Garden with Grace

"I hope that while so many people are out smelling the flowers, someone is taking the time to plant some." ~H.Rappaport


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Blues that Bring Happiness

Time spent in the garden is absolutely soul-saving right now.

The truth is – quiet time in the garden is always shared with whatever Mother Nature decides to offer during any given moment on any given day. In recent weeks, we’ve had so many songbirds visit. There’s no need for music in the garden now because the bird orchestra has center stage.

The resident mocking bird starts the sunrise chorus as he calls for his mate each morning (earlier and early each day, in fact!). We also have the American Robins, Cedar Waxwings, Black Capped Chickadees, American Golden Finches, as well as the Red Winged Blackbirds, Mourning Doves, and of course a variety of sparrows.

And this year – – – we have the BLUES. The Eastern Bluebirds — the kind of blues that bring happiness and optimism.

I’ve become obsessed with these magical creatures. I thought that I’d seen them from time to time this winter while they enjoyed the holly berries outside my home office window this winter. But, honestly, I wasn’t sure they were even bluebirds since we’ve never had any nearby. On April 3, the third week our “Stay Home” order due to the Corona virus (we’re in week seven now), as I gazed out my window, I discovered a pair of bluebirds was investigating the various bird houses in my garden. None of them bluebird nest boxes, by the way.

To say this discovery was a surprise is an understatement. It’s become the biggest news coming from our garden this year – maybe this decade! About 10 years ago, I’d put out an official bluebird nesting box, along with meal worms. I even followed all the various instructions to attract them. As one of the National Wildlife Federation’s certified wildlife habitats, our garden has food (via the various native berries), water, shelter, and a place to raise their young. It was disappointing that after many years of seeking out bluebirds, the wrens and house sparrows always arrived first and took over the various nesting box and house options. After a squirrel ruined the lone bluebird box, I removed it and just appreciated ALL the other birds (cardinals, wrens, mockingbirds, hummingbirds) that instead make their homes in our garden.

Just as happiness is often elusive when you’re constantly searching for it, same goes for the beautiful bluebird. While overall home confinement because of the Covid-19 pandemic has been stressful for so many people, I’ve enjoyed the arrival of the bluebirds during this time. Having extra time to watch them through windows while inside the house and when I’m outside in the garden has been very therapeutic. Thankfully, if we must spend more time than ever at home in 2020 in New Hampshire, it’s been as the seasons changed from winter to spring.

I first spotted the bright blue male in backyard (these are my first two photos captured while leaning out of my office window). Minutes later, the female arrived – she’s also blue, but her head is grey (she’s in the photo on the right). April 3 was a cold, rainy afternoon, and this pair was exploring the area that had been raked a few days earlier, finding all the goodies an organic garden has to offer. I know many people tell us not to ‘name’ wildlife, but I just couldn’t help myself. I now call the male ‘Irving’ and the female ‘Ella’ – yes, in honor Irving Berlin’s 1926 hit song by Ella Fitzgerald – Blue Skies.

After my confirmed early April sighting, I became obsessed! I needed to brush up on my bluebird knowledge (we have the Eastern Bluebird in our region) AND hopefully capture some good photographs of these little beauties.

Bluebirds really need our help. They are one of few songbirds native to the North America and they almost became extinct in the early 1900s due to pesticides and the introduction of invasive European bird species that compete for the same nesting cavities. These competitors include House Sparrows. This is what makes the arrival of the bluebirds in my garden so surprising. While we have a wide variety of birds, for years the majority of them have been various sparrow types. They dine at the feeders I keep filled through the winter and often take over any space they think will make a good home for their offspring.

The good news is that we have reached four full weeks since the bluebirds arrived and they seem to be holding their own against the sparrows and other bird box/house interlopers. Ella chose the green house with the copper roof near the Japanese Fantail Weeping Pussy Willow after inspecting other accommodations in the area – including the older yellow house that had once been home to Carolina Wrens.

I am noticing fewer sparrows than ever this spring. I think that because our neighborhood had a lot of old trees removed last fall by the local power company. The sparrows are still here though and honestly, their hostility is the most difficult aspect of the bluebirds’ arrival. Last week was the worst of nature I’ve seen in the garden. There were vicious fights and the male bluebird was valiant in his defense of his territory.

After looking at ways to help, I put a ‘Sparrow Spooker‘ over the house that the bluebirds chose. That seems to be keeping the sparrows away. It’s simply a dowel attached to the back of the nest box that has streamers of tin foil hanging and gently brushing the roof of the box.

The bluebirds aren’t bothered by it at all – but the sparrows are… well…spooked by this homemade contraption. So that’s good news. I’m hoping that our luck of scared sparrows continues, because I’m horrified at the advice from members of the bluebird community (Kill the ‘ghost eggs’ and/or euthanize the chicks if they take over the nest!). While I understand their rationale, I still find that action hard to accept and actually implement.

Aside from putting up a the ‘Sparrow Spooker’, I’ve been letting nature just take her course in the garden. I occasionally see the bluebirds stop by the feeders – enjoying sunflower hearts and suet. (While I had plenty of suet on hand, I did splurge and purchased a few cakes with meal worms and nuts last week!) There’s a birdbath relatively close by and the bluebirds have claimed it as their own right after a late day pool party hosted by a flock of Cedar Waxwings passing through two weeks ago.

So, now that Ella and Irving have their master suite set up in our garden, we wait for the Baby Blues. I know I should check on the eggs, but I can’t because they chose a ‘house’ with a tiny back opening and I don’t want to disturb it. The good news is that Ella is in there constantly sitting on the nest. While she does that, you can often find Irving going out for a drink. (He’s also very good at delivery of takeout meals he brings back to her in the nest.)

Of all the birds I’ve seen nest on our garden, the bluebirds seem to work the hardest. They care constantly taking care of each other and their ‘home’, collecting food and chasing off predators. Based on the timing of their arrival and the assumption of when the eggs were laid based on Ella’s behavior, we expect the eggs to hatch a few days after Mother’s Day.

Given the state of the world today, where it’s even difficult to go out to shop for a Mother’s Day card or present, I think Mother Nature has out done herself by delivering the bluebirds to our garden in 2020. While I’m not counting the eggs before they hatch, I am filled with gratitude for this unexpected gift that has brought so much optimism, happiness, and hopeful anticipation during such a sad time in our world today.

“Bluebirds singing a song, nothing but bluebirds all day long.” ~Irving Berlin


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3 Simple Things You Must Do to Attract Hummingbirds to Your Garden

While there are so many things I love about time in the garden each summer, the daily ritual we call “Hummingbird Watch” is my favorite. During this 90 minute period, just before the sun sets from late April until early September, the hummingbirds – all ruby-throated in southern NH – can be seen flitting from feeder-to-feeder and flower-to-flower — and sometimes even from gnat-to-gnat — across my garden.

I’ve never met a person who isn’t delighted to have these tiny creatures visit and take up residence in their gardens. But interestingly, even the most savvy nature lovers I know often wonder how to continuously attract hummingbirds to their outdoor sanctuaries.

There’s a lot of information online about techniques, tips, and tricks to draw more hummingbird visitors to your garden or yard. However, I’ve found that some important details are often omitted behind the headlines that offer advice for attracting and keeping hummingbirds nearby. Here are three proven tips I’m sharing from my own experience that will hopefully set you up to start your own Hummingbird Watch Ritual.

1. Keep Your Hummingbird Feeders Clean – ALWAYS!

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A male Ruby-Throated Hummingbird visits one of our garden feeders in early spring.

In mid-May, when I ask my neighbors and friends how many hummingbirds they’ve seen since putting up their feeders, they often tell me that they haven’t seen any at all. They sometimes even blame me for keeping them in my garden (which is not a valid argument for their lack of visitors!)

The first questions I ask are, “How often do you change the food, and what are you using in your feeder?”

The response is almost always that the feeder has had ‘food’ in it for weeks, or even months and is never emptied. So, that’s a BIG RED FLAG as to problem number one. The best advice I can provide is to keep your feeders clean – which means emptying them, cleaning them, and refilling them with fresh nectar aka: sugar water at least weekly – twice a week during heatwaves in mid-summer.

If your sugar water is cloudy – that’s a hint that you’re overdue to change the food. Same thing if you see black particles or scum floating in the water. That’s mold and fungus and can poison the hummingbirds that visit your feeder. I’ve found when I clean my feeders (with a few drops of Dawn dish soap) every five to six days, there is less buildup of mold in the feeder.

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If I see any, I use a diluted bleach solution and small brushes to clean my feeders thoroughly. (The other incentive to keeping them clean weekly, is that it’s a lot less work, and sometimes a quick rinse of hot water is all that’s needed.)

2. Create Your Own Sugar Water for Feeders – And Skip the Red Dye

What are you feeding your hummingbirds? Are you buying packaged mixes from the store? Or do you make your own nectar? To save money and provide food with no chemicals, start making your own fresh sugar water with basic white sugar – sucrose. When mixed with water, it most closely resembles the natural nectar that hummingbirds get from flowers. Don’t use honey because it will promote fungal growth. And stay away from raw or organic sugar as it contains a higher amount of iron that can harm your little visitors.

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At first glance, this appears to be a female hummingbird. Look closely for the speck of red plumage on the neck. This is juvenile male Ruby-Throated during a late summer feeder visit.

The Audubon Society instructions advise using 1 part sugar (plain, white sugar) to 4 parts water to feed hummingbirds – and no red food dye. Boil the mixture until the sugar dissolves. Then let cool before filling your feeders.

Since I fill several feeders, I use 1 cup sugar to 4 cups water. During early spring, when the hummingbirds first arrive and late summer and as they fuel up for their mid-September trips back to Mexico and Central America, I make the mix just a little sweeter/stronger and cut back on the water by about a half cup. I have a friend who uses a much stronger mix, but have read that this isn’t good because too much sugar can damage the liver of hummingbirds.

If you make extra sugar water, you can refrigerate it for about a week. This will save you time as you fill your feeders weekly – even more so when experiencing heatwaves that will require more frequent food changes.

Finally, I keep my feeders up until the end of September. While most of the hummingbirds who visited all summer leave by September 10, we get stragglers from up north as they join the annual migration. It’s fun and honestly, a little bit rewarding to see an occasional visitor stop by to fuel up on sugar water and nectar from late blooming zinnias through September 30.

3. Plan Your Garden to Attract Hummingbirds – They Love Red & Pink

The gardens at our house are primarily well-established perennial gardens. They’ve always attracted hummingbirds, but after putting a little extra thought into new plantings (all gardeners add new plants to their gardens every year, right?), we always think about what will attract hummingbirds and other pollinators, including bees and butterflies.

While there are three feeders across the garden, I look at them as supplemental to the flowers that are planted to provide a continuous bloom for our enjoyment – and food for the hummingbirds throughout the summer. This not only makes the garden look beautiful throughout the summer, but it’s also one of the best ways to keep hummingbirds coming back to visit. Did you know that hummingbirds eat as much as half of their weight every day – and feed five to six times per hour?

Over the past few years, I’ve learned to pay attention to what flowers and trees the hummingbirds like to visit for their feedings and for resting. One of the resting areas that I know to look up to is the very top of the Weeping Cherry tree in the back garden. When I see one up there, I know that there are at least three more in the nearby flowers.

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Lookout Point at the top of the Weeping Cherry tree. A sign if the hummingbirds are active.

Add These Flowers to Your Garden and Attract More Hummingbirds

The past two summers, I’ve kept my camera with me while in the garden, especially during the daily hummingbird watch ritual I mentioned earlier.

While I’ve caught great shots of these incredible creatures at the feeders, I’ve wanted more ‘natural’ photos of them visiting the flowers in our garden. (I post many of these on my Instagram page, also called Garden with Grace).

Here are some of my favorite new shots of the hummingbirds enjoying the flowers in our gardens over the past year. You may be inspired to add some of these to your own landscape. Keep in mind to plant flowers for your specific zone. We are in zone 5B in Nashua, NH. So you may or may not have success with all of these.

In addition to the photos captured here – other flowers the hummingbirds visit include Purple Siberian Iris and Purple Lilac in the spring. And Zinnias! They love the secret zinnia beds scattered across the back gardens. Zinnias are annual flowers, but I keep the seed heads each autumn to start next year’s garden. If there’s not a butterfly flitting among the zinnias, you can usually find a hummingbird. (I’m hoping to catch that photo next summer! – UPDATE- On September 21, I captured a good photo that includes a zinnia and have added it to the end of this post.)

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Cardinal Flower aka: Lobelia Cardinalis

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Lucifer Flower, aka: Sword Flower, aka: Crocosmia. This is new this year and big hit!

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Lucifer Flower, aka: Sword Flower, aka: Crocosmia. This is new this year and big hit!

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Here’s another of the Lucifer Flower, with St Francis (Patron Saint of Animals)

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One of the few annual flowers – Fuschia. This always attracts the hummingbirds late summer.

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My first and all-time favorite action shot of a hummingbird above a trellis of Alabama Crimson Honeysuckle on a clear, cloudless late summer afternoon.

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Alabama Crimson Honeysuckle. Resting on a leaf while enjoying sweet nectar.

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Looks closely to see this bird’s tongue sample the new buds of the Endless Summer Hydrangea.

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I finally captured a photo of a hummingbird visiting a zinnia in my garden on Sept 21 – well after I assumed they left for the season.

“May my faith always be
at the end of the day
like a hummingbird…returning
to its favorite flower.”
~Sanober Khan, Turquoise Silence

The photos in this post were all taken in my garden in the summers of 2017 and 2018 and belong to the owner of this post. If you’d like to use any of these photos, please request permission via a comment on this post.


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Spring Awakening

It snowed again in southern New Hampshire over the weekend – about five inches of slushy, heavy snow. The wintry early April day brought a flock of seven Cedar Waxwings to the garden. When they weren’t stripping the few remaining red berries from the holly shrubs, they were huddled in the Weeping Cherry tree.

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Today, it’s sunny and 60 degrees (F) at 4pm. The longer days of sunshine are quickly melting the latest – and hopefully last – blanket of snow.

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While most of the paths in the garden are still white and slippery,  a swath of purple blooms caught my eye when I stepped onto my my front porch to get the mail.

Spring has arrived! The crocus are blooming — just as expected in early April.

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I grabbed my camera and walked through the areas of the garden where sun melted the snow from the stone paths.  (The ground in these few areas is very soft, almost muddy, so I didn’t venture far.)

It’s always a thrill to find the crocus in bloom. While expected, it always feels like the first flowers are a miracle.

The garden still has a brown dormant winter appearance – from the decaying leaves, pine needles, and sticks that will eventually be picked up either by the birds building their spring nests or during the initial hours of our annual spring cleanup gardening day.

No matter how sleepy the garden appears under the latest blanket of snow, Mother Nature does a spectacular job of waking the flowers that typically appear in late March thru early April.  This includes the crocus and scilla.  As soon as the purple crocus start to wind down, the bright scilla open to full bloom to bring new life and spectacular streaks of blue to line the garden paths. I don’t even need a calendar to know when Easter is just two weeks away.  Seeing these two spring flowers in bloom is always the first indication that the Easter Bunny is expected very soon. (And that it’s time to pick up the ingredients to make the traditional Pickled Beet Eggs for the pending holiday.)

While walking through the garden this afternoon, my soul filled with gratitude. Not just the sights of pops of bright color hear and there, but with the sounds of the songbirds who are out, searching for their spring mates.

I felt caught between two seasons – winter because of the snow cover. And, spring with with the early blooming bulbs.  I’d once read a quote about crocus that included the word Grace. That seems like the perfect way to end today’s story.

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“A single crocus blossom ought to be enough to convince our heart that springtime, no matter how predictable, is somehow a gift, gratuitous, gratis, a grace.”

-David Steindl-Rast


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Beauty – Always in the Eye of the Beholder

At the end of a very rainy day, I felt the need to stroll through my now fading garden. After a few minutes, I was feeling a little down that the flowers, especially the mandevilla, are starting to shrivel and drop after a very dry summer season.

I heard a car pull up and stop on the other side of the hedge and could see a woman in the driver’s seat waving to me.

She rolled down the window and asked about the “beautiful red flowers” on the trellis. (The mandevilla that I was looking at as she pulled up.)

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The woman got out of her car and told me how she enjoys looking over the hedge and into my garden while she waits to pick up her daughter who visits nearby. (She enjoys listening to the wind chimes and watching the birds, too!)

We chatted for a few minutes about gardening and nature and peacefulness. It was an interaction that lasted only a few minutes.

The irony hit me. I felt sad about the exact same thing that brought her joy.

Before she left, we exchanged introductions. Her name is Grace.


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A New Fall Favorite! The Purple Beautyberry Shrub

An important aspect of my garden is that it was planned to include a variety of plants to create interest all through the year.

Just as the flowers are starting to fade, there are still some late season surprises popping up.

My favorite is arrival of the amethyst colored berries on the Beautyberry shrub that we planted in the late fall of 2013. (I’ve recently learned not to call this a Beautybush, because that’s a whole other type of plant.)

It was an impulse purchase only because of the color of the berries and it is suited for zone 5. Before planting this little shrub in it’s permanent spot, it sat for a few days here and there in garden, so we could find the perfect spot to admire it the future.

Honestly, with so much coming to an end in the garden the past few weeks, I forgot about this plant.

It’s still small, about 2 feet in diameter. It will eventually get up to 4 feet tall and wide.

In the spring it had tiny white flowers. When the foliage color changes later in October, it should morph into a bright yellow shrub (if not hit by frost first!)

We are starting to see a little color change since we’ve been fortunate that the temperature has only dropped to 36(F) degrees in the Nashua area so far this fall.

And now, as we head into the middle of October, it is one of the most striking plants in the garden!

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But, take a closer look. I just think “WOW!” Its color is so unusual – personally, I think that the berries look fake because that color of purple is not normally seen in my garden. Even with the iris and day lilies.

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All of those bright purple berries are just beautiful. The birds enjoy these only when they exhaust the supply of other fruits and berries on the nearby holly and crabapples.

It’s nice to have something so unusual and striking in the garden appear as the nights grow long, the days grow short, and time in the 2014 garden is quickly coming to an end.


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The Summer Ritual of a Daily Hummingbird Watch

Mother Nature does an excellent job to let us know that the seasons are changing in New England.

The biggest hint that she offers is the changing color of the foliage across our region, with little flecks of red and yellow peeking out across a lush green landscape, sometimes as early as late August.

The other hint is the arrival and departure of the Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds to the garden.  To me, this cue is more indicative of the transition from winter to summer and summer to winter than the changing trees.

There is always so much anticipation in mid April when the hummingbird sugar water (we call it “Hummingbird Hooch”) feeders go up for the season.  The arrival of the hummingbirds to the garden is a sign that the spring flowers including the lilacs and iris are starting to bloom.

This summer, evenings on the back patio included the ritual of a daily “Hummingbird Watch” from 7:00-8:30pm each evening. It was the same, yet different every night.  Different visitors would join this ritual but conversation would always stop (or at least tone down to a whisper) when the hummingbirds arrived. The males were very active and were the most frequent “hummingbird hooch” consumers during the early part of the summer. (The spectators of these birds would enjoy their own hooch, too!  This summer’s favorite was the Garden Cucumber Cocktail or a refreshing. cold glass of Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc.)  Here’s one of my favorite photos from June of a Ruby Thoated male that includes a red weigela in the background.

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While being able to capture any photo of a hummingbird is exciting to me (I use a simple point and shoot Canon Powershot Elph310 HS camera), I had a goal after capturing this shot of being able to snap a photo of one of the birds in the garden, getting nectar from one of the many flowers that I’d see them visiting during the day (of course, always when the camera was not in my hand!)

Finally, in early August, as I started to think about the pending departure of the this year’s resident hummingbird residents, a new perennial Cardinal Flower bloomed and attracted female hummingbirds all day long. I finally met my goal by capturing this shot.

IMG_4718For as long as it seems to take for April to arrive each year, without fail, September always comes too quickly.

This year was no exception.  By late August the hummingbirds were ingesting 3x as much sugar water than they consumed between May and July. It was another cue that the summer season was about to change – these tiny powerhouses always need to fuel up before their long flights for their winter vacations in South America.

By Labor day, the male Ruby-Throated birds were gone, headed south (probably to Costa Rica) to claim their winter territories and wait for their mates. By mid-September, the females were gone, too. The feeders are now empty and stored away until April 2015.

It’s time to create a new daily garden ritual.