Articles for the Month of January 2011

The Birds of Winter

Cardinal on the snow

Although I’m looking forward to getting back out to the garden both for growing things and for watching the birds that migrate through our woods, there is a pleasure at this time of year in seeing what birds decide to make our yard a home for the winter.  There is a cast of regulars like the Tufted Titmouse, the Cardinals, the Black-capped Chickadee, Blue-jays, Downy & Red-bellied Woodpeckers that are with us pretty much year around.

Tufted Titmouse

White -throated Sparrow

But then, as always happens when you take the time to observe, there are surprises that you didn’t expect.  The Eastern Towhee is always a delightful sight with it’s red eyes and striking colors.  It tends to be shy bird in the underbrush that I see rarely at best.  I didn’t realize that it actually sticks around to enjoy our wintertime.

Eastern Towhee in snow

Recently I saw postings from Jan at Thanks for Today and Randy at Randy & Meg’s Garden Paradise that mentioned Pine Siskins.  It made me pause and think because I had seen birds like that and assumed they were either female Goldfinches or House Finches.  I took another closer look the next time they appeared and sure enough we have Pine Siskins as well.

Pine Siskin

We often have had the White-breasted Nuthatch stop in both winter and summer.  As they walk upside down on the oak tree they are quite easy to pick out from the crowd.  They will also use the feeder to grab sunflower seeds in the winter.

White-breasted Nuthatch

What was a pleasant surprise for us this year was the first sighting of the Red-breasted Nuthatch.  This little guy is smaller than his cousin and he causes a double-take the first time you see his masked face at the feeders.  Their normal year-round range is north of us but they do come south for the winter.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

We’re expecting more snow tomorrow, so I will fill the feeders again, put out the suet, and keep watching for some sign of warmer weather in the future.

Belated Garden Blogger’s Bloom Day

Bougainvillea against the window

Well, not only am I late with assessing the mid-Winter blooms but I have little to add in terms of flowers for this day.  The Bougainvillea above is one of two that have been flowering since November.  Now that is not surprising for people in California, Texas, or Florida.  But in Maryland it’s definitely a more anomalous occurrence.  Some plants respond better than others to lavish exposure to sun and water in the warmer months and then the subsequent trip to the dungeon for the winter.  Those which do flower under such treatment get to live in the sunlit dining room for as long as they hold forth.  The Bougainvilleas seem to have gotten the message.  This is the best they have ever flowered in many years of mistreatment.

Outside, however, we are still limited to the lovely snowdrops which I mentioned in my last post.  You would think that someone else would follow their example.  If one looks outside it’s not too promising.

Backyard in mid-January

While temperatures are typically in the thirties, on a sunny day you can talk yourself into looking about for signs of spring.  Indeed the daffodils near the deck are poking their way up above the ground.

Daffodil tips emerging

But realistically nothing is likely to happen until we can more reliably see days in the 40’s.  Year after year I look for the first crocus just about 5 weeks from now, when the pitchers and catchers report for the beginning of the baseball season and my oldest son has his birthday — all three very momentous events.  In between we can expect to see the witch hazel start to show some color, the buds on the Magnolia start to pop, the winter aconite begin to show some color, and, if we are very good to one another, the first buds from the adonis.

In the meantime, we will say goodbye to the now fading Miltonia Orchid which has been sharing its blooms with us since Christmas.

Miltonia Orchid

If you would like to see what other gardeners are seeing in their gardens right now I encourage you to go to Carol’s Garden Blogger’s Bloom Day report.

Or you can settle back with your seed catalogs spread out on the table and read Marianne’s delightful take on the winter landscape in her small town garden column in today’s Frederick Post.

Let’s give the snowdrops full credit

Galanthus nivalis

I need to apologize to the snowdrops for failing to mention them during the December Garden Blogger’s Bloom Day head count.  It was only when I read the comment from Carolyn at Carolyn’s Shade Gardens mentioning the things that she had in bloom in a similar climate zone that I went back out into the yard and… there before my wondering eyes was a lovely snowdrop.  It has since acquired a friend and there are many more on the way.  So the really neat thing about snowdrops is that they come very, very early in the spring (ah, can we say winter?).  They then persist until all those other ‘normal’ bulbs start to flower.  So figure on a couple of months at least.  In addition, when they’re happy, they will spread.  I see clusters forming around all my original plantings.  I doubt they will ever catch up with the Glory of the Snow (Chionodoxa) which have spread all over the yard and into the pasture, but all the same it’s nice to have a charmer like the snowdrops not only be hardy but multiply as well.

In England snowdrops have a subculture all their own.  The National Trust organizes visits to some of their properties with outstanding snowdrop displays.  You can see a sample of a carpet of snowdrops from Bank Hall in Lancashire on Wikipedia for those who want to really get ambitious about growing snowdrops.  All it takes is a few centuries.  They have a name for the afflicted lovers of snowdrops — galanthophiles.  Galanthophilia has led to prices of up to $250 for a single bulb of rare varieties on Ebay.  It’s probably good for my gardening lust control that I haven’t seen all those rare varieties (yet).  I do note that there are seven varieties in the Brent & Becky catalog for next fall…

While I was giving credit last month to the plants which retain some green in the landscape I should also have mention some unusual spots of color that persist even in the darkest hours of the winter.  One is the Acanthus mollis ‘Tasmanian Angel’

Tasmanian Angel in Winter

Another newcomer from last year is a variety of St. John’s Wort

Hypericum calycinum 'Brigadoon'

It doesn’t have the spectacular yellow flowers of the common St. John’s Wort, but the foliage has variations of gold for most of the year.