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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How 10,000 Wine Corks Ended Up in My Garden

When the Beatles wrote ‘Get By with a Little Help from My Friends’ they never could have imagined those lyrics would be this writer’s ‘ear worm’ when she shared the decades long story of how thousands of wine corks ended up in her New Hampshire garden.

This story started back in the very early 1990s – during my first trip (of eventually many!) to the Napa Valley region of California. It was a much anticipated destination after working a long week at a technology trade show in San Francisco. Still early in my career, this was one of my first real business trips. My coworker and mentor, Claire, provided the best advice that I’ve now carried for nearly 30 years – always include some fun travel with your business travel.

Together, we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and headed north to ‘Wine Country’. It was our reward after a grueling week of demos for an imaging and document management software startup – Keyfile Corporation. We had the coolest – and busiest – product demos because it was still a time when email was fairly new and most people had no idea about the possibilities of something called the “world wide web”.

The show was a big success for Keyfile and I was told to expect a nice bonus upon returning to NH. This information let me splurge on the weekend’s Napa/Sonoma adventure that included a lot of wine tasting/drinking and even a hot air balloon ride that landed in the Kendall Jackson Vineyard where brunch was waiting for us.

The first stop upon arriving in Napa was the V. Sattui Vineyard. This was where my wine cork collecting began – and never really ended. Corks were easy to carry and pack and provided great memories of the trip. Claire also collected some of the same corks and when we returned home, her husband hand-crafted a small trivet with the them as a souvenir gift that I still treasure today.

The corks in the trivet remind me of my first tasting at V. Sattui where I fell in love with their award winning Madeira (before I really even know what Madeira was!)

The Cuvaison winery was very small at the time of my early 90’s visit. I loved their stained glass logo – and their Chardonnay too! Cuvaison was the first wine club I joined when wineries could finally ship to the Granite State.

St. Clement remains in my mind for their beautiful front porch, overlooking vineyards for as far as the eyes could see. I learned to appreciate red wine there when I tasted their Cabernets. And, today, I frequently still purchase their wines from my local NH Liquor and Wine Outlet in Nashua.

And finally, Korbel (center cork). I learned the difference between champagne and sparkling wines while there when I was in my early 20s. (Korbel makes sparkling wines.) At the time, they also had a very comprehensive tour. (I don’t drink Korbel wines often now, but also don’t snub my nose at them, either.)

Momento created from my first trip to California Wine Country in the early 1990s.
The Center Cork is from the Korbel winery – it was a cork that hadn’t been used yet.

Flash forward over two decades later. During that quarter of a century, corks were saved from other trips to Napa, along with other fun events and travel where wine was enjoyed with friends and family, including DIY craft nights to make wedding centerpieces and wine cork wreaths.

They were also saved by other friends who had deep pride in their custom NH wine cellars (often closets, actually). John and Ginger were avid oenophiles…and were the first to hand over a trash bag filled with corks – it must have weighed 30 pounds. The corks sat for a few years in hopes of making more trivets. But, they eventually found their way into my garden with thousands of others saved during the same period of time.

Today, after collecting over 10,000 corks (Yes! That’s correct – 10K!), three landscaping projects have been completed across my garden. I shared information about the first one with my overview of various garden hacks a few years ago:

Project #1 – Mulch the Paper Bark Maple Tree

Twenty-five years of corks were tested as mulch, instead of using bark, around a newly planted paper bark maple in the center of the garden a few years ago. The results are both useful – the corks did hold back the weeds – and beautiful. That area of the garden sparks so many conversations now. It became – and still is – a central, fun focal point.

The first area of cork mulch – in the center
of the garden. Over time the corks have
faded to a silvery color, much like how the
color of teak changes over time.

Well, this ‘test’ sparked a question, “Should we continue to mulch different areas of the garden with wine corks?” The answer was a resounding, “Yes!” This is where my friends jumped in…whole-heartedly.

Project #2 Entrance to ‘My Secret Garden’

I continued to save corks over the next two years, but had barely enough to make a dent in mulching other beds. Then I attended an estate/yard sale down the street from my home. Sarah and David actually had a big box of corks for sale. I think it was under $5. So it went home with me! This was the next big push for mulching with corks. We prepped the back bed behind the garage – the one that leads to the zinnia garden.

Starting the next bed of cork mulch
behind the garage – project #2!

But, the corks didn’t go nearly as far as I’d expected or needed. So, I kept looking for more. I shared ‘my plight’ to my personal Facebook page and almost immediately learned that many of my friends also saved corks – but didn’t know what to do with them. My plea for additional corks made them realize they’d been saving the corks for me!

The summer of 2017 became the era where I finished two more cork mulch projects – thanks to the help of old and new friends. I don’t have photos of everyone, but have kept a list to give everyone credit in this story.

Additional donors to my ’cause’ included friends who just dropped by – from near and far (including a surprise visit Connecticut!) to deliver corks; friends who casually opened my purse at parties and threw in corks for me to take home; and friends who mailed corks to my home – including corks from North Carolina and California via trip to the Czech Republic (Yes! International corks, too.) Local bartenders also joined in the fun and saved corks for me.

Even with all these corks, by late summer of 2017, I still needed a few more handfuls to complete the section behind the garage in.

Then I received a text from a new friend – Cindy, whom I met through my friend Marie. Like so many other friends who find themselves downsizing and have no rationale to continue saving years of corks, Cindy was packing up her home to move and came across a huge stash – her husband saved wine corks going back to the 80s. So, they were hauled up to NH from MA on a late summer afternoon for a first time get together. I finally had an over abundance of corks.

BONUS! Project #3 – Freshen Up the ‘Thinking Garden’

With many corks still unused after project #2, it was time to scour the garden for a home for the rest of them. This was a bit of a challenge due to the slope of the overall landscape. We needed a level area and the beds around the ‘Thinking Garden’ were perfect. With the removal of old bark mulch, and a little raking, the rest of the corks settled nicely into their new home.

Prepping the Bonus Cork Bed – Thanks to nearly 40 years of corks from friends
The Grand Finale! ‘Bonus’ corks completed the ‘Thinking Garden‘.
It’s didn’t take long for the corks to just become a normal part of the garden.
Even the local Garden Cat (Whiskey) approves!

So, that is how – over a few decades – or nearly half of my life – I’ve been able to amass enough corks, over 10,000 by some estimates, to mulch three large beds across my garden. It’s created quite the conversation piece when people visit or when they run into me while out in the Nashua community. I’m often introduced as ‘that friend who puts corks in her garden’.

While some of my friends – many of them donors to my own project – have started their own collections for their backyard or lakeside gardens, for some reason, the corks continue to migrate to my home. I never complain!

An anonymous cork dropoff in November 2019.

If you like this idea and don’t want to wait to have enough corks for your own landscaping projects, you can put them in potted plants. They add a nice finishing touch, and unlike other ‘mulches’ are free of insects and dirt.

It’s a clean way to add interest to your potted house and patio plants. As of now, none of the corks across my garden beds over the past few years have rotted or disintegrated. However, sometimes the birds and squirrels like to occasionally do a little rearranging of the landscaped areas.

So drink up – before all the wineries replace corks with screw tops. The wine industry will thank you and your garden will be become a fun local topic of conversation – among both oenophiles AND gardeners alike. Best of all, like wine always does, the corks, too, add so much to your friendships, both far and near.

Cheers! Salud! Prost! Nostrovia! Thank you to all of my CORK CONTRIBUTING FRIENDS, including, but not limited to: Ginger & John, Sarah & David, Cynthia & Chip, Terri & Steve, Sarah and Jeff, Lindsay & Megan, Karen G & Karen W, Kathy & Larry, Liz & Paul, Cathy & Tom, Cheryl & Bruce, Michael Timothy’s Wine Bar, Rosemarie & John, Cindy, Karen, Marie, Bobbi & Steve, Bobbi’s sister Diane, Colleen B, Diane S, Steve & Jane, and the mystery donors who occasionally leave corks on one of my porches for back steps!

“Out of gardens grow fleeting flowers but lasting friendships.”
–  Beverly Rose Hopper  


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Garden Hack #1: Screen Out Seedling Problems

Sometimes, we all need ideas, tips, and tricks to make our work in the garden easier. Over the the past five years, I’ve tried and tested several “Garden Hacks” and want to share the ones that truly work so others may use them too.

My first Hack involves recycling and upcycling. Honestly, there is no better place to engage these practices than in the garden!

Garden Hack #1: Screen Out Seedling Problems

This is my favorite Garden Hack because it was published in Fine Gardening magazine’s February 2016 issue. (There’s nothing more rewarding than your favorite gardening publication validating your tip – in print!) 

FG-TIP-Cover

The tradition continues this growing season. Despite a cold, rainy month, my future salad (Black Seeded Simpson lettuce) is thriving in its screened setting.

Lettuce hack

Once the seedlings get a little bigger, I’ll remove the screen for a few hours each day, but will cover it up at night to keep out the visiting nocturnal critters. We’re hoping for a first cutting for salad in early June.

Do you have a favorite Garden Hack? Share it with a comment!