Background Switcher (Hidden)

Hummingbird Decoy Works!

Wednesday, August 29, 2018


Along about Christmastime 2017, a package arrived from my new friend Susan Rankin-Pollard, a wonderful artist who specializes in picture book illustration.  See her amazing work on her Instagram account here. We'd met at a Highlights retreat where I was teaching, then been to Ecuador together for Sue's first real bird expedition. She was bitten hard by the birding bug, and what a place to receive one's baptism! In the box were some amazing ginger snaps from the Carolina Cookie Company, plus some lovely gewgaws that brought me joy. One of them appeared to be a hummingbird decoy. Well, maybe it was meant as  a Christmas ornament, but I decided to hang it outside this summer, hoping to attract hummingbirds.

 I am here to say it worked! I'm sure I'd never have had any hummingbirds on the cardinalflower unless that decoy had been doing its job. 

No way would they have checked out Pelargonium "Happy Thought" unless I'd hung the decoy.

When I see this, I imagine the bird going Neeerrrrrrroooooowwwww! under its breath.

Seriously though, I stare out the window a lot. Much less so this summer, because I'm nose to the grindstone on 20 watercolor paintings for Saving Jemima. They aren't just vignettes--they're full bleed full page chapter head illustrations. And they're SUCH FUN and SO AWESOME to do. I was meant to paint blue jays doing interesting stuff in cool settings. So lately I look at my work a lot more.  I've got a brutal deadline of October 1 to finish them, and September is just a hash of travel and speaking engagements and sending my kids off to far-away places. But that's life--it's what happens around the deadlines you set for yourself, that seem perfectly reasonable when you set them.

Thanks I'm sure to the bejeweled hummingbird decoy that brings them in to my gardens from far and wide, I see hummingbirds doing cool stuff every time I look up, and every once in awhile I raise the big rig and bang away at them. 

Caught this little feller flying backerds with rotational scoops of his tiny wings. Like backpaddling a canoe. That's really hard to do with anything but a hummingbird wing, because unlike most birds, the movable part of a hummingbird's wing is reduced to just the wrist and hand. If you're not at work and won't get stared at, spread your arms out to the sides and pretend you're a big hawk flying backward with rapid backstrokes. Doesn't work very well. It's hard. Now pull your elbows in tight to your sides so only your hand sticks out. Now pretend you're flying backerds. Works better when you can rotate the wrist, doesn't it? Psst...that's how they manage all those aerobatics. They fly with their hands.

The garden this time of year is dominated by juvenile rubythroats who are moving through on migration. It seems most of the adults have already migrated. Juvenile hummingbirds are really fun to watch, because they do funny, cute stuff. They're lazy, and like to see how many cardinalflower blossoms they can reach from the couch without having to fly. Mothers of teens will recognize this behavior.

But there's this thing they've been doing, that I've been trying to capture with my camera for weeks upon weeks. When they're done with a feeding bout, they fly up and for a micro nano split second they pay homage to the bejeweled hummingbird god that hangs just east of the cardinalflower bed.

I finally got some craptastic photos of the behavior. Since it's over almost before it starts, I have to prefocus on the ornament and wait for the bird to approach it. Because I have to shoot through a window which has bird netting over it, autofocus goes wild, focusing on everything but the bird, and most of the time I don't even get the ornament, much less the bird; I get great photos of the lawn behind the scene.

But I did get a few crummy-but-cute shots, and I wanted to share them with you.

Touching its wing

Checking out the other wing

 Flying together

and my favorite, lightly kissing its head.

 Knowing hummingbirds as I do, I'm pretty sure this juvenile is licking the ornament to try to figure out what it's all about. These are bad photos, but I'm happy to document the behavior, because I find it so predictable and endearing. It's not just one hummingbird that does it--they all do it.

So hang yourself a hummingbird decoy, and see what magic happens in your garden! This post is for Sue and Phil, with all best wishes on the move to OHIO!! Wahoo!! Smart move, if you ask me. Thanks for the decoy. It works!!

ZICK ALERT: The Rain Crows have a gig coming right up. 
 Blennerhassett Hotel, Parkersburg WV, Friday, Aug. 31, 7 pm.  We'll be in the beautiful Rose Garden if it's nice, in the sumptuous leather lounge if it's not; either way it'll be awesome. We have Matt First of the Sunset Roosters on guitar!! 

In Case You Missed It

Wednesday, August 22, 2018


photo by Anne Babcock
 In Case You Missed It: Which, of course, all but about 60 people did...but let's consider what it's like to have 60 people arrive in your yard on a sprinkly, trying-to-be-fine Saturday noon. It's a trip, that's what it is! I'll confess that I spent several weeks in preparation for the Indigo Hill Garden Tour and Plant Sale, thinking of all the things that need to be thought of when that many people come to visit.
 Things that I'd not paid much attention to before suddenly loomed large. Here, purple coneflowers are struggling to raise their pretty heads above all the sumac in the prairie patch. We can't have that! The Garden Tour is coming!

  Some weeding was effected. I started off clipping the sumac with a pruner, but later figured out that I could pull it and break it off at ground level. It wasn't easy, but it was a lot faster than clipping.

Piles of sumac formed all along the borders of the bed. Why, I could do this every year. Maybe I can take the prairie patch back from the sumac. Mowing doesn't do much; just makes the sumac shorter. The spreading roots remain, ready to throw shoots up and keep on walking in their inexorable takeover of the entire bed. If I pull it in midsummer, then mow in March, maybe I can discourage it a bit.

I wouldn't say it was fun, but it was satisfying to slow the sumac down and reveal all the marvelous composites that are blooming their heads off in the prairie patch. 

The brushpile grows and melts, grows and melts. I dump head-high piles on it and they just go away.

Gray sunflower (a prairie native), with tickseed sunflower and ironweed, among many others. There's coneflower, partridge pea and even a little liatris in there. When I was done, I threw about a dozen seed spikes of my garden liatris in like javelins, as a final salute to native takeover.
Back to the event planning: I knew I couldn't lead two garden tours and cook, so Phoebe suggested a 12-5 pm time frame. As an inveterate nurturer, I needed to be released from the obligation of feeding everyone, or catering the event would be all I'd do. Been there, done that. This was going to be different, and a whole lot more fun for me. No food, I declared. Herb tea. And Anne and Phoebe added the cookies.  Perfect!

The day dawned rainy and humid, the tuberoses going wild with fragrance. I still had to set up my plant shop and bookstore, get the kitchen and studio ready to receive, finish some weeding,  make some signs, and get myself clean. An angel had arrived the evening before in my dear friend Anne, shown here marveling at the touch of bluebird feet five years back. This is still my favorite picture of Anne, lost in the magic of being chosen by bluebirds.

Anne arrived like the angel she is, unbidden, but ready to work, and bearing two enormous containers of home-made cookies: Chocolate Crinkle and her grandmother's crispy sugar cookie recipe. They were amazing. And thank goodness, because everyone lit up when they saw the platters, and the ice-cold herb tea I'd made for days in advance. I used the pineapple sage, spearmint and lemon verbena from the Heritage garden, sweetened with leaves from my longsuffering Stevia plant. Just three leaves will sweeten an entire quart. It doesn't have to be a full lunch, but nice refreshments are mandatory. 

Other guests brought gorgeous shortbread and brownies. We all ran on sugar all afternoon. 

Photo by Anne Babcock
The other absolute essential was my beautiful Phoebe, who not only kept me sane, but cleaned the greenhouse, vacuumed the whole house (including the tower), baked a big batch of Italian wedding cookies, then attended to several small children who came, showing them where to get golden raspberries and Stevia and other delicious treats around the gardens. There were two adorable infants among the garden fans, and Phoebe gave them lots of loving attention. She helps where she's needed. She gets my crazy and reels me in when I'm spinning. I love her so.

photo by Anne Babcock
This is what it looked like around 12:30 when the first tour started. My dear friend Dawn Hewitt --managing editor at Bird Watcher's Digest-- volunteered--imagine! to put herself on parking duty, staying out at the end of the driveway. She asked everyone who was able to, to park out on the township road, and walk in the driveway. Those who needed to could park on the lawn. We figured the yard wouldn't be very scenic if it was chock full of automobiles.  It worked great, with a few umbrellas for the noontime showers. Thank you, Dawn!!!

photo by Anne Babcock

We staged at the porch, and I yakked about plants and horticulture and gardening practices, moving from one thing to the next, and it was tons of fun. Here, I'm cradling my dwarf pomegranate, which put on extra flowers and a nice ripe red fruit for the party. I explained how I trained it into a bonsai pot over a series of years and prunings of both root and top.

photo by Anne Babcock
Admiring the scarlet runner bean gifted to me by my friends Carol and Daniel way back on March 9, when I was speaking to the Burroughs Nature Club. Carol handed me these three Jack and the Beanstalk lookin' seedlings in a half-gallon pot. When I expressed my doubt that I could keep them happy for another two months until it was safe to plant them out, she said, "Don't you have a greenhouse?" 
I replied, "Yes, and it's tiny and stuffed full!"
Somehow I managed to keep it going, looping all around the inside of the greenhouse and I'm so glad I did! Planning to take some beans off it and repeat the performance. But next year I'm going to start it in late April! The beans it makes are edible, but they aren't much. But they make more scarlet runners, and that's a good thing.

Photo by Anne Babcock
 On the back patio, where one astute visitor located one of our copperheads in his favorite lair without being told where to look. It was nice to give people what might have been their first look at a wild (but very placid) copperhead.

We love the Faks.

Got a bit carried away with the hot crayon colored zinnias. I do that in early spring--go for the maximum color bombs.  Going to plant some gentler shades next year to balance things out. Tasha Tudor would be appalled at my gardens.
photo by Anne Babcock

A volunteer fancy sunflower in the vegetable garden.

The composites were showing well! Late summer is their domain.

A very cool thing happened while I was discussing bonsai culture. A digger or katydid wasp called Sphex nudus, one I've been watching for several days, came buzzing in with a freshly paralyzed leaf-rolling cricket (Camptonotus carolinensis).

I got extremely excited and managed to show the dramatic scene to the group. The wasp stings the cricket, paralyzing it, then drags it deep into a burrow it's dug, lays an egg on it, and lets its larva grow up eating the cricket from the inside out. What I'm wondering is just how many crickets that wasp stuffs into one burrow, because this has been going on for days. It's all I can do not to dig up the burrow to find out. And I wonder how it finds these crickets in their rolled-leaf shelters. It must have a search image for the shelters. I find the whole thing amazing. And the cricket preys on aphids! So. There are stories piled on stories here. I made the video below several days before the garden tour, before I figured out what the cricket was. And she was still stuffing crickets in the same burrow on Tour Day. It's all I can do not to dig it out to see how many crickets are down there!

photo by Anne Babcock. I'm telling the digger wasp story to some very interested young gardeners.

Photo by Debbie Bryant

Part of the fun of the whole day was meeting people I'd only known as names and profile photos on Facebook.
That was really cool. Debbie Bryant took a bunch of  photos that she's graciously allowed me to use.

Photo by Debbie Bryant
 In the hummingbird garden outside the studio.

A particularly nice framing of my Impatiens Stairs. That's a new thing this summer. I think it's going to be an annual event, because rabbits (at least mine) don't seem to eat impatiens! You'd think they'd be delicious. Here's to plants the rabbits don't eat. That includes cardinalflower and tuberoses. I told everyone that what they saw in the gardens is what the rabbits didn't eat.
Photo by Debbie Bryant
Photo by Debbie Bryant
 Debbie said her favorite part was climbing the tower and catching the views from on high. I never made it up there, being too busy flapping my gums, but Annie took it upon herself to be the tower guide, helping folks clamber up the folding tower stairs and get out onto towertop. Thank you, Angel.

Photo by Debbie Bryant

 Part of the fun of the whole event was growing plants for sale. I've always wanted to be a grower of special plants, and that dream came true this summer. I scrounged around the recycling center for just the right pots and got busy, growing dozens of my favorite Achimenes longiflora "Pink Nighty," Chrysanthemum "Sheffield Pink," native Ohio born and bred Cardinalflower, the magical fast-opening evening primrose, and  propagating a bunch of jewel orchids, too. It was pure fun. The Achimenes were a real project.

 I started them in April, and they were only just coming into bloom in late August. But they'll bloom hard until it gets cold, and they're worth it! I set up a store in the Groanhouse, which Phoebe had thoroughly cleaned out for me. I'm gonna miss that girl...

Cardinalflower babies, waiting for new homes.

Jewel orchids, ready to enchant.

Just inside the house was a bookstore with all the Zick bling you could ask for: books, puzzles, notecards, fine art prints. The 12:30 tour ended there. Those who wanted to climbed the tower. And the 2:00 tour started, a bit late, but I think everybody had a good time. By 5 pm the place was mostly cleared, and I was done crispy.

 I'm happy to say that the event helped defray the cost of buying two Macbooks, one for each kid. They'd been struggling along on 5 and 6-year-old laptops, and it was past time to upgrade. Buying two at once was a financial blow that I'm finding hard to juggle, given that my dual home HVAC system has chosen this summer to go to pot. As I write, I'm looking out the window at my friend Chuck,  an HVAC repairman, who is peering into the guts of an air conditioner. He probably ought to just stay here rather than go back to the shop; they break down that often. Add Liam's tuition bill and a couple of whamtastic car repairs, and writing and illustrating bird books, wonderful as it is, falls a bit short. Time to get creative with income streams.

Lots of folks who had to miss this Indigo Hill Garden Tour and Plant Sale are asking if it will happen again. I'll watch the weather. If we have another fabulous summer with gentle, perfectly spaced rains; if the gardens are looking extra-boffo next August, I may just do it. Most of the work I do toward the event is work I'd be doing anyway, and it sure is fun to share all this beauty with such appreciative people. To all those who made the drive, thank you!! I'm grateful to you for your support, and I hope you had as much fun as I did!

August Garden Tour--Sneak Preview

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Like all avid gardeners, I work hard at beautifying this place. 2018's wonderful growing season, with gentle, frequent rains, has brought the gardens to a peak of perfection. But we're so far out in the sticks, nobody but my kids and I ever see them! The meadow is alight with prairie sunflowers, ironweed and goldenrod. The zinnias are losing their minds. I want to share!

Come to Indigo Hill Garden Tour and Plant Sale, Saturday, August 18, 12-5 pm.

We’ll talk plants, birds and nature, and I’ll share my secrets of gardening for birds, butterflies and people, too. See the bonsai collection, the Heirloom Garden, 

the burgeoning vegetable garden, 

Anybody know what this is?

and the hummingbird/butterfly beds. Get tips on gardening for, feeding, and watering birds. Peek into my studio, and climb the stairs to the birdwatching tower for a commanding view of the 80-acre property.

Want to bring home a souvenir of your visit? I’ve been propagating hard-to-find plants from my collection all summer long: Achimenes longiflora “Pink Nighty,” the magical evening primrose that opens before your eyes, the heirloom chrysanthemum “Sheffield Pink” –the first mum brought to the US by English colonists--and even native Lobelia cardinalis (Cardinal flower). My hardcover books, art prints, notecards and jigsaw puzzles will be for sale in a pop-up store in the greenhouse out back. Of course, I'll be happy to sign them.

Achimenes longiflora "Pink Nighty"--the perfect late summer hanging basket companion! Refresh those tired hanging baskets--yank out the dead lobelia and leggy petunias, the put a shot of hot pink in your life!

                           The Pink Nighty Chipmunk-Proof Growing Table. Crude, but effective.

Plan to be here for one of the scheduled Zick-led garden tours at 12:30 pm or 2 pm.

I’m asking a $20 suggested donation per person for what is sure to be a delightful treat of a day. There will be a donation can on the front porch.

 On your way out to Indigo Hill, keep a sharp eye out for the trees I call the Three Graces, the Monarch Meadow and the Shadow Barn.

 The Three Graces, about 4 miles out Dalzell Rd.

The Shadow Barn, and the sweet asphalt-shingled machine shed by the giant oak. Just across the road from the barn is the Monarch Meadow, which, having been cut in early July, is coming into full bloom NOW. It should be full of striped caterpillars. Side trip, before or after the open garden event. Plan on it!

The Three Graces, Shadow Barn and Monarch Meadow are all right together, in sight of each other, about 4.5 miles out Dalzell Road. Fergus the Frog’s pond is just beyond them, in a hollow down to your right.  Drive slowly around the big curve and take it in. It’s a beautiful drive and is sure to be a beautiful day.

                                              Click HERE for details and directions.  This is a link to a Facebook page about the event. You may not be able to RSVP by clicking "Going" if you're not already on Facebook. So please let me know in the comment section if you can make it. I apologize for the late notice.

Looking out the kitchen window.

Parking: If you see cars parked on Scott's Ridge Road, that means we ran out of space in the yard. If you can walk .2 mile, it would save yard parking for those who may be less mobile. Don't worry--we'll run your potted plants, books, and souvenirs out to your car when you're ready to go.

 This is a great big fun experiment, so be sure to RSVP, and to check back on this event page for notifications and alerts. To see updates, you'll have to click "Discussion" under the photo of my house. I'll hope to see you at my home on Saturday, August 18!

PS. Tested the directions you get by clicking "Get Directions" on the map. Those directions will get you there, but it's far easier, when coming up Rt. 821 N, to turn right on Dalzell Road and STAY ON IT for about 5 1/2 mi. until you get to Scotts Ridge Rd. Eyeroll.

[Back to Top]