Monday, April 28, 2008


I hadn't seen our back yard for 2 weeks and on Saturday was amazed at the glorious color. The crabapple trees, the dogwood, and the lilacs were all blooming, and everywhere there was the most beautiful green I've ever seen. It's been a very long winter.

House wrens are building in one of our birdhouses. All afternoon we watched as twigs were stuffed through the entrance hole. Sometimes the wren would go back up onto the roof of the house and try again from a different angle. Sometimes, he'd lose the twig altogether. We still don't know if we'll have eggs in the birdhouse. A male house wren will fill several cavities with twigs, and then take the female around for a real estate inspection. She picks out the one she likes, and adds a soft lining of feathers or moss to the nest. We're waiting along with the male to see whether our house will be approved!

In the kids' old playhouse (left) is a robin's nest, the one I wrote about April 7. If you look closely at the photo below, you can see her sitting on the nest. I took this photo with a 300 mm lens from about 25 feet away to avoid disturbing her. She was absolutely motionless and difficult to spot. This nest is fairly close to our back door, and to one of my flower beds. We're trying not to startle the robin, but she seems undisturbed as I work on the bed.

Some interesting birds came to the yard this weekend. Rose-breasted grosbeaks (below) were everywhere. They nest farther north, but pass through Indiana in the spring and fall.

We had 1 oriole, who took some nectar from our young pink dogwood tree. This bird is a rarity in our yard and visited only briefly. My photos were taken from some distance and are not quite as good as I'd like - but I feel lucky to have photos at all. It's gratifying to know that he found nectar in our little tree.

My only disappointment this weekend was that, in spite of 3 feeders, vibrant pink crabapple blossoms, and lots of welcoming hummer- thoughts, we still haven't seen any hummingbirds in the yard. Hurry up, guys! (Please?)

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Garden experiments

The seeds I planted April 1 sprouted -- but, as you can see from the photo, not all sprouts are equal. The pots on the left and in the back are Burpee, and the pot on the right is Fredonia. The Burpee seeds sprouted right away, even though they date from 2005, but the other brand was slow to germinate and the seedlings are weaker. This is hardly, of course, a scientific experiment. YMMV -- your mileage may vary!

I've been thinking about planting some heirloom varieties of flowers. The term "heirloom variety" has no legal meaning, but is defined differently by different seed companies. In general, it is a variety that is open-pollinated, dates from some time ago (defined differently), and can be grown next year from saved seeds -- the very opposite of the popular F1 hybrids you see in all the greenhouses.

But I hesitate to put all my hopes on untried varieties. What if they don't grow, or what if I have a whole bed of zinnias that the butterflies don't like?

While I'm working all this out, and waiting for the sun to come out, I'm planting some test seedlings. I seem to have acquired a bunch of different brands of seeds (it's an addiction, don't ask) and so I'm starting some seeds from each one. Let's see what happens!

Monday, April 7, 2008

Busy robins

In southern Indiana, it's finally spring. Sunny and in the 60s, perfect weather for gardening. I started clearing the dead foliage from the flower beds, and my mate-4-life mowed the grass for the first time this season. We use a push-mower (no gas), so we can't let it get very long.

There are quite a few robins who hang out in our yard. They hop through the back yard, flicking the leaves aside with their bills and digging worms or bugs out from underneath.

One robin was building a nest somewhere nearby, and kept returning to the back yard for dead grass and plant matter left from last year. The robin in the photo above has a mouthful of old plant fluff and grass; the robin below has strands of grass. Both photos were taken on Sunday in our back yard.

According to my handy reference sources, female robins build the nest in layers: 1-a foundation layer of grass, leaves, and twigs; 2- the mud layer, pressed into a bowl shape on top of the grass layer; and 3-the soft inner lining. Our robins were working on that first layer over the weekend. Robins lay 3-4 blue eggs, and they usually raise 2 broods in one season. They stick with their mate for the season, but not for life.

I think I know where these robins are building, though I haven't been able to spot the nest yet. We put out nesting material in net bags and also on the ground. Feathers, straw, short (3") bits of string or yarn, dog hair, bits of wool -- all make good nesting material. Some we gather from around the house, and some we buy from the local birdwatcher's store. I think it would be cool to find some of my old yarn in a robin's nest. But it looks as though we're producing good nesting material just by not raking the lawn!

Tuesday, April 1, 2008


I know spring is supposed to be wet and cold, but I've really had it up to here with this one. The cold can be very energy-sapping. But I think I've got to plant something or burst!

The most important flowers in my garden are the zinnias. I devote one raised bed to them, and stick them in other spots as well. Butterflies and bees love them, and hummingbirds, too. After the flowers are spent, the goldfinches perch on the stems and tear into the seed heads. So they're a real crowd-pleaser. But some varieties don't produce much nectar and so they won't be very attractive to butterflies or hummingbirds.

Last year, I found these to be successful and attractive: Burpee's Pinwheel Mix, Burpee's Giant Flowered Mix. I also planted a cactus-flowered variety that didn't do as well. In previous years, I've planted Cut & Come Again with success.

Usually, zinnias work best if they're direct-seeded in the garden, but tonight I planted some in newspaper pots. And, because a bored gardener is a dangerous thing, let's have a little contest. I planted 1 pot with Thumbelina Zinnia seeds from Fredonia, a brand I've never tried before, and 2 of the pots with Burpee Thumbelina Zinnias -- but they're seeds from 2005. I guess that's to even the field.

The whole brand thing is a disturbing issue that leads into murky territory -- but that's a story for another time. For now, I'm putting my little pots in the window and hoping, hoping, for a real spring.