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Archive for April, 2011

Watching our baby hummingbirds grow these past few weeks has been so fascinating. I feel incredibly lucky to have had such a close-up view of this little miracle.

By the beginning of last week the babies were hard pressed to fit their almost adult-sized bodies into the nest and I had no doubt that they’d be ready to leave the nest soon.

Though I never saw these two move much, I’ve read that baby hummingbirds will hold onto the nest with their feet while flapping their wings to prepare for their first flight, so when I saw them perching on the edge of the nest on Thursday I knew that they were almost ready to fly.

I also knew that this was a vulnerable time for them and was really worried when I saw our pesky crows nearby. They were clearly plotting a raid on the nest. We ran out a dozen times a day to chase them whenever they got too close. My little JRT, Emmie, was delighted with this activity — no doubt she thought that we had finally come to our senses about our live and let live policy.

Crows are very skittish creatures and they can be brutal. (If you’ve never seen a crow devour a fledgling, consider yourself lucky.) So I was REALLY worried when I saw just one baby in the nest on Saturday.

All day Saturday the remaining baby perched on the edge of its nest. Come evening it fluffed up its feathers and looked rather pathetic all by its lonesome. I fretted about the crows, the cold and every other thing my imagination could conjure up. First thing on Sunday morning I went to the window and was so relieved to see Mama Bird sitting on the branch just above her baby. Then I noticed the missing baby in the tree above. Hallelujah, the crows didn’t eat it after all!

I realized that this might be my last chance to take a picture of the reluctant little hummingbird, because Mama was trying to get her late bloomer to leave the nest.

As soon as I clicked the shutter, it flew off. Aside for a glimpse or two on Sunday I haven’t seen the babies, but I’m sure they are around here somewhere.

I really miss going to the window to check on them. Curiously it looks like someone has been doing renovations to the nest. That means we might have another clutch of eggs this spring. Wouldn’t that be terrific!

P.S. Type “hummingbirds” into the search box and take a look at earlier pics of the eggs and little hatchlings. To find out how to attract hummingbird to your garden click here.

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Mary Beth and I decided to have our soil tested a few weeks ago. We were curious to know if all the work we’ve been putting into improving the soil over the past few years would show up in the test results. The bottom line is: of course the addition of all those organic amendments, mulches and fertilizers made a difference. We could have guessed that because our plants are happy, healthy and provide an abundance of flowers and crops, but we also wanted to know if there might be any problems cropping up or if we’re about to overdo it with fertilizer.

Mary Beth has been improving her soil for more than 12 years. All of her new beds get a generous addition of organic matter, she mulches often, and fertilizes every spring and fall with her favorite product, Yum Yum Mix. I, on the other hand, got a later start and have only been at it for a little over two years. I also dig organic matter into all my new beds and side dress plants with my own organic compost at least once a year, but I haven’t been so great about mulching.

We had our soil tested at two different labs just to see what the differences might be. Mary Beth sent her sample to the Colorado State University Soil, Water and Plant Testing Lab. She used the Horticultural Applications for Gardeners test which costs $28. I used the University of Massachusetts Soil and Plant Testing Lab. They charge $15 for a Standard Soil Test w/Organic Matter.

Here are the two reports: MB Soil Test and BW Soil Test. They both have their plusses and minuses. The CSU report is well-organized and presented in an easy-to-read chart. The U Mass report is visually a little bit of a mess — clearly this is a report that is based on a format used for scientists not home gardeners, but if you give it a good look it contains a more detailed analysis. It also reports the lead levels in the soil, so this is a test we would recommend for urban and suburban gardens if you plan on growing food crops.

We both live in the West in areas where the soil pH tends to be alkaline. Most plants do best when the pH is slightly acidic to neutral, somewhere between 5.5 and 7.5, though acid loving plants like azaleas and camellias like a soil pH of  5.0. Both of our soil samples tested in the acceptable range for all but acid-loving plants. The U Mass report suggests that I use an acid mulch like pine needles for those plants.

The levels of organic matter in our samples reflected our efforts. Mary Beth’s report indicates that her OM is high and they recommend that she maintain it using organic mulch. My soil OM level is “lower than desired for most herbaceous perennials” and the report recommends that I use plants that are adapted to such conditions or improve the humus content with finished (aged) compost. It goes on to make suggestions for both new bed prep: “in early spring incorporate 1 part peat moss into 2 parts soil along with 3 parts of dried blood per cubic yard of soil;” and established beds: “in early spring and early June sidedress with 1.5 cups dried blood per 100 square feet taking care not to damage foliage and water afterwards.” We really liked that the U Mass report provided a remedy that was so specific.

Both reports give the levels of individual nutrients in our soil and U Mass also included two documents that will be very helpful. One is Soil Test Interpretation and the other is Fertilizer Products and Their Properties. Note that this second one provides info for both organic and synthetic fertilizers. I’ve marked the synthetic fertilizers with X’s to indicated that we do not recommend your using them in your garden. There’s also a handy guide showing the capacity of some common household containers. CSU also provides lots of useful information on their site.

Getting your soil tested is a good idea. It’s a very inexpensive way to find out what your garden needs and it will take the guess-work out of deciding what kinds of amendments to use. It will also help you figure out how much fertilizer you need. Mary Beth found out that her nitrogen is very high. This means that she can skip the Yum Yum mix for a while. Too much nitrogen can result in an overgrowth of foliage at the expense of fruiting and more than that can actually harm plants and the environment. My nitrogen is very low, so I’ll be fertilizing with liquid fish emulsion fertilizer (contains nitrogen that is immediately available to plants) and with another longer lasting organic fertilizer on a regular basis until future tests show a better level.

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Block Island, Rhode Island

Irvine, California

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Here are a few tips for making sure the seedings you started inside stay alive and thrive.

  • Seedlings should have plenty of light to prevent them from getting leggy. Grow lights should be 2 inches above seedlings. If you have a south facing window you can put your pots close to the window and rotate every day to prevent them from overreaching towards the sunlight.
  • Seedlings should have good drainage and air flow to prevent damping off (a fungus that will cause seedlings to fall over and die). Place a small fan next to seedlings and set it on low.
  • If you see any signs of fungus or damping off make some chamomile tea and spray the cooled tea on the plants.
  • Be sure to keep soil evenly moist. Seedlings are very delicate and will die quickly if the soil dries out.
  • Feed the plants after they get their true leaves, the second set of leaves. (The first set of “leaves” is called the cotyledon or seed leaves.) Once the plant has its the true leaves, you should fertilize with a half-strength solution of liquid fertilizer.

These seedlings are ready for thinning or pricking out.

Once seedlings have true leaves it’s time to give those babies some room!

I know it’s difficult, but you need to thin or prick out your plants now. You can thin the seedlings by snipping off the tops of the unwanted plants. I have a hard time doing this, but your plants will be much healthier when they have room to grow.

Pricking out is the process of separating seedlings and putting them into individual pots. Choose the best and healthiest plants to repot. Take a spoon or fork and lift up the soil under the seedlings. Gently pull them apart by tugging on their leaves — the stems are too delicate to handle at this point. Then plant them into individual pots immediately. You can poke a hole into moistened soil with your finger or a pencil and then gently pat it into place. Remember that the roots are very fragile, be gentle and never let them get dry.

Prepare your seedlings for the great outdoors.

When the weather is finally warm enough (usually after last frost date) to plant your plants outside, you will have to harden your seedlings off. This means acclimating them to the outside weather. Do this slowly.

If you don’t have a cold frame to place them in you will need to slowly expose them to direct sunlight and fluctuating temps. Take them out into the morning sun for a little while then bring them back inside. Slowly over a few days increase their exposure a few hours each day until they are strong enough to be planted in the ground.

Taking care of your seedlings now means you’ll have lots of strong healthy plants to transplant into the ground in a few weeks.

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Block Island, Rhode Island


Irvine, California

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My how our babies have grown! It’s been nine days since I last shared photos with you and I think you too will be amazed at the changes.

Here’s how the little ones looked on April 8th when they were about 8 or 9 days old. They are getting their pin feathers and their beaks have begun to darken.

They are sleepy little things. I check on the countless times a day (it’s bordering on obsession) and I always see them resting peacefully under their leafy canopy. Rarely does Mama Bird sit on her nest. She seems to be out and about most of the day, coming home to keep her chicks warm only when the sun is setting.

I’m not really able to take any pics of her feeding the chicks. I read that she feeds them a regurgitated mixture of bugs and nectar every 20 minutes or so. I have managed to get  a glimpse of her feeding them once or twice but, while she usually doesn’t get too bothered by me looking at her babies or taking pictures, she completely freaks if I’m anywhere near while she’s trying to feed them. I took this shot on April 11th when they were 12 or 13 days old.

Our babies have gotten a lot more feathers which is a good thing, because they can no longer snuggle deep into the beautiful nest their Mama built them. As a matter of fact by about 9 days they have enough feathers to regulate their own body temperature.

This next picture is from today. They are about 16 days old and starting to look like hummingbirds — if you look closely at the feathers on their rumps you can see that they are beginning to get a little color.

In a few more days, when they are around three weeks old, they will try their wings. Can’t wait!

Some of you have asked me to take a shot that shows just how little everything is. So here’s your picture. Look at that tiny, tiny wing!

I think that our babies need names, but I’m so lame when it comes to coming up with cute names. So how about some help naming our little birds. Anybody have suggestions — other than Sleepy and Dopey?

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Ah, weeding. The bane of many a gardener’s day. I hate it, you hate it and, yet, it needs doing. So what’s the secret to effective weed control in the garden? Let’s start off by saying it is most definitely not synthetic chemicals, especially if you are growing food crops. The simple answer is in this post’s title — hit them early and hit them hard. But for all its simplicity this little phrase begs for an explanation that’s just a bit more complicated.

Let’s agree that a weed is any plant that’s growing where you don’t want it to grow. And let’s also, since weeds and weeding can morph into a rather large topic, limit the discussion to weeding in established beds.

Weeds aren’t just are annoying, they’re competing for resources — space, food, water, sunlight — with the plants that you’re trying to grow. Left in your vegetable gardens, they can stunt the growth of your crop plants and reduce the amount and quality of your harvest. They can also harbor pests.

Weeds are programmed to survive very harsh conditions. They tolerate drought, heat, floods, and some have developed a resistance to herbicides. Their seeds can lay dormant for a very long time. I’m sure you’ve noticed when cultivating a new bed that lots of weeds spring to life after you’ve disturbed the soil. That’s because you woke the little suckers from their long naps.

So, how do we get rid of them? There are three primary methods of controlling weeds: cultural, mechanical/physical, and chemical.

Cultural control refers to things like providing good growing conditions for your plants — proper watering; healthy, fertile soil; planting the right plants in the right place; planting ornamentals that fill in quickly, leaving little room for weeds; planting ground covers; rotating crops; and once your beds have been prepared not cultivating too deeply, only an inch or so, to prevent disturbing more of those pesky dormant weed seeds.

Mechanical or physical methods like hoeing, cultivating and hand-pulling are the best methods of controlling weeds in your garden. You can also covering bare soil with barriers like landscape fabric, newspapers, black plastic, and mulches. Just remember that when you use a barrier (landscape fabric, newspapers, etc.) for weed control, you’ll need to use a liquid-based fertilizer so it can get through to the soil.

And finally, chemical controls. Wait, you say, chemical controls in an organic garden? Well, yes there are such things as organic chemical controls. One good one is a strong solution of vinegar, either a 5% solution like you can buy in the grocery store or a stronger 9% solution that you can find sold as pickling vinegar. The Sunset Western Gardens book recommends a solution of 1 tablespoon liquid soap + 1/4 cup salt + 1 quart of vinegar. Spray only on the weed you want to kill (it will kill what it touches) preferably on a warm, sunny day.

But the real secret for keeping many weeds from flourishing in your garden is to know when to weed. Most weeds, particularly annual weeds, will grow in a first flush in the spring or when you cultivate a new bed. Remove this first flush as it begins to germinate in the early stages of growth before pollination. You really must do this BEFORE it gets a chance to set seed, because once that happens a whole new round of weeds begins to grow. After the first flush is gone you’ll get a smaller second flush which you should also remove before they get pollinated. Finally, after you remove the third flush you should have only a few stragglers to deal with for the rest of the season.

A word about composting weeds. There are some that you can compost with no trouble. Others won’t come back to haunt you if your compost is hot enough to kill the seeds. But the there are some, especially the creeping perennial weeds like bermudagrass and woodsorrel (oxalis), that you should throw out with the green waste because no amount of heat that you can generate in a home composting situation will destroy their ability to reproduce. And I’m quite sure the last thing you’d want to do is reintroduce weeds into your beds when you amend the soil next fall.

So, long story short, here’s the plan:

  • Weed as soon as you see the first flush of green — before pollination and seed set.
  • Do it two more times to eliminate most of the annual weeds.
  • Keep pulling or killing perennial weeds, you’ll eventually get rid of most of them.
  • Don’t cultivate or disturb the soil too deeply (only and inch or so) once you get your beds and soil prepped to keep dormant seeds from coming to the surface and sprouting.
  • Crowd out weeds with desirable plants.
  • Keep your plants healthy so they can compete successfully.
  • Mulch to a depth of at least 2″ to keep weeds from sprouting and to make removing them easier.

I’d say happy weeding, but that’s pushing it. At best it can be that kind of soothing and contemplative activity that’s made all the more delightful by the idea that you will be soon be getting the upper hand!

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