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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Oh, How I Love those Baby Blues!

Last May, I wrote about the early spring arrival of Eastern Bluebirds in my garden, just as New Hampshire and many places around the globe started to ‘lock down’ at the beginning of the Covid-19 uncertainty. At the time, the bluebirds brought a glimmer of hope, but also a bit of uncertainty.

The hope was that finally, after years of trying to attract bluebirds to the garden, they arrived — just out of the blue. But in fact, while their arrival was a surprise, it shouldn’t have been. In hindsight, I realize the tree cutting in my dense city neighborhood just over a year ago opened the space to the liking of these beautiful and once endangered songbirds.

Perhaps the surprise is what caused my uncertainty. It was all about their nesting box selection – an older birdhouse, nestled among shrubs (a Japanese Fantail Pussywillow and a collection of Ninebark and Weigela). It was always more of a decorative box that was put up years ago – after we removed the bluebird box set up over a decade earlier. This decorative box or bird house was embellished with a copper roof that constantly needed to be nailed back on, and ended up being a spot where the house sparrows raised their young for a few years.

The female Eastern Bluebird thinks this house is just right!

To add to my uncertainty was the (surprising!) input and advice I received from the few Eastern Bluebird groups I visited and (briefly) joined on social media. While I know the members are all well-intentioned, I was really disappointed at how I was berated for the nest box the bluebirds chose to make their 2020 home. I was told that I was not doing the birds any favor by letting them nest there and that I must watch for and kill any sparrows that might take over the next, among many other things. Honestly, it was overwhelming and didn’t seem right as I’ve always trusted Mother Nature to make good decisions.

Within a few weeks, I decided to trust my gut and trust my instincts (and Mother Nature, though I know she can seem cruel at times.) I became obsessed watching the box and the birds’ behavior. The sparrows and blue jays were horrible, always trying to overtake the box, but the mating pair of bluebirds kept them at bay. I’d read about ‘sparrow spookers‘ and added a makeshift one (with gold and blue sparkle ribbon) to the top of the rickety green birdhouse when I thought eggs had been laid (I couldn’t peek inside due to the small opening at the back of the nesting box). My craft project worked well enough because the bluebirds didn’t mind it, yet it kept other nuisance birds away.

Mom removing a fecal sack from the nest shortly after chicks hatched.

By early June, a successful clutch of baby blues hatched and was well cared for by their dedicated parents. I checked on them daily — there were at least three chicks, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were four based on the activity in their box. (The photo above shows the female removing a fecal sack from the box – this happened all day long and is akin to changing diapers on a newborn baby.)

Over the course of over two weeks, the chicks grew bigger and louder. The parents were busy all day long with feedings and endless of ‘diaper changes’. I credit the our dedication over the years of removing pesticides and herbicides from the garden for their survival. There were plenty of grasshoppers and various worms and other bugs to easily catch throughout the garden.

My biggest concern during the nestling stage was the neighborhood cat whom was a constant threat as the pair foraged on the ground for insects. The blue jays concerned me as much as the cat, because a few years ago, I saw them go after baby sparrows in the birdhouses (they take baby sparrows from the house and eat them – it’s horrifying to watch!) What I found fascinating was the protective role of the mockingbirds, who also took up residence in my garden this past summer. They were like the aunts and uncles who scared off predators while the bluebird parents were away from their box. I’ve looked for information about how other bird species protect one another (or not!) but couldn’t find information about the relationship between bluebirds and mockingbirds. (If you have insight, please let me know via a comment to this story.)

This is the first photo of the new chicks in June. And yes, I worried about the condition of the rickety nesting box.

By the end of June, the babies were very loud and active and while they became used to me going up to peek in on them, I stayed back as much as my curiosity would allow knowing that I didn’t want their parents getting too upset with me. The feedings were more and more frequent to build their strength, with both the mother and father sharing the dinner (breakfast and lunch, too!) duties.

Dinner Time! This is the my favorite shot of the 2020 gardening season.

The baby blues were finally ready to leave their little old house during as we approached July 4th — it gave a whole new meaning to Independence Day in 2020. I captured the next photo on June 30th, with a strong feeling they’d be taking their first flights the next morning. Doesn’t this one look ready to take on the world?

This little little chick’s last night at home in 2020. Ready for its own Independence Day.

The next morning – July 1st, I could see a lot of activity from my home office window at the nest box and noticed something fall out. I shot out the door and within a few minutes, the neighborhood cat came to visit, so he was quickly put into my garage for about an hour. After spotting the first free bird on the fence nearby, I found a second one a few minutes later under a winterberry bush, next to an old bicycle in the back of the garden. Within an hour, they were all out of their rickety old, copper-roofed birdhouse that ended up giving them an excellent start to their new lives. For a few days, I’d see three chicks in the trees and shrubs around my garden. Always with one of the parents nearby.

This Baby Blue was the first to fly the coop. I’m sure it’s the one I photographed the night before.
Right after finding its sibling on the fence, this fluffball was found nearby in the back of the garden.

As the next few weeks passed, I saw my blue buddies less and less. Then, unfortunately, by the end of July, about a month after these baby blues headed out into the world, a deceased male adult bluebird was found at the end of my driveway near the road. There were no visible injuries, so it’s assumed it may have hit a car windshield as it took its typical flight path from across the street to one of my garden birdbaths (but honestly, my first thoughts were of the neighborhood garden cat!) We’ll never know for sure.

There was a sudden sense of sadness, but it was outweighed by the realization that the arrival and survival of Eastern Bluebirds in the garden in 2020 was truly a success — and even now, as we look at more time at home in the coming months, their company was meant to be.

All bluebirders must feel like “one of the chosen ones” when we are fortunate enough to have nesting bluebirds on our own property…”

~Lillian Lund


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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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A Gardener’s Connection to the Art of Letter Writing

Lord Byron wrote, “Letter writing is the only device for combining solitude with good company.”

What’s happened to the art of letter writing to communicate with friends, family, and loved ones? In an era when texts outpace telephone calls for instant communication, I always welcome the wonderful surprise of a handwritten note or letter delivered to my mailbox. When that happens, it’s the first piece of mail I excitedly – but carefully open. Gone are the days when most of us keep beautiful stationery and embellished letter openers at our desks. In fact, thinking of letter openers makes me laugh because I’m reminded of the time my mother asked, “Is this to open your email?” as we found an elegant letter opener while shopping together at a local Nashua gift shop.

During the Christmas season, cards and letters still make their way to my home, but not nearly as many as in the past. Perhaps because it costs 50+ cents (I think!) for a stamp? Or maybe people have been too busy with every day life to send cards. Granted, most of the holiday correspondence these days consists of ‘form letters’ that recap the memories of friends who want to share the highlights of their past year. But even these ‘letters’, along with Christmas cards seldom find their way to the mailbox on my front porch these days. (Yes, we still have a mail carrier who walks door-to-door to deliver mail in my neighborhood.)

I admit, I’m guilty of sending very few cards at the holiday season over the past few years. And in 2019, sent less than five – or maybe three! It has nothing to do with how much I care about my friends, the price of postage, or my availability of time. I simply prefer to send my notes and cards at other times of the year like Valentine’s Day or even Halloween, but mostly Birthday cards and Thank You notes.

My thoughtful friends do notice this and often give me beautiful notecard and stationery gifts (there are still some of us out there who treasure such things – as well as the constantly changing selection of USPS postage stamps – I loved the frog stamps last year!) I also have a desk-drawer with notecards I create with the garden photography I post to Instagram. I wrote about these cards as part of a gifts from my garden story back in 2018. That one time project back in 2017, turned into an annual ritual (So, I guess now I have a series going! But I’ve also set a lot of expectations that I unfortunately didn’t fulfill this past year.)

I pulled out the most recent set of notecards today – this is actually my last full set from 2019. (I’m still determining if I’ll do another small print run.)

All of these cards are created with photos I take in my garden. Occasionally, I’ll get some requests to use a specific image from my Garden with Grace Instagram page for a future notecard. My favorite part of this annual project is aligning the images with appropriate quotes for the backs of the cards. This is actually the part of the project that takes all year. Sometimes I’ll come across a quote or one will be shared with me – that creates the challenge to capture an appropriate image. My mother has been a longtime collector of quotations – via books (Bartlett’s Book of Quotations was always on the family bookshelf while I was growing up – and still is today), and newspaper/magazine clippings.

With so many of my friends across the country – and around the world – practicing their social distancing right now due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I’m reminded that the simple practice of letter writing is an excellent way to ensure we maintain our connections and share our experiences with our friends and family. (Apparently, it’s still safe to send mail, but we should avoid licking envelopes – thankfully the USPS has self-sticking stamps – they prepared for this day!)

Right now, notes and letters can also be a nice option for work teams to stay connected in the coming weeks. While video- and teleconferencing is helpful each day, there’s something special about receiving a note from your boss or colleague recognizing your good work, attitude, a special contribution, or heck, even just to know you’re in someone’s thoughts.

So this is a great time for all of us to resurrect the art of letter writing. (I bet you have stationery or cards someplace in your desk or home office just waiting to be used – remember those cards you received from the nonprofit you’ve been generously supporting for years?! Some of my friends who are Garden with Grace readers may also have notecards I’ve shared in the past.)

Interestingly, as I was drafting this story, my friend Terri, unexpectedly dropped by to continue a ritual that she started over 10 years ago. For over a decade, maybe closer to two now, she has – without fail – given me an Amaryllis at Christmas. The nicest thing is that it always blooms in January, around the time of my Birthday – so it’s really two wonderful gifts in one. We haven’t seen each other in recent months – with the exception of a quick pass by while out at the grocery store – no real excuses other than life and work schedules not able to align. So here we are now – unable to connect in person even though we’re both in the same state at the same time for the first time in what feels like years.

Terri dropped off the annual amaryllis this past weekend – it’s called the Spring Amaryllis – at my back porch. It will bloom in a few weeks – maybe on or around Easter. Along with bulb (I’ll share a photo in an upcoming story when it blooms!), she added a notecard. Coincidently, it was one of the favorites in my Garden with Grace notecard series! In fact, it’s the very first card I made back in 2017 that started my annual project.

I’ve added this experience to my letter writing story because in a rather serendipitous way, Terri’s note and garden gift arrived at the same time I decided to pull up the draft of this story that’s been sitting idle for months. When I started it, I wasn’t expecting it would be during a time of pandemic and the need for more human-to-human connection. It’s interesting how our worlds and our lives intersect at just the right time. Those moments that are just ‘meant to be’. And often, those moments include a kind act or even a simple, handwritten note. That’s what I call GRACE.

Words can sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds.

~Elie Wiesel


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Good News! Spring is Not Cancelled

Like you, many things I’ve been looking forward to in the coming weeks have been cancelled or postponed. (September is starting to look quite full already with galas, concerts, and other rescheduled events.)

One thing that can’t be cancelled or postponed is the cycle of nature. Say it out loud, “Spring is not cancelled.”

Tulips, hyacinths, and daffodils are breaking through the soil. Trees and shrubs have a tinge of green. And, according to tracking websites, the ruby-throated hummingbirds are heading north.

My favorite summer garden visitor loves the Fuschia flowers growing in my garden.

More so than ever this year, I look forward to putting out my hummingbird feeders four weeks from today.  I can’t wait to welcome my hummingbird friends back to my garden in 2020.

What spring rituals are you anticipating more than ever right now?

No matter how long the winter, spring is sure to follow. ~Proverb