Posts Tagged ‘Life’

This photo of Half Moon Pond in Hancock only tells half the story because there is still plenty of snow out there, but one day we had a lot of rain that immediately froze into ice and now it’s hard to get into the woods without Yaktrax or some other non-slip grippers on your boots. Where there is still snow there is a thick, icy, and very slippery crust on it. I’ve wanted to climb a hill but I’m a bit put off by the ice. If I was a skater I think I’d be very happy right about now.

I saw this curious lens like formation in some puddle ice. I can’t even imagine how it would have formed.

You can see all kinds of things in ice and I found an owl in this section of puddle ice. It’s on the right, tilted slightly to the left.

Here is a closer look at the owl. There is blue around its eyes and a V shape between them. You can see some amazing things in puddle ice, from distant solar systems to frozen currents, and I always stop and give it a close look. In fact I’ve been known to get down on my hands and knees for a closer look but I found that I was disrupting traffic when I did that, so now I can only do it in the woods. “What is that nut doing kneeling on the side of the road?” I imagined the people wondering as they slowed to see. “Why, he’s taking pictures of a mud puddle!!” It takes all kinds, doesn’t it?

I found this strange ice formation on the river’s shore. I don’t know how it formed but I’m guessing that those branches had something to do with it. It reminded me of the Roman temple ruins I’ve seen photos of. Ice is an amazing thing that surprises me almost every time I look closely at it.

But enough with the ice; it’s giving me a chill. I found a grape vine hanging on for dear life, but it has nothing to worry about. River grapes (Vitis riparia) are also called frost grapes and they’ve been known to survive temperatures as low as -57 degrees F, so our paltry 20 below zero readings this year hardly bothered them at all. Their extreme cold tolerance makes their rootstock a favorite choice for many well-known grape varieties. If you grow grapes there’s a good chance that your vines were grafted onto river grape rootstock. I looked for some leftover grapes on this vine but the birds have taken every single one this year. I wouldn’t wonder; the poor things have had to suffer through two weeks of below zero weather this winter.

We have a bird here in North America called the acorn woodpecker and it makes its living stashing acorns in holes it has drilled into trees, utility poles, house siding, or any other wooden object. But they are a western bird and we don’t have them here in the east, so what bird put this acorn into this hole in a birch tree? After a little reading on the subject I found that many woodpeckers do this, though not on the same grand scale as the acorn woodpecker, apparently. In fact jays, nuthatches and even chickadees stash acorns in holes but they can’t drill the holes like a woodpecker can, as far as I know. In the end I can’t say which bird put this acorn in the hole. Maybe a woodpecker drilled the hole and another bird hid the acorn. In any event if I ever see an oak growing out of a birch I’ll know what happened.

I’ve always loved seeing birds but I knew early on that I could never really study them because of colorblindness. Still, I’ve learned an awful lot about them by blogging, and one of the things I’ve discovered is that the same birds in different parts of the country have different habits. In the Midwest for instance, birds will quickly eat all the staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) berries they can find, but here in New Hampshire they pretty much leave them alone until spring and it’s common to see sumac seed heads still full of seeds even in April. I’ve read that sumac berries are very low in fat and that’s why birds shun them, but that doesn’t fully explain it. Sumac berries in the Midwest have the same amount of fat that those in New Hampshire do, so it must be something else. Maybe it’s the super abundance of other foods we have here. It could be that the birds simply don’t need to eat the berries until the supply of other foods runs out.

A television naturalist noted that a half a loaf of bread provided all the food a large troop of baboons needed for an entire day. They could steal and eat a loaf of bread in a half hour and play for the rest of the day, or they could forage for natural foods all day and not have time for anything else. “Which would you do?” the naturalist asked, and that got me wondering about invasive plants like the Japanese barberry in the above photo. These plants form huge thickets and are loaded with berries, so why would a bird expend energy flying from tree to tree all day foraging for food when it could simply sit in a barberry thicket and eat its fill in an hour? That’s a big part of the reason invasive plants are so successful, I think.

Though American basswood (Tilia americana) trees are native to the eastern U.S. I never find them in the forest in this area so I really don’t know that much about them. I never realized that their seeds were so hairy and I didn’t know until I did some research that chipmunks, mice, and squirrels eat them. Birds apparently, do not. Virtually every basswood tree that I know is used as an ornamental shade tree and that might be because they are one of the hardest trees to propagate by seed. Only 30% of their seeds are said to be viable, and that might account for their scarceness. Surprisingly, the foliage and flowers are both edible and many people eat them. Native Americans used the tree’s pliable inner bark to make ropes, baskets, mats and nets. Bees love the fragrant flowers and basswood honey is said to be of the highest quality.

The smooth carrion flower (Smilax herbacea) vine can reach 8 feet long, with golf ball size flower heads all along it. The female flower clusters when pollinated become globular clusters of dark blue fruit. The berries are said to be a favorite of song and game birds so I was surprised to find several clusters of them. Raccoons and black bears also eat the fruit, so maybe the bears will get some when they wake up in spring. Native Americans and early colonists ate the roots, spring shoots and berries of the vine but after smelling its flowers I think I’d have a hard time eating any part of it. Their strong odor resembles that of decaying meat.

How do you show the wind in a photograph? I thought this downy feather stuck on the tip of a branch would show how windy it was on this day but I had the settings on my camera set to stop even a feather being blown about by the wind, so I guess you’ll just have to believe me when I say it was very windy. Wind is often the nature photographer’s enemy, but you can sometimes find ways around it.

It seems odd that a tree like the northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) would have such tiny buds, because everything else about the tree is big. It even has big leaf scars, and that’s what this photo shows. But the bud that appears just at the top of the leaf scar is so small you can barely find it. The tree has huge heart shaped leaves that are the biggest I’ve seen, and great trusses of large flowers which become string bean like seed pods that can be two feet long. Catalpa wood is very rot resistant and railroads once grew great plantations of them to be used as railroad ties. They are still used for utility poles today.  Midwestern Native American tribes hollowed out the trunks of catalpa trees and used them as canoes, and the name Catalpa comes from the Cherokee tribe’s word for the tree. Natives made tea from the bark and used it as an antiseptic and sedative. Parts of the tree are said to be mildly narcotic.

Where I work we’ve seen hundreds of what we thought were stink bugs. They started coming indoors when it got cold and got into smoke detectors, light fixtures and heating ducts. Once I had this photo I was able to look them up and I found that they weren’t stink bugs at all, even though they do have an odor if they’re crushed. Instead this is the western conifer seed bug (Leptoglossus occidentalis.) This insect sucks the sap from the developing cones of many species of conifer. It is native to North America west of the Rocky Mountains but has expanded its range and is most likely here to stay. Though they are a minor pest when it comes to conifers they can be a major pest indoors, because they can pierce PEX tubing with their mouth parts and cause leaks. If your house happens to be plumbed with PEX tubing you might want to vacuum up as many of these insects as you can find when they come indoors in the fall. They can’t bite but they can spray a bitter, stinky liquid when they’re threatened.

Split gill fungi (Schizophyllum commune) are winter fungi that appear in late fall. They are covered by what looks like a wooly fur coat. Because they are so hairy they are very easy to identify. They are usually about the size of a penny and I find them on dead branches. They are very tough and leathery.

The “gills” on the split gill fungus are actually folds of tissue on its underside that split lengthwise when it dries out. The splits close over the fertile spore producing surfaces in dry weather and open to release the spores when they’re rehydrated by rain. I’ve never seen one that was this furry on its underside. Split gills grow on every continent except Antarctica and are said to be the most studied mushroom on earth. Scientists have isolated a compound from it that is said to inhibit the HIV-1 virus.

This is the only clear shot I’ve ever gotten of the open split in the underside tissue of a split gill fungus. Though called gills they really aren’t. It’s just this mushrooms way of increasing its spore bearing surface and thereby increasing its spore production. It’s always about the continuation of the species, whether we talk about fungi, fig trees, fish, falcons or fireflies.

The spidery twigs of lowbush blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium) make them very easy to identify in winter. They had a fantastic crop last year, so it’ll be interesting to see what they do this year. Quite often when a plant produces a bumper crop one year it has to rest for a while in following years. It can take as long as 5 years for some plants to recover.

It’s hard to believe that anything could live on tiny tree buds but deer can, and they do. Of course, that isn’t all they eat but buds are part of their diet. Winter forage isn’t very nutritious though and deer burn considerable amounts of the fat that they put on in the fall. They can add as much as 30 pounds of fat in a good year but then burn it all just getting through winter. In a winter as harsh as this one has been many may not make it through. You can tell that a deer has been at this twig by the way it is roughly torn. Deer have incisor teeth only on their bottom jaw and these teeth meet a hard pad of cartilage on the front part of their upper jaw, so they can’t bite cleanly like we do. Instead they pull and tear. They also have top and bottom molars but they are quite far back in the mouth and are used for chewing rather than biting.

We’ve had days warm enough to send me off looking for witch hazel blossoms but I didn’t see any. Instead I saw a lilac bud that was as green as it should be in spring and which seemed to be thinking about opening. I hope it changed its mind because we could still have plenty of winter ahead of us. Traditionally February is said to be our snowiest month, so this little bud might have made a mistake. On the bright side it’s time to say goodbye, and possibly good riddance, to January.

It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see. ~Henry David Thoreau

Thanks for coming by.



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Last Saturday morning I was raking leaves, cutting back perennials, grooming beds, putting away lawn furniture-all the things one would expect a gardener to do in October. We hadn’t even seen a frost here in my yard. By 8:00 pm that night I was shoveling snow that was over my boot tops, which is something I’ve never done in October. In fact, according to the National Weather Service, this is the first time since records began in 1860 that an inch or more of snowfall has been recorded during the month of October. But there I was, 2 months before Christmas on a quiet autumn night, shoveling snow and listening to the frequent snap, whoosh, and thud of big branches falling in the woods that surround my house.

The next morning I was thankful that I hadn’t lost power as over a quarter million others in New Hampshire had. A look out any window told me I’d be repeating the shoveling of last night, and a yardstick told me that 15 inches of snow had fallen. A quick survey of the yard revealed several shrubs flattened by the weight of the snow. I shook the snow off the lilacs, azaleas and Forsythia, but summer bloomers like hydrangea, elderberry and weigela I left alone. Since this is their first year in the ground they will be pruned back quite hard in spring, so a few bent branches now won’t matter.  

The trees along the perimeter of the forest made it through the storm without losing hardly a twig, but I know that deeper into the woods some major branches are waiting for me. The snow is too deep right now, so they will have to wait until spring. The maple in the front yard, full of pumpkin orange leaves Saturday morning, had shed most of them by Sunday afternoon and they looked an even deeper orange against the white snow.

At least we fared better than they did in Central Park in New York; according to the news they had one thousand trees damaged, which is devastating.  A walk around my neighborhood revealed a few bent paper birches, but not much in the way of serious damage. Birches will straighten right up if the snow that pins the top to the ground melts right away, otherwise they may need gentle human intervention and ropes to once again stand straight. I pulled the top of one tree out of the snow and it sprang back quite a bit. In a day or two it should be standing straight up. A drive around town revealed that many neighborhoods weren’t as lucky as mine; I saw some large oak and maple limbs that had broken off one hundred year old trees.

Weather forecasts are something I’m always leery of because they, especially for the first snow storm of the season, always seem to be full of hype. So, when I heard “historic” and “once in a century” about this storm my first thought was that it was just more hype. Wow, was I wrong!

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Since I am both a gardener and allergy sufferer I was of two minds when I saw white patches on neighborhood roofs yesterday morning;  I don’t like to see our gardening season end, but I’m all for a good freeze wiping out the annual ragweed infestation. By the afternoon however, when I saw bumblebees buzzing among the still blooming impatiens, I knew the frost I had seen earlier was light and scattered at best. 

Gardeners and allergy sufferers who might have been thinking that the gardening and pollen seasons here in Southwestern New Hampshire seemed to be getting longer weren’t imagining it. Our average first frost date is September 15th and the chance of a hard freeze on October 7th stands at about 50%, but here it is October 8th and we haven’t even had a real frost yet. Temperatures this weekend are supposed to soar into the 80s and remain above average for most of the week. So what is going on?

Twenty researchers at the National Academy of Sciences, documenting pollen data and daily temperatures in Canada and the U.S. over the last 20 years, found an increase in the number of frost free days and a shift in the timing of fall frosts, which means that spring now begins earlier and fall later. In some areas the span between the last frost in spring and first frost in fall has lengthened by as many as 27 days.

A report whose lead authors include Lewis Ziska of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Christine Rogers of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst says “There was a highly significant correlation between latitude and increase in the length (days) of the ragweed pollen season over the period from 1995 to 2009.” Since ragweed is an annual plant that is killed by frost, this means that annual vegetables and flowers also have a longer growing season.

The aerobiology committee for the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology says:  “As we’re seeing warmer and warmer weather, fall gets warmer and longer and the effect is that there’s no frost to kill the ragweed and end the allergy season. Rising temperatures have produced a similar lengthening of the spring allergy season, which is now starting about a month earlier than it did decades ago.”

I can’t speak for allergy sufferers, but gardeners have known for a long time now that something was afoot-we didn’t really need scientists and politicians telling us that. But what is there to do about it? As I see it, all we can do is plant our gardens earlier and then take our allergy pills and harvest later, but a more long term solution might include voting for those who don’t deny the reality that surrounds them.

Photo of the Earth and Sun is by NASA

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One of the best ways to find inspiration for your own garden is to see what other folks have done in theirs.  This year the perfect way to do so is by joining the Cheshire Housing Trust on their annual garden tour. Funds raised by the garden tour help Cheshire Housing Trust provide affordable housing to low and middle income families in the region.

This year the tour is this Saturday, June 25, and begins at 10:00 am. The Hampshire House on 86 Winter Street in Keene, on the corner of Winter and School Streets, will be the site of a plant sale, bake sale, and a garden market featuring perennials and crafts. The market opens at 9:00 am, and tickets can be purchased there on the day of the tour.

If you would like to save on tickets, they can be found at Agway in Keene, Peterborough and Walpole; the Cheshire Housing Trust Office; Horse and Buggy Feeds; In the Company of Flowers; Earth Treasures; the UNH Cooperative Extension Service; Maple Hill Nursery in Swanzey; People’s United Bank in Keene and Chesterfield; and the Toadstool Bookshop in Keene. Tickets are $12.00 in advance or $15.00 the day of the tour.  A tour map is included with the tickets, and participants drive to each location in their own vehicle. The tour is very informal, and there is no tour leader.

Those attending the tour should pay close attention not only to plants, but pathways, fencing, paved areas, arbors, water features, stonework, decking, patios, statuary, lawn edging, and other hardscape items in the gardens. You may see these materials and other items used in ways that you’ve never thought of, so a camera and / or notebook will come in handy. There will be a housing trust greeter at each location and the home owners will be available to answer questions, so don’t be afraid to ask.

The Cheshire Housing Trust depends on this tour to raise much needed funds, so please consider attending. The tour happens rain or shine, so keep an eye the weather forecast. For more information, call 603-357-7603. To see photos of last year’s tour, click here.

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If the dad in your life is a gardener, one of the best gardening tools I know of to give him for father’s day is a mattock. This tool has a (usually) forged steel head and a wooden or polymer handle. It is similar to the pickaxe with one side of the head a wide flat blade used for weeding, removing turf, chopping roots, digging, and prying. Where the sharp pick would be on a pickaxe, instead the mattock has a three tine cultivator. I have two; one with a 12 inch long handle I use for weeding and cultivating, and another with a 24 inch long handle for tough jobs like grubbing out roots and stones. Mattocks are relatively inexpensive; a good long handled one might cost $30.00 at most. This is the most useful hand gardening tool I own and I wouldn’t be without it.

If the little ones want to spend their own money on dad, a five gallon pail is a perfect gift. These cost under $5.00 and are extremely useful in the garden. I have 2 of them and use them constantly for tossing weeds in, carrying small tools, carrying water and small amounts of soil or compost, and a hundred other uses. You can even turn it upside down and use it as a seat when pulling weeds. If it’s a white one, the children can personalize it by decorating it with colored markers.

Another tool that I’m never without is the hand pruner. I carry one in my back pocket so it is always at hand when I need to nip off dead flowers or prune roses, shrubs, or small trees. Hand pruners come in two types; the anvil type, where a sharpened blade meets a flat surface called an anvil, and the bypass type, where the two blades have a scissor action. I prefer the bypass pruner, because when the anvil type dulls it can crush, rather than cut. I’ve seen hand pruners for sale from $12.00 to over a hundred, but good ones can be found for under $50.00.

As a gardening dad myself, I can say that I’d be very happy to receive any one of these tools as a father’s day gift if I didn’t already own them.

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“The first day of spring is one thing, and the first spring day is another.  The difference between them is sometimes as great as a month.”  ~Henry Van Dyke

Spring: A period of time that comes after the three coldest months and before the three warmest. It’s the time when the earth is increasing this hemisphere’s tilt toward the sun and the length of daylight increases. Temperatures begin to warm and new plant growth “springs forth.” Snow melts and streams swell. Frosts become less severe. Spring is the time of growth, renewal and rebirth.

This year, it all seems theoretical.

I read the other day that in recent decades “season creep” has been noticed, which means that many signs of spring are occurring earlier in many regions by a couple of days per decade. Well, this year the “season creep” seems to be creeping the other way, because old man winter is refusing to budge. Spring is supposed to be a three month long “season,” but it isn’t. I have daffodils that “sprang forth” over a week ago and have sat there shivering ever since, most likely wondering how they could have made such a dreadful mistake. Now they’re being buried under a blanket of snow; possibly as much as a foot of it, according to the weather people. At least they won’t be lonely; the iris and daylily shoots that I saw yesterday are right there with them.

Whatever happened to the kind of spring I remember? Spring was when that strange, paper thin, white ice would grow on puddles an inch or two above the water surface overnight, and when you broke it you wondered how it was possible. When the driveway, frozen solid in the morning, would be mud by mid afternoon. When coats could be forgotten without fear of hearing “Do you want to catch your death?” When the teachers opened windows, making us all giddy with anticipation of the approaching last day. When recess was held outside again and there was plenty of warm, fifty degree daylight left for after school bike riding, can kicking and baseball. Birds chirped, grass greened, and people hosed off their lawn chairs.

And it all seemed to last for such a long, long time. 

Now, instead of a season, “spring’ seems to be a month of 30 degrees, followed by day or two here and there in the 50s, followed by two more weeks of 30s, (and snow) followed by an overnight change to months of humid 80s and 90s. Or, maybe not; maybe it’s just me, wishing I could return to my boyhood, when even a foot of snow in spring couldn’t slow me down and the season seemed to last forever.

“It’s spring fever.  That is what the name of it is.  And when you’ve got it, you want – oh, you don’t quite know what it is you do want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so!”  ~Mark Twain

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