Thursday, March 27, 2014

Cats at Chickadee Gardens

First bees, now cats! So many critters at Chickadee Gardens!
My goal is for everyone to get along and play nicely.

Not like this...bad kitty!

Aaah, that's more like it. Good kitty. Biscuit.

So how does it happen when cats, which are so often blamed for the demise of songbirds, are able to enjoy our garden? It happens for us with a lot of planning.

When I adopted Lucy and Hobbes (who are littermate brother and sister, by the way) as rescues, my heart was smitten immediately. The three of us lived on the sixth floor of an apartment, so no outside time for these two. Indoor only, which is not only better for the cat and increases their life-span, but also for wildlife.

I agree cats are predators. No mistake.

Solution? Cat fence.

Let me back up a bit before we go into details.

Back when my husband and I were dating, it was perfectly clear to me that he and I were two peas in a pod and would spend our lives together. What was not so clear was whether Lucy and Hobbes would remain indoor-only cats once our families merged into David's house, a lovely Spanish Colonial home with a backyard.

First of all, we are lucky the backyard is completely fenced, that helps. So after a week or so of letting the kitties adjust to their new surroundings, I tentatively let them both outside, supervised. They sniffed, poked, pawed and were in awe of this new wonderland. Mommy made sure to watch their every move.

Then Hobbes learned how to jump the fence. Yikes!

 Hobbes has no trouble with heights.

This big boy can jump 6 feet straight up from a dead stop, no joke.

After a couple of nervous cat-wrangling episodes in our neighbors' backyards, which sent Mommy into cardiac arrest, I vowed this escape artist's future attempts to bust out would be thwarted.

Hobbes enjoying some of his first outside time, this pic is probably 5 years old.

We needed a fence not only to keep them in, but to keep other critters (wandering cats) out. So David---my wonder man---went to work. First of all, we needed to gather materials - netting and posts to mount the netting. I found online some resources to aid in our home-made cat fence. I found a website from the Feral Cat Coalition here that describes how to build. I also found another site, Affordable Cat Fence , which is where we actually ordered the netting. David found the aluminum "posts" as scrap and bent them to about 20 degrees from vertical. He drilled holes and hex-bolted them to the existing fences:

He then drilled holes and attached the netting with tie straps.

Here's a shot of the length of the north side. It kind of blends in, and when underplanted with vines, the netting virtually disappears.

 Hard to see, as it's backlit, but it's there.

 Evergreen clematis covers the netting, which is difficult to see, it's visible on the right there. All in all, the netting cost us about $50, while the rest of the materials are recycled materials. We still have a ton of netting left if we need to make repairs. A great investment and well worth the trouble.

Here are some native grape vines, Vitis californica purchased at Echo Valley Natives in Oregon City, and also a jasmine vine. The grape vine will leaf out in a few weeks and completely cover the west end of the garden and fence.

How did it work? Well, the first time we let Hobbes outside after the fence was installed, he tried to scale the fence. He jumped straight up, and since the fence is bent inward, he was interrupted by the netting, hung on for dear life with his front paws, looked around for a few seconds like a dumbfounded fool and dropped to the ground. 

Hobbes tried that once more before he got the message. Lucy? She never even tried, let's just say she's the "smart" one. 
Lucy in the garden.

Now, they never attempt to jump the fence. So they are safe inside the enclosure, free to roam around and sniff flowers, watch bumblers buzz from blossom to blossom, chase flies and catch some sunshine. The rule in our house is no one goes outside alone, either David or I am constantly with them while they are outside. This definitely thwarts any bird-catching activities. So all in all, the birds are happy, the bumblers are happy, the hummingbirds laugh in jest at Hobbes as they are waaaay too fast for him and they both know it, and well, Mommy and Daddy have some peace of mind. So be it, we are a happy fenced-in family.

One last shot of Hobbes working on his Vitamin D intake. 

Do you have any cat fence solutions to share? Leave a comment and share the ideas.
Thank you for reading, until next week, happy gardening!!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Mason Bees at Chickadee Gardens

photo courtesy of USDA - mason bee on an apple blossom


It's mason bee season! 

Right now the mason bees are bursting out of their little cocoons at Chickadee Gardens. Having recently attended a class at the Backyard Bird Shop about keeping mason bees, I thought it would be a great opportunity to revisit some key points and refresh my own memory. We have three years of experience hosting them, and while I am certainly no expert on the matter, I would love to share what I have learned and also invite others to participate in this conversation about the how/why of mason-bee keeping. There is much I hope to learn about these amazing creatures.

Photo courtesy of USDA. Aren't they pretty? No, they are not flies!

Unlike a colony of honey bees, mason bees are solitary creatures and do not form hives, not in the sense we know - nor do they produce honey. So why then would one want to "host" mason bees? Mainly because they are excellent pollinators. With the decline of honey bees (which actually come from Europe), pollination is a critical issue. No pollination means no food for people. There are many species of mason bees, the Blue Orchard mason bee is what I have and is most common in this area (the order is Hymenoptera and the Latin name is Osmia lignaria). This is the one we will focus on, and it should be mentioned that these are native to North America.

They are different from honey bees; they are smaller and black with an iridescent sheen. They have four wings and although they do have stingers, they do not use them, they are quite gentle. They also only live for a year.

 Bees entering the nest hole, photo courtesy of USDA

Here are some interesting facts about our native pollinators:
  • They travel up to 100 yards from their nest site to collect pollen.
  • As far as pollinating, they are some 80x more efficient than honey bees.
  • They forage on overcast days.
  • They will fly and collect pollen at 54 degrees F. whereas honey bees rarely collect pollen below 60 degrees F.
  • Since they fly at lower temperatures and when cloudy, this means that your early blooming fruit trees (and anything else blooming) are adequately pollinated. They peak when pollination peaks between May and June.
  • They emerge around March 15th---so just about now!
As stated, mason bees have a one year life-cycle. It goes something like this:

In early to mid-March they are emerging as adults from their cocoons. The nests, or tubes, contain several cocoons in each one, the females are at the rear and the males up front. The males emerge first and go looking around for pollen and await the females' emergence so they can mate. The females follow some three or so days later. They mate, she starts to collect pollen for the eggs she will lay and then she finds another place to nest (hopefully provided by me or you). She then lays the egg with the pollen as a food source for the larvae and continues on until the tube is full. It should be noted that in the wild they simply look for a cavity that is warm and dry with ideally a hole 5/16" wide by about 6" long. By providing them a clean, hopefully safe home we increase their odds of survival. 

It takes her 25 full loads of pollen for one egg, which is about 75 flowers' worth of pollen. This continues on until she has filled up a tube. The average tube or nest (one tube = one nest) consists of 2 - 4 female eggs and 5 - 8 male eggs. At the end she will cap it off with a bit of mud, then die by the first of June. The males are long done with their life by this time. 

The larvae now spins cocoons and pupates between July and September, it's best not not disturb the nests during this time. At this point, there is a full-grown adult inside the cocoon and one school of thought says that between November and December while the adults are dormant, you should wash the cocoons and the mason bee nests. In the wild, of course, this does not happen and well, it's not necessary. It is simply a matter of managing your bees' health as disease, mites and other pests can easily wreak havoc on these little guys, so whatever can be done to increase their populations the better.

Photo courtesy of USDA

If you do decide to clean the whole thing out, you can remove the cocoons (in November/December), wash them in warm water, clean out the holes and tubes and replace the hole liners with fresh ones. I have yet to do this, and it's worked fine thus far. But I will this next season. You see the first "nest box" I bought was simple drilled holes in a block, which once they are filled up you can't pull anything out to clean, as they have no liners. I had to wait the following March for the bees to emerge. They did, then IMMEDIATELY re-nested in the old holes. **sigh** The second year, I bought a second nest which has tubes with liners so I can clean them out at some point. This second nest filled up right away in April/May of 2013. This is the third spring with the bees, and I have a third sparkly new box with fresh liners and tubes in the hopes that they will occupy this one and give me the chance to do some cleaning this winter.

When you do decide to clean: Wash them in warm water, gently remove dirt from the cocoons. Debris will sink and the cocoons will float, let them rest for 5 - 15 minutes then rinse them in a sieve until the water runs clean. Allow them to air dry on a towel until completely dry---about an hour.

Scrub the nesting trays with warm water and let them air dry as well. Store the cocoons in a cardboard box inside of a metal container (such as an old cookie or candy tin) with holes punched in it for air. I was told to place them on the north side of your home to stay cool, just make sure they are safe - if the original location of your bee blocks is safe, it's probably ok to place them nearby. Come springtime, take them out of the metal box, punch a hole in the cardboard and they will find their way out.

How to start, you ask? How we started was with one mason bee block in the summer of 2011 and purchased cocoons from the Backyard Bird Shop in January or February of 2012. Those were in the fridge until March, then we taped the tiny cardboard box to the top of the block. The cocoons hatched, they chewed through the cardboard and were on their way, pollinating and making bee babies and soon filling up the vacancies in our new bee block. It's grown exponentially since then, and we are learning as we go.

This is the original "bee block" we purchased in 2011 - see the open holes? Those were full last week. They have only just begun! Lots more to come and the warmer weather expected at the end of this week should send them all out into the wild.

Does it really matter?
Yes. Case in point: Our lone apple tree produced about four lowly fruits in 2011. In 2012, we had about 100 apples. Surrounding fruit trees can and do benefit also, in fact they aren't called orchard mason bees for nothing. Orchardist rely on these little miracles. Think of all the apples, pears, almonds, peaches, plums, hazelnuts we wouldn't have. Adding healthy pollinators to the environment helps the natural balance of the planet.

When you are ready to host mason bees, what should you do?
Buy or make a house. Backyard Bird Shop, Portland Nursery and many local nurseries and online suppliers sell supplies and ready made houses (see the end of this post for some resources). You can also go online for specifications for building one yourself, but basically it's a matter of being a 5/16" diameter hole, 6" deep. They like wood, but don't use fresh cedar; it's not good for the bees. Use aged wood, untreated, too. You have choices when you buy pre-made  houses, either wood block systems, tubes with liner systems or stacked tray systems. They all work, it's just up to you. I have a wood block system (no liners used, they have limits), and two tubes with liner systems.

 Here's the second one we purchased last year complete with removable tubes and disposable liners.

Where to place the house:
With east to southeast exposure. They want warm morning sun, 4 - 5 hours is ideal. Afternoon sun or west-facing will fry the little guys, north is too cold. Protection is crucial, from weather and from hungry birds, although we've been lucky so far on both counts. At least 4 - 5' off the ground, too.

Here's my newest one, and unoccupied as of now...will probably (hopefully!) be full by June. The tubes can be easily removed for cleaning and to replace the liners. Liners are pretty inexpensive, about $7 for a box of about 30.

Side view - I guess it's ok they are sticking out, but come this winter I am going to move them after cleaning the cocoons.

 All of these nest boxes are facing east, about 5' - 8' off the ground and in a fairly sheltered garden.

Cardboard tube and a cardboard liner

 Liner in the tube

What else do they need?:
A source of mud. The less they have to spend energy fly around looking for it, the more energy they can spend on making babies. And fresh water, of course. Everybody needs that. Everybee, I mean!

While it may be too late in the season to populate your mason bee blocks with cocoons from a friend or purchased at a nursery or other source (for sale during December/January/February into early March), it's not too late to think about next year and stock up on supplies. It's a fascinating process to watch and they are a lot of fun to observe hovering around the garden. As I mentioned, they are totally gentle and quite beautiful with their iridescent bodies.

Photo courtesy of USDA

We are proud "bee parents" and welcome these little guys, even if we don't have an orchard. It's just another small, simple and really effective way of making your garden space a little better for the planet. Plus, it's really not time-consuming at all, and would be an excellent project for curious little minds. We highly recommend it. There is so much more information out there, if this has piqued any interest for you, I highly encourage you to do some exploring and go for it. We did knowing absolutely nothing, with simply the desire to learn about and encourage nature.

Here are some useful resources:

Xerces Society
OSU Extension
The Bee Guild
Organic Farming and Bees Guide
Crown Bees
Utah Bees Fact Sheet
Poster identifying different kinds of bees
How to build a nesting box

Thanks for reading,
Until next week, happy gardening!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Replacing the Dead of Winter

The only good thing about the uncommonly cold winter (from a gardening perspective) is that I get to go shopping to replace plants we lost. Luckily (or unluckily depending on your plant-addiction level), I live within minutes of several epic nurseries. To name a few, Xera Plants, Cistus, Joy Creek, Garden Fever and Portland Nursery are all ones I've visited in the last two weeks. I know. I know. I'm spoiled.

First up is Cistus Nursery. Now, I hadn't planned on visiting recently as the Yard Garden & Patio show was at the Convention Center, that was my total focus for weeks. As luck would have it, we woke to freezing rain. Du'OH! Not that a little freezing rain scared us off--oh no! We went all the same. I had so anticipated stocking up on my grocery list of plants. I was simply giddy. Know what? I did not buy one plant. Shocker! I'm pretty picky these days, I guess. So rather than go home empty handed, we drove to Sauvie Island to Cistus and then to Scappoose to Joy Creek, which just opened for the season on the 1st of March.

 Under the big top at Cistus! See the Astelia 'Red Gem' in the middle? That bad boy came home with me. A splurge indeed.

 Out on the front porch, our two gorgeous Phormiums died. Yes, it was a PKW, Phormium killing winter. I have seen just one Phormium alive around town, but every other one is gone, baby, gone.

 My husband picked these sexy spiky plants out to replace the dead Phormiums - two gorgeous Dasylirion wheeleri, also from Cistus. I like his choice.

On an earlier trip to Cistus a few weeks ago, I bought some Sedum rubrotinctum (my previous ones are mush from the freeze), Cheilanthes tomentosa or Wooly Lipped Fern and a small Astelia 'Red Gem':

 This little Astelia replaces a mucho mushy Cotyledon. Darn. And there was another Phormuim behind this pot....also long gone and a pile of mush.

 Wooly-Lipped fern, likes sun and dry. Great! Gorgeous foliage.

 There's the sedum in the little pot and one of two Dasylirion wheeleri in the big one.

I also brought home this sexy Agave 'Blue Glow'. The friendly new chap at Cistus recommended it and went into the back nursery to pull one from mail order. Oh-my-god this is gorgeous.Yes, please!

 Here's the jumbo-sized Astelia 'Red Gem' in its new home on the front porch area. Hoping it will hide the gas meter thing eventually. The Callistemon to the left looks dead :(   Got it at Portland Nursery for my birthday. I hope he lives!

 Next up on the list is Joy Creek. Although I took no photos at the nursery (remember it was freezing rain this day...too cold to break out the camera), I managed to get a Penstemon pinifolius and Sedum 'Bertram Anderson'. This is the Penstemon that is evergreen, hardy and so cute!

Several weeks ago, I ordered a Rhodie from Gossler Farms:

 Rhododendron pachysanthum. Sooooo beautiful, those leaves. Loree of Danger Garden blogged about one she saw at Cornell Farms here.

So I ripped out an old, scraggly Rhodie that came with the house to make room for this little guy and three Polypodium scouleri (purchased at Garden Fever).

Oh, speaking of Cornell Farms, I managed to stop by there and buy a Sedeveria 'Jet Beads'.

Last weekend while the husband was out of town, I did some damage at Xera Plants, Portland Nursery and Smith Rock. No, not THAT Smith Rock for rock climbing, rather THIS Smith Rock for landscape rocks in SE Portland. 

It's called a "Bronze Bird Bowl" - they had a bunch to choose from. The owner came out, super friendly, and offered his help should I need it. I told him what I was looking for and wanted a bird bath with personality. We both went for the same one, so it was a done deal, meant to be! Who knew this little rock would weight in at 150 pounds? I guess it's not going anywhere! LOVE that Smith Rock. They have such selection of not only these, but tons (literally) of all kinds of landscape rocks.

Earlier in the day at Xera, I bought this Saxifraga x geum 'Dentata'

 This little native Iris x pacifica.

Geum 'Marmalade'. I also purchased a native Geum triflorum. Loves me some Xera Plants!

And finally,....another small-ish project that the husband took on, all those extra paver bricks which came from this project ended up in a new and improved location.

A solid path in front of the veggie bed. Nice! More "bones" for the garden.
(Hey, that's Hobbes the boy Bengal sniffing around, inspecting our handy work. He's the boss of us.)

Here's what the veggie path used to look like, all gravel and messy. 

So that's what we've been up to here at Chickadee Gardens...happily soaking in every dry moment and planting away. I guess losing a few plants is an opportunity to try new and better and HARDIER things. I bought another Vaccinium ovatum or evergreen huckleberry and a few other native guys at Portland Nursery. All my native plants have done so well that I'm continuing down that path as much as I can (and adding in a little zing from New Zealand!) Lesson learned, for now at any rate.

And last but not least, a fond farewell from my new buddy at Cistus:

 He followed me everywhere, hoping to get me to throw sticks. I happily obliged!

 What a cutie pie!

It seems we've been busy despite the fact that it's winter - and I have a feeling we'll keep going through spring which is FINE by me!

Happy gardening until next week!

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Let's Go! The Netherlands and Belgium

Continuing from last week's post about Keukenhof: let's explore more of this beautiful part of the world in springtime. Some images are in the Netherlands and Amsterdam, and there are a few from romantic Brugge (or Bruges), Belgium. Let's go!

First up is an adventure at a place called Catharina Hoeve.  From what I understand, it's basically a cheese farm and an authentic Dutch village with specific architecture and colors of the area.

The Dutch love their little bridges. Our friend Stella leads us to the cheese store. We bought some gouda, but it was so strong and fresh it was kind of hard to eat. Not really, we loved it and ate it in great quantity. I wish I had some right now. Cheese. Mmmm.

Mmmmm....gouda. Our friends refer to their country as "Cheeseland". It is, lucky friends! It is!

Paths ramble along the canals towards the windmills.

More homes and canals. Such pretty gardens.

This color combination was special to the area, the bright kelly green and black-and-white trim is very smart looking.

I took a liking to this sheep. Not sure why she was in a punishment collar, but she was friendly enough. As she said, "Ewe!"

Now on to flowers!

Our first morning in the Netherlands, our friends woke us up at 4 am to go see some flowers. What? I mean I love flowers and all...but seriously? Seriously. This is why: the Aalsmeer Flower Auction, the largest flower auction in the world. They start early so if we wanted to see the auction action, we had to start early. You know? It was totally worth seeing and probably the best smelling auction anywhere!

 Hopefully you can make out the size of this building in this photo - the building is the largest in the world by footprint, 243 acres. Yes, acres. I'm not kidding. How many football fields is that?

 Here is just one of several auction rooms of bidders from all over the world. In front of them are huge movie screens that look like this:

 This is an explanation of what the bidders are looking at. It is unbelievable, and something like 20 million flowers pass through this place every day.

 Highest bidder in the giant bidding arena purchases flowers that are paraded in front of them on carts like floral sushi trains (which don't stop, they keep moving! Bid fast!). They are then immediately driven by little trucks to the winning party's loading area, then they loaded on to an awaiting airplane to be shipped around the globe - all of this happens in a matter of minutes. Oh, and did you notice that there are two screens? There are, in each of several arenas like this, two auctions happening simultaneously. That's a LOT of flowers. 20 million a day! Yowsers!

 Look at all those boxes of whatever that flower is.

 So many colors. So huge.

The racks are moved about by little tractors. While it looks like a madhouse, it is very organized and impressive.

These flowers are purchased and put on to airplanes awaiting them just outside within minutes of arriving at the auction. The whole operation is in super fast overdrive because, well, they're alive and you want them to get to their eventual markets a.s.a.p.  In my opinion, however, if you REALLY want fresh flowers, support your local flower growers and gardeners. Just sayin'.

Now, lovely Brugge in Belgium, a UNESCO World Heritage Site:

Near the sea coast. Once was a river port but the river silted up some 500 years ago and now it is a beautiful town ringed by water and very romantic. Our friends went with us and spent a few hours with us but then they headed back to the Netherlands and we were on our own for a few quiet days in Brugge.

The farmer's market in the center of town. Nice office, don't you agree?

One of the many garden green spaces in Brugge.

Every corner and every view is post-card perfect. Sigh. When are we returning to Brugge?

Windmills in Belgium, too. The whole corner of NW Europe, also known as Flanders, is quite flat.

Blooms!'s coming.

Nice vine coverage on this brewery. How romantic is this?

Even if you live on a canal, it's possible to have gardens. They love their gardens.

Oh, yes, flowers here, too. Not sure who dreamed up that yellow bunny, but....
they love Easter here, a lot - it's a pretty big holiday.

Tulips from Aalsmeer, perhaps! I would not be surprised. After all, some 90% of flowers sold worldwide come out of Aalsmeer.

Another market in Amsterdam. So lovely.

How's that for a price? 50 tulips for 7 Euros 50. I'll take two!

Of course along with the flower stalls, there are bulb stalls.

To end our tour of the Netherlands and Belgium, we give you another flower by their favorite native son, Vincent van Gogh. This was at the Kroller-Muller museum in the Netherlands, one of my favorite museums of all time. But that's for an art blog, not a garden blog...maybe I'll start an art blog one day, too. In the meantime, happy gardening and -

as they say in the Netherlands, dank u en tot ziens! Thank you for visiting the Netherlands and Belgium with us!