GREEN THOUGHTS: Grow your own for Christmas

CAN WE AGREE that Americans can’t agree on much these days? Differences of opinion surround even the Christmas tree supply. Drought, fires, economic recession and labor shortages support the scarcity theory, but locally at least, firs, pines and spruces are easily found on tree farms and sales lots. But having been wait-listed for a new refrigerator for 10 months now, and seeing shelves bereft of toilet paper and cat food, I’m tempted to grow my own Christmas trees from now on.

What’s your favorite holiday tree? Photo by David Chinery

No worry that c it will take at least seven years: as a gardener, I know what is required. To start, site matters. Most tree species prefer that elusive well-drained, loamy soil that many plants crave, and while Christmas trees can be grown on areas too marginal for field crops, the results may be slower or less optimal. Wet soils are out—very few conifers tolerate “damp feet”—but overly dry sites can be limiting, too. Slopes too steep for mowing are not good, and areas of thin soil, ledge, or multitudinous rocks are less than ideal. Especially windy spots can desiccate needles, which is not good, since even Charlie Brown doesn’t want a brown tree. Full sun is mandatory—just like tomatoes or dahlias, maximum light is needed to produce bushiness. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: Merry Christmas

IT IS SO QUIET. We are back to the “not a creature was stirring not even a mouse” feeling, although I did see a mouse in the garage last night. It is time to clean up and start cooking, eating, visiting, giving and opening presents again. Some of my decorations are up and more needs to be done. I can’t have a tree because my rambunctious cat climbs, plays with and attacks decorations within the distance of a good leap. I am content with a ceramic, lighted tree.

An orange. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

The house looks so pretty with runners on sideboards, poinsettias, and flowers about and colored lights in view. There are greens in the large watering can on the porch and the wreath will soon be decorated for the front door. It takes so much time putting it all up I don’t want to take it down.

Every year we plan for months, spend so much money on gift wrap that gets tossed, and “boom,” it is all over. Maybe my grandfather’s 1890s boyhood present of one orange in its own natural wrapper was a good idea. It makes you stop and think about all the commercialism. In this economy should we be cutting back and spending more time on the true meaning of Christmas? If we don’t spend and buy, then are we hurting the economy? Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: The 122nd Audubon Christmas Bird Count

DECEMBER 14 BEGINS the 122nd National Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count season, which continues through January 5, 2022. According to the society, “far from having evolved into ‘just’ another holiday tradition, the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is increasingly accepted by ornithologists and conservationists alike as one of the best tools available for assessing the long-term trends in the early winter bird populations of North America.”

Each individual CBC area has an established 15-mile diameter circle with portions assigned to different groups of birders. One count day is chosen for a particular circle and participants identify and record all the species of birds and the numbers of each for their area. The first CBC was held in 1900 and was led by scientist and writer Frank Chapman. It was an alternative to the “side hunt,” a Christmas day activity in which teams competed to see who could shoot the most birds and small mammals. Now no wildlife is harmed.

Nuthatch in the rain. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

The Alan Devoe Bird Club conducts the Chatham CBC ,which has Chatham at its center, Spencertown to the east, and the Hudson River to the west. On Saturday, Dec. 18, ADBC members and additional volunteers will watch feeders and survey hundreds of miles of Columbia County roads looking for birds. We hope to have a beautiful day making it so much more pleasant than some years of snow, sleet and hazardous roads. The birds we will look for include Great Blue Heron which often stand at the edge of a pond or stream surrounded by Canada Geese. Many people watch their bird feeders for winter finches, cardinals, chickadees, woodpeckers, etc. We always look for the unusual, like shrikes, grosbeaks, and summer leftovers. One year we found a meadowlark warming itself on a pile of steaming manure! Read more…

GREEN THOUGHTS: Burning bush, you’re fired!

Invasive burning bush shrubs like these in a woodland are no longer welcome guests. Photo by David Chinery

THE FIRE IN MY NEIGHBOR’S FRONT YARD is out: the burning bushes have dropped their leaves. An individual burning bush (Euonymus alatus) in its fiery red fall color is impressive, and a long hedgerow is spectacular, which explains the popularity of this species.

But Holy Moses, it’s a spreader! Seedlings from my neighbor’s shrubs are now sprouting in my backyard, and soon they’ll appear in my woods. At least 21 states have pronounced it an exotic invasive, and several have banned it from commerce. In New York, its “regulated” status does little to stop its sale or spread. So, let me be a “garden influencer” and ask you to plant beautiful native shrubs instead, so we can extinguish the vagrant burning bush for good.

Native Fothergilla gardenii like this make a desirable shrub. Photo by David Chinery

A top alternative choice is a native called ninebark. I grow the variety ‘Diablo,’ with foliage of deep purple in spring and summer, turning wine red in autumn. Large clusters of small white flowers appear in late spring, and the brown exfoliating bark is an added year-round bonus. Some seasons I give Diablo just a little trim, other years a bit more, this being a shrub you can shape into a variety of forms without a fuss. It likes full sun and adequate drainage but can adapt to what Mother Nature (and a casual gardener) throw at it.

The nursery industry has finally figured out ninebark is a good thing and now offers other red-leaved types, such as ‘Summer Wine,’ yellow foliage variants like ‘Amber Jubilee,’ and compact forms including ‘Little Joker.’ In comparing them to burning bush, these new ninebarks are just as easy to grow, provide showier foliage all season long and don’t invade the neighborhood with unwanted offspring.

If you can accept bright yellow fall color rather than red, summersweet clethra (Clethra alnifolia) may rock your gardening world. Native from Maine to Florida, this mound-shaped shrub will very slowly spread, but not in an aggressive way. One of mine grows under a sugar maple, a testament to its toughness, since little else wants to be there. High summer is clethra’s season, when hundreds of spikes of tiny white flowers appear, producing a powerfully sweet fragrance. A noted pollinator plant, honeybees and butterflies will thank you for planting a clethra.

If you want something zippier than white flowers, ‘Pink Spires’ features pink flower buds, while ‘Ruby Spice’ has flowers which remain rose-colored.

Fancy a Fothergilla? Those who know them certainly do. With white bottlebrush flowers in spring and fall color ranging from yellow to orange to red all on one plant, it is a shrub without a bad season. The flowers of vernal witchhazel (Hamamelis vernalis) are admittedly small, but they bloom in February, the fall color is a good golden yellow, and the plant is bull terrier tough. And a native who’s fall color rivals the burning bush is red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia). Tough and adaptable, it may be a bit wild for a more refined gardens. Perhaps plant breeders can turn it into a future superstar.

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

THROUGH THE WOODS: The geese are flying in

The goose on the right appears to be a hybrid. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

THIS IS THE TIME OF YEAR to look for ducks and geese passing through our area on their way south. If you visit Copake Lake, there may be some little Ruddy Ducks that cock their tails to show off. A raft of about a hundred common mergansers often stretches out in a line in the middle of the lake. Along the eastern shore mallards, a few black ducks, and buffleheads like to hang out. The bufflehead male is a beautiful black and white duck with white patches on the cheeks. A kingfisher may fly by with its noisy rattling call while a great blue heron may hug the shoreline.

Cornfields around the county provide feeding stops, and attract many geese near Kinderhook, Germantown and Copake. About 200 snow geese and 300 Canada geese were feeding on a harvested cornfield west of Kinderhook this week. Binoculars and scope are used to systematically comb through large flocks for rare geese, color oddities, and marked birds. Colored collars are used to track migrating flocks and if you get the colors, numbers, and letters from one it should be reported to the USGS Patuxet Wildlife Research Center Bird Banding Lab at website www.pwrc.usgs.gov/bbl. The center is in Laurel, Maryland, and has been in operation for over 75 years.

I find several collared geese each year and use a telescope to get the information from them. It takes patience because a large flock of feeding geese constantly move around and often the collar is blocked by another goose. The recent Kinderhook birds would suddenly disappear into the deep tractor ruts in the wet fields, which were an added challenge. They also love to put their heads down and present a rear view, which is most unhelpful. Read more…