A Gardener

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To take up arms against voracious slugs, seed-slinging weeds, and countless other gardening perils, a person needs to be keen. To do so for 30 years, a person must be crazy. OK, call me crazy, but I love the payoff when everything botanical on my dinner plate came from my own garden – vegetables, fruits, legumes, and nuts – all home-grown. True, I have other interests, such as teaching youngsters their letters at http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLf2VpiICMMb1gWs1Q-S8crTKn2d-ZDxV9 but my calling is my garden. Actually, I mean to say my garden calls to me. Constantly.

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New Life from Death

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All atwitter. That describes my small hazelnut tree these days. It is a surprise and a delight.

Last week, I looked out my kitchen window and I noticed heightened activity around the tree. It’s not unusual for a tight-knit flock of chickadees to visit my backyard. They flit among the branches of the two hazelnut trees near my porch and forage for insects and spiders. Much activity and much chirping occur for a minute or two. Then I blink and they are gone.

But the activity I saw was different. I paused and observed. Then I gasped and reached for my binoculars to bring the details even closer.

A pair of chickadees is excavating a nest hole in a rising arm of the hazelnut tree. For days now, they have been working on it. One of the birds flies over, enters the hole, works for a few moments, then flies out with a beakful of sawdust. It zips to a branch in the larger hazelnut tree, and “ptui!” spits and shakes the sawdust out of its bill.

Like a tag team, the pair works the hole. No sooner does one chickadee fly out of the excavation than the other zips in. They give each other an occasional chirp of encouragement, and they work feverishly for upwards of ten minutes at a time.

You’re right, a chickadee ain’t no woodpecker that can chisel its way into solid wood. This pair has noticed that one rising branch of my hazelnut tree has died and is being slowly softened by wood-rotting fungus. The gradual rot has made the wood just the right consistency for a tiny chickadee beak to dig into.

How clever they are! Not only have they been alert during foraging and noticed the state of the tree, but they have selected just the right spot on the branch. It slants slightly off vertical and the chickadees have located the opening of the nest hole on the underside of the slant. That will give the nest a measure of protection from falling rain. Oh yes, there will be plenty of spring rain in this climate.

When I first noticed the pair making their nest hole, I could watch the tail of the active worker waving about near the opening as it dug deeper. Now, the tail disappears into the hole. Just how deep will they go, I wonder.

It’s impossible not to be charmed by these two wee birds. Their energy and enthusiasm make me laugh. When I see one spitting out an amount of sawdust so tiny you could count the flakes of it on the fingers of one hand, I marvel at their optimism.

The potential for eggs, hatchlings, and new members of the flock gives me joy. No longer do I mourn the gradual death of the tree. Without that death and decay, there could be no chickadee nest hole and no chance to bear witness to the promise of spring realized.

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If you think what a chickadee can do with its beak is amazing, try my Easy Read video about bird bills.

 

Pure Silver

 

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Great news for my vegetable garden!

Last month was the coldest February since humans started keeping exact records in my little corner of the world. It was a shock to all of us who are used to a generally mild, west coast marine climate. The excessively frigid weather forced us to excavate more layers of clothing from the backs of closets and the depths of trunks. And we were still cold.

My garden was shocked, too. Before the cold weather hit, we were having a rainy, temperate winter, milder than usual. The rhubarb had started to send up its first shoots, and some late-seeded chard was looking nice and green and ready for a quick start when temperatures warmed up. Then…

Wham! The cold weather hit. Heavy frosts crippled and killed the overwintering broccoli plants, the ground froze and, shocking for our area, stayed frozen for weeks. By the time the sky decided to lay down a modest blanket of snow, it was too late to insulate anything. The deep freeze had laid waste or set back all but the hardiest weeds.

In the parks, ponds froze and the ducks stood morosely on the ice or crowded into the tiny patches of open water that were few and far between. Hummingbirds sat hunched on their nectar feeders. The dominant hummingbird in my neighbourhood sat on the feeder under the protection of the eaves and glared out at the falling snow. He looked grumpy and acted grumpy, too. He chased off any other hummingbird that approached the feeder. Never mind that there was more sugar water in it than he could eat in a month. Never mind that I wash the feeder and refill it every week during the cold season. No, it was not for sharing.

Finally, after the February from Hell (if Hell had frozen over) the temperatures are creeping up bit by bit. Once again, the rhubarb is trying to grow. Stalwart pussywillows have put out their fuzzy, white toes. I am sharpening the secateurs and planning what needs to be pruned next.

Should I bemoan the killing cold of February? Some might curse the freeze, thinking of the delayed rhubarb, the dead broccoli, and the devastated chard. Me? No. I actually bless and thank it.

Freezing winter weather is the most natural of pesticides. In my garden, it will have killed countless (but not all, sigh) overwintering slug eggs. A typical mild winter would leave my early seedlings at the mercy of ravaging hordes of tiny slug juveniles with typical growing-youngster appetites. In years of horde attack, I struggle to protect my tender, baby chardlings. Organic gardening restricts my options of defense, none of which are as effective as alternatives from back in the bad old days of Anything Goes. Happily, this year will not see a plague of slugs.

Even beyond my own garden, we will see benefits of prolonged and much colder weather in forests to the east and north of me. In recent years, those trees have suffered from ever-growing numbers of invading, tree-killing beetles. Weather that is cold enough for long enough will kill these beetles. Great news for the forests!

Yes, it’s good news all around. You’ve heard people talk about a cloud having a silver lining. That’s not what’s happened here – the entire cloud is silver, a fitting colour paid tribute by the sun when it glints off the ice.

 

Do you have a reason to rejoice in cold weather? Share it in the comments.

 

Here’s a riddle to solve. The answer is a five letter word. Can you get it right without peeking at the video? It’s a trumpet, it’s a straw, it’s an arm, it’s a hand, and it sniffs out landmines better than a bloodhound – what is it?

Quack, Quack!

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In winter, it rains and rains in my little corner of the world. We console ourselves by saying, “It’s great weather for ducks!” Yes, it’s nice to think there are some creatures in the world that enjoy grey, wet days that go on and on. This time of year, the wet days seem to go on forever.

Do you remember learning the childhood song, “Old MacDonald?” It taught us that cows say moo and ducks say quack. It turns out that farm ducks are derived from mallard ducks, and they do say quack. Yes, indeed. But mallard ducks are only one of more than a hundred different species of duck in the world, and a whole lot of them do not say quack.

Different creatures have different voices. Go figure!

The American wigeon, for example, is a duck that makes a sound like a wheezy whistle. That handsome devil, the wood duck, will peep and trill and make noises that have nothing in common with a mallard’s quack. The bufflehead sounds more like a crow, and the common eider occasionally hoots like an owl. Old MacDonald’s head would spin at all this variety.

Ducks are not alone in having different voices and different ways to express themselves. Consider the human writer. One of the fun things about winter is it inspires us to huddle indoors and read more of other people’s blogs. Maybe even try some new ones.

To get you started, here are a few short ones that might make you laugh, or shake your head, or nod sagely.

Flash fiction with Little Fears: https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/58570484/posts/2169867303
Finding the lighter side of darkness: http://damselinadress.ca/?p=4200
Short autobiography in pictures: https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/89677433/posts/2157291808
Thoughts on the games we play: https://onceuponyourprime.com/2014/11/18/is-profanity-legal-in-scrabble/

Every writer has his or her or zir own style of expression. Collectively, they make the blogverse explode with the music of a million unique voices. Such a symphony of words at our fingertips!

Do you have a favourite voice in the blogverse? Share it in the comments.

 

Take a look at some of the variety of ducks in the world in my Easy Read Nature Story:

Octopus’s Garden

rainleavesIt’s winter and it’s the season to prune (when the weather permits, which it rarely does). My rain gauge has been working hard. Just last week, we had 72 mm (almost 3 inches) of rain in two days. The street drains, many clogged with dead leaves, had a hard time draining the water away. As a result, lakes formed – extreme hazards to determined (yes, my friends use a different adjective) cyclists like myself.

Strange notions flow through my mind when I’m pedaling along through sheets of rain. Songs like “Under the Sea” and “Octopus’s Garden” form persistent earworms that clog up rational thought. When you think about it, both songs have weird lyrics, the second song is especially strange. Being pummeled by rain from above and splashed by accumulated water from below on a wet day does not leave me wishing to be “under the sea in an octopus’s garden.” That sounds altogether too watery.

Apparently, someone told Ringo Starr that octopus gather shiny stones and tin cans to put in front of their dens like a garden. He was charmed by the idea, and was inspired to write his song. I’ve never come across such a fancy “garden” while SCUBA diving, even though I’ve seen my share of octopuses in dens around the world. Our local octopus is more likely to have a trash heap of crab shells near its den – the leavings of its favourite meal.

Still, the fantasy aspect of “Octopus’s Garden” is lighthearted and fun. That’s something to give a person a reason to smile this time of year. I’m grateful for that.  I am also grateful that we get lots of rain here instead of lots of snow and ice. Treacherous, ice-slicked streets are the hazard that will stop me riding my bike in the winter. I may be crazy, but I’m not suicidal.

There are cyclists who will ride in ice and snow. When I see them, I find myself wavering between horror and awe at their audacity. They don’t inspire me to join them, though. Nope. No thanks. I’ll stick to wet days and nonsensical songs, thanks just the same.

What’s happening in my garden right now? On the grim side, the winter rains are compacting the soil and solidifying the clay in it. On the bright side, my rhubarb is showing a couple of pink shoots. It’s as eager for spring as I am. Come onnnnn, Spring!

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Did you know an octopus has three hearts? Try out my easy read nature story for kids here:

 

Winter Welcome

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Have you ever thought about inviting a bird family into your backyard? A couple of years ago, I pondered the possibility. What if I put a nest box on the towering clothesline pole in my garden? Looking around, I discovered that the Cornell University website has an app that will recommend the best nest box type for your neighbourhood.

Naturally, I was curious and filled in the pertinent details. I was surprised and rather pleased when they suggested I put up a box for kestrels. The kestrel is a cute little hawk that is slightly bigger than a starling. I’m sure kestrels think of themselves as “Fierce!” and I apologize for using the cute adjective on them, even though they suit it to a “c.”

The Cornell website has building plans for a kestrel box, so I downloaded, printed, and pinned them to my bulletin board. But, life happened. There was the fall garden harvest and the winter pruning season, and then it was too late to be putting up the box, which I hadn’t even built.

This year, a friend notified me of a project to encourage kestrels. An organization had commissioned nest boxes to be built and they were looking for people to volunteer to host a nesting box. Perfect. I applied and was accepted. My backyard was deemed to be a potential home for a family of kestrels. Great, right?

Not so fast. I had a couple of problems to solve.

First problem – how do you put up a ladder on a narrow, metal pole and climb it without having the ladder slip off so you fall to a bone-shattering death? Answer – (all praise to the Internet for the answer) use two cinching straps at chest level that run, one from each side of the ladder, to the pole. It absolutely locks the ladder in place. I bolstered its effect with a non-skid attachment on the top rung where it connects with the pole.

Second problem – how do you attach a wooden box with a flat back and long wood screws to a round metal pole? After much cogitation, I decided to screw the box to two wooden 2x2s that were spaced to span the pole. Then I planned to fasten the 2x2s to the pole with worm gear hose clamps.

Would it work? I was hopeful, but not confident. I’ve had previous experiences with designs for items that were most excellent in the mind’s eye, but turned out to be most ineffective in practise.

One dry morning last week, I enlisted the help of my visiting sister. Together, we raised the box into place and I attached it. It was solid! Smiles all around. The nest box was ready to be spotted by a passing kestrel.

The day after we raised the nest box to its place on the pole, I wandered to my kitchen window and looked out over the garden. A bit of motion caught my eye. What’s that? My, my! I spotted a male northern flicker clinging to the front of the box.

The flicker thoroughly examined the front of the box. Repeatedly, it put its head through the entry hole. Finally, it entered the box and repeatedly looked out of the entry hole. Then a female flicker landed on the roof of the box and surveyed the yard. Finally, they flew to the fence, then the ground and did a bit of foraging.

Barely 24 hours in place and the nest box had already attracted attention. I don’t know if the flickers will return during their late spring nesting season, but they would be a great consolation prize if kestrels don’t claim it in the early spring.

Either way, I’m happy. I’ve got all the more reason to look forward to spring.

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For more information on flickers (plus video), try my Easy Read Nature Story for kids:

 

Silent Letters

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“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.”

So says Shakespeare. For the sweet smell, we’ll have to trust good old William because, as winter hurtles toward us in these final days of November, there are no rose flowers in our gardens to sniff.

Words are funny things. Rose is a fine word. It’s spelled like it sounds and sounds like it’s spelled. Solid.

English has a lot of words that, once learned, we take for granted, but if we stop and look at them, we are left scratching our heads.

Yes, I’m looking at YOU, garden gnome. You and your crazy silent g. You and your mysterious Greek origins. Why can’t we call you gnome with a hard g? It’s not difficult to put those two consonants back to back. Gn…gn…gn! Easy! Sounds like a reluctant engine turning over, struggling to start. Kinda fun to say it that way – GNome

Even simpler would be to spell it garden nome. Well, maybe not. I already hear the shrieks of despair from all the people who hate for anything to change.

Really, I have to pity that poor g in gnome. It dangles on the front of the word, unspoken and ignored by English-speaking tongues around the world. Visually, it can’t hide in the midst of other letters like the g in align or reign. The g in knight even has an unspoken buddy in the equally ignored h. In knight, it’s the k that’s up front and obvious, yet useless. No doubt the g appreciates its sacrifice.

Part of me would like to see updated spelling in English, but my practical side knows it would slow my reading speed to a crawl. My brain learned the shapes of words as they have been spelled for centuries, and those shapes are locked in for keeps. I can only imagine how much I would be slowed if I had to muddle my way through the following message:

Followers of the game of chess no that the nite stands between the rook and the bishop. So it is ritten in the rools.

Well, I suppose I could adapt. Eventually. It would give me something different to complain about when I retire to my rocking chair.

For now, I imagine that the unspoken and ignored g in gnome needs a support group. Perhaps our local zoo could place a garden gnome in the wildebeest habitat. Once a week, a gnat will alight on the gnome and the gnu will wander over. Then the gnat, the gnome, and the gnu will each give mute support to the others. A moment of silence for the silent.

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Wren is another word that sports a silent letter. Children can read along with my video story about this little brown bird.

Z is for Zuke

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a selection of “borrowed” words

What’s a zuke, you ask? But maybe you don’t ask. Maybe, like me, you’re inclined to shorten long words and you, too, often refer to zucchini as zukes. Let’s face it, zuke is shorter, with one syllable instead of three, and it’s a whole lot easier to spell.

Mind you, zuke gives my automatic spellchecker little squiggly red fits, but that’s easily solved with a simple right click and a command to Ignore All. Better yet, in a fit of rebellion, I will click Add to Dictionary. The language police will accuse me of bringing on the end of civilization through the corruption of English. Oh yeah? Colour me rebel.

Of course, zucchini is hard to spell because it’s a word we’ve borrowed from another language. In Italian, it’s called zucchine and sounds a lot like the word we use in English, just spoken with an Italian accent.

English is notorious for borrowing (some call it stealing) words from other languages. In fact, you could run through the alphabet, simply on the topic of food and cooking, and find a “borrowed” word for just about every letter.

There’s avocado, from āhuacatl, a word taken from the language of the Aztecs and given a Spanish ending.

Under the letter B, it’s not fish stew, it’s bouillabaisse.

Something flaky? How about a croissant?

And so the alphabet cruises along with highlights popping up everywhere. There’s jujube, taken from Medieval Latin and referring to a date-like fruit, more recently applied to a candy. Pomegranate is another name that comes from Latin.

Talk about borrowed words that are hard to spell and you have to mention schnitzel. That’s altogether too many consonants for English comfort. Yet we use it all the same. Also tricky to spell are paella and radicchio, from Catalan and Italian, respectively. You’d think if we were at all clever about it, we’d try spelling these words in phonetic English. But no.

Getting closer to the end of the alphabet, we find vindaloo, from the Portuguese combination of wine and garlic, vinha d’alhos.

We didn’t even bother to create our own words to wish someone a good meal. Instead, it’s bon appétit! And someone who appreciates fine food is a gourmet. You know gourmet isn’t native English by the simple fact we don’t pronounce its t, an unthinkable transgression in any “true” English word.

I suppose we are being sensible when we adopt a word from another language. Why strain our brains for a totally new word when one is sitting right there for the taking. For example, we visit a new country and see a woman stir-frying supper in a strange, round-bottomed dish. We ask what it is and she says something that sounds like “wok.” Well, that’s easy enough. Wok it is!

Something in human nature resists change, but despite this resistance, our language changes constantly. We’ve dumped words like porknell, and belly-cheere. We’ve added words like chowhound and superfruit. Our language is like a toddler waddling across the floor, arms full of toys, who pauses to gather up a turquoise ball then drops a green locomotive while seizing a plush unicorn.

All these beautiful toys, all our lovely words, give us so much to play with. We can make puns like “A cashew is a nut with a cold.” We can impart vital information such as “I’m allergic to shellfish.” We can give voice to emotions like love with “Eat your greens. They’re good for you.”

Naturally, we grumble about the way English changes and takes on strange new words from exotic places, but we forgive it all the same. Language – whatever would we do without it?

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Zukes! A boisterous pair of Lebanese zucchini.

It’s time to celebrate the completion of my Secret Window videos for children. Here’s the letter Z with zucchini, zest, zebra, zipper, and more.