What will winter bring?

And sustaining the neighborhood birds.

Keep the light and spirit of the season alive now and in the New Year. —Susan Safford

Weather lore has it that whatever the conditions are on the solstices and equinoxes will foretell the coming season.

Sunday’s high winds and temperatures (58°), and a good, one-inch-plus rainfall on Saturday contrasted remarkably with the polar vortex conditions of the previous Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. Then, equally high winds and frigid, single-digit temperatures whipped the Island into wintry mode a few days before the official start of winter. Winter’s façade was reinforced with the subsequent four inches of snow that lay over everything early Saturday morning. But no.

If we haven’t already absorbed the New England weather maxim, “if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes,” we are forced to relearn it again. The rain poured, the temperature came up, and the snow was gone by Saturday evening. This coming winter looks to be highly variable and windstruck.

Spray recently planted evergreens with antidesiccant if weather conditions and temperature constraints allow (read the label), and mulch the soil around recently planted trees and plants once the ground is cold. If you are planting a living Christmas tree, mulch the spot now, or better yet, quickly dig the planting hole and cover the heap of backfill with something to keep it from freezing hard. Get the tree outside and planted as soon as possible after Christmas.

Backyard activity

“Among the absolute truths in the natural world are these: Seasons change, and wildlife is preparing for the next season even before the current season has fully taken hold.”
—Matt Pelikan, Wild Side, Dec. 1, on spring peepers

Humans should, and do, prepare too.

The previous edition of “Garden Notes” mentioned winter moths, and also feeding the birds. Considering the expense incurred from this activity, and how once started it is necessary to continue, I should have paid more attention to possible benefits of feeding them. “Ecosystem services,” if you like.

The term “phenology” can be defined as the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, especially in relation to climate and plant and animal life — or, the timing of things. One aspect of the previous Island caterpillar outbreaks is the timing.

The caterpillar eggs hatch, and the tiny worms start up the trees’ trunks to make their way into the buds they will feed on. (They also travel by ballooning, aerial movement at the end of a webbing thread.) Problem is, this cyclic activity has been triggered to start earlier and earlier. Warmer temperatures at fault? The science is not completely clear at this time, but populations of certain moths or caterpillars have long been known to explode into “outbreak” mode.

The hatch now occurs before the arrival of the migratory birds, the seasonal activity of whose mating, egg laying, and feeding of young used to coincide with the bountiful protein source required by these activities, and that baby caterpillars (and many other insects as well) provide. Nowadays the caterpillars are safely ensconced within the buds, and chewing from the inside. The leaf or blossom is blighted even before it opens.

Returning to feeding birds and “preparing for the next season”: It makes sense to sustain the small, year-round, neighborhood-type birds: the titmice, juncos, chickadees, nuthatches, downy and hairy woodpeckers, and wrens — whichever ones winter over, or creep up and down tree trunks, and are always on the lookout for a morsel to eat. They are going to be your trees’ guardians come spring and caterpillar time, and are on the job before the migratory species arrive.

The second shoe drops, however. When we are feeding the birds, unwanted rodents appear, lured by the easy food supply. Squirrels, chipmunks, rats, even raccoons have caused many to abandon the bird-feeding project. Not all cats are rodent hunters: Many content themselves instead with the birds at the feeder! Snakes are your allies when it comes to predatory rodents; unfortunately, as cold-blooded reptiles, they are largely inactive over winter.

What to do? A yard and garden well planted with trees, shrubs, grasses, and forbs that support birds with berries and seeds is an alternative to purchased birdseed. YouTube hosts videos that demonstrate making nonbait rodent traps using five-gallon buckets, coat hangers, tin cans, peanut butter, and water. I hope my grandsons make us some as gifts.

Owl-nesting boxes might help. Owls of several species inhabit the Island; small nocturnal mammals are a principal component of their diet. Different owl species have differing requirements. Staff members at Felix Neck are your resource for siting, plans, or dimensions, while Suzan Bellancampi reminds us that the option of rodent poison travels up the food chain. It even poisons many pets unintentionally.

Plants of the Year 2017

The National Garden Bureau annually selects a plant from each of four plant groups as its Plants of the Year, upon which it focuses attention. This year is the Year of the Daffodil, the Pansy, the Brassica, and the Rose.

Many gardeners start their own pansies from seed, expanding the choice tremendously. Start them soon. To germinate, start pansy seed indoors with a soilless medium. Plant seed ⅛ inch deep with a light cover and a gentle watering. Pansies prefer darkness for germination. The medium temperature should be 60° to 65°, and air temperature at 70° to 75°. The medium should stay damp (covering with plastic wrap or damp newspaper will help retain humidity). A fine spray or mister can be used if the medium dries. Germination occurs in 10 to 20 days.

When shoots appear, remove covering and move the flat to a brightly lit but cool room to continue to grow. Continue to grow cool. Separate seedlings into larger containers after two sets of leaves appear. Begin to feed with diluted plant food.