Garden Visitors: The Signs are There

I’ve been having fun this week going back and forth between videos on the trail cam and physical signs left behind by our garden visitors. It’s amazing how much we can see when we are really looking and piecing the signs together. For example, here is what the space in front of the raised beds looks like this morning. A mess, right?

But what does it tell us about who visited?

There is the seed all over the ground, a sign of the house sparrows, who throw seed from the feeder as they eat.

There are scratch marks from the ground-feeding birda, mourning doves, juncos and more sparrows – who clean up after the feeder sparros.

There are rabbit prints and rabbit droppings, from the cottontails who visit at night to grab the high-protein food left by the birda.

Is there more if we look deeper?

What about the kale? It’s certainly seen better days, but was it wind or something else that left it ragged and torn, with little bits of its leaves like confetti on the snow?

Without the cam, I might not have known for sure, but here is the culprit:

And what about the holes in the snow? Were they caused by snow? Are they deer footprints, expanded by wind or meltage?

No, they were made by someone a bit smaller. This little mole has been popping in and out of them periodically today.

I’m inspired to keep looking a little deeper for the signs that are there.

Garden Project of the Day: Sage, Rosemary, and Mint Tea

The garden is blanketed in snow and the growing season is done for the year. Even the hardy herbs that held out for Thanksgiving have lost their leaves, but I still have dried herbs taken in the late summer and early fall to play around with. And lately, that has meant making herbal teas. Here is the most recent:

This is a mixture of 4 herbs: sage, mint, lemon balm and rosemary. I love the flavor. It is savory and complex, minty and full-bodied. It warms the body and the spirit on a cold winter day. The sage and mint together leave your breath smelling sweet after drinking. The mint will sooth the nagging stomach upset that comes with poor eating decisions this time of year, the lemon balm is relaxing, and the rosemary may act as an immune booster. All around a great combintation for the season!

I’m sharing a “recipe” for how I like to prepare this tea. Nothing about this is set in stone. If you don’t like one of the ingredients, reduce the amount you use or leave it out. If you love one, feel free to add more of it. This is how I like the tea – it doesn’t mean you have to make it the same.

Michelle’s Sage and Mint Herbal Tea

  • 4 parts sage leaves, dried
  • 2 parts mint leaves, dried (I used a combo of spearmint and apple mint)
  • 1 part lemon balm leaves, dried
  • 1 part rosemary leaves, dried

Break the sage, mint, and lemon balm leaves into small pieces – maybe a quarter inch across. This does not need to be exact. If you’d prefer a more uniform look, you could pulse them in a food processor or coffee grinder – I personally like the way they look when they are hand processed. Combine with the rosemary leaves and store in an airtight container.

To drink, steep for 10 minutes.

This is enough for one small pot of tea, but you can (and probably should!) put together more than one serving at a time. You can store the dried tisane in an air tight container so you have it on hand whenever you’d like a cup. Enjoy!

As a side benefit, Sage tea is said to be good for your skin, gums, digestion, and memory. Some sources say not to drink more than two to three cups a day, as it can induce seizures or kidney damage in high doses. If you have any left over after your 2 cups, consider using the rest to rinse your hair. It’s said to be a good natural dye for covering grey hair!

Garden Visitor of the Day: That’s a Big Bird!

One visitor to the birdfeeder last night was a little larger than usual.

Deer are not rare here. At all. But I’ve never seen any sign of them being in our yard before, which I’ve always found surprising. No footprints, no plant damage that couldn’t be explained by rabbits, no sightings on the trail cam. Our neighborhood borders on farm fields, which are favorite spots for deer. (Although the farms are getting further and further form us as more gets built on our end of the village.) I see deer in those fields and in the marsh on the east end of our neighborhood. And there is plenty of food for them here in our yard. I have completely unprotected veggie garden beds, for heaven’s sake.

Well, they are here now. It will be interesting to see how often they visit this winter and how much they eat this spring.

Permaculture in Practice: Produce No Waste

I’ve mentioned my under-the-window compost bin before. It sits just outside of our kitchen window, making it possible. in theory, to simply open the window and toss any kitchen scraps directly in, rather than maintaining a compost pail inside the house that has to be taken out regularly.

This is a view of the compost bin taken through the kitchen window today in the snow. When we first built the bin 10 years ago, we thought we might possibly be setting ourselves up for a rodent problem, having it so close to the house. As it has turned out, we don’t see many critters in it other than chipmunks (and one summer a mess of voles, but they did not stay long). We compost way more than we did when the bin was in a back corner of the yard, because it is so convenient. No one is tempted to just quickly clean the compost bucket into the trash to avoid walking across the yard, and there are no more complaints about a compost bucket sitting on the counter.

Here’s the problem, though – I’ve subverted our carefully planned compost system by having too many house plants.

What started out as a couple plants has grown into a miniature forest. It is no longer possible to open the window without knocking one or the other of these lovely friends over. I’ve subverted by own carefully planned and previously-very-effective system. I would move the plants to improve our access, but this is the only south-facing window in the house and they are very happy here. Time to come up with a more creative solution, but until I do we are getting clips of me like this on the trail cam.

We’re still composting, which is good, but I’d like to get back to a time when I didn’t find myself tiptoeing barefoot through the snow. And here is my warning – when you come up with a system that works for you, try not to be your own worst enemy by breaking it!

Garden Visitor of the Day: Squirrel, Coming and Going

For the first decade we lived in our house, we never saw a squirrel. There was no reason for one to be here. The houses sat in the middle of grass lawns with only a few foundation plantings around them. The nearest trees over 10′ tall were at least 100′ away across the street. We lived in what was essentially a green desert. When I dug the soil, I did not even find worms or roly polies or anything visibly alive.

I had a plan for my yard that involved not just planting the yard but increasing the biodiversity in my 1/3 acre plot as much as possible. We planted trees, shrubs, native and non-native plants. We planted roses for no better reason than that I liked them and wanted them. We lost quite a few to poor soil in the early years, but the hardy plants survived and made way for more delicate ones as the soild and habitat improved.

Over time, wildlife also started to find its way to us. First it seemed it was only mice, house sparrows, and butterflies. After a few years we started seeing our first worms, beetles and more interesting birds like blue jays. But it took a long time before the yard was welcoming to the squirrels, funny given the fact that in urban neighborhoods squirrels are borderline pests. Even squirrels, it turns out, have their standards.

I remember the first time I saw a squirrel in our yard. I was on the phone with my sister almost a decade after we’d first started this project and she thought I’d lost my mind when I yelled excitedly that there was a squirrel in the yard. But it was a welcome sign that the yard was finally maturing.

Now the tallest trees in the yard are at least 20′ tall and the squirrels visit almost every day, scampering over the roof, down the trellis of our back deck, over the ledge of the compost big and down to the ground. Even though we don’t have acorns for them yet, they are happy to visit the birdfeeders. (Fun Fact: We planted a white oak for the squirrels 15 years ago, but it could be another 15 before it has any acorns. A very unfortunate fact, actually, since most of the oak trees that used to stand across the street were cut down for development.)

Here is today’s visitor, coming and going:

Here he comes…

… and there he goes.

Garden Visitor of the Day: Cottontail Rabbit

Among our most frequent visitors this winter have been cottontail rabbits. Evidence of their visits is everywhere in the yard, with tracks (and droppings) running all through our foundation plantings and completely ringing the house. One of the reasons I added a trail cam to the house was to better see when, where, and how long they were visiting the yard.

Here is what I’d read about rabbits in the garden:

  • Their primary winter foods are woody stems and left over grasses/plant materials
  • They don’t survive long – most rabbits will not live longer than two years in the wild
  • They hunker down in culverts or thickets when cold weather hits, and sometimes take over burrows that other animals have dug and abandoned
  • In the winter, you’re most likely to see them out and about at dawn and dusk on days when the weather is milder

Here’s what I’ve found after a month of watching them on the trail cam:

  • While they are definitely gnawing on some of the left over plants in the garden (mostly kale plants and herbs – all severely damaged by frost), their primary food in our yard this winter is birdseed that has dropped to the ground. The mix I use contains both sunflower seeds and cracked corn, which I assume is what they are going for. In past years, they have eaten woody stems in the yard, especially burning bush and fruit tree suckers which I leave on purpose for them so they do not damage the actual fruit trees. This year, though, they’ve left the woody plants alone. Perhaps a mild winter means better food is available?
  • They start showing up on the trail cam an hour or so after sunset, and visit the yard frequently throughout the night until a half hour or so before sunrise. It really isn’t just the sunset and sunrise hours that they are active. I frequently see them on the camera at midnight, one a.m., two a.m – all through the night.
  • They are also not most active on the mild days in winter. They visit frequently during the week (but not every night) regardless of weather. One of the most active nights for visits so far this winter was -15F and terribly windy!

While it was not anywhere near that cold today (high of 39F, low of 9F), the first rabbit showed up tonight at 8:24 and mulled about around the garden for about an hour. He (she?) or another rabbit altogether was back at 11:00PM searching for more food and was active in the yard for at least half an hour. Here’s a quick clip: