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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2020 Started with the Birds and Ends with the Bees

Each gardening season, I ‘discover’ something new – and usually very exciting (at least to me!) – about our backyard garden habitat. Over the past few years, I’ve spent time getting to really know ‘my’ Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds, Cedar Waxwings, and American Gold Finches. Initially, 2020 appeared to be on track to be the year of ‘my Bluebirds‘.

My Eastern Bluebird pair watching over their nesting box in early 2020 to bring food to their tiny nestlings.

While the Bluebirds were such a gift of hope this past spring – they started a new family of at least three little ones that fledged in late June – the reality of the 2020 garden turned out to be all about ‘my bees’. While not necessarily a new discovery this year, the sheer number and variety of ‘bees’ in the garden has been interesting, and on some days, even a bit exciting. Perhaps so much extra time in the garden in 2020 just provided the opportunity to become more observant, appreciative, and aware of the creatures keeping me company outside. Even as late as Christmas Day this year – when we had unusual warmth for a few days – I saw and heard bees in my New Hampshire garden — they were especially interested in the holly and the faded enkianthus tree.

Let’s get this out of the way before I continue. I am not an ‘apiarist’ aka: bee expert. I became fascinated with bees after reading Sue Monk Kidd’s ‘The Secret Life of Bees’ almost 20 years ago. That book inspired me to learn more about beekeeping, but my career in the tech industry was a higher priority back then…and I knew I just couldn’t make a living by selling honey in New Hampshire for a few months a year.

Over the years since, I’ve chatted with beekeepers and while I continue to be fascinated by these beautiful and important creatures that are detrimental to our own survival, I’ve still not pursued hive-tending or honey-gathering. Instead I’ve targeted my focus on ensuring a better environment for the bees that reside in our garden. It’s a focus that both my mom and I have become committed to in our shared garden, especially over the past decade. It’s one small way to have a personal and positive impact to address climate change.

I have friends and neighbors who are afraid of bees and when they complain to me about them, I always think about this passage from ‘The Secret Life of Bees’. It still stands out in my mind, two decades after first reading it.

I hadn’t been out to the hives before, so to start off she gave me a lesson in what she called ‘bee yard etiquette’. She reminded me that the world was really one bee yard, and the same rules work fine in both places. Don’t be afraid, as no life-loving bee wants to sting you. Still, don’t be an idiot; wear long sleeves and pants. Don’t swat. Don’t even think about swatting. If you feel angry, whistle. Anger agitates while whistling melts a bee’s temper. Act like you know what you’re doing, even if you don’t. Above all, send the bees love. Every little thing wants to be loved.”

The Secret Life of Bees

The last two sentences from that passage are key. Specifically, “Send the bees love.” I whisper to the bees while I garden (and I no longer care what my neighbors think if they hear me!) Especially in mid to late summer, I thank the bees for their hard work to keep my garden blooming all season. I also thank them for not stinging me!

Enjoying the Autumn Joy Sedum in September. My mobile phone camera captured detail that’s hard to see with the naked eye.

I believe the bees feel my love when I check on their well-being. On some August mornings when they are motionless, especially in my zinnias, I offer a very gentle nudge and soft hello (yes, I pat the bees like I would cat or a dog!) Every single time, they move just a bit, as if to ask me for just a little more time to rest. They certainly deserve it, so I quietly walk away and wish them a good day (with a sense of relief after seeing life). The bee in this zinnia seemed to actually roll over upon being roused when I gave it a little pat. It was just fine. Perhaps only a little overworked from a busy morning of pollinating!

A little nap on an August zinnia.

The only other times I will touch bees is when they get swept into the deep end of our many birdbaths found throughout the garden. Like all living things, bees need water. In my garden, bees can often be found around the perimeter of the birdbaths, especially after they’ve been refreshed with clean water each morning. This summer, I pulled more bees (honeybees and bumblebees) and their cousins (yellow jackets and wasps) out of their giant watering holes when I’ve seen them struggle to escape. I gently scoop them up with my hands (or a small stick for yellow jackets) and place them on the rocks or soft ground in nearby shade to dry off. Every single time, they’ve flown away a few minutes after regaining their composure. (And of course, the wasps and yellow jackets deserve a little love and to be saved, too.)

An important similarity among all of these creatures is they provide an important service to benefit our environment — they are pollinators. They do so much more than gift us with sweet honey. Without pollination, our backyard gardens wouldn’t produce tomatoes, squash, or even the beautiful berries on our shrubs, like holly. And, did you know one third of all agricultural output in the United States depends on pollinators? The produce department at your local market would be empty if it were not for bees.

While we may read about bees pollinating flowers, we don’t often get the chance to see this process up close. Again, the extra time in my garden afforded me the opportunity in 2020 to capture why we need to better care for our bees — the amount of pollen they carry from flower to flower is nothing short of amazing. Just flying with such a heavy load looks painfully difficult when you get a look up close. These bees, fully enthralled in the pollination process of the Rudbeckia and Rose of Sharon made me think of Bess, from Porgy & Bess, and the reference to ‘Happy Dust’ in the play. (I took all of these photos with my mobile phone camera – so please ask permission before you use them for your own posts.)

So, how can you take better care of bees to ensure we all have the pollinators needed to keep our world alive? Again, I’m not an apiarist, but I do have five suggestions based on the success of expanding the bee and overall pollinator population in our own New Hampshire garden. These suggestions are ideal for any where you may garden and want to better support your own pollinators.

  1. Ditch the insecticides! If you kill the bees (aka: insects), you’re basically killing your overall environment. This was especially realized as we reduced the footprint of lawn in our garden over the past decade. Over the years, instead of replacing lawn that just couldn’t thrive without fertilizer, herbicide, and insecticide products, we filled in ‘bald’ spaces of lawn with white clover. While clover does well, and the cottontail rabbits love it, so instead of planting more, we’ve been adding thyme – the creeping perennial variety to create a beautiful lush lawn. It has a wonderful fragrance and colorful flowers. And best of all, the bees, as well as the birds absolutely love it!
  2. Learn to love your spring dandelions. When you stop using herbicides, you’ll find more dandelions in your spring garden. This is perfect to bring in the bees. It’s the first flower of the spring season and much needed for the nutrition of bees. I have a friend who is an avid gardener, too. Until this past year, Steve has had a natural tendency to pull up the new dandelions. For a few years, when he’d visit our garden, the impulse continued, until I shared that we intentionally keep these bright yellow flowers for the bees. It was a big ‘ah-ha!’ to Steve and now, he points out to me that he also has learned to love the dandelions — because like me, he loves the bees.
  3. Plant native perennials. Get to know your garden zone and find native perennials to plant. A Google search of native perennials and your location will give you a whole list of options. And it’s ok to change things up over time. Changing our lawn from grass to sod and back to grass, then to clover and now thyme has taken almost a decade. We still filled in areas this past autumn and I can’t wait to see how it all takes in for the 2021 gardening season.
  4. Plant colorful annuals. While our garden is mostly perennials, my favorite summer annual flowers are zinnias. They are often overlooked and I don’t understand why. They are bright and colorful. They grow in a variety sizes and thrive in all types of garden conditions but especially LOVE full sun. And they attract the most beautiful pollinators – including bees and butterflies. I’ll never not have zinnias in my garden now. In fact, I save the seed heads from my favorite flowers each autumn to plant year after year. It you’re not a gardener, like I’m not a bee expert, you will surprise yourself with zinnias and become hooked. (I promise!) Check out Renee’s Garden Seeds to get started. I absolutely love their annual seeds – in addition to zinnias, they have special seed mixes especially to attract bees. I tried the Beekeepers Mix and it’s beautiful!
  5. Make your garden hospitable to bees! Once you cover items 1-4, be sure to add water features to your garden. Even a birdbath helps. There are also ways to set up watering stations for bees, with shallow areas of water and rocks. Also, at the end of the gardening season, save some of your leaf pickup and pruning until spring. Give the bees a place to take cover in the winter. Another option is to check with local beekeepers in your area. If your garden is hospitable for bees, you may even be able to ‘rent’ a hive for your garden that is tended to by a professional. (This is something I’ve been thinking about for a few years now.)

I hope you’re a little more inspired now to believe in your bees as we look ahead to 2021. What’s not to love? They keep our gardens, our souls, and even our world alive. It’s time for all of us to make sure we give them a chance — which ultimately gives all of us a chance. Enjoy these additional photos of bees from my 2020 garden.

“The hum of bees is the voice of the garden.”

~Elizabeth Lawrence


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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