Archive for the ‘Natural Landscaping’ Category

Wildlife Habitat Needs Spring Cleaning, Too

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Walter Scott
BLOOMFIELD, IA–Each spring, my wife has a cleaning attack. She cleans everything, whether it needs it or not. This means I must spend great amounts of time protecting my valuables that she feels are unnecessarily taking up space.

Some things’ existences are easy to justify. The turkey decoy that has been in the top of the closet unused for almost a year needs to be there. It is only used once each year, for turkey season. Everything has to be somewhere.

I have more difficulty hanging on to other prized possessions. The hunting hat on top of the gun case that has not moved for three years is a prime example. I now have a new hunting hat, but the old one is the one I was wearing when I shot the big buck with my bow. It has sentimental value and a person can never tell when a friend might show up and need to borrow a hat. Women are not too practical or sentimental when it comes to 20-year-old hats.

The extra pair of boots in the closet do not leak too badly, and work perfectly fine on a dry day, unless a person tries to cross the creek. They should be saved in case of an emergency. I am not sure what that emergency might be, but one can never be too prepared.

I knew I was fighting a losing battle in the cleaning frenzy. I might as well go outside and do some spring cleaning of my own.

This is the time of year a person needs to clean the bluebird houses. Bluebirds will be returning shortly on their first scouting run for nesting sites. Clean houses in position will increase the odds of getting a pair of the pretty little birds to move in.

This is also a good time to make a few more houses. If you do not have the skills or inclination to build a bluebird house, they can be purchased from the local hardware store. Some Boy Scout troops will build houses as a fundraiser. Purchasing a few of these will help out the birds and the kids.

The houses should be placed away from homes and outbuildings, which will help to discourage sparrows. When the first hatch has left the nest, clean your houses again. This will encourage re-nesting; sometimes up to three or four times in a summer. They will provide hours of entertainment as well as a bit of color in the area.

Goose nests and Wood Duck houses should also be cleaned and made ready for early arrival of waterfowl. Food plots for wildlife can also be planted at this time of year. If the ground was burnt off or torn up last fall, a frost seeding can be very successful. Seed can be broadcast on snow or bare ground and the spring rains will do the planting.

I have an area on the edge of a timber where I replaced a fence last fall. With a clear path extending into the trees, a perfect food plot can be developed. I spread a mixture of clover seeds directly onto the snow or dirt and follow with a layer of oats.

The turkeys will scratch around eating some of the oats, but in the process, plant the clover and remaining oats. The oats will sprout early, providing an early spring meal for deer, turkey and songbirds as well as a cover crop for the clover. By next fall, the clover will be a valuable food source for wildlife getting ready for winter.

I think I have enough spring cleaning to keep me busy and out of my wife’s way. Both she and the wildlife will appreciate my getting outside and doing something constructive. –West Central Tribune

Wildlife Corridors Benefit Plant Biodiversity

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

GAINESVILLE, FL— Wildlife corridors appear to support not only wildlife but also plants—especially the oft-threatened native variety.

A six-year study at the world’s largest experimental landscape devoted to the corridors—links between otherwise isolated natural areas—has found that more plant species, and specifically more native plant species, persist in areas connected by the corridors than in isolated areas. The results suggest that corridors are an important tool not only for preserving wildlife but also for supporting and encouraging plant biodiversity.

“From the perspective of whether corridors are an important conservation tool, the big question is whether they preserve a large diversity of species,” said Doug Levey, a University of Florida professor of zoology. “The answer, for plants anyway, appears to be yes.”  Levey co-authored a paper on the study that appeared recently in the journal Science.

In recent decades, many states and communities have set aside land for wildlife corridors. They are even planned on a regional scale, with one proposed corridor, for example, stretching 1,800 miles from Yellowstone National Park to the Yukon Territory.

The rationale behind the corridors is that linking natural areas allows plants and animals to spread across them, helping them to thrive, reducing localized extinctions and increasing biodiversity. But until recently, scientific evidence for that rationale was surprisingly slim, with most corridor studies conducted on very small scales.

Levey and his colleagues’ massive outdoor experiment at the Savannah River Site National Environmental Research Park on the South Carolina-Georgia state line is steadily filling in the holes in scientists’ knowledge.

The site consists of eight sets of five roughly two-acre clearings in the forest. In each set, a corridor connects the central clearing to one peripheral clearing, with the others remaining isolated. Plants and animals thrive in the clearings, which consist of longleaf pine savannah, an endangered habitat. They do not do well in the areas of surrounding forest. The difference between the habitats is similar to the difference between the urban and natural areas, where corridors are most often used.

In two earlier papers, the researchers concluded that corridors encourage the movement of plants and animals across the fragmented landscapes. They also found that bluebirds transfer more berry seeds in their droppings between connected habitats, suggesting that the corridors could help plants spread.

The latest research tackled a much broader question: Do corridors increase plant biodiversity overall? To get at the issue, researchers Ellen Damschen and Nick Haddad, of North Carolina State University, did a detailed census of evenly distributed plots in six sets of connected and unconnected patches. They started in summer 2000 and returned every year through 2005 except for 2004, when a fire burned the landscape.

The site was set up in 1999, when forest service loggers carved out the plots, and there was little difference among plot covers just one year later in 2000. But a different pattern became clear in ensuing years. Not only were there more plant species in connected plots than unconnected ones, there were more native species.

“They started with the same diversity and then diverged,” Levey said. “Native species definitely benefited, and yet there was absolutely no evidence that exotic species benefited.”

The difference arose because unconnected patches gradually lost native species, whereas the natives persisted in connected patches. Over the five years, the unconnected patches lost about 10 native species. Meanwhile, the corridors seemed to have no impact on the number of exotic or invasive species in the connected and unconnected patches.

“It seems that exotic species either were already everywhere and did not rely on corridors for their spread, or they remained in one place,” Damschen said in an e-mail.

Levey said the scientists think that invasive species, which by definition are good at spreading, are little affected by corridors. Native species, by contrast, are less invasive and so assisted more by the corridors. “It may be that corridors play to the strengths of native species,” he said.

Levey said the National Science Foundation recently renewed a five-year grant to continue research at the site, committing about $500,000 for another five years.

Sunset Photography Can Be Challenging

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Ron and Sharon McConathy
EVERYONE who owns a camera sooner or later will want to take a picture of a gorgeous sunset.

Successfully capturing a sunset, however, involves a number of steps: choosing a location, being available at the right time, looking for the best conditions, using appropriate equipment, determining the proper technique and exposure, composing the image to show the emotion of the moment, and being a little lucky. The accompanying sunset image was recently made near Crystal River, Florida (a great location!).

  • Choose an appropriate location. Obviously, on earth sunsets occur in the west. Scout areas and talk with local people (especially photographers) about good sunset locations in advance. You can also look at maps to find possible locations. Once you have found a potential location, look for foreground objects such as trees or ridge lines to add interest and depth. Keep in mind that these objects will probably be in silhouette in your image.

  • Be available at the right time. Determining the time of sunset for your location is important. Sunset is typically the time when the sun’s orb drops below the horizon. This time is published in almanacs, local newspapers, and on websites (e.g., ,, ). Some information sources also give a compass bearing that will allow you to pinpoint in advance where the sun will touch the horizon.
  • Effective sunset photos can be made both before and after sunset, so plan to arrive at least a half hour early and stay at least a half hour past the published sunset time. Don’t give up too quickly on a specific sunset since one that starts out on the bland side can become spectacular once the sun drops below the horizon. I can remember being disappointed to look in the rear view mirror to see a grey sky sunset I just abandoned turn magnificent with color. Similarly, some sunsets produce the best color early and fizzle out as the sun drops.
  • Look for the best conditions. The color of a sunset is determined by Rayleigh scattering and atmospheric conditions such as haze, dust particles, and clouds. When color blazes across the sky, clouds provide the canvas on which that color is painted. Middle- or high-level clouds are best. Cloudless skies can also produce interesting sunsets, but the color will likely be more muted and subtle. Check out / for a more scholarly discussion of sunset color. Sunsets with blazing colored clouds can stand alone photographically, but cloudless sky sunsets show off best with interesting subjects in the foreground.
  • Use appropriate equipment. An important piece of equipment for sunset photography is a tripod or some other way to steady the camera during the long exposures needed at this time of day. It is often necessary to use a camera cable release or the camera’s delayed shutter release function to avoid camera shake. Your camera should be able to center-weight or spot meter to determine exposure, and being able to manually set exposure values is a plus. Select a film or digital camera ISO that is around 100 to 400 for best quality. Some digital cameras might not give a quality image at higher ISOs, so know what your camera capabilities are and what quality you are willing to accept.

  • Determine proper technique and exposure. Exposure determination for sunsets can be tricky. Using the camera’s automatic exposure reading without adjustment will usually give disappointing results. The bright sunlight will be interpreted by the camera to produce an 18% equivalent sky, and this will underexpose the image by several f-stops.
  • The exposure meter reading needs to be made from areas of sky away from the brightest parts. Choose an area of sky that you want to be 18% in the final image and meter it. Hold this exposure setting in the camera by partially depressing the shutter release or manually setting the f-stop and shutter speed. When in doubt about the exposure, bracket the exposure by one or two f-stops. Experiment to find the exposure you like best.
  • Compose to show the emotion of the moment. Once you have completed the previous steps, the final decision is how to compose the picture. Your composition will be determined by the location, the foreground, and the extent and intensity of the sky’s color. If you have a selection of lens focal lengths, make wide angle and telephoto images of each sunset. This will maximize your interpretation of the event.
  • Be aware that sunsets transition quickly, so be ready to shoot fast. Try placing the sun’s orb or the brightest part of the sky at different parts of the frame (center, intersection of thirds, corners, edges) to see what speaks to you. Position foreground objects differently in relation to the sunset. With a telephoto lens, explore different areas of the sky color and cloud formations. (Caution: looking at the sun’s orb with a telephoto lens can damage your retina!) Re-evaluate exposure when changing compositions. Also, periodically look around and behind you to see what is happening; the best picture is often directly opposite where the sun drops below the horizon.

Good luck and good night. Good sunset pictures reward the photographer who plans ahead. Being prepared and being lucky can result in fabulous sunset images. For the early risers, much of this advice also applies to sunrises. Best of luck in finding and capturing your glorious sunset images. Packing up your gear after a particularly spectacular (and lucky) evening of shooting will have you whispering to nature’s artist  “thank you for a good night!”

Saving the Wild Huckleberry By Taming It

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

IDAHO’S state fruit is delicious, free to pick on public lands and a major source of antioxidants.

Even beasts, from the bear to the blue grouse, dine on it regularly during the summer and fall. But the berries’ wide appeal is exactly the problem, historically. In Idaho, Montana and Washington the huckleberry is a case study of what happens when a plant everybody likes grows in a place everyone can get to–but no one wants to regulate.

Explorers and pioneers have mentioned huckleberries–and other fruits mistakenly labeled as such–in continental temperate forests across the United States and Canada since the 1600s. Lewis and Clark noted them in their journals in both present-day Montana and Idaho, although Lewis didn’t share the enthusiasm of early pioneers for the fruit, remarking while he was among the Flathead tribe in Western Montana that the berries “did not appear to satisfy my appetite as they appeared to do those of my Indian friends.”

He was right, however, to note the huckleberry’s importance to Native American diets. The Yakima tribe in Washington, for instance, valued the berries enough that control of picking grounds figured prominently into the tribe’s treaties with the U.S. Government.

Tribes around the Northwest also historically burned large patches of forest specifically to encourage huckleberry growth–and the camas as well–in a prescient method of early forest management. That model wasn’t quite so popular to white populations in lumber-loving Idaho, but forest managers here did wonder aloud as far back as the 1930s whether their government was favoring a less-valuable crop by focusing on lumber rather than berries.

Still, those few isolated objections aside, “for the most part, the Forest Service has only managed tall skinny green things called trees. Not much of anything else,” says Idaho’s wild huckleberry swami, Dr. Dan Barney, a horticulturist at the University of Idaho Sandpoint Research and Extension Center. The reason, he says: “I’ve been told by National Forest rangers that they simply are not interested in other forest products.”

With the administrative eye turned solely to logging, Idaho’s berry patches–particularly around Troy and into Montana–were host to mini-booms, busts and heated conflicts galore as local pickers competed for the best bushes with armies of migrant pickers whose population ebbed and swelled as market prices fluctuated. The only constant between the two groups was often the medieval-looking contraptions they both used to harvest as many berries–and often branches and leaves–as possible.

This still-ongoing berry frenzy has left many historic berry groves barren and over-harvested, Barney says.

“In two days, graduate students gathered one-half of a handful of berries,” he said of a recent trip into the forest. “Commercial pickers had been there before us and stripped it clean. This was an area that, in former years, you could sit down without standing and have one to two gallons.”

Of course, part of the huckleberry’s appeal is that there can seem to be a bottomless supply. In Idaho, the berry’s range extends from the state’s right toe near the Utah border up to the Continental Divide at the Bitterroot Range, then arches west to the Cascade/McCall area and unfolds northward toward the Canadian border.

In other words, wherever the snow line is receding in high elevation coniferous forests in Idaho, look for huckleberries–and for people from outside of Idaho harvesting them, usually to put in products ranging from syrups and preserves to skin lotion. Seasonal workers harvesting for commercial berry purchasers is nothing new, says Barney. It’s just that the quantities they’re seeking seem to be on the rise.

“I take calls form the United Kingdom or France, or from the Eastern U.S., from food processors or brokers looking for a million pounds of berries at a time,” Barney says. “We’re seeing a lot of raw fruit being shipped out of our region with no economic return to our region, and no money coming back in to help manage or protect those [areas].”

A lifelong wild-huckleberry picker who learned to harvest from his grandfather near Warm River in Eastern Idaho, Barney has responded to the calls by looking closely at the respective demands of both wild huckleberries and the companies who love them.

For the berries, he logged long hours in the lab to determine what soil and sun conditions they require to thrive and what human practices­–such as careful tree thinning and controlled burns–would help to support existing berry reserves. Figuring out what the purchasers wanted wasn’t nearly so scientific: more berries, consistent quality and a predictable supply chain.

So, with help from some USDA funds, Barney says his office has created 97 domesticated–he calls them “improved”–versions of wild huckleberries. Within the next two weeks, Barney says, he’ll send 13 of these varieties to other researchers or to commercial nurseries. Next month, he’ll also take his huckleberry conservation and management findings to managers at Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington, home of the Yakima nation’s famed Sawtooth Berry Fields.

“We’ll do work with the Forest Service and anyone else in the world who wants to change this,” he says. “What we would love to do is to keep the wild stand up there for the recreational pickers and the native peoples and the small mom and pop producers, locally owned processors and so on. For the very large scale purchasers, let’s produce them in managed forest stands on private land, or in fields, like we do other food crops.”

And the taste: Barney says his Frankenberries are consistently darker and richer-flavored than wild huckleberries. They’re delicious, he insists, although he adds that his favorite way to serve huckleberries is still just to throw a handful of wild ones into pancake batter before cooking.

Replanting The Prairie To Encourage Wildlife

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Bill Graham
KIRKSVILLE, MO–Pieces sewn together make a quilt.
Steve Mowry is using that approach to rekindle hope for endangered Prairie Chickens and other grassland natives in a north Missouri neighborhood better known for corporate hog farms.

If he succeeds, Prairie Chickens, rare butterflies and other wildlife will receive a boost, and the public will get a new place to see what Missouri looked like before European settlement.

A 540-acre tract once used by Premium Standard Farms to spread hog wastes on nonnative grasses is being replanted to prairie near the Adair and Sullivan county border, west of Kirksville. Nearby sits a rare, virgin, 50-acre native-grass tract recently bought by the Missouri Prairie Foundation. It’s the nonprofit’s first land purchase in north Missouri.

Mowry, a Northland attorney who is president of the foundation, also is working with other private- and public-property owners to create a native-grassland ecosystem in a countryside where thousands of Prairie Chickens once thrived, but fewer than 20 now survive.

“The potential for wildlife is tremendous,” Mowry said. “We can connect a patchwork of habitats so Prairie Chickens and other grassland nesting birds have a shot.”

North Missouri was a prairie stronghold before the Civil War. But deep, fertile soils were easy to stick a plow into, and the land was transformed into row crops or pastures. Prairies vanished, said Max Gallagher of Clinton, a biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation. So did wildflowers and the Prairie Chickens.

Modern agriculture, which converted pastures to fescue grass, has taken a toll on birds that evolved on prairies. Fescue attracts few insects for food and is hard to run through when it is tall, which is especially important for young birds to survive. The most common nonnative fescues also can be too short for wildlife cover when pastures are heavily grazed or cut for hay.

Crop fields often are bare in nesting season and winter, when birds need the shelter the taller and less-thickly bunched prairie plants provide. Fewer than 500 Prairie Chickens survive statewide, mostly in southwest Missouri. Other than a flock that migrated from Iowa into northwest Missouri, numbers keep dropping. Prairie advocates such as Frank Oberle said the birds can be brought back. He has been burning fescue and clearing brush in pastures on a farm in the neighborhood. Prairie seeds and plant seedlings have sprouted with vigor, and the fields are reverting to bluestem grasses and wildflowers.

“The wildlife is moving back in,” he said, “including rare butterflies and birds.”

Regal Fritillary Butterflies and Henslow’s Sparrow Birds are among the returnees. Mowry is aiming for the same results on the land that Premium Standard Farms owns. The Kansas City-based company formerly sprayed wastes from hog-production barns onto the land as fertilizer for grass production in livestock grazing.

Premium Standard now converts wastes into fertilizer pellets for commercial sale, said Forest Decker, the company’s superintendent of land resources. The company has granted a 10-year lease for the land to the Prairie Foundation for free, while retaining rights to spray wastes if needed, though in far lower concentrations than before, Decker said.

If successful, Mowry said the foundation would like to negotiate similar leases on Premium Standard lands to broaden the partnership. –Kansas City Star

God and Lawns–A Dialogue

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

GOD: Frank, you know all about gardens and nature.  What in the world is going on down there on the planet? What happened to the dandelions, violets, thistle and stuff I started eons ago?  I had a perfect no-maintenance garden plan. Those plants grow in any type of soil, withstand drought and multiply with abandon.  The nectar from the long-lasting blossoms attracts butterflies, honey bees and flocks of songbirds.  I expected to see a vast garden of colors by now.  But, all I see are these green rectangles. 

St. FRANCIS: It’s the tribes that settled there, Lord. The Suburbanites. They started calling your flowers “weeds” and went to great lengths to kill them and replace them with  grass.

GOD: Grass?  But, it’s so boring.  It’s not colorful.  It doesn’t attract butterflies, birds and bees; only grubs and sod worms.  It’s sensitive to temperatures.  Do these Suburbanites really want all that grass growing there?

ST. FRANCIS: Apparently so, Lord.  They go to great pains to grow it and keep it green.  They begin each spring by fertilizing grass and poisoning any other plant that crops up in the lawn.

GOD: The spring rains and warm weather probably make grass grow really fast.  That must make the Suburbanites happy.

ST.  FRANCIS: Apparently not, Lord.  As soon as it grows a little, they cut it-sometimes twice a week.

GOD: They cut it?  Do they then bale it like hay?

ST.  FRANCIS: Not exactly, Lord.  Most of them rake it up  and put it in bags.

GOD: They bag it?  Why?  Is it a cash crop?  Do they sell it?

ST. FRANCIS: No, Sir, just the opposite.  They pay to throw it away.

GOD: Now, let me get this straight.  They fertilize grass so it will grow, and, when it does grow, they cut it off and pay to throw it away?

ST. FRANCIS: Yes, Sir.

GOD: These Suburbanites must be relieved in the summer when we cut back on the rain and turn up the heat. That surely slows the growth and saves them a lot of work.

ST. FRANCIS: You aren’t going to believe this, Lord.  When the grass stops growing so fast, they drag out hoses and pay more money to water it so they can continue to mow it and pay to get rid of it.

GOD: What nonsense.  At least they kept some of the trees.  That was a sheer stroke of genius, if I do say so myself.  The trees grow leaves in the spring to provide beauty and shade in the summer.  In the autumn, they fall to the ground and form a natural blanket to keep moisture in the soil and protect the trees and bushes. It’s a natural cycle of life.

St. FRANCIS: You better sit down, Lord.  The Suburbanites have drawn a new circle.  As soon as the leaves fall, they rake them into great piles and pay to have them hauled away.

GOD: No!   What do they do to protect the shrub and tree roots in the winter to keep the soil moist and loose?

ST. FRANCIS: After throwing away the leaves, they go out and buy something which they call mulch.  They haul it home and spread it around in place of the leaves.

GOD: And where do they get this mulch?

They cut down trees and grind them up to make the mulch.

GOD: Enough!   I don’t want to think about this anymore.  St. Catherine, you’re in charge of the arts.  What movie have you scheduled for us tonight?

ST. CATHERINE: “Dumb and Dumber”, Lord.  It’s a story about….

GOD: Never mind, I think I just heard the whole story from St. Francis.

Farmers Are Our Environmentalists

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Jeff Semler
WE HEAR a great deal these days about natural, organic and sustainable agriculture.

The problem is these words mean many different things to many different people.

  • Organic is the only word that is certified in any way and even that certification is not without its critics.
  • Natural is a very difficult one to codify. Almost everything is natural in some state. Even products resulting from processing can contain 100 percent natural components.
  • Sustainable also means many things to many people. Once when asked what was sustainable agriculture, a farmer replied, “Whatever practices keep this farm going.”

To confuse the issue even further, a great deal of people will use these words interchangeably. The average consumer, however, doesn’t know the difference and a great many of them don’t care. Just keep food cheap, that is their bottom-line.

I would like to suggest folks in agriculture need to start looking back to the days when we used words like stewardship and husbandry rather than science. While I am not suggesting we abandon technology, I am suggesting we don’t make it our master. Far too often today, science does things because we can and not because we need to or should.

Agrarians are first and foremost stewards of the land. The word steward means a person who manages the property or affairs for another. That implies we don’t own it, we just care for it and that is certainly the case for our land.

Sure, you may hold title to it but it was here before you and will still be here after you leave.

The land is a living organism. In addition to the plants growing above the ground, the soil below is teeming with life. In addition to the most famous inhabitant, the earthworm, there are billions of micro organisms. Most reside in the organic matter and while feeding on it, release plant nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potash. It is extremely important we shoot for organic matter levels above 4 percent. This will not only aid in fertility but will enhance soil tilth.

I am not advocating any particular method of crop production. No-till, minimum till and conventional till can all produce excellent crops and increase soil organic matter if good stewardship practices are employed.

I possess a B.S. and M.S. in Animal Science but wish they contained the older language which was Animal Husbandry. What does husbandry mean? It means to care for a household; the judicious use of resources; management of a branch of farming and especially of domestic animals.

The emphasis is on the object being cared for. Which proves my point: farmers are stewards of the land, husbandmen of their livestock. Many people nowadays profess to be environmentalists but have little invested in the game.

Farmers are and have been the first environmentalists and they have a huge stake in the game, their livelihood. If their soil and animals are not healthy, they are not productive and, by extension, are unprofitable. So the next time someone starts to talk about our world, be it global warming or the Chesapeake Bay, you can say I live amongst a number of talented environmentalists.

But we just call them neighbors while

Family’s Property Is Wildlife Wonderland

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Marci Laehr-Tenuta
CALEDONIA, WI–The Penzkowski family in Caledonia really enjoys their yard, and they aren’t the only ones.

The family has created a 3-acre wildlife haven in their outdoor space that attracts everything from butterflies and hummingbirds to Woodchucks and Coyotes.

“There’s always something buzzing around out here,” said Tom Penzkowski, a master gardener who has landscaped the yard with his wife Diane over the past 13 years. “We’ve tried to landscape to be friendly to animals.”

Each year the couple has expanded their gardens. In all, they have 400 to 500 perennials in beds in the front and back yards of their house. They also plant up to 20 flats of annuals each summer.

A large round garden in the front of their home sits in the middle of a circular driveway. Under a large pine tree in the center, the garden has evergreen bushes and an abundance of gorgeous perennials. There is another large garden plot in the front lawn, along with garden beds surrounding the front of the home. The backyard is incredible, with garden beds bursting with flowers at every turn.

“When we moved in there was nothing,” Tom said. “We started by just putting in gardens.”

Then they found a list of different plants that attract wildlife. Tom and Diane began to make conscious choices about the plants they were adding, because they wanted to invite the hummingbirds, butterflies and birds into their yard.

It’s worked. At last count the Penzkowskis had seen at least 8 to 10 different types of butterflies flitting around their property. Beyond their proper backyard, the family used to have thick brush and trees down a bank to the creek. However, when the creek started to erode their yard, Tom had heavy stones brought in to line the bank. Much of the brush and trees had to be cleared to get the equipment hauling the stones down to the creek. It opened up the yard to the natural area behind it so well, that they kept it that way.

The Penzkowskis have added wood steps down to the creek, a place to sit and watch the wildlife, several gardens and an intricate set of wood-chipped pathways through the trees and brush. Now the family is able to watch the ducks, Muskrat, owl, Woodchucks, minks, weasels, deer, Raccoons, turtles and other wildlife that come to the creek. His daughter, Samantha, 7, also likes to fish in the creek, which has sunfish and bluegill in it.

Tom tries to clean out some of the brush along the bank, but doesn’t burn it. He’s made a huge brush pile that has become home to dozens of birds and rabbits. “We even see the occasional snake,” he said. “We try to keep it as natural as we can.”

For example, he hates grapevine, but because it is a food source for so many animals, he leaves it alone. Thistle weeds can also be found in the brush along the creek. Tom doesn’t take it down because it is a host plant for some butterflies. In fact, the family does just about everything they can to make their property inviting to wildlife, even if it isn’t conventional.

Milkweed, which most gardeners would pull up, is left in the Penzkowski garden. “It’s the host plant for Monarchs,” Tom said. “It’s the plant they need to have their young.” Although they didn’t plant the milkweed, the couple let a few of them grow in the garden. “When these were flowering, the monarchs were all over them,” Tom said of the milkweed.

Spent coneflowers are another garden feature that, while not necessarily attractive, the Penzkowskis have stopped cutting down. Tom said most people will chop them down after they have finished blooming because the flowers start to look straggly. However, the birds love to pick the flowers of seeds, so he and his wife leave them until the finches and wrens have cleaned the former blooms of seeds.

“We’ll leave them until they’ve picked them clean,” he said. “The bees and butterflies love them, then the finches take over.”

Feeding and sheltering birds is one of Tom’s passions. In nearly every tree he has hung a birdhouse, or two, or three. He makes them out of old wood, hollowed out gourds, recycled materials like license plates, and even old terra cotta pots. There are at least 40 to 50 of them throughout the gardens.

“I build them in the winter when theirs nothing left to do,” he said. In particular, Tom loves to attract the wrens, which is who he tries to make the birdhouses for. “For such little birds they sure can sing,” he said.

To attract hummingbirds they’ve planted three different trumpet vines, along with bright red canna lilies. The hummingbirds also like the butterfly bushes, of which there are many, in all different colors, throughout the garden.

Water is also an important part of creating a wildlife-friendly garden, Tom said. Although they have the creek running behind their home, they also have a fountain in both the front and back yard and birdbaths. In the winter Tom also puts a heater in one of the birdbaths. “Water just draws everything,” he said.

There are bird feeders in their yard too. Tom has some of them tucked in the middle of the garden to that the birds have some security as they are eating.

Overall, the Penzkowskis have met and probably exceeded the requirements for creating a WindStar Wildlife Institute Certified Wildlife Habitat, which are: provide food, cover, water and places to raise a family.

Tom wants people to know that they don’t need a large piece of property with a creek to make a wildlife habitat garden. “You could have a 100-square-foot garden,” he said. “You would be amazed how much (wildlife) you’ll get if you put in the right perennials and add a bird bath.” –Journal Times

Cedar Waxwings Add Color To A Winter’s Day

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Michael Burke
THE WOODEN bridge widens just before it crosses Mattaponi Creek, allowing a couple of cars to pull off the one-lane roadway.

Motorists like me, along with bicyclists and hikers, can climb the observation platform here and watch the creek meander before entering the mainstem of the Patuxent River.

A persistent series of “sree” notes turns me around. As I do, a dozen Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) come into view.

They are 100 ft. away, but this is midwinter and the leaves have fallen. Standing on the elevated boardwalk, I have a good view through the bare branches of these striking birds. They are devouring berries from bittersweet vines, plucking the yellow fruit off with their strong bills and swallowing each berry whole.

The Patuxent serves as the boundary for several Maryland counties as it grows from its headwaters in the rolling hills west of Columbia to its vast mouth at Solomons Island, where it empties into the Bay. It is an extraordinarily scenic river in many stretches, and perhaps none more so than its midsection where its slides through the Merkle and Jug Bay refuges, just south of Upper Marlboro.

Regardless of the political borders, this section clearly belongs to the wildlife. On Sundays, the Critical Area Driving Tour allows visitors to take their vehicles along the one-way road that is variously covered with pavement, gravel, dirt and boardwalk. It may be the middle of winter, but I am out of my car, binoculars in hand.

Once you’ve seen one, you can’t forget it. The bird has a rich brown crest, breast, neck and back interrupted by a striking black mask edged in white. The feathers are absolutely uniform in color, giving the birds a silky, smooth look that is rare in the avian world. That brown crest often sticks out in the back, giving the bird an oddly flat top.

The pale belly has a light yellowish tinge. The rich brown back gradually turns gray and then black on the long, folded wing tips and tail. The hues are dark, but rich.

As if that palette were not enough, mature birds possess two striking splashes of color. A bright yellow band runs along the end of the tail, the product of a diet rich in carotenoids, those fat-soluble pigments that give many plants their yellow, red or orange color. In addition, small red, wax-like droplets form on the ends of secondary flight feathers of adults. These red tips serve as a striking counterpoint to that yellow tail stripe.

The wax droplets give the bird the second half of its name. The first part comes from a favorite food source. Cedar Waxwings love the Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana), eating the blue-gray berries wherever those trees are found and nesting in their branches.

The Cedar Waxwing has just one North American cousin, the Bohemian Waxwing (B. garrulus), a slightly larger bird that adds rufous and white patches to the basic color scheme. Unlike the Cedar Waxwing—which is found across the United States—the Bohemian is limited to a more northern range.

Because Waxwings feed primarily on fruit and berries, they tend to be late breeders as the birds will not mate until summer berries are plentiful. The pairs are monogamous and breed after the first year.

The eggs hatch after two weeks, and the birds fledge two weeks later. In spite of their relatively late start, Cedar Waxwings will often get in a second brood in the early fall.

Both parents feed the young on the nest. An adult will gobble up a dozen or more berries and store them in its crop, the pouch in bird’s gullet that is used to hold food prior to digestion. Upon returning to the nest, the parent regurgitates the whole berries, one by one, into the waiting mouths of the young.

The bird’s diet is not limited to fruits and berries. In the early summer, they eat insects, buds and flowers.

Except for nesting periods, these pretty birds are most often seen in flocks as they descend on a rich food source such as a mulberry and eat all the tree has to offer.

Flocking is a common and highly effective means for birds to locate and exploit abundant but isolated food sources. Many eyes are better than a single pair. Once found, the source typically contains far more food than a single bird needs. There is safety in numbers, too, because they are less likely to face predation by hawks.

Winter can seem like a barren time. On these cold, short days, people flock to malls to be dazzled by flashing lights, gaudy colors and piped-in music. An uninterrupted blitz of holiday glitz stretches from Thanksgiving to Christmas and Valentine’s Day.

Here at Merkle, the Waxwings offer a natural alternative. Although the trees are stripped of leaves, they aren’t lifeless. Standing on the bridge looking at and listening to these colorful, talkative Cedar Waxwings, I find that I have all the color and music I need on a winter’s afternoon.–Bay Journal

Both Critters & People Enjoy Natural Landscaping

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Georgia Tasker
EIGHT OR 10 years ago, when a young pine tree needed some companions, Paula Hamelik rounded up quailberry and snowberry, which are low-growing pine rockland plants, along with a sturdy silver palm and a native cycad called coontie.

These South Florida plants are increasingly rare in the wild, so Hamelik decided to give them a home together in her yard which has gradually evolved into a comfortable refuge for birds, butterflies and critters as well as people.

It does not harbor native plants to the exclusion of everything else, but blends natives with exotic fruit trees and palms. It is a welcoming yard, taking in creatures, rescued areca palms, found and traded plants and neighbors who gather after work.

The mulched beds are edged in coconuts or old palm trunks, which give the yard a hand-made authenticity. Two benches and a small table are arranged on a patio of pavers beneath the shade of an oak. Staghorn ferns and orchids have found suitable tree branches in which to nestle. An unused barbecue has become a much used planter.

Here and there are things that have significance for the people living here: a small statue of a Buddhist monk, a round ceramic cat, a ceramic penguin beneath the cherimoya tree, a couple of chairs that have worn through their primary function and serve cheerfully in a less supporting role.

Paula, who is the gardener, is a massage therapist. In her spare time she volunteers at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, leading walking tours in the winter and cleaning seeds in the summer, and goes to hula school one night a week in Fort Lauderdale.

Her husband Ron is a researcher at the University of Miami medical school. The Hameliks have lived here for 28 years, ”except for a little hiatus after Hurricane Andrew,” Paula says. They have three cats, one of whom is a dedicated butterfly watcher.

Bird Field Guides
When a 9-year-old neighbor, Freddy Schaefer, called Paula over to look at a woodpecker nest, Hamelik decided it was time to concentrate on the wildlife refuge aspect of her yard. She will stop in midsentence to point out a bird, and bird field guides are brought out to decide if a passing raptor is a Red-tailed Hawk or a Red-shouldered Hawk. Being in nature is, well, second-nature.

”Mom was from a Podunk town in north Louisiana,” she says. “She was an avid Girl Scout leader and so my sister and I were brought up with a lot of nature and camping.”

She also likes home-grown fruit, and her wildlife habitat might well pass as an idiosyncratic tropical fruit grove. Carambola, mango, allspice, black sapote, cherimoya, sugar apple, lychee, grapes, coconuts and canistel are the flavors of choice.

Canistel, or egg fruit, is not often grown in South Florida; there just aren’t many aficionados here. Canistel has a yellowish flesh with the consistency of a baked sweet potato. ”It makes a great pie,” Hamelik says. Especially when she adds chopped coconut and macadamia nuts to the top.

Her allspice tree is female and produces berries, which are the source of the spice. In addition, Hamelik incorporates the leaves into her massage work. ”I use the leaves to make massage oil,” she says.  “I shred fresh leaves and put them in sunflower oil. I filter that a week later. It’s wonderful for arthritis.”

Jicama Plant
Along the back fence is a jicama plant, producing bean pods above ground and hiding edible tuberous roots below. She grows the ginger from which turmeric is made.

The ”banana plantation” grows robustly here as well. For a long time, Hamelik says, a couple of banana plants languished. Then someone suggested she put grass clippings around it for mulch. That was the kick start they needed, and now three banana patches shelter compost piles around their feet.

Her ”bootleg” Key lime has come out of hiding now that the canker police have disappeared. Its leaves are enjoyed by the caterpillars of the Giant Swallowtail Butterfly, and that’s part of its reason for being, as Hamelik sees it.

Hamelik has not done away with her lawn, but reduced it with the tidy mulched beds around her trees. The mulch is from a friendly tree service guy who works in the area. She uses citrus and palm fertilizers on the fruit trees and uses a hand sprayer to apply liquid fertilizer to the orchids every 10 days or so.

Small or large, backyard habitats must provide wildlife with food, water, shelter and places to raise young. In Hamelik’s yard, a container of water holds miniature water lilies and a few mosquito fish, while a large firebush has proved to be a suitable nesting site for a hummingbird.

”One morning, I’m out here with my coffee . . . and all of a sudden a hummingbird came out of the firebush. I think water from a sprinkler hit her nest and she was really fussing at me,” Hamelik says. The hummer reappeared day after day.

In addition to benefiting the wildlife and the neighbors, creating the habitat also has benefited the gardener.

”It’s a quiet meditative thing,” says Hamelik,  “and I get a tangible sense of accomplishment from it. When I have done a big project, I get a beer and come out here and admire my work.” –Miami Herald

A Roof That’ll Grow on You

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Nancy Striniste

ARLINGTON, VA—I called it our little Arlington brick box when we moved in four years ago.

After living in North Carolina in a new passive-solar house — with more windows on the south side; fewer on the east, west and north; wide roof overhangs; and masonry floors — it was frustrating to live in a regular, not-so-thoughtfully designed house.

Our heating and cooling bills were higher, and uncaptured sunlight on our south side felt like a terrible waste. Our Arlington neighborhood, Westover, is walkable and friendly, but it was obvious right away that to really feel connected to the life on our street, we needed a porch. A porch on our south-facing house would shade the house in summer, and when we eventually add windows, the concrete floor will capture the winter sun and help heat our home.

I was a graduate student in landscape design when my husband and I were planning our porch addition. When I came across the concept of green roofs in a class at George Washington University, I fell in love with the idea.

Among the benefits:

Plants on the roof help to slow, clean and cool the rainwater that eventually makes its way to the Chesapeake Bay.

Living roofs reduce the ambient summer temperature and insulate the space below.

A green roof initially costs more than a conventional roof, but, because the waterproof membrane is covered and protected from UV rays, it should last at least twice as long as a conventional roof.

I must admit, though, I mostly wanted it because I thought a garden on the roof would be soft and beautiful and very fun.

Our roof, which was installed last December, is called an extensive green roof, which means the specialized growing medium — in our case, a mix of expanded shale and mushroom compost — is only three inches deep. The soil and plants weigh about 15 pounds per square foot — not difficult to accommodate on an existing roof (but check with an engineer) and certainly possible to include in a renovation.

Because of the shallow soil and harsh conditions on the roof, only especially tough plants, often those naturally adapted to rocky outcroppings, can thrive.

It’s been fun experimenting with different plants — on the first day of spring I glanced out the dormer window and noticed a crocus blooming on the roof. Bulbs work — and so, quite surprisingly, did the sweet potato vine I planted near the edge. The dianthus was lovely for a few months, but it succumbed to the August drought. Portulaca, alyssum, sempervivum (hens and chickens), delosperma (ice plants) and many varieties of sedum have survived, and some have even thrived through the first year of our living roof.

The hardest part has been watering the roof — impossible early in the construction when the plants were up before the hose bib was connected, and awkward even when water was available. Unfortunately, we lost a quite a few plants over the summer. Once established, they won’t need to be nurtured as they have during this first year.

My husband and our children, 16 and 10, went to see “An Inconvenient Truth” this past summer, and as we were leaving the theater the kids discussed how proud they were that we have a green roof. In the face of daunting information about climate change, our children were informed and empowered.

Our little 300-square-foot patch of green won’t stop global warming or even save the bay. But if many of us in the Washington area and across the nation plant green roofs, we will make a difference. –Washington Post