Gardening Guru column: Shorten your winter

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Winter in Canada may be long, but it seems shorter to me thanks to the activity of birds in my yard. As I peer out the window of our kitchen I am grateful for the birds that visit the seed heads of the ornamental grasses that I let stand over the winter. I am so glad that I resisted the temptation to cut them down in the autumn.

My suet cage is forever emptied in winter. While I keep it full year round, the downy woodpeckers love to hack away at it this time of year as they do their best to accumulate fat and carbohydrates to keep warm.

Soon enough wild birds will have lots of natural feeding options in the yard and around the neighbourhood besides my 12 feeding stations.

If you have problems with unwanted birds raiding your suet cakes try using an upside- down suet cage. Woodpeckers love to feed on their backs, most other birds do not, especially ‘bully birds’ like grackles and blue jays.

 

Bird feeders

I recommend that you keep your bird feeders full this time of year, especially when there is a snowfall. Hungry birds have fewer options for food sources. Note that many birds will kick out the corn in search of their favourite seeds like high quality millet, black oil sunflower seeds and peanuts. Birdseed producers love to load up their mixes with cracked corn as it attracts the bird feeding public — it is cheap, but it isn’t worth much.

You would think that we would have learned this lesson: you get what you pay for in lawn fertilizer and birdseed. Sure, there are some good quality birdseed mixes around for an attractive price, but take a good look at the mix before you commit to buy. And remember that it does not matter what you think of the bird mix — it only matters what the birds in your neighbourhood think. To be more accurate, it only matters what the birds that you want to attract really think.

Personally I am not big on mourning doves or grackles. The former lack colour and do not hold an interest for me: they are the poachers of the wild bird world. The latter are just bullies and I had enough of them in grade school — the bullies, not the birds.

As for the myth that feeding the birds this time of year creates an unhealthy dependency on your feeding station, that is so much baloney. If they are disappointed by the selection of seed in your yard they will go hunting for available seed in the wild. In many cases, they have the option to go next door or down the street to the home of another generous gardener like yourself.

 

Peanuts

I put out a peanut feeder — the kind that takes shelled peanuts — to attract blue jays and woodpeckers. They love this feeder so much that I created a problem with downy woodpeckers hacking away at the bark of my skyline locust outside the kitchen window. They removed so much bark that I was beginning to worry about the health of the tree. My solution was to wrap the main trunk with a stretchy tree wrap that is impregnated with a black tar-like substance. It worked like a charm. I was pleased with myself, and my $5 solution. The downy woodpeckers continue to frequent the yard, adding their own characteristic colour, activity and squeaks. That’s right; they don’t ‘chirp,’ they squeak. You will identify them without lifting your head when you are outdoors, thinking at first that a neighbour really needs to put some grease on a wheel.

 

Speaking of peanuts

I enjoy the blue jays that arrive in search of whole peanuts (for bird consumption, never salted). I no sooner lay a bunch down on a platform outside the kitchen window and one giant jay announces that they have arrived. The whole neighbourhood of jays then arrive, in droves, swooping and squawking at each other, taking their turn at the feeding platform until they are all gone. They remove each peanut and take it to the high branches of a tree and peck out the ‘good stuff,’ dropping the shell to the ground with a perfect little hole in it, where it fertilizes the garden below it come spring. Then they take the peanut meat and jam it between the branches of trees all over the neighbourhood for later consumption. I am told on good authority that this sustains them through snow and cold later on. And they do remember where they did the peanut-jamming.

I do not like blue jays enough that I feed them peanuts all of the time. They are big and bossy. So I wait until we are expecting company and without exception, visitors notice and exclaim over the busy blue jay population in our yard.

As our garden matures, the ‘winter garden’ is more interesting than ever. The evergreens and blue holly look so much more attractive than a flat yard of snow. And the bright red crabapples that remain on my Malus ‘Red Jade’ look fantastic. Soon (usually in March) the birds will find these appealing too.

 

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Mark Cullen is Canada’s best-known gardening broadcaster and writer. He is the spokesperson for Home Hardware Lawn and Garden. Sign up for his free monthly newsletter at www.markcullen.com and watch him Wednesday mornings on Canada AM. His column, which focuses on our growing zone, appears in the Hants Journal every two weeks.

 

 

Organizations: Canada AM, Hants Journal

Geographic location: Canada, Nova Scotia

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