GREEN THOUGHTS: Mole Make-peace

A GARDEN is full of elusive forces. Microscopic Verticillium fungi clogging up the roots of a shrub and tiny thrips deforming daylily blossoms are better known for the damage they cause than their actual selves, since it isn’t easy for us to understand things we cannot see. So when mounds and bumps appear in a lawn, folks must be forgiven for knowing little about the mole, whose shyness is in league with reclusive authors and film directors.

Moles are adapted to life underground, and seldom surface to the light of day. They have good hearing but no vision. They’ve traded two eyes for a pair of extra “thumbs,” giving their large, powerful front paws six digits each. Gifted with living scoops, they can dig tunnels at a rate of one foot per minute and may create a subterranean corridor 100 feet long in a single day.

All this work is done primarily in search of food. Moles are carnivores, and will devour insect larvae, such as the grubs of Japanese chafers and European chafers, as well as earthworms, including the problematic crazy jumping worms. Their high metabolic rate and penchant for activity makes them eat 70 to 100% of their body weight each day. Given their potential for eliminating exotic, invasive pests, perhaps moles, who are North American natives, should be cheered instead of jeered. And if your hostas, dahlias, potatoes or other garden plants lose their root systems, don’t blame the moles. That destruction is likely due to voles, mouse-like vegetarians which live both above and below the soil, and who make use of mole tunnels for their own pernicious agendas. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: How to predict the weather

ONE OF MY FAVORITE natural weather predictors is our eastern gray tree frog, Hyla versicolor. Growing up on our dairy farm required good ways of predicting weather. We had few radio or TV weather reports and those we did get were often inaccurate and the butt of many jokes. We were pretty much on our own as far as the weather was concerned, and each generation was taught the “look” of the sky, the feel of the air, animal behavior, and sometimes the sounds around us to tell us what to expect.

Gray tree frog. Photo contributed

In warm weather we always were aware of the call of the tree frogs. When it was going to rain, these frogs called loudly and incessantly. The robins often joined in and had their special song. My grandfather would say “the robins are calling for rain.” Then his arthritic knees would start hurting and clinch the forecast.

What farmers do often depends on rain or sun. Summer was haying season and hay could be ruined and become moldy if it got wet. We needed every bit of hay we could get into the barns to be used for winter feed for cows and other livestock. If you were pretty sure it was going to rain you would not mow a field or would race to get in as much of any dry hay as possible. Since the tree frogs lived in the trees and could be heard in our yard, I spent a good bit of time trying to locate them. Their bumpy skin and mottled brown, light gray to green color is perfect camouflage against tree bark, and their trilling song is hard to follow to the source.

They also have a neat trick; they slowly change their color and pattern to mimic their surroundings. I very rarely found one. My mother found the first one I remember seeing. I wondered how any creature so small (1 ½-2” long) could have such a loud voice and the stamina to keep repeating its message. These frogs can hear distant thunder before we can, and this may trigger their calls. Only males croak and trill so there are probably more frogs present than we may think. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: Our young birds

Baby killdeer. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

THIS IS THE SEASON when most birds are working on their first or only nesting cycle, and when we observe the results of the parents’ hard labor. And it is hard work. The Canada warbler for example may feed insects to their young at a rate of dozens of trips per hour. Our smallest area birds, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, must eat at least half their weight in food each day, then, in addition, they are gathering more to feed their young. They rarely sit still and fly from flower to flower, and I am sure are very grateful to all who provide them with sugar water filled feeders.

It is important to use the recommended mixture of one part granulated white sugar plus four parts water (1/4 cup sugar plus one cup water in a saucepan heated until the sugar is just dissolved, and then cooled). A more concentrated mixture can harm the birds. Hummingbirds are attracted to the color red, but they are very happy with clear colored sugar water too. I do not add red food coloring. The mixture can be stored in the refrigerator for a week. Discard it if there is discoloration or mold.

I have tried many different types of hummingbird feeders, but by far the best are made by Droll Yankee. They are attractive, very easy to clean and refill, are durable and exceptionally functional. After the feeder is hung, clean it, and change the sugar water at least twice per week and whenever it looks cloudy. Your reward will be great views of these jewel-like birds and hopefully they will bring their bumblebee sized young when they have fledged. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: The Good, the Bad, the Dandelion

Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

THE DANDELIONS (TARAXACUM OFFICINALE) are up and blooming and are covered with bees, but many of us have mixed feelings about these plants. If you want a perfect lawn without “weeds,” they are a pain in the neck. If you don’t get to one immediately, they put down a root that comes out somewhere in China and you must dig a crater in the lawn to get it out. It also has a clever cup shaped leaf pattern that funnels water to the center and down to the root.

Calamity really strikes when the lovely yellow flower goes into the senior stage and its fluffy white head goes bald in the wind. Hundreds of little seed-carrying parachutes float to the ends of the earth and particularly all around the yard and lawn.

It is a hardy plant that sprouts and starts the process over before you can blink an eye. Most of us hate to use weed killers, and green and chemical free is the right thing and for good reasons. It is the best lifestyle for our children, pets and the earth in general. My house is off the road and out in the country, so I just try not to let those lovely yellow heads go beyond middle age. So far this works well. Read more…

GREEN THOUGHTS: An onion grows in Kinderhook

Allium. Photo contributed

IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN a dream, but I think I remember an old Jeopardy! episode with the category “Alimentary Alliums.” In it, Alex asks, “This rare member of the onion family is found on sea cliffs along coastal Cornwall and Dorset” and a contestant volunteers “What is Babington’s Leek?” Given the scores of edible members in the Allium tribe, an entire Jeopardy game could be dedicated to uncovering the fascinating details of onions, shallots, leeks and garlic. And let’s not forget chives, Allium schoenoprasum, a plant which taught me that some alliums also have beautiful flowers.

And that is what I’m thinking about today, onions grown not for their culinary usefulness but for their value as “eye candy,” which I call “ornamental alliums.”

Last weekend, I biked through lovely Mills Park in Kinderhook, where a large floral display including perennial blue flax, white narcissus and magenta alliums got me to pull over for a closer look. Unfortunately, my firsthand knowledge of ornamental alliums is slight, so I won’t be participating in onion-themed Jeopardy! anytime soon. I therefore won’t hazard a guess as to exactly which allium grows in Kinderhook, but I must say they were impressive.

Many ornamental alliums are described as a large ball of small star-shaped flowers in shades of lavender, magenta, purple or violet. These round “umbels” are borne on long, thin green stems, with just a few often non-descript leaves at the base. Allium hollandicum, sometimes called the Persian onion, is a typical of these, growing to between one-and-a-half and three feet tall. The variety ‘Purple Sensation’ has darker flowers and has earned an Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society in the United Kingdom. Allium ‘Globemaster’ is a hybrid cross between A. christophii and A. macleanii and is sterile, so it doesn’t spread promiscuously, and grows stems between three and four feet tall with a lavender sphere on top. Allium giganteum, which unsurprisingly is called the giant allium, boasts softball-sized purple flower clusters on towering stems of five feet. Despite its grand size, sources say it doesn’t need staking. While these large-type alliums are individually impressive, one solo plant looks silly, so garden designers say it is best to plant them in groups of at least five to seven.

More variations abound. For blue globes of flowers, try Allium caeruleum, which grows to two feet. Small, egg-shaped purple flower heads on very thin stems characterize drumstick allium (Allium sphaerocephalon). Turkistan onion (Allium karataviense) has fat, attractive leaves, floral globes of pale pink, and grows only a foot tall. Lady’s Leek (Allium cernuum) boasts delicate, open flower sprays of white, pink or lilac and, like most ornamental alliums, needs well-drained soil and not wet feet. Tumbleweed onion, Allium schubertii, grows about two feet high and has a loose sphere of lavender flowers of varying lengths, giving it the bizarre appearance of a firework or space alien. It also makes a good dried flower. There are dozens more, providing an ornamental onion for every taste.

To contact David Chinery, the horticulture educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rensselaer County, email