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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Endings

You may have noticed that there are long goodbyes and short goodbyes. There is the lingering farewell and the swift kick in the backside as you’re ushered out the door. Consider then, the end of the growing season in my vegetable garden, which seems both prolonged and sudden.

At first, the end is coy; I’ll see a tinge of yellow at the edges of the squash leaves and notice a few papery pods on the pole beans. I pick and shell the beans, managing to convince myself it’s still summer and the crop is coming in early. When the corn ripens, I remark on how clever I was to grow a variety that matures rapidly. The potatoes are an early variety, too. No need to panic that I’ve dug them all.

Then the day arrives when I pick some bush beans, cook them up, and discover they are bereft of flavour. That’s when it hits me. It’s over.

At this moment, everything speeds up. The rains begin, so the pumpkins need to be rescued before the soggy ground and the slugs claim them all. I bring these cheery orange globes into the house, wash and dry them, and place them in sunny nooks to cure to their best flavour.

No time to rest. In the small windows of dry weather, I must clear the corn patch to the compost bin, hoe off weeds, harvest the last of the pole beans, take down and store the bean poles, clear away the tasteless remnants of the bush beans, pick apples, mill applesauce, and much more. All this must be done, or so it seems, in the blink of an eye. As I hurry along, I wonder which will strike first – a killing frost or a streak of weather so wet the garden turns to bog. Either of these scenarios can bring my garden cleanup to its knees.

“Hurry, hurry, hurry!” says the furnace as, once again, it flexes its heating might inside the house.

Compulsively, I check the weather forecast for the week and I fret and I plan time for wrap-up. When the forecast changes its mind, I reschedule. The zucchini plants might eke out another small fruit or two, but the first frost is poised to strike them down.

I don’t want to say it. I don’t even want to think it, but it’s here.

The End.

So, may the 2019 growing season rest in peace.

So long, and thanks for all the zucchini.

Sharing

“Mine! Mine! Mine!”

That’s the natural response of any human under two or three years of age. If I can grab it, it’s mine. If I held it yesterday, it’s mine. If I can see it and lock onto it with my eyes, it’s mine.

Wild creatures have a lot in common with two-year-olds. Their immediate response to anything desirable is – Mine! They will go to extreme lengths to make sure it is indeed theirs. This is something I’ve witnessed countless times over the years, but was rudely reminded of yet again.

Last week, I picked a bucket of corn from my patch of Golden Jubilees. Some of the ears were magnificent – perfect in every way. Sadly, a number of ears had been ravaged. @%#$&**# Squirrels!

The philosophical among us would not swear at these fuzzy-tailed rodents. “Ah, nature!” they would exclaim. “So vibrant, so resourceful.”

A small part of my brain agrees with these sentiments. I have frequently said to friends that I don’t mind sharing the vegetables and fruits in my garden with urban wildlife as long as they don’t take more than ten percent of any given crop. I now realize there is a qualifier to this statement. I don’t mind sharing if I have excess. I do mind sharing if the crop barely covers my needs for the year. In that case, it’s all MINE!

Clearly, my inner two-year-old has leapt to its feet, turned red in the face, taken a deep breath, and is ready to scream. The rational adult in me says things like, “The squirrels see my corn patch as part of the natural resources of its environment. They can’t read my implicit private property signs, and they spare not one thought for the effort I put into growing it. Furthermore, I grow corn as a treat; it’s not a staple of my winter diet like the beans and squash. This loss, which isn’t huge, is natural. It’s OK.”

In response, my two-year-old self says, “Aaaaaaaaaaah! Mine!”

Squirrels are not my special friends right now, but there is something special about birds. You can find out what in my video:

Dark Cloud, Silver Lining

There’s a saying that every cloud has a silver lining, which is a prime example of what’s known as artistic license. Artistic license, as you know, is shorthand for making free with facts to suit your purpose. In the real world, silver-lined clouds are those that are just the right size and in just the right position to be properly backlit by the sun. In other words, they are few and far between, scarce as hen’s teeth, and a whole lot of other clichés meaning rare.

What does all this cloud talk have to do with my vegetable garden this year? We’ve had a dry growing season – not drought-dry, but dry enough. Here are the rain numbers so far by month: May = 30 mm (1.2 inches), June = 26 mm, July = 31 mm, and the first two thirds of August = 5 mm.

None of these totals has been enough to keep the garden properly watered on its own. Fair enough, I don’t expect that. I do some hand watering from the accumulations in rain barrels at the two back corners of my roof, and I use city water when I must.

My pet peeves, and I really should say my pet PEEVES, are rain forecasts that fizzle, and awkwardly timed showers. Here’s an example of what drives me crazy. By rights, a garden should be watered well every five to seven days. Just recently, the garden was at the five day mark since its last watering, and I needed to decide whether to set the watering timer for the morning of the sixth day.

Easy decision? Wrong.

The weather forecast called for rain on the seventh day. Hurrah, right? All I had to do was put off the watering to the seventh day and let the gentle, sweet, natural water of the sky kiss the ground and make everything perfect. The plants would much prefer sky water to city water with its chlorine and its cold temperatures.

My trust in the forecast wavered when the meteorologists changed their forecast from rain totalling 20 mm (just under an inch) to rain totalling 5 to 10 mm. Experience made me even more suspicious, though. A month ago, they had foretold substantial rain and we’d received a scant three minutes of mist that didn’t even dampen the bottom of my rain gauge, much less do anything to the top grains of soil in the garden. So, I should water, right?

Maybe not. If I did water the garden on the sixth morning and the seventh day trundled in truckloads of sodden clouds to empty themselves all over the area, I would feel foolish for having wasted city water. My neighbours would scoff at me for watering when “everyone knew it was going to rain the next day.” I know people think this way because I’m always sniffing with disdain when I see someone’s automatic lawn sprinkler system churning out water in the middle of a downpour.

Now, I could have played wait-and-see, and gotten up early on the seventh morning to check conditions, then watered only if necessary, but I was worried that the recent hot, dry weather had the plants on the cusp of wilting. Not wanting to stress the broccoli and leafy greens, I caved in and watered the garden on the sixth day.

The seventh day? You’ll have guessed right. It rained and rained.

Of course!

Given that my flawed decision-making can be seen as the dark cloud in the title of this piece, you may be curious about the silver lining. That would be my wonderful neighbours, who composed their faces oh-so-carefully all day. Not one sneer to be seen among them.

Rain is good for the forest, too, and a healthy forest is good for deer. Here’s my easy-read video story about deer:

Impostors

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Outrageous! That was my gut reaction this summer when I discovered a full one third of the spaghetti squash seeds I planted were not producing spaghetti squash. I sprouted and planted six spaghetti squash, and two are producing dark green, ovoid fruits. The true spaghetti squash are pale and blocky.

The seeds were certified and store-bought. These were not a handful of seeds I carelessly saved from last year’s squash. I do know better than to save random garden seed from the notoriously promiscuous squash family that is all too happy to cross pollinate round, orange-fruited plants with elongate, yellow-fruited plants to produce misshapen, blotchy-fruited offspring.

This year, I planted four varieties of squash: pumpkin, Lebanese zucchini, vegetable marrow, and spaghetti squash. I’ve tried many varieties of squash over the years, and these are my favourites. So, when I plant a spaghetti squash seed, it’s because I want to harvest spaghetti squash, not some random green squash hybrid.

Each of these plants is allotted 9 square feet of garden. That means the two impostors are hogging up 18 square feet of soil that was cleared of weeds, tilled, amended, planted, watered, and kept clear of new weeds.

The fruit of the impostor is edible, but unremarkable. A travesty! I fume. Such a waste of space!

I feel sympathy and kinship with the reed warbler who returns to her carefully woven nest to find a big cuckoo egg dropped in amongst her clutch. Hey, I didn’t sign on for this!

Too late now.

All the other squash – the pumpkin, zucchini, and marrow – are true to type. That’s what we expect when we buy certified seed at premium prices for 15 or 20 seeds each packet, amiright?

I shudder to imagine if all my seeds were as unreliable as this package of so-called spaghetti squash. My swath of Royal Burgundy bush beans would be a hodgepodge of pod colours, textures, and flavours. The strength of the Royal Burgundy beans is the way they hold texture and flavour when frozen for the winter. It is the best for freezing. That’s why I grow it. Don’t mess with my RB beans!

Even worse, would be random varieties among my seed potatoes. I tried a lot of varieties before I found one that would tolerate the heavy clay soil in my garden. Mess with that and watch my yield plummet. Argh!

Yeah, I hear some of you non-gardener types saying, “Tsk, tsk, First World problem. Life should be an adventure.” Let’s see if I can make this real for you. Suppose you like to start your day with your favourite coffee at your favourite coffee joint. How would you enjoy the adventure if every third day you ordered your usual, but you received a random different beverage? Day one – coffee, day two – coffee, day three – alkaline water. And on it would go…coffee, coffee, bone broth, coffee, coffee, charcoal drink, coffee, coffee, senna tea… Keep in mind, all these variations are supposed to be good for you, especially the senna tea, which acts as a laxative.

Heh, heh. Actually, I feel better now. The vision of one out of every three java addicts sipping senna tea makes me smile. I will think of them and chuckle fondly every time I pluck an impostor from my garden.

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My latest nature video features the Great Blue Heron.

Beat the Odds

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Sing, twitch, flutter, repeat. Such is the routine of a Bewick’s wren in nesting season, the wren I wrote about in Size Always Matters. https://gardenjoysandwoes.wordpress.com/2019/05/02/size-always-matters/

Two weeks ago, I noticed a few strands of dry grass protruding from the bow deck plate of my canoe. The canoe sits inverted, three metres off the floor, on a rack on the carport wall. The opening to the deck plate is big enough to slide a flat hand into, but too small for a clenched fist. That makes it a good, protective place for a pair of tiny wrens to build a nest.

And they did.

Flash forward a week, and the young hatched. I realized this when was working on my shed, which sits at the back of the carport. Movement caught my eye, and I stopped and held still. I watched.

An adult Bewick’s wren, tail cocked high as is typical, stood on a beam of the carport. In its beak, it held a fat, beige grub. The wren hopped and twitched and turned, looking in all directions. Me, it ignored.

Next, it flew to one of the struts of the canoe rack. Again, it twitched and looked. Still wary, it flew to the yoke of the canoe, and checked one more time. Clearly, you can’t be too careful where youngsters are concerned.

Satisfied that no nest robbers lurked in the area, the wren darted into the opening of the deck plate. A riot of cheeping erupted from the nest.

“Feed me!”

“No, feed me!”

“Me first!”

“Me, ME!”

“I’m staaaarving!”

In less than two seconds, the adult stuffed the grub into a gaping maw, snatched up a sac of nestling poop, and zoomed away.

With a hammer in one hand and three nails in the other hand, I was ill-equipped to immortalize the scene in pixels. Instead, I revelled in this opportunity to bear witness and imprint a memory. Here were fragile, tiny creatures being wary and fruitful. The wonder of it!

Two weeks later, I was brushing my teeth after breakfast and heard an unholy fuss of scolding outside the open bathroom window. Ever curious, I climbed onto the rim of the bathtub and peered over the edge of the high window.

Clinging to the lower rim of the window frame was a newly fledged wren with tufts of down among its new feathers. It acted like, having tried that crazy flying thing, it now deeply regretted leaving the nest. Below, the parents fussed and scolded. They flew up to flutter near the youngster, badgering it to further efforts. It grumpily ignored them.

Naturally, I scurried off to get my camera. By the time I emerged from the house, the fledgling had moved back into the carport to sit on a high ledge. Nearby, a nest-mate perched on a metal pole propped against the wall. They both looked entirely dissatisfied with life outside the nest.

The fledgling pictured above is recognizable as a youngster by its stubby tail and the yellow edges on its beak. It already shows the pale eyebrow characteristic of a Bewick’s wren, but the long, expressive tail of the adult lies yet in its future.

I took a few photos, but didn’t linger. Best to leave them undisturbed. Later, I checked the carport again, but saw no birds. Now is the time for them to move out into the world and learn foraging skills from their parents. I know the odds of survival for fledglings are low, but I plan to ignore those numbers. I choose to believe these particular youngsters will thrive.

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Try out my video about owls. Good for kids learning to read.

So Far, So Good

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Chickadee Central is bustling again. In April, it bustled with activity when a pair of chickadees hollowed out a nest hole in the small, half-dead hazelnut tree in my backyard. In early May, all was silent while the female incubated her precious eggs.

Now, the eggs have hatched. I haven’t seen the eggs or the hatchlings, but I know there are youngsters in the nest because of the frantic feeding activity. What kind of activity? A chickadee, beak filled with a caterpillar and a spider, zips onto a branch in the nearby large hazelnut tree. It sits and looks left, looks right, looks up, looks down, and looks all around again. Then it flies to a perch in the small hazelnut tree and repeats the process of searching for threats.

But that’s not all. In the small hazelnut, it flies to a second perch, closer to the nest hole, and looks right, left, up, down, and around again. Satisfied that the coast is clear, it darts for the hole in the tree and vanishes…for a scant few seconds. Then it erupts from the hole, beak empty, and speeds away.

Moments later, a second chickadee appears and follows the same procedure. The parents always seems to have at least one pale green caterpillar in their beaks. I suppose even baby birds need their “greens.”

The male chickadee has double duty. He feeds youngsters and defends the territory from threats and usurpers. Today, I watched this little warrior rout a starling that had dared perch in the nesting tree. No matter that a starling is at least five times the size of a chickadee, its presence was unacceptable. Begone!

Pumped up with righteous indignation due to the starling, the male then flew to my neighbour’s window. There it threatened and attacked that wretched mirror chickadee that never gets the message. Begone!

Occasionally, the male takes a break from feeding the youngsters and comes after the mirror chickadee in my kitchen window. He perches on a chain hanging from the eaves and glares at the intruder. Then he flies in to hover by the glass and deliver a sharp double kick to the mirror chickadee. Sometimes he gives the unwelcome fellow a righteous peck of his beak, too. Then he flutters back to light sideways on the hanging chain and glare anew. Eventually, he decides the mirror chickadee is thoroughly chastised and won’t go any closer to the nest. That leaves him free to continue with the feedings.

These chickadees are city birds, tolerant of humans and their strange ways. It doesn’t matter that I regularly mow the lawn, roaring back and forth near the tree. As soon as I’ve departed for more removed areas of the yard, they are back to business. Given that their business involves the rigorous removal of green caterpillars, I anticipate a healthy year for my apple tree.

The apple tree and I both give the chickadees a big Thumbs Up! We wish them a healthy brood, and may they and their offspring all return next year to nest, produce yet another generation, and pluck pesky caterpillars from our neighbourhood trees.

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Meet another city bird in my video about the house sparrow. Good for kids learning to read.

Size Always Matters

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My garden is a war zone. This is a startling revelation to me because I’ve grown up in the gentle arms of myth, the myth that gardens are healing oases of sweetness and light. Observation has eroded that myth over the years, but I’ve clung to its core despite mounting evidence.

Two days ago, I was in my garden and in my bliss as I tilled the ground with my Italian hoe. As I worked, I dreamed of the pumpkin seedlings I would plant once the soil warmed up. Ever patient, one of my resident crows perched in the hazelnut tree at the far end of the garden and waited for me to finish. It wanted to inspect the freshly turned ground for insects and worms. Our times together are a dance we both enjoy.

Sometimes I will walk away from my work to fetch another tool or my weeding bucket. The crow will swoop in to strut across the soil and grab a goody here and there, all the while with one eye cocked in my direction. It knows I’m still active in the area, but as long as I don’t intrude on its comfort zone, it’s prepared to stay. That comfort zone is three to four meters, if I’m facing the crow, and closer to two meters if my back is turned.

So, I tilled the ground, and the crow sat in the hazelnut tree. But a little brown bird that I suspect is nesting under a pile of branches near my shed was not happy about the crow in the tree.

“Scold! Scold! Scold. That’s too close,” it seemed to say.

I paused to listen, trying to identify the bird. It was a small brown dot, too far away from me to see detail. After a time, it stopped scolding, and I forgot about it…until…

Yesterday evening, I was again tilling in the garden, this time musing about the scarlet runner beans I will plant when the risk of frost has passed. A breeze sighed, a starling sang, but otherwise, all was quiet. Then I remembered the scolding bird and how I’d planned to listen to some bird calls to see if I could identify it.

“Do it now,” I counselled myself. “If you don’t, you’ll just forget it again.”

Pulling off one of my work gloves, I dug out my phone and opened a birding app. The two top contenders for little brown birds that might nest in a pile of branches were song sparrow or Bewick’s wren. I started with the wren and played one second of song #1. Nope. A second of song #2. Nope. But a brief spurt of song #3 was spot on. I shut down my phone and slipped it back into my pocket.

“Push OFF!” scolded the little brown wren, which had appeared out of nowhere and was now bouncing angrily on the ground just off my right boot heel.

I jumped and mentally cursed myself for playing the songs in the yard, not in the house. If I’d thought it through, I knew better.

An eye blink later, the wren was on the compost box where it sang a full phrase of war song. Then it flew into the plum tree above the compost and sang a medley of threats and statements of ownership.

“Sorry. You win,” I muttered. “The usurping wren has fled.”

Once the wren decided the threat had been thoroughly routed from my area, it moved back to the vicinity of the crow and gave it a fresh round of verbal abuse. Eventually, it claimed victory over all and fell silent again.

It reminded me of the proverb, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” A Bewick’s wren weighs about 10 grams. A crow weighs about 500 grams – that’s fifty times bigger. An average adult human weighs about 60,000 grams – that’s six thousand times bigger than the wren.

The wren did not physically attack either of us, but verbally? “Oh yeah! And don’t you forget it!”

The size of the fight in that wren is epic.

 

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Wrens and crows are welcome in my garden, but rabbits are not. So far, they haven’t intruded on my neighbourhood. That means I can have nothing but good thoughts about them. Here’s my video story about rabbits.