added to what we already have on the ground.  That’s why I say ‘officially the first day of spring on the calendar‘ only.

Plants in the little plot right next to the house have started to come up.  Daffodils and irises the previous owner planted next to the garage are sprouting leaves.  The Siberian garlic are braving themselves in the cold next to melting snow and will be buried again tonight.  But they are Siberian, they should be fine.  Rocambole garlic that I’ve been growing for many years are still staying comfortable underground.

Daffodil & Iris
I’ve been trying to dig this clump of daffodil out from the corner many times but what’s left underground keeps coming up every spring.  It’s always the first to come up since it’s so close to the warm house.
Siberian garlic
Siberian garlic started up in late February but was covered with snow, now the snow has melted away and they still look healthy.

Inside the house is another story.  Amaryllis ‘Red Lion’ that one of my colleagues gave me many years ago welcomed spring with its bright red flowers.  Still one more set of flowers from this bulb is just about to bloom.  I moved them up from the basement as soon as the flower buds came up.

Amaryllis-Red Lion
Amaryllis ‘Red Lion’ bloom with deep velvet red, four huge flowers on one stem. One more stem coming up on the left.

Hibiscus ‘The Path’ also senses the warmth of spring and welcomes it with a bright yellow flower.  I found that the color is paler than when the plant is outside but it’s still beautiful and cheerful as all hibiscus are.  I left it in the basement though, since it’s too big to be in the bay window with the other plants.

Hibiscus-The Path
‘The Path’ hibiscus always blooms through summer, providing that it is well-fed. This one probably sensed the spring warmth and is itching to get outside so it flowered really early, probably as a hint.  The red color in the middle is much deeper when it is outside.

But, …darn, We’re still waiting for reality spring.

The Growing Season Begins

Started Seedlings

We’ve been bombarded with snow storms every week for the last three weeks and still have plenty of snow on the ground as a result.  The temperature dropped back to winter levels again after a warm stretch in February.  But it’s time to start germinating seeds for a new season, especially those that need more time to grow, bear fruit and ripen.  I started our tomato, pepper and eggplant seedlings last week.  The tomatoes have already sprouted up.  Chili peppers will need a little bit more time to sprout.

I started these tomato, pepper and eggplant seedlings on March 13 and all the tomatoes sprouted by March 17. I forgot to keep ‘Mortgage Lifter’ and ‘Rose’ tomatoes seeds last year so I used the ones left over from 2015 and they still sprouted at the same time as the new seeds.  Peppers and Eggplants still take their time.
True Black Brandywine- ‘is extra large in size and full of deep, earthy and sweet flavor’; Dark Galaxy- ‘The taste is a perfect balance of tangy-sweetness-so juicy and refreshing! Each fruit is a unique work of art..’

Aside from the usual tomatoes we have been growing, Brandywine, Cherokee purple, Mortgage lifter, Nova, Indigo cherry drop…among them, this year we will try two new varieties.  I ordered True Black Brandywine and Dark Galaxy tomato seeds from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, one of my favorite plant and seed companies.  I have never been dissatisfied with their seeds.

Aside from it is highly ornamental, ‘it’s high-test heat is counterbalanced with complex flavors’

This year we also picked a new variety of pepper to try, also from the same supplier, ‘Buena Mulata’ peppers. The description is impressive and hopefully we like it enough to keep it on our long list of chili peppers we grow.

I also started varieties of kale and Swiss chard this week.  By the time the last frost date comes, hopefully in mid April, they all should be ready to settle in to the garden. We agreed that the ‘Dazzling Blue’ kale we tried last year is worth growing again.  If you like ‘Toscano’ or ‘Nero Di Toscana’, you will probably like this kale.  It has similar leaves but with purplish/pink midribs and I find it’s a little sweeter.

These Dazzling Blue kale are from last season, beautiful to look at and tastes delicious too.

We grow organic and love to try new kinds of vegetables so we’re a little choosy about where we get our seeds.  Below is a short list of reliable companies we use for our vegetable seeds and plants:

I hope you find something you like from these companies to add to your garden.  I derive no benefit or profit from suggesting them, just my experience from patronizing them over the years.

Happy planting!

In The Tropic

Colorful Display

It was nice to go from bone-chilling cold to warm and humid weather and be among a variety of very bright, colorful and beautiful tropical flowers.  Now, back to the cold climate and inches of snow on the ground, the longing for the site and the scent still lingers.  Working on photographs I took during the trip helps a little.  Here are a few to share with you.

Sala flower, aside from it’s beauty, it’s also fragrant

Sala (Couroupita guianensis) or Cannonball tree has quiet beautiful flowers that look like anemone.  The flower has very sweet fragrant. I wish I could grow it here.

As much as I don’t really like Bougainvillea, I have to accept that the color combination of this plant at the place we stayed, is really something to be seen.

Bougainvillea along the driveway of the resort where we stayed
More Bougainvillea
Pink water lily
Two tone water lily

They look fake but they aren’t.  Waterlilies comes in so many shades and colors here, some are even fragrant. Talking about fragrant tropical flowers, Plumeria is one of my favorites.  It also comes in a variety of colors but I love the nuances in the white variety the most.  The one below is from the rows that grow in front of the resort we stayed at, between us and the beach.

White Plumeria

 

Marvelous Melon Tunnel

Way To Grow

We are back from a few weeks of vacation on the other side of the planet.  It was nice to be disconnected from the internet.  Please don’t take offense.  I love reading the blogs I follow but sometime we need to disconnect from technology and appreciate what’s around us.

Anyway, we stoped at this temple, Wat Khun-Intha Pramul, to take a look at a reclining Buddha that is the longest, from head to toe, in Thailand.  Aside from the ancient statue, we found an interesting melon garden that is more like a melon tunnel on the temple property.

Melon
Variety of melons, gourds and pumpkins hanging down from the bamboo structure
Melon
More melons and gourds under one of the ‘T’ shaped tunnels
Melon tunnel-outside
The tunnel entrance also covered with vines

I put a short clip of walking through one of the tunnels.  Coming out the other end was a surprise. Hope you enjoy the walk…

Winter Emergency Feeding

Just In Case…

It’s over 50°F again today and the honeybees came out of their hives even though it’s cloudy.  I observed them carrying out their dead and picked up a few for a closer inspection.  I found that dead bees from hive #2 have their tongues sticking out, a sign of starvation.  So I decided to open the hives for emergency feeding.

Dead bees from hive #2 with their tongues stuck out. Dead bees from hive#1 have no sign of this.

Even with heavy feeding last September, hive #2 still shows signs of depleted food storage.  I think either they were robbed then or new bees emerged during a few very warm days early this month to reduce the supply further.  As I mentioned in the previous post, hive#2 seemed to have more bees than hive #1 now.

I took my cue from them, even though it’s a cloudy day and the temperature is slightly over 50°F they still came out, so it’s ok to open the hives.  What I saw in both hives is very encouraging.

As soon as I opened the inner cover on hive #1 the bees come up to greet me. I looked inside, found plenty of capped honey combs. I decided to feed them anyway so I don’t have to open them again until spring.
There are many bees in hive #2 but they are down below in the middle super. There are a couple of empty frames in the top super. They crawled up to look at me.

After I saw inside hive #2, it confirmed my belief that I made the right decision in an emergency feeding today.  I don’t know when the next warm day will be and I don’t want to find too many starved bees by then.  Mid-winter emergency feeding can be done either with fondant (mixed sugar with high-fructose corn syrup), or granulated white sugar.  I tried to make fondant once but it didn’t come out well.  I didn’t want to buy the fondant either since most corn syrups are made from non-organic, GMO corn and there is no guarantee that the company I buy from uses quality ingredients.  So, I use granulated sugar.  It’s easy too.

  • I put a shim on top of the super to provide a little room between the sugar and the inner cover when re-placed on top.
  • Put a sheet of paper on top of the frames, either make a little cut in the middle or leave a gap.  I used plain natural packing paper, newspaper is fine too.
  • Pour white granulated sugar on top of the paper.  Level it down to a little bit lower than the shim height.  I put 3 pounds in each hive.
For hive #1, I cut a hole in the middle of the paper and poured sugar on it
For hive #2, I left a larger gap between the papers so they have more feeding space. This hive has less food left over than hive #1
More bees from hive#2 came up to inspect the sugar as soon as I poured it in
Put the inner cover back on top of the shim then put the top back on

I find that winter emergency feeding this way is fast and painless.  The moisture in the hive will rise up and condense which will help soften the sugar.  The bees will slowly feed on it.  They will chew the paper, which will be wet with moisture making it easy to chew off, and carry out of the hive.

I feel better now after feeding them.  I also removed dead bees off the screen bottom of hive #1.  I saw that bees from this hive had been using only the top entrance lately.  I checked the bottom entrance and found it blocked with dead bees, too many for the bees to carry out.  Once I cleaned out the dead, they started using the bottom entrance again.

Bees started coming in and out of the bottom entrance of hive #1 again

Hive #3 is confirmed dead.  There are plenty of dead bees and plenty of food left in the hive.  I think they froze to death when the temperature dropped to -5°F earlier in the season.  They were the smallest of the 3 hives.

Seesaw temperatures make it difficult for both bees and their keepers to maintain the health of the hives.  The bees wasted energy coming out in warm-mid winter weather with nothing to take back to the hive to replenish their stores.  Then they starve if not closely monitored.  In my earlier days of beekeeping, one of my hives died of starvation.  It wasn’t a good feeling to see them that way so I do my best not to repeat it again.

 

 

 

 

 

Mid-winter, A Warm Day

Cleaning Up

Today, January 23, the temperature rose up to 62°F and the rain stopped around noon.  Our honeybees from hives #1 and #2 came out to relieve themselves and get some fresh air.  Hive #2 went into winter with fewer bees than hive #1, but today, many more bees emerged as the population clearly has grown.

Honeybees from hive#2 on the bottom landing

It seemed more bees than from Hive#1.  With only a .75 inch entrance, there was a lot of traffic in front of the hives.  I managed to shoot a quick video of them

Some of the bees were taking their dead out.  Many of them flew off with the bodies but some of them just dropped the body right in front of the hive.  They have little hooks on the bottom of their feet that are non-articulating therefore difficult to manipulate, so I watched them struggling to dislodge the bodies.  From the clip below I counted eight bees that made the trip out with bodies.

One the one hand, I’m happy to see them alive and well after a couple of zero degree temp’s, but I’m afraid that they will run out of food before spring arrives.  The sad part of the day is that I don’t think hive #3 made it.  No one came out today.  There was one dead bee just inside the entranceway.  Probing the entrance with a twig will always bring a guard bee to investigate.  But this time it brought no live bee to investigate.  A very bad sign indeed.  Still, quoth the song; ‘two out of three ain’t bad.’

 

Maximizing Space

Growing Vertically

We devote only a small part of our backyard for vegetable gardening and I’m always looking for a way to add more plants and increase productivity in the existing space.  Though we have put a deer fence up around our backyard, we still have to put a low fence around the vegetable garden.  If we don’t, there would be nothing left.  Deer cannot get in our back yard but rabbits, woodchucks, squirrels and chipmunks are still able to sneak in and enjoy what we grow.  So we are limited to growing vegetables within this little fenced in area, therefore I try to make every inch work to its maximum productivity.

Looking back at the last season, I note what worked and integrate it into the coming season along with whatever adaptation increases efficiency.  The method described below can be used for any plants that grow vertically, not just vegetables.

Aside from incorporating different plants in any one plot, I also grow vertically.  While most gardeners grow beans on a cone shaped ‘teepee’ I believe, I put up a trellis for beans that’s over the path, high enough to walk under, and grow beans on each side.  Last season, I put one up by the vegetable garden entrance.  It worked well and when the beans were fully grown and had developed pods, it looked beautiful and provided easy access for picking the beans too.  The trellis can be moved to any part of the garden easily when needed or I can grow different vegetables on it.

The bean trellis early last July. You can see the netted frame structure behind it.
Toward the end of July, beans have grown to cover the trellis with plenty of pods. It’s easy to walk under when picking beans.
I’m not sure what type of beans these are but their ancestry is Italian. My neighbor brought the seeds back years ago and we have been growing them ever since. They are delicious as young pods as well as dried beans later.

Once the weather was warm enough to remove the plastic from the cold frame, I put up a net in its place, see the first photo, to filter and soften the sunlight.  It reduces the light by about 50%.  Leafy vegetables like lettuce, Mitzuna, and Pac Choi prefer a little shade.   In the middle of summer, when the temperature is high and the sunlight is strong, these leafy vegetable will bolt easily and the lettuce will turn bitter.  With shade over them, they can take their time to grow, their leaves are crisp and sweet and the soil will dry more slowly.  I grow Bitter melon on the side of the frame structure and let them entwine themselves up the frame.  I gradually roll back the filtering net as the melon plant grows allowing it to take over shading the vegetables below.

Bittermelon growing up the frame (see first photo) and completely covering the top of the structure, providing shade for the leafy vegetables below.
The melon fruit hangs down making them easy to pick
Early in the season when the structure still cover with a filtering net. Vegetable that do well in semi-shade here are-Left front to back- Wasabi Arugula, Chinese broccoli, two types of lettuce. Right front to back- Mizuna, three types of Mustard greens
Later on when the melon plants cover the structure, I put in more lettuce like ‘Spotted Trout’ and ‘Truchas’

One down side of having the vegetables grow up the frame is that I have to cut them all down when the temperature threatens to drop close to freezing.  I need to put the plastic back on and turn it back into a cold frame again.  Most gardeners leave the plastic on but open the ends of the structure to let the air flow through in summer.  I could have done the same but I would lose growing space on the top of the structure.  I would also have to put a smaller frame over one of the 3’X18′ plots and cover it with a sunlight filtering net to grow these vegetable in the heat of summer.  I prefer to kill two birds with one stone: shade the vegetables and have extra growing space.

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