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Oh, Sunflowers!

By Engrid Winslow

Sunflower photo courtesy of Christy Short.

Gorgeous Sunflower Photo Courtesy of Christy Short

Sunflowers (Helianthus sp.) are such a great annual for so many reasons. First of all, they are so darn cheerful with their big, bright blooms during the hottest part of the summer.  They are also easy to grow.  Just poke them into the ground and keep them well-watered until they germinate and then stand back because they thrive in rich soil and heat.  The pollen is loved by bees and the seeds are attractive to birds.  Sunflowers come in so many varieties with sizes ranging from 12” to 15‘ tall and the colors vary from pale lemon yellow to bright yellow, orange, red and bronze.  The petals can be single, double or in fluffy multiple layers (check out Teddy Bear Sunflower).

Tag for Teddy Bear Sunflower packet with bushy foliage has multiple 3 - 6" golden-yellow, double blooms

It can be fun to watch the birds eat the seeds or you can make a fun project out of roasting them. To do this: soak the seeds in salted water for 24 hours, then roast in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper at 350 for 35 minutes, stirring frequently. Let them cool and store in an airtight container. If you want to serve them warm after roasting toss them with a bit of melted butter for a delicious treat. Sunflower seeds are high in vitamin C, E and are high in fiber which supports digestion, they also contain antioxidants, magnesium (for bone health) and can help lower cholesterol.

The roots of sunflowers have an allopathic quality which inhibits the ability of other plants nearby to grow properly. This makes them a great choice for weed suppression but keep them away from other flowers that you love.

Half awake sunflower photo courtesy of Christy Short.

Half Awake Sunflower (Photo Courtesy of Christy Short)

 

Growing your Own Bird Feeder

by Sandy Swegel

I learned something really new this week. This week I learned that birds like to eat bugs. Well, duh, you say.  Think about it. One of the great images we have of spring is the mama bird dangling a worm over the gaping beaks of adorable baby birds. Then think about our typical bird feeders….full of sunflower seeds.

I was in the middle of converting a neglected path of weedy lawn into a flower bed and was thinking about “habitat” for birds. So I naturally considered sunflowers and plants with seeds or berries.  Then the teachable moment came at a talk our County biologist gave on native plants. She pointed us to Douglas Tallamy’s book “Bringing Nature Home Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants”. Tallamy points out 96% of North American wild birds feed their young with insects and larvae (caterpillars). Now the adult birds – like humans — may like the high fat, high sugar treats (berries) we give them…but it’s the protein in the bugs that is so important to sustain our bird populations.

Previously, I thought the point of planting native plants was because they were adapted to our local soil and weather and would survive better. But the real reason to plant natives is to feed the local beneficial insects (lady bugs, lacewings, moths, and all the little tiny flying things you can barely see) that live here already and who do the hard work of eating pests like aphids and thrips. They also do a lot of the pollination in our garden along the way.  Lots of insects means more pollinators for our flowers and more food for the birds – in other words, a healthy habitat.

So if you want to feed the birds, you need to feed the bugs. Nice plump insects, worms, and larvae are what bring more birds to your yard. Yum, Worms…it’s what’s for breakfast!

Learn More:

Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants: http://tinyurl.com/a9voelq

The New York Times article on Tallamy: http://tinyurl.com/yqmlhx

Saving Birds Thru Habitat website: http://tinyurl.com/bfeljl2

Photo Credit: http://tinyurl.com/bxtwed4

 

Bring More Color to Your Wild Areas

by Sandy Swegel

At this time of year when we’re mired in cold and snow, I yearn for two delights of Spring:  when the daffodils and tulips bloom and when the meadows burst with wildflowers.  One thing about wildflowers though, especially in our suburban gardens.  A few years after planting it seems that just a few wildflowers start to dominate.  Often it’s the bachelor buttons and California poppies, both beautiful flowers, but we need diversity and variety and wild color to really shake winter off.

The secret to a lush wildflower area (besides good rainfall) is to over-seed the area every once in a while with some of your favorite flowers.  I usually take the easy way and just throw out a packet of our mixed wildflower seeds to get an overall refreshing of the original mix I planted years ago.  But for one friend who has created a “hot colors” theme of red and orange in her garden, we throw out packets of red wildflowers.  This year we just did a search for Flowers by Color and picked out the flowers we liked with the truest red colors.  We settled on red columbines for Spring, red firecracker penstemons for early summer and red gaillardia for mid-summer.

Finally, my absolute favorite reseeding in the Spring is to seed the Parade of Poppies mix.  There just are never enough poppies of any sort in my mind.  This year I’ve slipped a seed packet in my coat pocket for some guerilla gardening during my sunny day walks along old abandoned properties and ditches that grows lots of weeds.  Poppies will brighten my path this year!

This year I’m also going to try taking a baggie full of our new StrawNet (pellets of straw) when I do my wild area guerilla gardening.  The biggest problem with just throwing seeds out onto abandoned land is that I can’t water them every day.  StrawNet absorbs water and helps create a little moist barrier for new seeds so I expect it to help more seedlings survive even if we have a dry Spring.  Sometimes nature needs a little help to be as beautiful as she can be.

Photo Credit: http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/beauty/columbines/images/aschockleyi/aquilegia_schockleyi_habitat_katewalker_lg.jpg

A Gift for Wild Animals

by Sandy Swegel

After the first big cold snow of the season, I find myself drinking coffee next to the window, captivated by the Wild Kingdom drama of the outdoors…watching the many different kinds of birds foraging or lurking near the bird feeder waiting their turn, or hearing the rustling of unknown small furry creatures in the garden debris.

The best gift for wild animals is a heated bird bath.  I might even put two out, one on the deck rail for the birds and one on the ground in a wild area for all the other thirsty creatures…rabbits, squirrels and even the field mice. When it’s super cold like it is now, snow doesn’t melt and there are no natural water sources near my house.  Maybe a water source will keep the squirrels from eating holes in my irrigation pipes.

Holiday Shopping List for all the Animals in Your Life

Dogs:  Plump baby carrots are the gift of choice for my dogs.   I had to fence off the main garden from their enthusiastic digging, but I leave an area of little round carrots and beets for them to “discover.” Cats:   Catnip of course. Don’t waste your time on anything else. Chickens:  Swiss Chard is my chickens’ most favorite food. I think they like its natural saltiness. I throw bags of dried leaves on the garden bed as insulation just so I can harvest some greens from under the bags all winter. Wild birds:  Sunflower Seeds naturally…and any seeds. I discovered dozens of little birds the other day in the snow in a patch of lambsquarter and tall weeds that I had foolishly allowed to go to seed. Bees:  Wildflower seeds of course. Rabbits:  A wild clover patch, anything green. Field Mice:  Any seeds left to fall on the ground.  Overgrown zucchini and pumpkins left to rot. Squirrels:  Pumpkins.  The Halloween pumpkin left out is the perfect squirrel buffet. Owls, hawks:  Any of the above-mentioned seeds left in the garden bring the mice and voles and other rodents that are the perfect gift for the birds of prey.  The rodents double as gifts for the snakes. Soil microbes: What else but moo poo tea is the ideal gift for the soil Earthworms:  Make them a compost pile.  And forget to harvest some of the root vegetables. As the vegetables decompose in place in early spring, hundreds of hungry earthworms show up for the feast. Humans:  All the vegetables are the perfect gift of health and vitality for the humans in your life, especially when packaged with the love you grew them with.

I wish to all this Winter:  abundant food and water and a warm place for all good creatures.

Photo Credit:

http://birdsandbloomsblog.com/2013/11/09/winter-bird-bath-tips/

http://dipperanch.blogspot.com/2012/10/the-last-purple-rattlesnake.html