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

Winter growing, reading, and making with kids

by cathym on November 1, 2019

by Valerie Shaw

It’s a chilly early winter day, there’s frost in the garden, the furnace humming expensively, and your little ones are waiting with anticipation for the next holiday, or snow day, or weekend. You may not be able to convince your kids to venture outside, but don’t worry, there’s still green-thumb fun to be had!

One of the bigger trends right now has the rather gross name of “Kitchen Scrap Gardening,” which just might sound icky enough to be interesting. You can also call it “Plant Rescue” for the kinder of heart, or “Garbage Gardening,” “Bio-active Recycling,” or something similar. Whatever you call it, it’s a quick process with satisfying results.

Tops and bottoms: Save your celery or onion bottoms, or your carrot or beet tops, and stick them in either a little container of water or some moist potting soil. Give them a few days and, like the Thanksgiving turkey leftovers creatively hidden in every dish, they’re backkk! You can make this a quick experiment and toss them, or plant them in pots and keep them in a sunny window. Feeling especially green? Try doing this with lettuce roots or turnip tops. Once we kept “perpetual lettuce” growing for an entire winter. It didn’t make enough for a salad, but it was fun to pick fresh leaves to stick in a sandwich.

Tubers: Sweet potatoes make lovely vines, as you probably have discovered in your plant-buying travels. Simply wait for a sweet potato to sprout from an eye and stick it halfway in water. It’ll put out roots and leaves shortly. They like sunshine and will climb upward to frame a window.

Growing an avocado tree from a seed
Photo courtesy Flicker: Maria Keay.

Avocado Tree: Want lots of leaves? Enjoy your avocado, then scrub the seed clean. Stab it with four toothpicks and suspend at the top of a jar with the wide part of the seed touching the water. Change out the water every two days until the jar fills with roots. Plant it in a big pot and put it somewhere sunny, then stand back. These are abundant and fast-growing plants! The Internet is full of different advice about growing these, so you can assign your science-minded kid a project to determine the truth.

With the holidays approaching, I’ve compiled some new projects that will get your kids busy, and still inspire them to love their “planty” pals.

Photo courtesy Flicker: Marco Verch

Cranberries: They are not only delicious, and grow in intriguingly different methods than most plants, they are also quite cheerfully beautiful and their large size makes them easy for kids (and grownups!) to handle. Kids will enjoy making cranberry ornaments, garlands, and even easy candle displays, and the fresh cranberries remain bright red even when dried. For an easy ornament, simply string cranberries and beads (silver or gold look lovely) on floral wire and twist into a circle. Tie a ribbon on top and you have a pretty, lightly scented ornament for your room, or as a nice gift for grandma! Check out Ocean Spray’s website for more great cranberry crafts.

“The Secret Garden” courtesy Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division

Reading: Oh yes, books are a gardener’s friend! Try The Secret Garden, Seed People, or, for the little ones, Peter Rabbit, for cozy reading when the snow’s flying.

Flowerpot People: All you need is a clay flowerpot to make a cute, funny pal. Have your child paint a face on the pot with acrylic paint, then fill with potting soil and sprinkle some chia or grass seeds on top. You can use wheat grass seeds to make this a cat treat, too. Water and keep somewhere sunny, then enjoy trimming the pot pal’s “hair” when it begins to grow long!

That’s all for this year! Happy holidays, from my garden to yours!

Valerie Shaw is a YMCA coach, PTO mom, and aspiring novelist with too many distracting goats. She lives on a patch of plant paradise in West Monroe, NY, with her wonderful husband and two energetic tweens.


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.


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