The Resilient Bluebird

A Bluebird family had a hard time this year. They had tried to nest in the garden since April but the House sparrow chased them out of the first nest box even though they had finished building their nest. Then they picked another nest box on the other side of the garden. She, female is the one who does the nest building, finished the nest and laid two eggs. I think a Woodpecker raided the eggs. Then they moved to a third nest box twenty feet away. She laid five eggs in that one. Again, some bird took four of the eggs. I suspected a Red-bellied woodpecker this time because they like poking their face in the nest boxes. They can easily pick the eggs without destroying the nest. The Bluebirds abandoned the last egg.

At this point I though we had lost them completely this year. But they are determined to raise their family in our garden. They moved to a nest box on the opposite side of the garden. She built a nest in a hurry, laid four eggs and four chicks hatched!!!

Four beautiful blue eggs
The first three chicks
Ten days later, all four chicks developed hard feathers
Two chicks waiting for their parents to come back with food

We are so happy that we are able to help raise another generation of Eastern Bluebird. They still feed their chicks but I’ve seen only two of them. Hopefully the other two are old enough to be on their own.

Chicks with Dad

After the battle they went through, I’m sure they are tired. But we are hoping they will sire another brood in our yard this summer. The bluebirds, swallows and wrens are family by our standards, although I’m sure they don’t quite see it that way.

Wrens

This year we have a surplus of Wren families. Both types of Wren, Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) and House Wren (Troglodytes aedon), decided to raise their families in the garden. House Wren is the one who always raise their young here while the Carolina Wren stays with us during the winter then goes back to the wooded areas in late spring. But this year the Carolina Wren stayed and produced two broods with us so far.

The Carolina Wren started their first brood in early May and the chicks fledged some time in early June. They built a nest right in a slot under our patio roof. We let them; they are small enough not to make a mess.

Mom is keeping the eggs warm
Three chicks fledged in early June

Then to my surprise, they started the second brood right in the same nest. This time four chicks. They are still small and mom and dad are doing a daily feeding relay.

Cute little chicks. The fourth one is on the left, probably sleeping or couldn’t compete with the tree siblings

At the same time two pairs of House Wren settled on each end of the property. They built their nests with sticks and lined it with softer materials. Many times they built the nest all the way up to the opening of the box so I can’t get a glimpse of the chicks tucked in deep. I can only tell by the sound of the chicks and the parents flying in and out with food.

Feeding time
The second family
This nest has a little room I can put my iPhone in. It seems to have four chicks

In the middle of these two House Wren families raising their young, one of the Wrens started to build a nest in a new box. I don’t know if it’s from one of the pairs or a newcomer.

House Wren starting a new nest

It’s early in the season still, we may have a Wren symphony by August.

Repotting Kaffir Lime

The only way to grow Kaffir lime in a cold climate is in a pot, either forever staying inside the house or moving it in and out when the weather permits. In a warmer climate, when Kaffir lime is grown in the ground, it’s a mid-size tree that can grow to 25 feet high and 6 feet wide. But it can adapt to live in a pot. One of mine, over 20 years old, has to be pruned twice each year to a manageable size (around 6′ tall) that I can put it back in our basement.

This is what the two older kaffir looked like a year ago in June, after a month outside the basement. The right one is around ten years older than the left.

Annual pruning is an easy task. Getting poked here and there with very sharp thorns is expected. Feeding it well after a good annual haircut will keep it healthy. But, what’s more important than pruning is repotting.

Kaffir lime can be root-bound pretty fast since it’s a small tree being kept in a pot. It will not be happy having its feet bound for years… imagine Chinese foot binding. I repot mine every couple of years. The smaller ones is easy to do but the larger ones give me a back ache for a few days.

How to repot:

First, do not water the Kaffir lime for a couple of days. The potting soil should be on the dry side so it will be much easier to loosen the roots. Grab the main trunk and pull the whole plant out.

Kaffir lime, root bound at the bottom

I just pull my smaller one, picture on top, out of its pot. This is only two years in this pot but the roots are already packed at the bottom. Though the soil is pretty dry, the roots still hold it in a pot shape.

Next, shake the soil off the roots. You can do it with your hands or use a trowel. Make sure not to damage the main root-the larger ones. Use a clean, sharp clipper to trim off the finer roots.

After the fine roots were trimmed, the larger roots closer to the trunk are still intact

If you want it to grow bigger, you can put it in a larger pot with new soil. I keep my smaller ones in the same pot for five years then give them a little more room with a slightly larger pot. The twenty-plus year old, I put back in the same pot since that is the largest size I can manage without hurting myself. Both of the larger ones are still happy in their pots.

My oldest Kaffir lime lost a lot of its leaves last winter from infestation of scales and mites. Cleaned up, it’s fine now and sprouting new leaves on every branches.
New deep purplish colored leaves on every branch. I was forgiven for my negligence

I put a couple of inches of new soil at the bottom, mixed with organic fertilizer, placed the Kaffir lime in, then added soil mixed with fertilizer around and on top. Use a small trowel to probe the area between the plant and the pot to make sure that new soil fills any air pockets. Water deeply. I water it and let it sit on a tray so the soil can absorb excess water back later on.

Use a clean clipper to trim damaged and dry branches. I prune it down to a desirable size and cut branches that rub against one another only after it starts to bud new leaves. I think root pruning is traumatizing enough so I wait for it to settle and get used to a new space first. But that’s just me.

That’s it. The Kaffir lime should be very happy for a few years before the leaves start to get smaller and take longer to sprout new leaves. That’s when it’s telling you that it needs to stretch it feet.

Late Spring

Spending time in the last couple of months on family affairs exhausted me both physically and mentally and didn’t leave much time left for anything else. I retreated to Instagram @petalsandwingsimages as my outlet since I didn’t have to spend time correcting images on PhotoShop. Now, as the dust settled, I’m back.

With plenty of rain in early spring, the garden has grown pretty fast and the flowers have responded well, especially the irises. I don’t water irises regularly like the other plants so with plenty of rain they bloom in abundance.

‘Before the Storm’ aside from a beautiful, rich color, they’re also fragrant
‘Dangerous Mood’ This one also fragrant
‘Florentine Silk’ It looks pretty much like its namesake
‘Immortality’, pure white and fragrant
‘Mariposa Skies’, has a slight fragrance and re-blooms
‘Mother Earth’, She smells nice and will be back in October
‘Phoebe’s Frolic’, aside from a beautiful color, it’s also fragrant and still blooming
‘Vigilante’, has an interesting combination of maroon and gold. Also fragrant
‘War Chief’, has a maroon, red color with a gold beard

All these irises either re-bloom or are fragrant or both. With good weather, I should see most of their flowers again in October.

Fish Pepper

Another couple weeks and I can start germinating tomatoes and chili peppers inside the house.  We live in the northeastern part of the US, roughly USDA Zone 6, so we have around 6 months or less of warm weather to grow our vegetables.  If we don’t start the seedlings in the house around the end of March there will not be enough time for them to bare fruit and ripen.  Starting to germinate them earlier than this, the seedlings will be too lanky when it’s time to put them in the ground around May.

Growing up eating spicy food, chili pepper is a staple in our kitchen.  The love of spicy food extends to the love for a variety of peppers. I experiment with one or two new peppers every season.  If I like them, I keep the seeds to grow the next season.  If I don’t like them, it’s ‘one and done.’  As of now I’ve grown at least 13 different types of pepper.  They range from extremely spicy like Bhut Jolokia to sweet pepper like baby bell pepper.

Mature chili peppers from last season. A mix of Bhut Jolokia, Lemon drop, Sikkim, Bhutan, Yellow torch, Long Thai pepper, Black Jalapeño, Purira, Buena Mulata (grew the Buena Mulata for the first time last year)
Tiny Thai chili pepper a.k.a Bird eye, a.k.a. Mouse drop. This chili is our kitchen staple. I can use it in many dishes: stir-fry, salad, condiment, hot sauce, dried and ground to a powder. It’s only .5 to .75 inches long but don’t let its size fool you. It packs a punch.
Wild Brazil is another staple in our kitchen. Another tiny chili with a lot of heat, plus citrusy scent. It never gets bigger than .5 inch. These I use in anything I want to have a spicy and lemony scent. Also great for making hot sauce and chili powder.

One of the peppers I fell in love with is Fish pepper.  I grew it for the first time  two years ago. I first learned about the Fish pepper in a free local magazine, either Edible Manhattan or Edible Queens, not sure exactly which one.  I picked the magazine up at the farmer’s market, read the article about Fish Pepper which prompted my search for the seeds.  I was lucky to find organic seedlings at one of the farmer’s stands.  I was warned not to grow them next to other peppers because the next generation may not look and taste like the parents.

Fish pepper with beautiful variegated leaves
Peppers are also variegated. The young ones are a pale yellow with green stripes
Mature fruit will turn red but will still have faintly faded stripes

I think after seeing these images, most of you can see why I fell in love with them. The beautiful variegated leaves and fruit worth being used as an ornamental plant. But it happens to work great with all types of seafood, hence the name. And, we love seafood. The information I found about this pepper claimed that it originated in the Caribbean and was brought to the US in the 19th century. It has a medium heat so one pepper is enough for a small seafood pot.

I’ll grow it again this year from the seeds I collected last season. The new generation should look like their parents above. I grow them in pots and move them far from the vegetable garden. I did the same with the first generation and it seemed to work. I don’t need a Fish pepper that tastes like Ghost pepper (Bhut Jolokia).

Early Crocuses

Spring is just around the corner. This year it seems like winter and spring have been taking turns in our neighborhood weekly. The temperature has gone from below freezing to close to 50F and back down again every week. Our tulips have started to push themselves above ground. I wish they wouldn’t do that. There is at least a month and a half of winter weather left and if Mother Nature remains angry at us, it may snow in April.

As unpredictable as the weather has been, there are spring flowers that wouldn’t mind a little cold and some snow on the ground. The Snowdrop is one. I have only a clump of them in the garden since they don’t have a great variety of colors, just white and green. The other is crocus. They come in many shades and colors. It’s a lovely site to see when growing en-mass in a variety of colors.

Mixed Crocuses on the lawn in early spring

To get a natural effect, I purchased around 200 mixed crocus bulbs and cast them on the lawn. Then I planted them wherever they landed. The second year, I added the expensive and larger flower types and over 100 more mixed bulbs. Too many? No. The first 200 I put in, maybe only half were able to evade squirrels and chipmunks. We could see a lot of pockmarks on the lawn from them digging up the bulbs. Even when the bulbs have already sprout little leaves and flowers, they still dug them up eating the bulb on the bottom. I made a mental note of any empty patches in spring so I can cast more bulbs in autumn.

What the critters missed provides a beautiful effect on our empty, brown lawn in early spring. They also provide an early food source for pollinators. Then they just disappear as the grass takes over.

Here are some colors you can find on the market:

Yellow with white under petal
Dark yellow with brown stripes
Dark purple
Purple with white trim
Lavender
White
White with purple stem
Lavender with purple stripes

They are easy to grow and each bulb will become a larger clump in just a few years, provided they are not eaten. They need no extra attention, we feed them at the same time we feed our lawn. We also leave our grass clippings on the lawn as mulch for crocus and grass.

To extend a growing season and add some color in autumn when most of the flowers are fading, plant fall crocus. This type will come up and flower in autumn for you and the pollinators to enjoy.

Hellebores

It’s still very cold here and I cannot do much in the garden aside from filling bird feeders and changing water in the birdbaths. But there are a lot of activities with regard to gardening in the house. The plant catalogs are piling up as well as weekly if not daily email from companies I have ordered from in the past. New issues of garden magazines provide suggestions for new plants on the market. Winter is a time for compiling information and planning for the coming season. I don’t mind spending money on the garden although reckless spending was never my habit, so I spend the winter down-time outside immersed in:

  • Price comparison on plants that I want to add in spring.
  • Research on plants suite for area need to be redone: dry and sunny, moist shade, dry shade, boggy, sandy area…
  • Research on plant habit and propagation: height, width, bloom time, pollinators-friendly, self-sown, invasive, pruning time…
  • New vegetables in the market and what they are good for.
  • New diseases and insects to look out for in the area

These are just some of the winter chores I do. I find myself looking for late winter-early spring flowering plants more often around this time. Maybe it’s just a longing to see colors back in the garden.

One of the late winter-early spring flowers I fell in love with are Hellebores. Their leaves are almost evergreen and they even bloom before the daffodils. It very effectively self-sows yet never becomes invasive, so I keep looking to add new colors to our garden every year. One plant per color and patience to let it grow is enough. Within a couple of years this one plant will become a patch or a colony if I let it set seeds.

After a couple of years, one plant will expand into a patch with plenty of flowers
The darker color ones grow much faster and produce a lot of seedlings
Individual flower in the colony above

I don’t remember the names of the earlier Hellebores I planted. I forgot to note the names down and there are so many colors and patterns out there that I can’t really use mere descriptions to identify mine. With the new batch, I keep name tags and note on color and location down. Below are some of them, forgive me for the unidentifiable ones. I’m open to any suggestions for identifying the unnamed flowers.

White with purplish freckles
Yellow & Pinkish
Pure white with greenish base
‘Painted Double’
White with green base & maroon pattern
Maroon & green
Double pink
‘Winter jewel-Golden Sunrise’

I love them in part because there are so many colorful choices of Hellebores to select from and they also come in single and double layers petals. They are winter hardy, no fuss for drought either. They can be grown in semi-shade. Since they are a low grower, I grow them under the trees, by a rose trellis and along a shady path. They are not invasive. They produce seedlings but the seedlings may not be true to the parents especially when I grow a variety of them close to one another. That’s the fun part of it; I’ll never know what the flowers from any seedling will look like until it blossoms. Pollinators love them; they are a good food source for early spring when other flowers have yet to blossom. If you want to reproduce the ‘exact’ color as the original plant was, you can do it only by division. Dig the plant you want to propagate up and separate an individual from the clump, then replant it.

Last year, I added ‘Onyx Odyssey’ to the garden. As the name suggests, the flower is black. I can hardly wait to see it bloom. I’ll keep you posted.

Winter Birds

The weather forecast for a foot of snow last Sunday didn’t become reality however the temperature has dropped down to 0 Fahrenheit plus windchill factor of -20 Fahrenheit. Icy rain water from Sunday turned into solid ice on all surfaces. Our driveway, from which we cleared wet snow & slush off and salted, still became skating rink. Wherever I look there is either frozen snow or ice. Conditions like this are difficult for non-migrating birds.

We have a symbiotic relationship with the birds in our garden. Aside from serenading us with their beautiful songs, they help rid us of insects during growing season. We in turn provide food, water and shelter for them in winter. We left brush piles and bird boxes up for them to take refuge in. Weather conditions like this weekend are crucial for us in expressing our gratitude so there will be more of them visiting our garden next year.

We leave bird boxes up in winter for the birds to roost. We take them down in early spring, clean and refurbish, if needed, then put them back up for new sets of bird to nest and raise their young.

Food, water and shelter are three necessary things for non-migrating birds in winter. Most birds can easily find shelter on their own but having a shelter close to their food source makes life easier especially when it’s frigid outside. But when there is deep snow or ice sheets covering everything, it doesn’t matter how luxurious a shelter is. If there’s no food, birds will move on. They also learn where reliable food sources are and tend to stay close by.

We leave one weight sensitive feeder in the garden but both feeding ports of this bird feeder were frozen shut this weekend

We feed them more in winter: two double suet feeders, one tray feeder (only when we are home to monitor it), and two hanging feeders. We fill them with mixed of shelled sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, peanuts, chipped-sunflower seeds, chipped-peanut, and dried-berries. We reduce to one feeder and one suet in late spring when there is plenty of fresh food around.

Heated birdbaths are very crucial and a magnet for winter birds. We place seven birdbaths in the garden during warm weather which are emptied and clean every five days. This is the best way to prevent mosquito larvae to reach maturity. We leave only two heated ones out in winter. Both of them are in the close proximity of the house so we can clean them regularly. Mosquitos still lay eggs in winter, providing warm water. Yes, to my surprise too, I found mosquito larvae in our heated birdbath in winter.

A Titmouse enjoy warm water amidst snow and ice ..Nice hairdo
American Goldfinch waiting for his turn at the feeder
Black-capped Chickadee puffed up against the wind

As our relationship goes, we learn to read each others sign language. When the feeder is empty or they have difficulty getting seeds out of it, we will see birds line up on the pool fence facing the house. It’s as though they’re saying ‘What’s wrong with you people? Don’t you know the feeder’s empty?’ When we fill the feeder, they will perch close by, watching us doing our job, and come down as soon as we close the lid.

Now is when we care for them, and they never fail to reciprocate when growing season begins.

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