Ear to the Ground: The Insider Dirt to Gardening in Upstate NY

Winter birds

by cathym on November 1, 2019

by Liz Magnanti

Dark-eyed junco Photo courtesty Flickr: DaPugle

Every year, as the days grow shorter and the nights get colder, it amazes me how animals can survive the winters we have here. Although weather conditions are changing, the main elements needed for survival remain the same for all animals, including birds.

In the winter there are three major things birds need for survival: food, water, and shelter. Some birds, like chickadees, nuthatches, jays, and woodpeckers will cache food away throughout the year to survive the winter. Other birds, such as cardinals, doves, and finches, do not. All birds must rely on finding food in the winter to survive. Seeds, nuts, fruit, and dormant insects and larvae are major sources of food for birds in the winter. Although birds will visit feeders in the winter, the food they get from it is just a supplement of what they find naturally. Providing highfat foods like peanuts, suet, sunflower, and nyjer seed give birds the calories they need to stay plump and warm in the winter.

Finding water can be a challenge in the winter. It’s not uncommon to see birds drinking from melting icicles to get some water! Shallow bodies of water that birds can bathe in and drink from can be hard to find in the winter. Providing birds with a heated birdbath will give them that source of water all winter long. These sources of water are extremely important though, because birds will use them to clean their feathers. Clean feathers allow birds to trap air between their warm body and feathers, providing insulation. This is why you so often see fluffed up birds in the winter! They’re using their down coats to keep warm.

Birds find shelter in many places. Shrubs, trees, tree cavities, and man-made structures are all places birds will go to stay out of the elements. Roosting pockets are great for birds to take refuge in during harsh weather conditions. These woven pockets are not designed for nesting, but to provide birds with a place to stay out of the snow, rain, and wind. Roosting houses are even bigger and have perches inside of them for multiple birds to sit on while they take shelter. Multiple species will use roosting houses and pockets at the same time. If you keep your birdhouses out all year you may see birds flying in and out of them in the cold months. They provide a space for the bird to hunker down and rest. Don’t be surprised if you see something furry in your nest box! Mice, and if the box is big enough, squirrels will also use them to stay out of the elements. At night in the winter many birds undergo a process called “torpor.” Their body temperature drops, their metabolism slows down, and their physiological functions slow down. It is almost like a mini hibernation. Their body doesn’t use as many resources as they would normally need when they are in this state. This does make the animal very susceptible to predators however, so providing places for the birds to roost is important!

This time of year be on the lookout for new birds in your yard. Dark-eyed juncos are here only in the winter and early spring. They are dark gray with a white belly and pink beak. Look for them hopping on the ground under your birdfeeders. White-crowned and white-throated sparrows may also visit your yard this time of year. They both have white stripes on their heads but the white-throated sparrows also have a white patch on their throat. They are also most often seen on the ground foraging under feeders. Pine siskins and the occasional redpoll may come to your nyjer feeders. Pine siskins look similar in size to goldfinches, but they are very striped. Redpolls are small chickadee-sized birds that have a raspberry colored mark on the top of their heads. Some years there are huge influxes of these birds, other years they are scarce.

It is amazing how many birds you can get in your yard throughout the winter by providing them with their main staples for survival: food, water and shelter. There is nothing more beautiful than a tree full of cardinals on a snowy winter’s day. Entice them and our other hardy winter birds with some creature comforts and you will have beautiful birds all season!

Liz Magnanti is the manager of the Bird House in Pittsford.

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Almanac: November–December 2019

by cathym on November 1, 2019

Drain and store hoses
Photo: Jane Milliman

One of the wonderful things about gardening and raising plants is there are things to do in every season … a time to sow, a time to reap,and as fall ends and winter rolls around … still more to do. Some planting and reaping continues. This is the time to get the remainder of any spring bulbs (tulips, daffodils, crocus, hyacinths, and snowdrops) in the ground before it freezes. It’s also a great time to root-divide and plant perennials; plant roses, azaleas, and other shrubs; and establish rhubarb and/or asparagus beds—first prepare the bed/s, and then set the plant crowns under soil.

Now is the time to plant tree seedlings and shrubs, as they enter dormancy. I have potted apple, chestnut, aronia, and elderberry first-year seedlings ready to go into the ground, but the same goes for currants, raspberries, and others. Having waited for dormancy, I avoided the extensive watering that would have been required if I planted them earlier. For those plant seeds needing cold stratification, you’re on schedule to take your nut seeds (oak, chestnut, hazelnut, etc.), fruit tree seeds, and some berry seeds and get them planted in potting media. Place planted containers and trays outdoors, (covered with hardware cloth if squirrels might be tempted in your yard) Since they are outside, the cold winter weather will help soften up the nut seed coat, allowing them to sprout for spring.

If you plan on buying a live Christmas tree for the holidays, dig your hole before the ground freezes. Cover the removed soil to insulate it, so you can place it back in the hole when you plant the tree after the holidays.

Bring potted plants that will not survive the winter indoors as house plants (hearty geraniums, begonias, fuchsia, etc.). Potted tender perennials such as lavender and rosemary can also be kept in the garage or basement where temperatures stay above 32 degrees.

Time to harvest! After we have had a few frosts but before the ground freezes solid, turnips, parsnips, Brussel sprouts, and carrots may be harvested and will be as sweet tasting as they can be. This is the time to finalize clean-up and organization of the root cellar, as well as to can and preserve your remaining harvest. Check stored onions and potatoes periodically during the months ahead, removing any damaged or rotting fruit. Still, for those who want to extend the season, it’s time to set up cold frames and get your winter hardy greens (spinach, kale, and such) going in your greenhouse. As they are tropical perennials, you may even wish to bring some small pepper plants right into the house, where they may produce fruit all winter. Lift dahlia tubers, begonias, and gladiolus corms to store them in a dry and cool location over the winter, making sure to remove any dead foliage before storing.

For many gardeners, November and December is when to transition from growing to care and maintenance—this is the time to winterize your garden. Adding organic matter to beds and blending it in is important. You can also spread fresh manure over the surface of your vegetable beds to rot down over the winter months. Cut back and prune out any diseased or infested foliage. When cleaning up, make sure any refuse from any diseased plants is disposed of; do not put it into your compost, as typically home compost piles do not get hot enough to destroy pathogens. With crops removed and beds bare, it’s a good time to take any necessary soil tests.

Collect leaves, hay, etc., to either spread as mulch orto add to your compost piles. When mulching young trees, avoid putting the mulch directly next to the base of the tree, thereby stymying rodents’ easy access. Keep mulch at least two to three inches away from the tree trunk. Shielding the tree with wire mesh guards, tree tube, or some form of trunk protection is also critical in preventing mice, voles or rabbits from girdling and killing young trees. Remember, deer will be looking for young trees, evergreens, and shrubs to browse in the winter snow, so consider more substantial protection. Mowing lawns low close to your shrubs and young trees will also help prevent damage from rodents, as they avoid open, exposed spaces. Protect roses by mounding soil around the crown and covering the bud union. Tie down climbing rose canes to protect them from freezing winds. Before the snow turns everything white, aerating your lawn is a good idea, as well as a final mowing with the blade set high.

This is maintenance time for garden equipment, when hoses are drained, tools are cleaned, and all are appropriately stored for winter. Some tools, especially hoes and your handy scythe, need sharpening. Sharpening lawn mower blades before storage helps set you up to be ready for spring. It’s also inventory time, wherein you gaze across your garden and landscape, snap a few pictures, and ask yourself what worked, what didn’t work, and what would you like to do differently next year.

For further gardening advice contact your local Extension office and ask for the Master Gardener volunteers help line.

—John Slifka, CCE Oneida County Master Gardener Volunteer

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Foreign flowers, Rochester roots

by cathym on November 1, 2019

The Eastman Museum’s annual “Dutch Connection” show shares in the struggle against winter blues

Story by John Ernst; photos provided by the George Eastman Museum

Just a few of the potted flowers on display during the Dutch Connection

In 1895, 41-year-old George Eastman bicycled through Holland. “Two large fields that we passed were the greatest blaze of color I ever saw,” he wrote home to his mother in Rochester. “Reds, yellows, pinks, and white flowers three inches in diameter and the blossoms covered the ground. If we can grow them I will have a bed next year.” And he did just that. After his botanical bewilderment overseas, Eastman ordered tens of thousands of bulbs from Holland each year until his death. According to Eastman House landscape manager Dan Bellavia, “One of the reasons he built greenhouses is so he could have flowers in the house at all times.” Each year, Eastman’s live-in servants would transform his home into a Dutch summer field. After he built his East Avenue mansion in 1905, this meant constructing five greenhouses to prepare fifty rooms’ worth of floral color. Later, in 1917, he even dug a tunnel from a greenhouse to his house to prevent the winter cold from hurting plants when it was time to transfer them.

One hundred years after that loving letter to his mother, the Eastman Museum decided to bring the billionaire-philanthropist’s tradition to the people of Rochester. The event has continued to grow each year, and its twenty fifth anniversary is no exception. “It’s become almost a year-round job for me and my crew,” Bellavia says. “I have my orders in by June and they’re usually delivered in the last week of September.” After months of expert care in their greenhouses, the flowers are brought into the house for the Dutch Connection in February. “We almost always have extras that live longer than we expect, so it ends up going until the second or third week of March.” April through June involves cleaning and disinfecting fifteen thousand pots before it’s time to order again.

Bellavia only has two employees, so the event runs on volunteers and community engagement. “We’d be nowhere without them. We try and feed them breakfast and coffee, but we can’t thank them enough,” he continues. “We have anywhere from 12,000 to 15,000 flowers that need to be watered every two days.” From the beginning, the primary economic force behind the Dutch Connection has been local sponsors Gerald P. and Karen S. Kral. “The museum was just starting up in ’95, so we knew they were interested in helping with gardens and initially asked if they could help with just the printing costs,” Bellavia says. “Since then, they’ve donated and sponsored the show ever since. And each year they seem to find a way to help out more.” Each year the museum spends roughly $12,000 on the event—up to $8,000 on bulbs alone.

The kids program is a unique opportunity to learn about gardening during winter

Two years ago, Bellavia and his team developed a program for kids to plant their own bulbs and learn about gardening and community stewardship. “I really push education,” he says. “They learn a little bit about gardening, and they take it home to watch it grow and bloom. Then they can plant them in their gardens outside.” This year the openings have almost doubled from 2017’s slots. Bellavia notes that a lot of parents grow tired of “big germ factories” like some children’s museums in winter, so the Dutch Connection is a great opportunity to try something new. “But anything to get your kid’s nose out of their phone is great,” he laughs.

After the success of the kids’ event’s first year, the Eastman House decided to try something special for adults. “Learning to plant bulbs is just as enriching for grown-ups as it is for kids,” Bellavia says, “but we wanted to couple it with something trendy.” After partnering with Bushnell Basin’s Lost Borough Brewing Co, “Blooms and Brews” was born. “We allowed 60 people to come in, plant some bulbs, and try samples of Lost Borough’s new seasonal beers,” he says. Admission to Blooms and Brews includes a house tour and a series of appetizer pairings for each beer.

Overhead view of the conservatory
Display in front of organ in the conservatory

The Eastman House utilized Cornell University’s extensive archive of Eastman’s catalogs to determine his exact orders. “I still deal with one company he originally ordered from,” Bellavia says. “some of the varieties of tulips are no longer in existence, but we order the closest varieties we can.” Eastman ordered nine types of tulips, differing namely in the time that they bloom. That way, Bellavia says, he’d have flowers blooming far beyond the typical season— “especially when he’d plant them outside, he’d have tulips blooming for two months.” Eastman’s catalogs also show narcissi (daffodils and paperwhites), hyacinths, amaryllis, freesia, clivias, hellebores, English and German primulas, Rieger begonias, and azaleas. “Depending on availability, I like to add another annual or two,” Bellavia says, “but I don’t know what until just before the show.” Interestingly, George Eastman favored monochromatic displays— “so it would be all pink or all white.”

When you cut through the glamor and class, there’s a simple reason Eastman chose to decorate his home with flowers—to uplift spirits through the winter. “February, you know, is lovely around here,” Bellavia laughs. “But by getting people in here, we remind them that winter’s almost over. And there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.” As depression-fighting as the flowers themselves can be, watching them grow and develop adds a new level to the good-mood magic. “If you come in one day it’ll look gorgeous,” he continues. “But if you come a few days later, you’ll see the changes as bulbs open up and the flowers change color. You see the differences.” Bellavia notes that a membership to the museum makes it easy to return as often as you’d like.

“After working here fifteen years,” he says, “I still walk in some mornings and just go, ‘wow.’”

John Ernst is a writer and graphic designer based in Rochester. See more of his work at johnmwrites.com.

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