Archive for October, 2011


Count Donkula

Living as we do, in a rural area and at the end of a dead end road, with no young children of our own, Halloween isn’t a big event here. However, Teddy and Louis got into the spirit of the day. Here are Count Donkula and Halloween Munchkin in their Halloween costumes!

Hope you have a spooktacular Halloween…and get lots of candy.

Trick or Treat!
Smell my feet!
Give me something good to eat!

Not too big,
Not too small!
Just the size of Montreal!

Halloween Munchkin

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After the Harvest

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It’s just about time to harvest the Jerusalem Artichokes. They’re reputed to be at their best after the tall stems have been killed back by a heavy frost or two. Jerusalem Artichokes, as is often noted, are neither from Jerusalem nor artichokes. They’re actually a sunflower variety, helianthus tuberosus. There are 82 species of sunflowers (genus Helianthus), all native to North America. Of these, 38 are perennials (Wikipedia). Jerusalem Artichokes are one of four types of sunflowers growing in my garden.


Probably the best known sunflower is the annual variety. Most years, I plant a few sunflower seeds. There are plenty to choose from, tall sunflowers, dwarf sunflowers, plants with rusty-red flowers, pollenless flowers for cutting. This year, the birds did the planting and an eye-catching array of tall, sunny plants grew up around the bird feeder.


After the annuals, the most showy of the sunflowers is Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’. This hybrid perennial is a fabulous addition to the border. It reaches about six feet tall and forms a clump about 4 feet wide. The stems are surprisingly strong, and this year they stood tall for most of the summer before gently arching over to display a dense array of attractive, yellow flowers. The flowers were much beloved by pollinators.


I first saw Willow-leaf sunflowers at Lost Horizons nursery and had to have this plant in my garden. It is most notable, not for its flowers, but for its long, long stems which are lined with very unsunflower-like narrow leaves. In fact, it looks rather like a giant lily stem, quite fascinating.


Those stems just keep going and going. Here’s Ponygirl beside the Willow-leaf Sunflower (Helianthus salicifolius). It does get a display of attractive flowers at the top of that long stem late in the summer. Where stems had bowed over, flowers also sprouted along the stem.


And finally, there are the Jerusalem Artichokes, sometimes called, more appropriately, sunchokes. It’s said that once you introduce these tubers to your garden, the only way to free yourself of them is to move. I have mine contained in a raised bed. These are also remarkably tall plants. Here’s Ponygirl again, to illustrate that point. They are the last of my sunflowers to bloom.


Yesterday, I dug up a few of the tubers to use in soup. They’re very knobby, gnarled roots, somewhat like ginger roots. They have a very mild, slightly nutty taste and are reputed to be rich in inulin, and thus recommended as a potato substitute for diabetics. I don’t know how factual that, or the other claims made for the benefits of Jerusalem Artichokes might be. They are reported to be high in potassium and iron and linked with good intestinal health due to prebiotic (bacteria promoting) properties. I added them to squash to make sunchoke-squash soup.


Here’s the sunchoke-squash soup, topped with sautéd mushrooms, shredded cheese and sunflower seeds. It was quite tasty, a little bit different than squash soup.


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Red-wing Blackbirds, Grackles and Starlings all form large flocks before moving south. It’s an awesome spectacle. Way back in September, more than a month ago, my daughter Seabrooke posted about blackbird flocks on her blog, The Marvelous in Nature. I hadn’t noticed any congregations of blackbirds around here, and thought perhaps the area birds had chosen somewhere removed from our property for their migratory staging.


However, on multiple occasions over the last few days I have stepped out my door and been greeted by a cacophony of birdy babbling that can mean only one thing. The blackbirds are coming together, getting ready to head south. If this annual event is taking place in your neighbourhood, you don’t have to beat around the bushes to witness the flock. You’ll know they’re there. Listen to this!

What a beautiful noise! It’s easy to anthropomorphize their conversations as they gossip together. “Hey Fred! How was the summer? How’re the Mrs. and the kids? Ready for the trip?” The blackbirds will move south and forage together in huge flocks before returning north again in the spring. This year, the migratory staging of the blackbirds has overlapped the return of the winter Dark-eyed Juncos from farther north.


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When we think of bird migration, robins flying south and vees of Canada geese come to mind. However, there are many variations on the theme of migration. For example, American Goldfinches are short-distance migrants. Although we see goldfinches year-round here, the birds we see in summer aren’t the same individuals as the birds we see in winter. The summer breeders move a few hundred miles south. They are replaced by another flock of goldfinches that, to our undiscerning eyes look just the same, and arrive from a location farther north.

Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) are northern breeders, migrating to the Canadian Shield and Hudson Bay Lowlands for the nesting season. In winter, they migrate back to Southern Ontario and points south. I spotted my first junco of the winter on Monday, as it flew up from the lawn where it had been foraging and disappeared into a thicket. Juncos are easily identified in even a short glimpse by their distinctive tail feathers. The grey fan is flanked on each side by a stripe of white that leaves no doubt as to the identity of the fleeing bird.

These photos are a bit blurred because I just shot them through the porch screen, a record of the first winter foragers preparing for the long, cold season ahead.


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When Fiddlegirl visited for Thanksgiving, she brought me a gift of cauliflower pickles. She had just put them up a day or two before and they are sitting on my counter now, curing, pickling. They look beautiful with the sun shining through the glass. They put me in mind of one of my favorite poems, a poem about another gift of pickles. Do you know it?

Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle
Received from a Friend Called Felicity

During that summer
When unicorns were still possible,
When the purpose of knees
Was to be skinned,
When shiny horse chestnuts
(Hollowed out
Fitted with straws
Crammed with tobacco
Stolen from butts
In family ashtrays)
Were puffed in green lizard silence
While straddling thick branches
Far above and away
From the softening effects
Of Civilization;

During that summer —
Which may never have been at all,
But which has become more real
Than the one that was —
Watermelons ruled.

Thick pink imperial slices
Melting frigidly on sun-parched tongues
Dribbling from chins;
Leaving the best part,
The black bullet seeds,
To be spit out in rapid fire
Against the wall
Against the wind
Against each other;

And when the ammunition was spent,
There was always another bite;
It was a summer of limitless bites,
Of hungers quickly felt
And quickly forgotten
With the next careless gorging.

The bites are fewer now.
Each one is savored lingeringly,
Swallowed reluctantly.

But in a jar put up by Felicity,
The summer which maybe never was
Has been captured and preserved.
And when we unscrew the lid
And slice off a piece
And let it linger on our tongue:
Unicorns become possible again.

John Tobias

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Now that the gardening season is about done for the year, I thought I’d relax with a little planking. Planking is not without its hazards, however.


It leaves you susceptible to wet doggy kisses!


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Shed, Evening Shadows

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Daylilies work well for me because I start to lose interest in the garden later in the season. I love that glorious burst of growth in the spring, the dazzling flowers of summer. By the end of August, I’m ready to move on to other activities.


I’m content to stroll about the garden and not lift a finger on its behalf. I never trim back my plants until spring. Many of them provide winter interest, with interesting seed pods or twisty stems.


I can further justify my autumnal laziness with the fact that the seeds and leaf litter the garden offers will feed and protect a host of insects and birds over the freezing months ahead.


There are still a few flowers to be seen, such as a late-blooming head of masterwort (Astrantia major ‘Sunningdale Variegated‘), above.


And here is a bouquet of Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea) tucked in amongst the lowest branches of the corkscrew hazel.


The chocolate Joe Pye (Eupatorium rugosum ‘Chocolate’) is just wrapping up its blooming season for the year.


A few heads of phlox are contributing a bit of colour. This is Phlox paniculata ‘Sherbet Cocktail’.


The last, the very last flower to bloom in my garden every year is this monkshood (Aconitum carmichaelii ‘Barker’s Variety’). The flowers are set off nicely by the new green coat that the house received this summer.


The bright berries of the aptly named American Winterberry (Ilex verticillata ) brighten a shady corner and make a contribution to the garden’s offerings for wildlife.


The grasses are the mainstay of the fall garden. This little cutie is Piglet Fountain Grass (Pennisetum Alopecuroides ‘Piglet’).


The plumes of this unnamed miscanthus species look fabulous when backlit by the sun. This is one of the tallest grasses in the garden, but two others surpass it. Both are new this year, and are only just opening their plumed heads now. Hopefully, next year they will fill out more and reach maturity a bit earlier in the season. You can make out Giant Maidengrass (Miscanthus gigantus) in the photo below, standing to the left of the sunlit plumes. Behind it is the tallest of the three, the native Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii).


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Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Photo: Seabrooke Leckie)

It’s the time of year when many of the birds we have enjoyed all summer, ‘our’ birds, make their long, perilous journey south, completing one of the most amazing feats of the natural world. Many of those birds will spend their winter on coffee plantations.

A native of Ethiopia, coffee was introduced to Brazil by the mid-1700s, and coffee plantations today cover an estimated 7 million acres in the northern Neotropics from Columbia and Brazil to Mexico. Traditionally, coffee has thrived in shaded woodlands, but in order to produce crops more quickly, sun-tolerant coffee plants were developed.

Full-sun farming requires the removal of the forest and replaces it with a virtual biological desert. Without the forest birds to eat insects, and decaying materials to feed the plants, sun-grown coffee requires the heavy use of pesticides and fertilizers. At least half of the coffee grown in the Neotropics has been converted to full sun.


Buying shade-grown coffee is probably the most important thing you can do to help save the rainforest and protect migratory birds. These days, shade-grown coffee is widely available in supermarkets and specialty stores. Sometimes you have to read the label carefully to verify that the coffee is shade-grown.


Too expensive? Don’t drink that much coffee? Here’s an easy alternative: Look for Rainforest Alliance Certified coffee. Nabob is a product of Kraft Foods, one of a few corporate giants that control 40 to 60% of the coffee market. According to the label, Nabob is currently more than 60% Rainforest Alliance Certified and working towards 100% certification.


Look for the Rainforest Alliance Frog

Still drinking instant??? Most instant coffee is made from the poorest, sun-grown beans. If you purchase an inexpensive one-cup or small-pot coffeemaker, brewing the real thing is very fast. You can enjoy a better cup of coffee and help the birds with a minimum effort. Wake up and smell the coffee! The birds will thank you.

For more information about shade-grown coffee, see my Shade the Coffee, Shelter the Birds post. For plenty of information on many aspects of coffee and habitat, visit the site linked here: Coffee and Conservation.


Ovenbird (Photo: Seabrooke Leckie)

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