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Garden Gifts

Friday, July 29, 2016

The birthday post goes on. All this stuff happened on my birthday. I'm counting blessings. I think I hit 14 in the last post, and they were things I saw out my window as I worked. Toward evening, I headed to the garden to pick some dinner, and it hit me how many gifts it's pumping out, at last, after all the weeding and mulching, the staking and coddling and the minimal watering I've done. 

It is truly amazing how fast a tomato can grow when it decides to take off. Remember, they were all frosted to sticks on May 10 and 11. Amazing! Helps to support them well, with cages and heavy-duty stakes. Dang, that's a good plant. The Sungolds are in, and the Cherokee Purples and Mr. Stripeys have already blessed us with about six BLT's. MMMMM. Mmm, mmmm! #15. My favorite sandwich anywhere, ever, is a homegrown tomato BLT.

The peppers didn't like the mid-May frost much, either. I had to go out and buy plants after all my seedlings, tenderly grown in the greenhouse, died. Waah. But here comes a golden Baby Bell! I like Bonnie Plants. They get results fast, and they're well-grown, with a nice selection. All hail Bonnie!especially when frost takes yours. Gift #16.

Tendergreen beans are in and they are sooo delicious. #17.  I had to pick again right before I left for Arizona. I finally got smart and planted only two rows at once this time, with the third row (foreground) planted a couple weeks afterward. That way I'll get more tender young beans just as the first two rows peter out. Last spring I went nuts, planted four rows at the same time. And I remember declaring, "I will be buried in my own beans." A bean is a wonderful thing.

Every year, things volunteer in the garden. Cherry tomatoes, of course, but most of those get pulled up, because none are as good as my Sungold hybrids. I had a mystery plant come up right where my tomatillos were last year. I was suspicious of it, because it looked so much like a nightshade, but I let it grow, as there was something tomatilloey about its leaves and flowers. Still wasn't sure about it...

It got bigger and bigger.  Ye gods! If this isn't a tomatillo, what is it? I kept checking to see if it was fruiting. Nope. I decided to let it continue to eat real estate and cow manure until I figured out what it was. Maybe it was a wild ground cherry, and I hear they're edible, too.

Finally got my answer on my birthday! They're tomatillos!!! Inside that husk is a marble-sized green fruit, and when they get big and burst the papery husk, I'll be throwing those into quiches, stir-fries, salads and soups all summer long. Not to mention eating them right off the plant. A little green tomato with firm flesh and a citrusy tang! Love tomatillos! If you've never tried growing them, you must. Vital ingredient in salsa too. To have one of these hot-weather plants volunteer in my garden seems a very extravagant gift. And it's JUST HUUUUGE. #18!! with a bullet.

In a sweet bit of irony, the most valued volunteers in the garden actually germinated just outside it. I started growing tomatillos and cucamelons in the spring of 2013, when a friend sent me seeds for both. Look at these four cucamelon plants, which took root in the soil at the base of the garden planks. I found them as I was hand-pulling crabgrass along the boards. The tags and terra cotta are to protect them from the occasional weed whacking.  Funny how plants make you remember people. Cucamelons and tomatillos come unbidden, spring up like thoughts, volunteering, popping into my garden just as thoughts of my friend pop into my mind.

Unlike random thoughts, these unbidden visitors bear fruit. A tiny cucamelon forms, its yellow blossom about to drop off. If you're curious about cucamelons, type it into the search box in the upper left corner of this page. You'll get several posts about these tiny crunchy wonders, by far the crunchiest thing I've ever grown. Also called "mouse melon."  #19.

Gift # 20:


It's going to be an incredible tuberose year. I've been dividing the bulb clusters and planting them singly in rows for about a decade now, and they've responded by multiplying like bunnies, like my friend Gordon says. He gave them to me ages ago, just a brown paper bag of them, after I swooned when he put some in a vase by my bedside when I visited. And now I give them away.

I have enough to plant absolute windrows of them--this one by the heirloom bed of asparagus, of  rhubarb from North Dakota and golden raspberries from Connie Toops. It looks like every one of these plants is going to spike up and bloom this year. August and September are going to be something, my friends.

This year, we cut a bunch of sumac that was shading the heirloom bed, and I dumped two top-dressings of cow manure on it, and oh my. Stand back! I dug a little trench, put cow manure in it, added tuberoses...

Come August, this lovely member of the agave family will start pumping out the tubular white blossoms and their intoxicating evening scent. One blossom will perfume a bedroom.

More tuberoses, by the garage, and a Thunbergia (black-eyed Susan) vine that couldn't live in a pot any longer. Cow manure, cow manure. It's the new drug in my happy sanctuary.

Another testimony to cow manure: this gardenia. As of late April, this plant had barely a leaf on it, thanks to a non-watering event combined with a red spider mite invasion. I apologized to it, gave it a bigger pot half-filled with aged manure, and am now reaping the rewards.

It's so incredibly beautiful, with four-inch flowers, that I brought it into the studio for perfume, and to escape the 98 degree heat outside. It's thankful, and so am I.  That's Gift #21, and they're still coming.

I'm in Arizona right now, speaking this weekend at the Sedona Hummingbird Festival. Took Shila along, tacked on three days for exploring, and we're having the time of our lives. Needless to say, this "working" trip feels like a great big vacation.  This is one of the most glorious places I've ever seen.  Thankful.

photo by Shila Wilson

Happy Birthday to Me!

Monday, July 25, 2016

 I usually get a post up on Sundays, but I was working on a new talk and I had to get it done. 
It's only supposed to be 20 minutes, and it'll be delivered at the Saturday banquet for the Sedona Hummingbird Festival (Squee!!). I've figured out that I work something like two hours for each minute of the talk. The amount of time and brainpower I expend on these things is ridiculous. If it comes out right, it sounds extemporaneous. Well, it isn't. Snort.

So I was tied to the desk all day, except for an insanely cool evening walk down Dean's Fork, the subject of its own post. Sunday happened to be my birthday, so I decided if I had to sit all day, I would count the blessings that came my way. Each one would be a present.

My first gift was a handful of protoplasm. A couple of days ago, I looked down at a tire rut at a construction site and saw a puddle of tadpole goo where the day before there'd been rainwater. Because it's late July, the only thing they could be is Cope's gray treefrogs.  I touched them and sure enough a few wriggled in a SAVE ME!! kind of way. Oh no. More than a mile from home, and it's going to be a blistering hot day, and there is no natural water I can reach in shorts for at least another mile, unless...

I glanced around the site and saw a gallon of drinking water on a folding table, with a stack of plastic cups. Eureka!

I scooped up the taddies and a good bit of silt and plopped them in a cup, pouring life-giving water over them. Imagine how good that feels to a tadpole on its dying day. Jogged that mile home carrying the cup of taddies, laughing to myself about how that must've looked to the neighbors. Poured it in a plastic jar and added beaucoup rainwater. I gave them a couple of days to rehydrate before releasing them, and they needed it. When they started acting like tadpoles instead of crumpled bent fetuses, I knew they were ready to go.

This was my first birthday gift.

For future reference, they love koi sticks. Nomnomnom.

On this morning, I took the jar down to our fishpond, fed the comets to repletion, then installed the jar on a shelf in the pond.  One by one, the taddies who had survived their ordeal came up for air, saw the great expanse of water and delicious algae, and swam off into the deep. 

This one swam curlicues, dove, wriggled through the algae; its joy on being in proper habitat that wouldn't dry up was palpable. Honestly, I don't know how tadpoles do it, always watching the water levels, praying for rain, facing the imminent prospect of death by baking. Ugh.

There being no puddles left anywhere in the sweltering July heat, our water garden was my best choice. I had to hope the fish would leave them be. Comets aren't very predatory where small swimmers are concerned. As I was monitoring their exodus from the jar, I saw a tiny comet, the first spawn of my four fish, swim by. If he can make it, they can, too. 

Second present: BUN.

 There's a litter of three young cottontails in the yard who, having grown up in the sanctum sanctorum of Indigo Hill, have no frame of reference for humans as dangerous animals. They barely recognize Chet as a threat, which (let's be frank) he barely is. So these foolish little animals perk their ears attentively but go on chewing clover when I speak to them, kneel down and take iPhone photos of them from barely five feet away. Dumb bunnies. But of course, I adore them. So, Bun. They're all three named Bun.

I have a little family of brown thrashers in the yard! I don't know if any of them are Cletus, Melba or Harper; I think not, because the adults aren't tame at all. But oh, being able to look out and see thrashers doing thrasher things, dust bathing, sunning, hunting bugs or, in the case of one of the parents, grabbing a sunflower seed and pounding the shell off--it's just the best. This is a juvenile. Gift 3.

Seeing the laborious way a thrasher, which doesn't hold seeds in its toes for shelling, has to pound the hull off a seed, I spread sunflower hearts in all their favorite spots. Watching them gobble them down: Gift 4.

Present # 5: Someone dribbled squirrel! He appreciates the sunflower hearts very much. He ooches around on his belly picking them up one by one. I have to say I love my squirrels. They annoy the hell out of me, but they're such fun to watch! So they're paying their way, at least partly.

The sunflower hearts brought in MamaCoon and her three kits! Gift #6: July 24 was first day she's brought them out at noontime.

It's amazing how long those raccoon babies are dependent. The smarter the animal; the more complex and comprehensive its diet, the longer the juvenile dependency period.

It takes a long time to learn to be a raccoon.

Gift 7: the yard robin resents crowding by a ruffian house sparrow, tells him to back off! Just having a robin in the Spa, ahhh. But this combo was too much.


#8: speaking of Back Off, a mourning dove warns a squirrel it's too close.  I am big! I will beat you with my wing! Interestingly, a dove would NEVER let a chipmunk get that close. Chipmunks are far more dangerous than squirrels. They're nastya-s little animals. Chipmunks remind me of the killer rabbit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. 

 Adult male Cooper's hawk makes two passes through the feeder zone. I manage to capture its bill, leg and foot, enough to identify it, as it fetches up in the Japanese maple. Not a great photo, but still gift #9.

This just in!! July 25: I saw the Coop take a pass at some doves just now and scuttled with camera downstairs to shoot it from the bedroom. This is through two panes of glass, at a terrible angle, but OH MY. Talk about a gift, hurled from the Other Side. Thanks DOD!!

On the first shot, I captured the whole hawk. When it turned toward me, I lost my head and focused on its face. Ah well. Too excited to shoot well.
Please note that this hawk is perched in a retired, or as I love to say, recovering bonsai. DOD, you place your gifts so well. He adored my bonsai. 

You beautiful thing!! Please help yourself to mourning doves, and  take a house sparrow as a chaser, willya? You're also most welcome to squirrels, but please not the one who sccoches around on his belleh.

#10: Seeing a gray squirrel use its tail as a hat and parasol.

At this point it's 98 in the shade,  easily 102 in the sun, and I'm so thankful to be inside mostly (not) working on my talk. 

 # 11: a rubythroat investigates the coneflower, seeming to find a sip of nectar in the disc. Not something I see every day, but these midsummer juveniles try everything.

There has to be nectar in this big fat bud. Just has to. I'll wait for it to open. This photo: Gift 12.

I have a variety of wire supports for my tall cardinalflower and Fuchsias, and the hummingbirds adore them. Hummies appreciate thin perches. They can watch for Cooper's hawks from them. It must be nice to be too small and fast to bother with. But you still have to stay vigilant. 

This photo: Gift 13.

Meanwhile, fall migrants (yes, I said it; fall begins in July for warblers!) are sifting through the yard. A young yellow-throated warbler on its leisurely path southward. Or westward, or eastward...they do a bit of wandering.  This has to be one of my favorite warblers, Gift #14. Get the picture? Everything out there is a gift. I had intended to put all my birthday gifts in one blogpost, but it's evolved into at least three. And that is a gift in itself.

Happy birthday to me! Now you can see why it takes me so dang long to put together a talk. Or a blogpost. A giant set of Venetian blinds for the studio window would probably go a long way toward increasing efficiency, but ignoring the show going on just outside those windows in late July? Unthinkable! All but a couple of these photos were taken through my studio window, through the crop netting screens that cover them. Gift #14: having such a big, comfortable blind for a house!

Blessed, that's all!

A Cuckoo's Farewell

Tuesday, July 19, 2016


The window-hit black-billed cuckoo and I got into a routine. She'd spend quiet days in the glassed-in aviary off my studio, and I'd peek in on her, change her papers several times a day so she wouldn't get too dirty, and take her out to the kitchen for her feedings every couple of hours. I was sure she was self-feeding when she collided with the window; she was traveling with a sibling, not a parent, and she is fully grown. I guess she just didn't like the food I was offering enough to try eating it out of a dish.

Before I continue, a couple of clarifications. I've gathered from a couple of comments that some might have a vision of me wiping bleary eyes as I get up to nurse this cuckoo all night long. Uhhh, nope. Birds sleep at night, even baby birds. You want a saint?  That would be a wildlife rehabilitator who works with baby mammals, who DO need to be fed all night long, and all day, too. Homey don't do mammals, nuhhh nuh nuh.  Love my sleep too much. Second, let's all remember why this cuckoo's in a bad way. Because of the big glass window in my big cool house, that's why. I am not a hero here. I'm the problem. All I'm trying to do is right a wrong that's been wrong for way too long. More on that below.

Cuckoos are incredibly cool birds. But they also have a very high weird quotient. Quirky. I've only had one in rehab before, an egg-bound adult female yellow-billed, and luckily she fed herself from a dish. When I figured out what was wrong with her, I oiled her vent and that same afternoon out came the biggest dang blue egg I'd ever seen come out of a bird that size.  In fact, these two cuckoos (black-billed and yellow-billed) lay the biggest eggs relative to their body size of any North American bird. There's a whole chapter of my book devoted to the strangeness of cuckoos. I highly recommend reading it! because cuckoos are too weird and too cool to begin to capture in a post like this.

 July 9, around noon. Looking good!

Feeding time. That's an EZ-Feeder syringe, meant for hand-feeding baby parrots, but it works great for everything else, too. It's full of Mazuri nestling formula, mixed up fresh twice a day. There's also my dentist's cotton pliers, a bent tweezers that's my best friend for hand-feeding insects to birds. 

July 10: I have her in a bander's grip, her head coming through my first two fingers. She was the calmest, most compliant bird I've ever handled. I was waiting for her to get obstreperous and feisty, because that's usually the sign that they're ready to go. She got stronger with every feeding, but she never got feisty, and she never once tried to bite me. Never seen a bird act like this one. Just nice, she was. Nice to the bone.

By July 11, there finally came that magic point where she began agitating to get out. She spent all morning at the side of the cage nearest the window, bouncing around, poking her bill through the bars. She struggled a bit when captured for feedings. It was time. I love it when I know beyond doubt that it's time to release a bird.

I thought long and hard about whether to flight-test her. The only place I could think of to do it was our windowless upstairs hallway, but the more I pondered it, the less I liked the idea of a cuckoo, whose long tapered wings give it a lightning fast, arrowlike, swooping flight style, trying to maneuver in that cramped space.  What if she crashed into a wall and concussed herself again!? Nooo!! I definitely didn't want to set up the nylon flight tent (a good hour's work) just to ascertain that yep, she could fly! I knew she would be able to fly. I felt she was ready. So I took the risk of simply taking her outside and opening my hands. (The risk being that she wouldn't be strong enough to survive, but that she'd fly well enough to get away from me, oops!) Nah, she was ready. I washed her soiled tail with Baby Magic and warm water and patted it dry. I keep my rehab birds, be they babies or adults, strictly clean, for soiled feathers don't insulate or function well in flight.

 July 11. Time for release! Her keel (breastbone) was nicely rounded with muscle and fat; she'd been a bit thin when she came in. 

I gave my iPhone to my expert videographer, Liam, who did a marvelous job of capturing the action. I couldn't be happier with this video, for all kinds of reasons. Look what this bird does when she's released!

I cannot begin to describe the thrill of having that cuckoo just hang out with me, ON me, of her own free will, for a golden 32 seconds.  Aw, you can see it on my face, hear it in my voice. It was incredible. It was a benediction. It lit me through and through with joy, and some of that is still lingering. I think about it, about the feel of her long soft toes on my hand, the slight weight of her, not even two ounces, but packed with pounds of sweetness and light and forgiveness for all I'd put her through.

And then to see her fly, that lightning fast low swoop, to stick a perfect landing in the dead pine. So glad I didn't try to flight test her in the hall. I was so glad I'd listened to that little voice, that one that makes itself heard over all the self-doubt and second-guessing.

In the video, you see me going into action, capturing our last looks at the bird with my 70-300 telephoto lens.

It was uncanny how she kept looking back at me.

Even after she bounced into the woods, she kept her eye on me.

                                                             I will remember you.

To keep birds from hitting your window ever again, see my Ultimate Solution to Window Strikes at this link. Well worth reading, for finding out what doesn't work, as well as what absolutely does. Which is crop netting, stretched over your window. In 2008, I had screens made for my big, deadly north-facing studio windows, and in the eight years since then, I've lost only one mourning dove, the only bird big and fast enough to deform the crop netting and bonk itself dead.

Through the magic of Facebook, I was alerted to conservation biologist Andrew Mack's 2012 blog, The View from Love Hollow, in which he came up with the same solution, with easier and cheaper installation. 

Cheaper and easier yet: National Aviary ornithologist Bob Mulvihill's idea of tacking white string at 4" intervals, vertically across the offending window.

To get this window treated toot sweet, Bill (who climbed the big shaky ladder) and I  (who fearlessly handed him the tape before he went up) used American Bird Conservancy tape designed for windows. We have solid reports that it works. It's a comfort to know the birds are duly alerted, but we're still trying to get used to the new look. Ultimately, crop netting, which truly disappears, will likely be the best fit for us, who, when we're indoors, are always, always looking out.

I hope you've enjoyed this bird's journey as much as I enjoyed having her with me. I miss having bird energy in the house, and she brought a very, very special sweetness to my life for the few days she was recuperating. She was released on July 11, Phoebe's 20th birthday, and something about that rings a bell, too.  On July 13th, a mysterious brown bird launched out of one of the birches and flew right at the (crop-netted) studio window toward my preoccupied face, veering at the last moment and heading into the backyard. It wasn't a dove, and it wasn't a flicker. It might have been a black-billed cuckoo, saying thank you once again.

Zick photos and videos by Liam Thompson
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