This was a great winter for bird watching. The snow cover brought the birds out in droves and the white curtain made them stand out for easy viewing.

The more I watched the birds over the winter the more I wondered what they do when they weren’t eating at our feeders.


I want to encourage birds into my garden because they are not only pretty to look at and delightful to listen to, they eat lots of bad bugs. Even the seedeaters collect bugs in spring to feed to their young.  So having them around can put a serious dent in the pest population.

If you’ve ever listened to a bird singing atop a tree and wondered what he or she was chirping about The Singing Life of Birds (Houghton, Mifflin $28.00) is the book for you.

For centuries man has questioned why birds sing and what they are saying and in this book, author, scientist and renowned ornithologist Donald Crossman takes his readers on a listening adventure to help us understand the living dramas going on in our backyards. He puts his reader inside the mind of singing birds, exploring not only how and why they sing, but also how we can better understand them through their songs.


Some birds sing in dialects while other have a single song. Some sing during the day, but others chirp only at night. And, why is birdsong sung mostly by the males of the specie?

Kroodsma, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts shares the answers to these and other burning questions from information garnered over more than three decades of recording and analyzing the songs of bird in this intriguing instructional book.

Included is a high quality CD featuring birdsongs taped at both normal speeds and slowed to 1/2 and 1/4 speeds allowing listeners to pick up discreet sounds that help with interpretation.

House Wren

Are you a baffled bird watcher, always struggling to put names to the feathered friends that inhabit the neighborhood and hang out at the cottage? Having trouble telling the difference between a purple finch and a house finch or a wren from a sparrow?   Not to worry. Identify Yourself: The 50 Most Common Bird Identification Challenges  (Houghton Mifflin $19.95) by Bill Thomas III and the editors of Bird Watchers Digest (800) 879-2473, www.birdwatchersdigest.com, may just change your life and turn you into a bird watching whiz.

Offering tips, techniques and tricks that make bird identification both easy and fun, this informative book chronicles the subtle differences one must look for when looking at a hard to distinguish bird. Its garnered rave reviews from professionals and hobbyists alike.

The Best Gift for Gardening Moms

Mother’s Day is coming soon but if the special lady on your gift list is a gardener, there’s no need to panic. Gardeners are a snap to shop for especially at this time of year. Gift certificates may be considered impersonal for some but to a gardener, a pre-paid shopping spree at a garden center at planting time is “the best.”

If mom is an avid plant collector or loves to shop for yard art and pottery, consider a chauffeured mystery trip to some top-notch garden centers Mom has never shopped.


Nancy’s Tomato Chronicles – Week 15 of 2010

Sungold Cherry Tomatoes are a must-grow in my garden. They are the eat-them-with-abandon-and-without-guilt candy of the garden. They have been a favorite in my house for almost 20 years.  These coveted Sun Gold tomatoes were an amazing breakthrough by a Japanese breeder in the early 1990s. Just about that time I started growing Sungolds from seed sold by Thompson and Morgan. My late husband Hank would take a bag of Sungolds to work almost every day to serve as snacks for him and his colleagues. We grew them beside a fence that separated our house from the next-door neighbor. The plants grew so tall that our neighbor enjoyed as many Sungolds as we did.

There still isn’t a variety that comes close to its flavor, beauty and long-lasting production. This exquisite gem ripens from green to dark gold, but isn’t fully mature until it becomes pale apricot-orange. Watch carefully for the subtle color change, then savor the intensified taste: uniquely rich and sugary, with a hint of tropical fruitiness. Round 1” tomatoes attached to draping, symmetrical limb-like trusses, are borne on indeterminate vines growing to about 3’. A bit slow at first, it yields reliably non-stop until the first frost. And it has good disease tolerance (resistant to verticilium and fusarium wilts, tobacco mosaic virus and nematodes). It is everything you could ever ask from a little cherry tomato.

Sungold Tomatoes are started easily from seed six to eight weeks prior to the last frost date in your area. Start them in sterile seed starting soil mixture with a bit of bottom heat to aid germination. Keep them in a warm, brightly lit, well-ventilated area.  (Tomato seedlings need bright, strong light~regular windowsills are not bright enough and the plants will get leggy and flop over as they stretch for the light.) Fertilize lightly and increase the pot size as needed. After your last frost date, harden off the seedlings by gradually placing them outside for incrementally longer periods of time over the course of a week to ten days. Prepare fertile tomato beds in full sunlight with lots of compost and/or well-rotted manure. Transplant the seedlings into the prepared bed, burying them one leaf deeper than initially grown. Feed them occasionally as needed and keep them well-watered by soaking the soil and not the leaves~this helps to keep disease off of their leaf surfaces.


Secrets of Jeff Ball’s Perfect Lawn – Week 15 of 2010

The arrival of spring is supposed to be a happy event, freeing us from cabin fever.  Unfortunately, when the snow melted this year, spring brought bad news to many  homeowners.  Parts of their lawn looked like some alien used a laser beam to leave a squiggly maze-like message on their lawns.  Unfortunately it was earthly creatures — voles — that had their way with many of our yards.

Voles look a lot like mice.  While mice have pointy noses and long tails, voles have blunt noses and short tails.  Voles experience a major population explosion every four or five years, This phenomenon is rarely noticed unless it coincides with a winter like we had this year, with extended snow cover in many parts of Michigan.

The vole damage manifests itself several ways. Sometimes it looks like wavy paths of dead grass about 2 inches wide.  More often, the paths become little ditches of bare soil about ½ inch deep. The devastation can cover 500 square feet or more.

And there’s more bad news. When the snow melted, the voles didn’t go away.  They’re still on the property, living under mulch, in weedy areas, or somewhere undercover hiding from their predators —  cats, hawks, and owls.

Voles are vegetarians and they can munch their way through a lot of additional plants after messing up lawns.  So if you did suffer vole damage on your lawn, keep an eye on your perennials this spring, especially  hostas.  If they don’t come back, they were probably lunch for some voles.  Tulips planted last fall that don’t show up this spring were probably snacks.  Voles also love to dig down and eat the tender roots of newly planted trees, shrubs, and flowers, so keep an eye on new transplants. The good news is voles don’t eat daffodils

Getting rid of voles is the next step to saving what’s left of your lawn and garden if you’ve been victimized.

Some folks rig barriers around trees and shrubs using hardware cloth, but that approach requires a fair amount of time and trouble.  While there are repellents to get rid of voles, they haven’t worked very well for me.

I recommend trapping voles with those old fashioned wooden snap traps, just like the ones my grandmother used to catch mice behind the wood stove 60 years ago.  Voles won’t go near a trap set in the open.  It has to be covered with boards leaning on a stone or even better in upturned clay flower pots.  While peanut butter bait is often effective, apples are a special treat for voles.  The technique begins with putting a slice of apple under five or six upturned clay flower pots set at least 10 feet apart in areas where you suspect voles to be hanging out – garden beds, weed patches, or mulched areas adjacent to the damaged lawn areas. Set a brick or rock on top to keep the raccoons from interfering.  If in a day or two, you find an apple slice with little teeth marks, you then place a snap trap under the pot with apple for bait, but do not set the trap.  After providing the voles a buffet for two or three nights , you set the trap. That is when you begin a serious reduction of your vole population.  This  may seem like a lot of work but you are dealing with cagey critters.

Do this again in late September and October and you can reduce the chances of being faced with lawn damage next spring.

Meanwhile, don’t assume that those vole paths in the lawn will disappear naturally as the grass plants reproduce.  If you don’t do anything, you’re just inviting weeds to grow in the bare spots. The area damaged by voles needs to be overseeded.  Don’t do that job until the weather and the soil warms in May.

Timely Tip: Avoid working garden soil when it’s wet, but if you have to move wet dirt, coating your shovel with W-40 will help to keep the mud from sticking to the blade.

Of all the tools in your garage, none is probably used more but gets less respect than the shovel. Even Martha Stewart over-looked this all-important tool in recent column featuring her favorite gardening tools.

If I had to choose between a trowel and a shovel, I’d pick the shovel any day. I have lots of tools I substitute for a trowel, but my trusty round-point long handled shovel is the garden and grounds workhorse I use for the tough stuff from planting shrubs, to digging ditches. In fact, my long handled shovel is the first tool I take out in spring and the last to be stowed away in fall.

So when a friend called to ask if I thought shovels might make a good housewarming gift my answer was – That’s a great idea. Using the right tool for the job means less stress and strain on the body and gets the job done faster and when it comes to buying shovels, many folks, especially new homeowners don’t have a clue.

A quality long handled round point shovel is a must for every homeowner. A good rule of thumb to remember is, the longer the handle, the less the strain on the back.

Next I’d choose a flat edged D-handled spade. They’re used for transplanting, edging, turning soil and narrow bed work. The shorter D-handle gives the user more control.

A favorite of mine for digging perennials is a modified version with a slightly tapered blade and a rounded edge. Old timers call it a poacher’s spade, but today it’s called a transplanting spade.

A D-handled round-point shovel is used for heavy digging in tighter areas where you want more control. The shorter handle also makes it easier to haul around in smaller garden carts.

Often overlooked, but handy to have, is a square-point shovel with a flat edge and upturned sides. They’re also called transfer shovels because they are designed specifically to move loose material, such as topsoil, mulch or pea gravel, from one area to another. Transfer shovels come with both long handles or D handles.

When shopping for quality shovels there are several things to look for. Strong tight-grained white ash has long been the wood of choice for shovel handles regardless of the price range. Painted handles may appeal to the eye but often hide softer wood that splits with age and cracks under pressure.

In a top quality shovel choose either a wood or fiberglass handle. Traditionalists usually opt for wood. With a yearly coating of linseed soil and protection from the elements, a premium grade ash handle will last a lifetime. And it will flex under pressure, which helps to lessen fatigue.

A top quality fiberglass handle is waterproof, lighter in weight, 40 percent stronger and brightly colored, so you won’t loose it in the tall grass.

Heavy gauge heat tempered carbon steel blades add to a shovel’s strength and durability. The forward-turned steps on the blade top provide safe firm footing when digging. On standard-sized shovels, a strong 9-inch blade socket is also an indicator of quality. On some models a steel-reinforcing collar is added to strengthen the handle/socket connection.

Other features may include ergonomically designed D-handles constructed of strong but light weight space age polymers that have an extra-wide opening and an angled shape to provide a firm, comfortable grip.

Weight can work both ways. A heavier blade when planted into the soil will cut deeper than a lightweight model. And a heavy gauge, forged steel blade is less likely to break under stress. However, many gardeners, find light weight shovels easier to use and for that reason Union Tools had designed an entire line of quality garden tools fitted with slimmer handles and smaller blades, that are lighter in weight than their full sized cousins, and they carry a life-time guarantee. Sold under the brand name Scott’s Landscape Gardener, these quality tools are available at Sears and independent nurseries.

In my father’s day, picking out a shovel was a no-brainer. My Dad relied on Sears Craftsman brand tools because they were known for their quality and guaranteed for life. Today Sears continues that no-hassle return policy on all their Craftsman shovels and the blades are still hand-forged. That’s one reason Tim Travis, president of Goldner Walsh Nursery in Pontiac, supplies his landscapers with Craftsman shovels. Travis says along with the guarantee, the strength and durability are critical, broken shovels cause downtime that’s very costly. The Craftsman long handled round-point fiberglass handled shovel retails for $19.99 and the ash-handled model is priced at $17.99.

While talking quality tools with the experts at Union Tools, Steve Forgy, national accounts manager, stressed that most shovels are broken when folks misuse them to pry rocks and roots out of the ground. So he recommends homeowners as well as contractors get a long handled wedge point bar to do the prying. I recommended my friend include one in her housewarming gift set.

Puttering In The Potager – Week 15 of 2010

Well my soil temperature has reached 50° which is ideal for planting what I call the cold weather crops which are listed below. I planted seed in my garden for all the crops except for Swiss chard for which I will buy seedlings and lettuce which we already have in seedling form. After planting the seeds I spread a thin layer of compost on top just to get things cooking. If you click on each plant name below you will get a complete file on growing that plant in yardener.com.


I planted a 16 inch line of beet seeds which will give me about 10 beets. In two more weeks I will plant another 16 inch line so we will have a steady supply of beats over time I will probably plan beats every three weeks until early September


As with the beets I will be planting a succession of radishes about every two weeks

Snap peas

We have three 7 foot tall iron towers that are used for growing such vegetables as pole beans, cucumbers, and lima beans. None of those crops will be planted much before the second week in June or about six weeks from now therefore I have planted snap peas to grow on each of these three powers and will expect them to be pretty much harvested by the time the warm loving plants are growing on those same towers.


Nancy bought a container of both green and red leaf lettuce at the garden center and she has transplanted about a third of those lettuce plants into what she calls her lettuce bowl container. Lettuce is another crop where we will be planting successions probably once a month until October.

Swiss chard

seedlings for Swiss chard will be in the garden centers in a couple of weeks. In the meantime there are two varieties of Swiss chard that are not commonly found in garden centers that we will be starting from seed indoors.


I planted three16 inch lines of spinach and well do that again in three weeks.


One of the perennial problems of vegetable gardeners is finding a suitable label for the plants in the garden. I have used the seed packets on a stick, tongue depressers, but have settled on those old-fashioned rectangular metal strips on wires. I have a label maker that produces a plastic coated label which can stand up to any kind of weather and does not fade.

All of the vegetables I have planted so far can handle a frost without any trouble. Still when I plant the Swiss chard I will cover them with a Wall o Water so that they will grow a bit more quickly than if left unprotected.

What Is Happening In Nature

We should start seeing some butterflies and if you keep a sharp lookout you might spot a garter snake sneaking around in the garden. For those of you who have a Purple Martin apartment house your guests should be arriving in the next week or so. While it is probably still too early for most folks to start mowing the grass, if you want to give your lawn a really good start this year; this would be a good time to spread  a combination of compost and peat moss thinly over the lawn.

Nancy’s Tomato Chronicles – Week 14 of 2010

This year we have decided to limit the number of plants that we start from seed and for the most part buy seedlings from our local garden center. However I need to start two varieties of tomato from seed this year because I’m going to really work on having ripe tomatoes before the 4th of July.

So I’m starting from seed the variety “Fourth of July” and the variety “Legend”. The beginning process I use is a bit unorthodox, but it works. I use either paper towels or high-quality paper napkins and soak them in warm tea overnight. I then place six or eight seeds on a tea soaked paper towel, fold it up and place the packet in a plastic bag and set it on top of the refrigerator where it is warm. While normally tomato seeds will take from 7 to 12 days to germinate, my system produces germinated seeds in 2 to 3 days.

I then very carefully plant the sprouted seed in what’s called an APC {see photo}. This is a self watering seed starting device put out by Gardeners Supply Company {www.gardeners.com} or Lee Valley Tools {   }. By sprouting the seed ahead of time I don’t have to worry about wasting seeds. I use a soil less mixture to plant the seeds, usually a combination of Canadian spaghnum peat moss and vermiculite. For examples of seed starting devices go to seed systems.


I place the planted APC under florescent lights that have been connected to a eider that  keeps them lighted for 16 hours each day. The bulbs are placed about 1 inch above the seedlings. As the seedlings mature I keep raising the lights to stay about 1 inch above the plants.


When my seedlings get to be about 2 to 3 inches tall with nice thick stalks I will transplant them from the APC to individual large foam coffee cups that I have saved over the year. I slice holes in the bottom of each container so I know it will drain very well. Just as with the APC I keep my transplanted seedlings under fluorescent lights for the next three or four weeks.

I will leave the details for placing my tomatoes outside for a later post.

For detailed guidelines for starting any vegetable from seed go to www.yardener

Nancy’s Tomato Chronicles – Week 15 of 2010

Planting time is the perfect opportunity to improve the soil in your garden. I dig in heavy clay soil that left to its own devices becomes compacted making root penetration difficult.  So, whenever I dig I amend and loosen it by dumping the removed soil into a container or on a tarp and mix in some goodies, before refilling the hole.

My basic recipe is a shovel full of garden soil to a hand full of compost and a scoop of Espoma’s Soil Perfector. Because my soil has a high pH, I also toss in a handful of Canadian Sphagnum peat moss.

What is Soil Perfector?

One application of Espoma Soil Perfector permanently improves the structure of any soil. Soil Perfector is made from a naturally derived, ceramic mineral that is kiln-fired at temperatures in excess of 2000o F. This process creates a durable, lightweight granule containing thousands of tiny storage spaces that hold the perfect balance of water, air and nutrients for an improved soil structure. Soil Perfector will not break down or degrade so you do not need to re-apply it year after year.

What About Compost?

Good quality compost adds humic acid and enzymes that break down minerals, also referred to as micronutrients, into a liquid form that plants can use. The humic acid in compost helps produce a gelatinous substance that binds minerals and organic material together turning chunky soil into that gorgeous soft crumbly stuff that can bring can a gardener like me to tears.

It’s also home to many beneficial organisms that become part of the soil food web, the underground community that returns Natures detritus to the soil. Without this incredible underground food chain man would have been buried in his own trash eons ago.

New Compost Has It All

Working with all these products can be a hassle for gardeners who don’t have time to batch mix from scratch.  This season I’m taking the easy route and substituting the new high quality compost mix, Organimax, which also contains additional soil microbes, Mychorriza, kelp and host of other goodies that I hope will make my garden rock. Priced at $14.98 for a 3 cubic foot bag, Organimax is currently available at English Gardens, Romence Gardens, Wojo’s, Allemons, Souliers, Ray Wiegands and Van Attas.

What Are Mychorriza?

Because I want to get the most out of my garden I also add a dusting of Mychorriza, a beneficial fungi that attaches itself to the roots of a plant and helps it get moisture and nutrients from the soil. Mycorrhizal fungi have occurred naturally in the soil for 400 million years. They form a close symbiotic relationship with plant roots. They are called mycorrhizae (from the Greek “mukés”, meaning fungus, and “rhiza,” meaning roots).

However, in most soils that have been disturbed by residential construction, or intensive cropping practices with applications of fertilizers containing pesticides and other chemical products, the mycorrhizae content has considerably diminished, and has become insufficient to significantly enhance plant growth.

When mycorrhizal fungi colonize the plant’s root system, they create a network that increases the plant’s capacity to absorb more water and nutrients such as phosphorus, copper and zinc. This process in turn enhances growth and favors rapid development of roots and plants.  Look for the product “Myke” in garden centers. http://www.premiertech.com/myke/mycorise/index.htm

Beneficial Microbes?

To increase the beneficial microbe count I also mix in a teaspoon of microbial material in the form of Plant Growth Activator from Organica (www.organica.com.) Organica Plant Growth Activator is specifically formulated to promote the establishment and enhance the viability of annuals, bulbs, perennials and turf. This unique natural product contain beneficial soil microorganisms and natural plant extracts that function synergistically to improve soil biology and promote healthy plant growth. Promoting and maintaining healthy soil biology is the key to successful gardening at any level.

There are lots of products on the market today that contain these beneficial organisms, so we need to spend some time in our local garden centers checking out what’s new.