The glow of love in the garden

If I am lucky I can catch an hour in the garden after work on weeknights.

This is the best place to be for many reasons. It’s cooler than working in the beating sun of the afternoon. I usually see butterflies and hummingbirds visiting my plants.

And I see lightning bugs.

There is nothing like the sudden glow of a lightning bug to take you back to your carefree days of youth. Those were the days when we didn’t care about housework, making dinner and paying bills. All we cared about was meeting the neighborhood kids for one last hour of daylight before we had to take a bath and get ready for bed.

Appropriately named fireflies, they are actually winged beetles.

There are about 2,000 firefly species. The Photuris pennsylvanica  is actually the official state insect of Pennsylvania Ha! I bet you thought it was the mosquito.

The bug is about the size of a paper clip.

What you’re really witnessing when you see them light up is a mating game. Yes, fireflies swarm around with a specific mission, to feed, mate and lay eggs. This is accomplished by communicating with each other with light from their underbellies.

 

Female fireflies wait on a tree branch or in the grass while the males fly around showing off their best flashes. When a female recognizes the flash, she will answer with a flash.

So those flashes are like a wink, or the Firefly’s Morse Code of love.

We could go through a complicated explanation of how they light up, but here is a simple one

Fireflies contain an organic compound in their abdomens called luciferin. As air rushes into the abdomen, it reacts with the luciferin. A chemical reaction gives off the familiar glow of a firefly.

There you have it.

Next time you can grab a few minutes at night, go outside and experience the wonder of the firefly.

Don your gloves and pull a few weeds. You know you have them.

 But don’t forget insect repellent. There’s this little bug called a mosquito…

 

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You, too, can be part of the West End Fair

What are you doing this weekend?

Good news. You have the whole weekend to plan your entries in the West End Fair. http://www.westendfairgilbertpa.com/

The fair is set for Aug. 26 through Sept. 1. Entries for exhibits are accepted on Aug. 25 but you have to pre-register.

The deadline is Aug. 5, which falls on a Sunday. So the fair committee is giving exhibitors an extra day. An entries postmarked by Monday, Aug. 6 will be accepted.

If you want to make a quilt or some wine, you might be out of luck. You probably don’t have time to pull off that type of project.

But you can enter flowers, flower arrangements, photographs, herbs, vegetables and a number of other items. With a little imagination, your possibilities are endless.

There are 23 departments in all. Some are for 4-H’ers and farmers, but most are for regular people. Check out the premium book. How do you get started? Look carefully at the categories. Then walk around your gardens to see what plants and flowers are doing well. Remember the day

A first place shelf exhibit in the "Tea Time" category from a few years ago.

to bring your entries is three weeks away. So you have to know what will be blooming by that time.

Working on a Christmas present. Well, finish it up.

Read the premium book carefully. Pay attention to the rules. No artificial flowers. Floor displays should have three or more items and one must be flowers or arrangements.

Marie Burger of Kresgeville has won several grand champion and best of show ribbons. Burger said she relies on the premium book each year for a description of what can be included and what shouldn’t be. “It’s my bible for a day,” she said. “If you follow the rules in this book you will succeed.”

I learned the hard way that judges don’t like pinecones painted with gold.

So read, then look around the house to see what you have that will work in that category. Or look at your friends’ houses to see what you can borrow. Don’t be shy. There’s a ribbon at stake here.

The fair awards premiums too. That’s right, money.

But I’d give it all up for one best of show ribbon. (Sigh!)

You do have to pay a $2 entry fee. That’s two bucks for all your entries, not just one entry. A real bargain if you ask me.

You are allowed to enter 25 items in each department, but you can register a couple extra just in case you don’t have perfect blooms when the fair rolls around. Judges don’t want to be bothered with plants that aren’t top notch.

 

What are you sitting here reading this blog for? Get out in your garden and get planning.

Here’s a tip. When you fill out the registration blank. be sure to keep a copy. Trust me on this. It’s easy to get confused.

Questions about entering?  Email wefair@ptd.net or Toni Dorshimer, who handles registrations, at bdorshi@ptd.net.

 

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Things that flutter in our gardens

We all have memories from our childhood. Besides the time I was hit in the head by a falling object dropped by the neighbor kid from the tree above me, I remember the Monarch butterfly.

That’s the only butterfly I knew in those days. But when I read about the butterfly count on Saturday  I realized we have 25 species here in the Poconos.

Great Spangled Fritillary

Some of the most common butterflies found during the count are cabbage whites and small fluttering butterflies that people often mistake for moths and sulphurs, which are yellow. Naturalist Jenifer Rituper said a favorite is the common buckeye,  and one of the larger butterflies usually seen is the great spangled fritillary, which is orange and black.

Since reading that article I am paying even more attention to what is landing in my garden. I’ve seen the cabbage whites, and yes I did think it was a moth. I’ve seen the yellow ones, too.

The common buckeye isn’t so common in my garden. Or at least I haven’t seen it.

Now that I am paying attention, I’ve noticed some great blue ones that I’ve yet to identify. And some awesome dragonflies. When a dragonfly lands on a plant I have to stop what I’m doing and  stare in total amazement.

Makes me realize that so many things are right outside our doors.

If you can’t make the butterfly count, you might want to consider doing your own count in your yard.

I’ve decided to pick up a little field guide to butterflies. And I’m going to work on attracting these fluttering beauties to my yard. If you give them a reason, they’re happy to fly by.

I planted a butterfly bush last year, but butterflies love a variety of plants. Here are some ideas.

I’m certainly going to take more time to stop and look. We have so many choices and I don’t want to miss a single one.

 

 

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When plastic is a good idea

I’ve been putting plastic plants in my shed window boxes for years. The first year I tried to find pots that fit the window boxes, tried to make sure they didn’t dry out and tried to make sure they grew. It didn’t work.

Hence, fake flowers. Silk are probably appear a little more realistic than plastic. They fade faster, but if you look for a sale, you can easily replace them at little cost.

My sister-in-law has fake flowers in one of those moss containers and they hang from her porch. No one gets close enough to see that they are fake. They are always in bloom and look great, with no effort on her part. Her plant doesn’t even fade because it’s shielded from the sun.

The hanging plant on my deck should look half this good.

This sounds pretty good, but it gets even better.

A mourning dove is nesting in the planter.

Think about it.

No one is watering the plant.

No one is fussing over the plants, pinching the buds or whatever we feel we need to do.

No one sees the bird to disturb it all the way up there. The flowers camouflage the nest all the time.

The mourning dove has raised two broods there now.

Not sure that’s what the National Wildlife Federation has in mind when it certifies backyard habitats, but it certainly works.

It’s a win-win situation for everyone.

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Cool it with mulch

Heat wave number 2 or 3 is approaching, just in time for the first day of summer. How fitting.

Temperatures will hit 95 Wednesday and yes, 97, on Thursday.

What does that mean for your garden plants? They’ll be pretty parched, but you can help them keep their cool with a layer or two of mulch.

Now my husband says his grandparents never used mulch. Neither did mine, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t help.

Mulch insulates and protects soil  from drying and hard-baking effects caused by evaporation of water from soil exposed to hot sun and winds. Mulched soils are cooler than non-mulched soils and have less fluctuation in soil temperature, meaning plants grow evenly and their roots stay strong.

And, an added benefit: Mulching helps control weeds.

There are two kinds of mulch: organic and inorganic. Organic mulches include formerly living material such as chopped leaves, straw, grass clippings, compost, wood chips, shredded bark, sawdust, pine needles, and even paper. Inorganic mulches include gravel, stones, black plastic, and geotextiles (landscape fabrics).

Organic mulches also improve the soil as they decompose. Inorganic mulches don’t.

But black plastic warms the soil and radiates heat during the night, keeping heat-loving vegetables such as eggplant and tomatoes happy.  

Organic mulches can be applied to weed-free soil soon after planting.

To be most effective, mulch should be applied at least 2 inches deep, but not more than 4 inches deep. 

That’s right. More is not always better.

A thicker layer of mulch may be harmful to plants. Avoid piling mulch right up against trees. And avoid covering the stems and leaves of plants. Mulch is decaying matter, after all.

Check with your local government office to see if they Christmas trees and branches they cut. Stroud Township’s mulch is awesome, with grades of mulch from “cover up anything” to the “good stuff.”

Always ask what’s in the mulch. I swear I got poison ivy from mulch one year. Now I never touch it without wearing gloves.

This year, we stopped a tree guy down the street and asked him to dump some trimmings in our yard.

It’s not pretty but it’s perfectly natural and is breaking down quite nicely.

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Death by cat

Nesting box

This is an unwelcome sight for any bird lover.

The thing about nature is that it’s not all happiness and roses. The joy of watching birds at work can quickly turn to sorrow when it’s all destroyed.

I was so excited to have chickadees nesting on my deck. I pulled my chair up to the window to watch the constant interaction at the nest while the mom came to sit on the eggs and the expectant dad hovered to feed her. It was truly beautiful and I really couldn’t stop watching them.

I watched them until dark and checked in on them first thing in the morning. One day at 6 a.m. I woke up to stillness. Feathers dotted the nesting box and were strewn on the railing. As I inched closer I saw the momma bird – dead on the railing. A few feathers were still attached to her.

 

As I stood there, at least four chickadees came to branches on the nearby tree. They stared. Finally one came and hovered at the nesting box. He left and I haven’t seen a chickadee since.

I emailed photos to the naturalists at the Monroe County Environmental Education Center. They quickly returned the verdict. Death by cat.

That’s the only thing it could be, they said, looking at the tell-tale signs.

My cat was inside, but they said a neighborhood cat would have jumped up on the railing and reached inside the box while the mom was resting on the eggs. She didn’t have a chance.

Two things the naturalists told me. The hole is too big on the nesting box. The nesting box that came with the house shouldn’t be on the deck. There’s no protection.

Would a gate have helped? Probably not.

The same week a friend told me he caught a neighbor’s cat up climbing up onto a planter to attack goldfinches at a feeder. He actually caught the feline red-pawed with a bird in its mouth. He intervened and the bird got away. So did the cat.

Lesson learned? Researchers estimate that cats kill more than 100 million birds in the United States each year.

Cats will do what comes naturally. It’s still up to us to help nature wherever we can. That means looking at where we place feeders and nesting boxes and making sure we provide proper nesting boxes.

If your neighbors are receptive, you can approach them. Frankly, if they cared, the cats wouldn’t be running loose.

If not, it’s really up to us to protect the birds.

Are we creating a safe environment or are we luring birds to their deaths?

Admit it, we’re selfish. We want to have nature as close to our window as possible. But if that means putting them in danger, we need to provide adequate shelter on higher branches and be satisfied observing through binoculars.

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Don’t take nature for granted

Sometimes I am in awe of the cycle of life and sometimes I am just plain sad.

When I was walking merrily through my yard on Memorial Day weekend, I stopped because I saw a baby bird dead on the ground. I looked up to see if I could find the nest, although I couldn’t do anything to prevent another from suffering the same fate. I was just curious where the dear birds had nested. I never saw the nest so I think it was in the thick of leaves of the burning bush, protected from predators, I hope.

 I sighed and moved on, wishing I could do more.

The next week I was driving to work. When I turned on Gilbert Road, I swerved to avoid hitting a turtle crossing the road. I knew my husband was about three minutes behind me so I called him to tell him to watch out for the poor little guy.

He called me back to say it had already been crushed.

“Why didn’t you get out and move it?” he asked.

Well, first, I didn’t think of it. Second, because I didn’t want to get bitten (I never touched a turtle). Plus, Kathy Uhler of Pocono Wildlife Rehab often says to let wildlife be.  

At least she says that about deer.

Still I was sad.

Until I came home and found chickadees had nested on my deck.

We have bluebird boxes that came with the house. The first year I lived there, a bluebird family moved in for the month of June. I couldn’t go out to use the grill for a month until the fledgings flew the coop.

Next year when I stained the deck, I stained the birdhouse.

Mistake!

They never came back.

That was 13 years ago and the paint has worn off.

Bluebirds didn’t come, but the chickadees did.

Now I am frantically researching chickadees. They are so cute. The mom pops her head above the little opening, then inches out of the box, looking around to make sure it’s safe before she darts away so no one suspects there’s a nest inside. She meets the father who has food for her.

When she returns, she perches and looks around again before going in.

Our cat sits at the window and watches. And meows. I keep telling her to keep quiet so she doesn’t scare the birds, but she’s literally deaf and pays no attention at all.

Now I’m very cautious whenever I need to walk out there. I don’t want to spook them because I read that if predators become a problem, the nesting pair will abandon the nest and build a new one some distance away.

Nature is too precious to have anything go wrong on my watch, if I can help it this time.

 

 

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Dahlias bring color to your garden, joy to our hearts

People always ask why we grow dahlias, especially when they hear all the work that’s involved. Answer: It’s truly a labor of love and you can get great prices on them now.

In the age of the Internet and remote control, why plant dahlias that require a lot of work? Perennials and annuals are easy and require little effort. 

We plant the tubers every year in a mixture of sand, peat moss and soil, wait two weeks for them to come up, another month or two for them to grow buds, handpick or spray Japanese beetles, stake them for protection from the wind, pinch buds, and finally dig them up to store in the fall. 

My inspiration began years ago with Frank Tamulis, who used to work as a librarian at the Pocono Record. He grew dahlias in incredible colors and was the envy of garden club members everywhere.

Frank, a former military guy, made it look and sound easy. He’d come walking in with a dahlia in one hand and cigarette in the other. 

I figured I had it made when he gave me one of the precious tubers. I put it in the ground and nothing happened. I certainly had a lot to learn.

Frank got married and moved away. He later died but I’ll always see him steadfastly guarding our trove of Pocono Record photos and information and remember those dahlias. 

Soon after Ronnie and I married, a flyer came in the mail from Breck’s for a dinnerplate dahlia collection. I remembered Frank’s flowers and said, “I always wanted some dahlias.” 

Eager to impress in those days, Ronnie quickly agreed. 

Truth is, we’re obsessed

 

We planted them and the rest is really a 12-year history. Ronnie is the one who actually developed an obsession (that’s putting it mildly) for them. 

Along the way, my dear coworker Frank Pollock gave me pointers and introduced me to Ed Lewis of Stroudsburg, who provided dahlias for the farmer’s market, and a farmer in Lancaster who had many varieties. Farmer Frank, quite the character who knew much about everything dirt, passed away this month.

I will certainly miss the inspiration he provided, as well as his  funny stories and sage gardening advice. 

This year as I toyed with not taking the time to plant the dahlias, I thought about my inspirations, the two Franks and my husband Ronnie. He has MS and a back problem but he pushes himself to go out every day to take care of the dahlias. 

And I thought of the result. Last year we had almost 2,000 blooms to give away to people. We took them to nursing homes and everywhere we went. That’s really Ronnie’s doing too. He doesn’t believe in letting one flower go to waste.

Dahlias literally come in all shapes, colors and sizes. Every year we try a new variety, but we always plant Ronnie’s favorite, the yellow Kelvin Floodlight.  I adore the dark red Arabian night. In

The Kelvin Floodlight dahlia grows to 8 to 10 inches wide

the right light it’s iridescent. Each one is beautiful in its own way. 

Really, our favorite is whatever makes the person of the moment smile.

They just keep multiplying

When we pull them out in fall, the tubers have multiplied. If they last in storage over the winter we can cut one into several plants. We have to keep expanding our gardens to accommodate them all. And we still have extra to share with friends.

Each tuber is planted in a mixture of the sand, peat and new dirt. They are planted just three to four inches below the surface.

You don’t have to water them until they start popping up out of the ground.

But then the real work begins.

By the end of Memorial Day, I thought we were finished planting. But Tuesday Ronnie showed up with 24 more of them he bought on clearance. That brings our total to about 250 plants.

Good news for you though. If you want to try them, centers are already marking them down. It’s post Memorial Day magic.

At least I know where I’ll be spending every spare moment this summer. Gee, I’m tired already. 

But when that first flower opens, I won’t be complaining. 

And when we bottle them up to go to nursing homes, and walk into a resident’s room, I’ll know it was all worth the effort. 

 

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Teach a child to garden and you both will blossom

I grew up in a world of houseplants. If there was a windowsill, you can be sure there was a plant in front of it, thanks to my mom.

One was a rare night blooming cereus. Mom waited for a couple of years for it to bloom just for one

Night-blooming cereus

night. Amazing.

Her magic extended to the garden as well. Things just blossomed for her.

My grandmother and grandfather (they were divorced) had the same magic. Mem grew African violets galore inside and roses outside. She talked – and sang  — to her plants. At one point my dear grandmother yodeled on the radio so I’m sure some of that was going on, too.

Pappy grew a variety of leafy plants and had a sizable garden. He was an accountant so he approached things from the scientific perspective, always reading garden journals and tinkering with plants.

All three of them are all gone now, but thanks to them, that desire for growing things still buds in me.

I couldn’t have been more than 8 when my mom sent me out to the backyard with seeds for a cutting garden. The side of the house was my little plot to tend. I watched every day for the little plants to poke through the clay Palmerton soil.

I took gardening for granted until a few years ago when I was working with VBS at church and I realized that many of the children didn’t know how to plant marigold seeds.

They can learn though, with the help of grownups.

Ah, here’s the pitch. Even if you don’t have little ones of your own right now, 4-H provides an opportunity for both children and adults to learn.

Penn State Extension-Monroe County 4-H  is recruiting people serve as 4-H leaders of youth ages 8 to 18.

A new gardening club is working with the Garden of Giving in McMichaels. The garden provides fresh produce for food pantries. Pantries, by nature, can usually only supply non-perishable items, but founder Tammy Graeber wants people to eat more healthy choices so her band of volunteers pick produce in season and haul it off to pantries on distribution day.

So what do 4-H leaders do. Volunteers organize clubs, help conduct meetings, advise members in project selection, and serve as role models.  It’s not just about gardening.  Pennsylvania 4-H has over 150 projects to choose from forestry, aerospace, electricity, nature to animal projects.

If you would like to volunteer, or just learn more about 4-H before making your decision, call the Monroe County 4-H office at (570) 421-6430.

Go for it. What you teach a child will help you both for a lifetime.

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Remember mom and help Pocono organizations

 Mother’s Day is this Sunday (yes, my boys it is) and some Pocono organizations are offering some great gifts.

Let’s start with the plant sale at the Monroe County Courthouse on Friday.

The annual Mother’s Day flower sale to benefit Monroe County Children and Youth will be held from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the Monroe County Courthouse.

The sale will include hanging baskets and many flowering and foliage varieties.

Ten-inch baskets are $16 or $30 for two. Twelve-inch baskets are $25 or $45 for two.

Checks can be made payable to MCC&Y Advisory Board. All proceeds will benefit the annual Christmas toy drive.

I saw some of the plants last year and they are well worth the price.

Then there’s the Brodhead Watershed Association’s native plant sale. I’ve been touting this for weeks because native plants really help the Poconos is so many ways.  

The Brodheadsville Watershed Association’s annual Native Plant Sale of perennials, shrubs and trees will take place from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Friday and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, May 12, at Northampton Community College’s Monroe Campus on Old Mill Road in Tannersville.

Perennials will be available in 4-inch pots and quart containers. Trees and shrubs are in 5-gallon tubs.

Friday is for BWA members only. Members receive a 10 percent discount Friday only. Membership is available at the door.

A penstemon is just one of 75 varieties at the plant sale

Check out the list of plants.  

As a preview, Robin Petras and Darryl Speicher will hold a workshop on native plants from 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday at NCC Monroe. The cost is $3 for BWA members and $4 for nonmembers. Membership is available at the door. To register for the workshop, call 570-839-1120.

You can give the gift of time and take mom to the talk. The cost is certainly reasonable enough so you can spring for dinner.

Geoff Mehl,  native plant specialist from Scotrun, will be at both the workshop and sale signing his books.

If Mother Nature is her thing, she can be the best dressed mom in the Poconos with this commemorative pin from The Friends of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.  

The LizTech design is $60 and features gold hemlock trees, green mountains, blue for the Delaware River, a brown jewel acorn, shining sun, a bald eagle and the park service arrowhead cut into the side of one of the mountains.

LizTech has the pin available in their gallery at 95 Crystal Street or ontact Herb at the Friends  570-828-1422, or email info@friendsofdewa.org .

Me? I like all of the above. But what I’d really like, if anyone is paying attention, is a rain barrel. Now that would really be awesome.

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