Friday, December 31, 2010

The New Year—A Spotless Tract of Snow

Planning to sleep your way into 2011?

Before you turn off your computer, put on your PJ’s, and turn on your electric blanket, take six and a half minutes to enjoy a beautiful rendition of the ancient Scots poem Auld Lang Syne, which was popularized in print by Robert Burns in 1788 and in musical form by Canadian band leader Guy Lombardo in North America in the 1920’s, 30’s, and 40’s.

The recording artist is internationally known Norwegian soprano Sissel Kyrkjebø, whose voice has been described as “crystalline.” The nature photography is superb.  Sentiments are thoughtful.

Happy New Year! And good night!

This Screen Saver Bugs Me

I was sitting at my computer when the screen saver came on.  What?  Had I fallen asleep?  I haven’t ever done that.

Wait!  That’s not a screen saver.  I’m awake.  I’m typing.  That’s a live brown marmorated stink bug walking across my computer screen.

Did he like my draft blog so much that he flew down to read it at close range?

Resigned to catching yet another stink bug, I retrieved our soapy-water bottle, our Stink Bug Collector, from the kitchen and was about to introduce the stink bug to bubbly swimming when I had an idea.

Hummm.  Clear text from screen.  Type something topical—about stink bugs.  Grab camera and take photo.  Then introduce bug to suds.

What do you think?  Is the photo worthy of screen-saver status?

I don’t think so.  But it seems so appropriate as 2010 ends—what I call the Gardening Year of the Stink Bug.

What do you call it?

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Women, Poison, & Pork Chops

This is the second and final posting about one of my oldest treasures, The Farmer at His Work, a “Xmas 1943” gift from Nana and Poppy, my maternal grandparents.

In Part 1, I focused on how much farming has changed in the last three generations. In this posting, I’m going to discuss three things in The Farmer that I think today’s children’s books would discuss differently—role of farm women, use of pesticides, and origins of table meat.

Where are the farm women in The Farmer, I’ve often wondered? Of the 36 photos, not one shows a woman, though one includes a young girl watching her dad scour (clean or polish) a plow. The text does mention women twice. The threshing page notes, “The women cook a lot of food on threshing day, for they have many men to feed.” The haying page mentions that “the farmer must know when his hay is ‘done’ just as his wife must know when her pies are done.”

But farm women in South Jersey in the 1930s and 1940s weren’t invisible cooks only at home at the range.   My grandmother, Jennie Dickson, for example, gathered the eggs and sold them door-to-door in Salem, the county seat, for 24¢ a dozen to keep the farm financially afloat during the Great Depression.

On another farm I often visited as a child, the wife, Mary, worked side by side with her husband, Earl, milking a herd of Holsteins. On another farm, I watched Grace and Leona operate machinery that hoisted bales of hay and straw into the mow. My father’s sister Dot lost a finger while working with farm machinery. My Great-Aunt Marie Dickson worked far from the kitchen stove when she helped process muskrat meat for sale in the family raw-fur business.

The second change in perspective involves “poison.” Environmentalists today would go on war footing if a new children’s book approached pest control as The Farmer does. That discussion begins with a question: “You would not want to eat an apple with a big worm in it, would you? … That is why farmers who raise fruit must spray their orchards with poison. Sometimes they use poisoned water, and sometimes they used poisoned dust. … Some of the poison is sprayed onto every branch. As soon as the larvae hatch, they begin to eat and they get some of the poison along with the tender leaf or bud on which they are feeding.”

Today’s fruit growers don’t use “poison.” They use “pesticide” or “fungicide” or some other “-cide” designed to kill something but not to scare consumers. Today’s "poisons" may differ significantly from those of yesteryear, but millions of moms and dads play it safe by purchasing organic foods to avoid eating the chemical residues on much of today’s fruits and vegetables.

The third different perspective in The Farmer involves the origin of meat used for food. Every generation seems to get farther removed from basic food production. I imagine if you asked today’s first graders where pork chops or tomatoes come from, common answers would be “Safeway” or “Super Fresh” or “Food Lion.”

The Farmer takes young readers right to “butchering time.” A large photo shows a smiling farmer adding wood to a fire heating a cauldron to be used “to scald the hogs so that the hair can be removed from their bodies.” The next photo shows a farmer beginning to cut a hairless porker into ham, bacon, and loin and concludes, “That is where we get pork chops.”

Life on the farm has changed drastically since the 1940s. Tractors, combines, and other machinery have replaced horses and mules and most human laborers, such as the farmer in Photo 1 sitting in his field and manually husking corn. To see a horse-drawn plow or a threshing machine today you’d best visit an Amish farm—or a “living museum.”

But memories still linger here at Meadow Glenn, refreshed occasionally when I read through my ancient Christmas gift, The Farmer at His Work.

What memories of farm life do you treasure?

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

When Men & Horses Farmed the Land

I cherish one of my first Christmas presents, The Farmer at His Work, a book that “Nana and Poppy”—Jennie and Walter Dickson, my maternal grandparents—gave me in 1943. I have to smile because Nana inked a greeting and used “L” as my middle initial. That was my dad’s. Mine is “W.”

The Farmer is an early example of a children’s book based on photographs. As an adult slowly crawling toward my second childhood, I am still fascinated by the black-and-white photos of the way it used to be.

I have drafted two postings about this treasure. In this one, I’ll show you some of the photos and nearby text and focus on how farming has changed since the 1940s. In the second posting, I’ll comment about several subjects that would be presented quite differently in a children’s book today.

Published in 1933, The Farmer bridges two eras—farming by men and horses and farming by men and machines. The book’s cover (Photo 1) shows the old way—a farmer planting corn with a planter drawn by a team of white horses. Poppy was a farmer, and he had a team of horses. One of my memories is of standing tiptoe on the bottom half of a stable door and looking out over a field and seeing Poppy driving his team from a distant field through a tree-shaded lane toward the barn—a brown horse and a white horse.

Photos 2, 3, and 4 illustrate how much grain harvesting has changed over the generations.

Photo 2 shows a farmer shocking wheat. I suppose kids today would consider “shocking wheat” to be some kind of electrical accident—or an explosion in their cereal bowls. Imagine the manual labor involved as farmers stood up bound bundles or sheaves of ripened grain and topped the shock with grain stalks so rainwater would run off and not spoil the grain. How many people would it take today to shock wheat on a thousand-acre wheat farm?

Photo 3 shows what most would consider the big annual farm event—threshing day. In this photo, a Case farm tractor powered the threshing machine, not an earlier steam engine, but a team of horses still stood ready to pull away a load of bagged grain. All the shocks of grain, of course, had to be carted in from the fields to be threshed—more hard work.

Photo 4 shows the newer generation of farm equipment—a combine. The text explains that the farmer and his son now could do all the work. “Farmers working together” were becoming a thing of the past. Shocking grain was no more. Hauling it to the threshing machine was no more. One machine cut and threshed the ripened grain where it grew in the field.

Photo 5 shows how grain used to be sown, and it’s hard to imagine a broadcast sower being used today except for spreading grass seed on the front lawn. One late afternoon in the late 1940s, I was coming up out of the meadows with my dad from a pheasant hunt along Alloway Creek on the farm of a great-uncle, Raymond Dickson, near the town of Hancock’s Bridge. I was just a little kid and was so tired I could hardly lift my feet after a couple of hours of dragging my boots through sucking mud and stumbling through brambles and over furrowed land.

But I stopped thinking of how tired I was when Dad said, “Here comes Uncle Raymond.” I watched as my uncle walked toward us across a newly harrowed field while seed sowing just as Photo 5 illustrates. How many acres did Uncle Raymond “walk” that day? How long did it take?

How farming has changed.

Next posting: Women, Poison, & Pork Chops.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Children's Quilts: Not So Simple

One of Ellen’s hobbies is quilt-making. She’s made five quilts for children and grandchildren of friends during the last several months.

A few months ago she made two for young sisters, daughters of a former co-worker who lives in New Hampshire. More recently she sent three to Washington State for grandchildren of a long-time friend.

I’ve never made a quilt. I might think it simple: Go to the barn, bring in some cotton-print feed sacks, wash them and cut them into squares, and sew them together into a quilt.


The procedure goes something like this: Consult with family about interests of child and favorite color. Suggest possible patterns and solicit family input. Calculate number and amount of fabrics needed. Search for and buy fabrics of preferred colors and complementary patterns. Cut fabrics using assorted geometric rulers. Lay out fabrics in selected pattern and critique and rearrange until satisfied. Sew small sections. Sew small sections into larger units. Add sashing and borders and then batting and backing. Finally, quilt the quilt and sew on the binding.


A few hours here, a few days there. Time flies when you’re having fun—and this is fun, Ellen assures me.

Some of the quilts just seem to “fall together” in the right patterns and right color combinations. Others take hours, or days, of thought and rearranging of colors and fabrics. But once all the “what if’s” are cared for, the sewing generally goes quickly, especially if you have a mathematical mind and the points of your stars and the corners of your squares are perfect.

Yes, time flies when you’re having fun.

And at the end, when a quilt is done, Ellen holds it over the railing outside our sunroom and I take a photo.

And then these gifts of love and talent get boxed and mailed to some very special children.

Ah, no more quilting for a while, I suppose. Time for Ellen to read a book or two or 10?

No, it’s time to design and begin work on a quilted wall hanging that will coordinate with the quilt Ellen made last year for the guest bedroom. She just happens to have a few pieces of the original fabric left over, and if she can just find matching pieces at a fabric shop….

Monday, December 27, 2010

No More Fruitcakes: Amazon to the Rescue?

Ah, a heart-warming Christmas story! has patented a process that would allow gift recipients to return gifts before they receive them.

If Uncle Ben buys you his annual gift Christmas fruitcake through Amazon—and you hate fruitcake and would prefer a bag of Sunsweet Gold Label Pitted Dried Plums—hey, make the switch!

Gone: Amazon’s packing, labeling, and shipping costs for the round trip.  Call that mega$$$.

Gone:  Your time and effort to repack, label, arrange for shipment—or otherwise recycle.  Call that “pain” and add to it, perhaps, just a touch of holiday “guilt.”

A spokesperson for the Emily Post Institute, according to the Washington Post, has given the idea two-thumbs down:  “This idea totally misses the spirit of gift giving.  The point of gift giving is to allow someone else to go through that action of buying something for us.  Otherwise, giving a gift just becomes another one of the world’s transactions.”

Hey, Emily Post Institute, lighten up.  What spirit resides in a gift that becomes the family joke or ends up in the trash can covered with a little-white lie (“We loved your annual fruit cake, Uncle Ben”) and the hope the trash collector doesn’t drop that fruity brick on his foot?

If implemented, the Amazon system would have options.  For example, it might let you send Uncle Ben a thank-you note telling him that you exchanged his fruitcake for the bag of dried plums.  But it also might let you enjoy just a little guilt by sending Uncle Ben a thank-you note without telling him you converted his gift fruitcake into a another gift or a gift card. 

I give Amazon's idea two-thumbs up!

What do you think?

To read Michael S. Rosenwald’s Washington Post article that inspired this posting, CLICK HERE.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

After the Feasts, a Simple Meal

Oh, the holidays feasts!  I love them—two plus a brunch this year.  Should I count “my” calories?  No, no, that’d be too depressing. 

I still see my favorites, and I still see them piled high on my plate.  Mashed potatoes with cream, butter, and parmesan and asiago cheese.  Roasted Brussels sprouts, cranberry-apple chutney, roast beast, veggie meatballs, Jersey lima beans and corn, and pies—apple, cherry and pecan and brownies with vanilla ice cream—and pumpkin pie with whipped cream.  Yes, yes, holiday food.  And bad Bob ate much too much.

Mouth-watering—pound-adding—eat what is set before you, the good book says.  I’ll ignore any reference to gluttony.

But today’s the day after—reality.  It’s 25.2° F. outside our front door according to our digital thermometer.  Wind from the north swirls light snow that nearly covers our driveway.  And now the question, What shall we have for our Sunday meal?

Soup and bread: antidote for holiday bingeing.  Repent, repent!  A simple meal by a simple cook—simple Bob.

I add a cup of split peas to a 3-quart pot, then about 2 quarts of water.  (This cook is no slave to measuring cups and spoons.)  I add a small onion, finely chopped and bring the mix to a boil.  While I wait for the soup to boil, I chop five or six baby carrots into fairly large chunks and then peel and chop a medium white potato into medium chunks—and add them to the mix, with a teaspoon or so of salt and a tablespoon or two of olive oil, both measured by my eye.

So simple.  I can read the list of ingredients without consulting an alchemist’s dictionary.  When the pot boils, I turn it down to a simmer.  I check it from time to time and give it a stir.  Somewhere in the stirring I check for salt and add a little more.

Fifty minutes later the soup is done, the peas beginning to disintegrate, the potato chunks losing their edges, the carrots just a bit firm to the bite.  If I had cooked it another 10 or 15 minutes, of course, the ingredients would have broken down just a bit more and the soup would have been just a bit smoother.

Add a dash of cream or sour cream?  No, thank you.  I’ve had enough of those yummy things the last two days.

But dish it up I do—and serve it with slices of our favorite soup-bread, the store-baked Seven-Grain Bread that comes in brown paper wrapper at the local Giant Food store.  It has a great texture, a great feel, a great taste.  It doesn’t squeeze and collapse like Wonder Bread.  If you try, it fights back.  Of course, the best bread at the store costs the most.  Cheap soup, expensive bread—about the right mix for a snowy day.

Welcome back to everyday life, Bob.  Holiday meals were fantastic.  But now, a simple meal is what we want.

“Great meal,” Ellen said.  "Thank you."

“Yes, sometimes a simple meal is a great meal.  You're welcome.”

Deer Country 3: Helpful Information for Gardeners

What better time to read about deer and gardening than during the winter months, when you’re dreaming of next year’s gardens and wondering how to keep deer away.

Over the last 15 years I’ve read several books and many magazine articles and Internet resources about gardening in deer country. I want to recommend five publications—one university publication and four books. The university publication is available free online, and the books are available for sale at local or online book sellers and for checking out at some libraries.

1. Fact Sheet 655, “Resistance of Ornamentals to Deer Damage,” available free online to read, download, or print, at the University of Maryland Extension’s Home & Garden Information Center’s website. The brochure divides plants into four categories, “Rarely Damaged,” “Seldom Damaged,” “Occasionally Damaged,” and “Frequently Damaged.” Each of those categories is then subdivided into “Trees, “Shrubs & Climbers,” and “Annuals, Perennials, & Bulbs.” A great first publication to read if you’re serious about solving your deer problem. To access, CLICK HERE.

2. Neil Soderstrom, Deer-Resistant Landscaping: Proven Advice & Strategies for Outwitting Deer & 20 Other Pesky Mammals (Rodale). I think this recent book (2009) is the best of the four I’m recommending. It’s a book you can pick up and read a chapter or just skim here and there. It contains hundreds of color photos. Chapter 1 is “Outwitting Deer.” The next chapters are about everything from armadillos and bears to voles and woodchucks. Chapter 21 is “Research on Deer Resistance.” Chapter 22 is “Deer-Resistant Plants.” Chapter 23 is “Profiles of Deer-Resistant Plants.” This is a stunning beautiful and highly useful and insightful book. 635.0496S in Howard County libraries.

3. Rhonda Massingham Hart, Deer Proofing Your Yard & Garden (Storey). This was my long-time favorite until Soderstrom’s book arrived. Read it if Soderstrom isn’t available, or you want to read two books on the subject. I’ve always smiled that this deer book was written by a Hart. 635.0496M in Howard County libraries.  ("M" for Massingham, the last name now used by the author.)

4. Bill Adler, Jr., Outwitting Deer (Lyons). Similar in organization and contents to the Hart book. Adler's writing should make you smile at times.  This is the only book where you find a comment of the Humane Society of the United States followed a few pages later by a recipes for Curried Venison and Venison Shortcake.  635.0496A in Howard County libraries.

5. Vincent Drzewucki, Jr., Gardening in Deer Country (Brick Tower). 635.0496D. Similar to Hart and Adler, but perhaps a bit simpler, especially good if you’ve napped too long and want a quick read. 635.0496D in Howard County libraries.

Isn’t there snow in the forecast? Happy reading.

In the next Deer Country: homemade and commercial deer repellents. Do they work?

Friday, December 24, 2010

God Be with You!

Honk, Honk, Kill a Christmas Goose?

Ever think bad thoughts about resident Canada geese when you try to avoid the greenish piles of their droppings on your lawn, a park sidewalk, or golf course?

Well, yes.

Ever think they are such a nuisance that someone should thin their ranks significantly?

Well, yes.

Ever think you might eat one for your holiday dinner?

Well, perhaps I’ll think about that for a while.

In “About that Christmas goose” in his “Urban Jungle” column in the Washington Post, Clark Patterson takes a look at this problem. To read the feature, CLICK HERE.

Six Choice Conifers for Your Landscape

Thinking of adding an evergreen tree to your landscape? In “Solving a conifer conundrum” in his “Gardening” column in the Washington Post, Adrian Higgins discusses a variety of choices. To read his column, CLICK HERE.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Hey, Was That a Blue Jay?

Remember the West Nile virus plague that began in 1999 in New York City, swept across the country during the next five years, and killed millions of birds?

It was difficult watching TV news or reading a newspaper without finding the latest details. Star victim was the crow, though many other species were susceptible, including chickadees, blue jays, and gulls.

I witnessed the epidemic from our front windows overlooking our three bird feeders and front yard. Before the virus struck, one day I counted more than 100 crows marching across our front yard in search of food. When the West Nile virus worked its way through the local crow flocks, numbers dropped to near zero. For several years only three crows visited regularly.

But numbers have increased again over the years. Last year seven crows visited regularly. This year it’s 15.

Welcome back, crows.

Why was I counting crows?

I thought you’d never ask. For about 10 years I participated in Project Feederwatch of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. In Canada an affiliated program is called Bird Studies Canada. The programs are called “citizen science” because they use observations of amateur birdwatchers, like you and me, to help track bird populations and their problems.

In addition to helping track the effect of West Nile virus on crows, I also helped track the spread of an eye disease of house finches. Of course I never made any great scientific discovery, but my reports of what was happening at Meadow Glenn helped researchers fill out the bigger picture of those two problems.

In its 2009-2010 annual report, Project Feederwatch said 15,000 participants submitted 112,000 checklists, reporting nearly 6 million birds. In the region including Maryland, the top five species were Chickadees (combined Black-capped and Carolina because they are difficult to distinguish), Dark-eyed Juncos, Mourning Doves, Downy Woodpeckers, and Blue Jays.

Project Feederwatch is only one of many educational programs carried on by the Cornell Lab. Many programs are free, but some, like Feederwatch, are self supporting, with dues of $15/year.
If you’re curious about birds, you may enjoy an Internet trip to the Lab website. Take my word for it. It’s best to explore this site on a cold winter’s night when you have an hour to spare because you’ll find links to the Lab’s YouTube Channel, an online bird guide, a library of video and audio recordings, and more.

Ready to explore? CLICK HERE to link to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website.

If you want to sample an audio recording of a blue jay, CLICK HERE.

God Rest You Merry Gardeners

Time to sing to and give gifts to your apple tree?  Barbara Damrosch, in her “A Cook’s Garden” column in today’s Washington Post, thinks you should.  To read her merry column, CLICK HERE.

Are Deer Forecasting?

How many deer have you counted at one time from a window at home? My record this week is 23 on Tuesday. It seemed to me their coats are extra thick this December. I hope that isn’t a forecast of the kind of winter we’ll experience the next two months.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Spicing Up Sunday Brunch

In May I gave my friend Kusuma a selection of tomato transplants that I’d grown from seeds. Last week he reciprocated with a gift of a jar of mouth-watering lime relish, which some tender tongues might call “spicy hot” but which I love on crackers as a snack or as a fire-cracker complement to an entree.

Ellen and I love Indian food, though I’m the one who takes spicy-hot lemon pickle when we walk the buffet line at House of India restaurant on Snowden River Parkway in Columbia, our favorite Indian restaurant where for years we’re been cared for by Madhav, who greeted two friends and us Tuesday with a smile and, “Four mango lassis this time too?”  Yes, of course.

I especially welcomed Kusuma’s gift of lime relish because last year’s gift bottle was just about empty, but I didn’t pay much attention to the labels until I put the jars side by side when I was ready to open the new bottle.

Surprise! Last year’s bottle was labeled Patak’s “Lime Relish, Spicy & Chunky, Medium.” This year’s bottle kicked up the heat a few notches: Patak’s “Hot Lime Relish, Spicy & Fruity, Extra Hot.” Was I ready to taste a relish that had two “hot’s” in its description?

I sampled both and decided “hot” is a relative term. Both “Medium” and “Extra Hot” tasted about the same to me—somewhat hot, but mouth-watering, not really sinus-clearing or ear-wax melting, both milder than House of India’s lemon pickle.

My lime-relish tasting took place as we were putting our Sunday brunch together--poached eggs on toasted English muffins and potatoes, Mini Tater Tots this week. Since I’ve often read of adventurous diners who splash hot pepper sauce on their eggs, I wondered what putting some Hot Lime Relish on my two poached eggs would taste like.

I spooned a little on each egg.

Ellen watched with a degree of skepticism.

I ate. Ah, delicious!

This bottle won’t last a year.

Thank you, Kusuma.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Gotta Put That on My 2094 Calendar

I had no intention of setting the alarm to get up to see the total lunar eclipse at 3:17 this morning, and I didn’t. But my brain apparently sensed a darkening of the bedroom as the eclipse progressed, and I awakened about 2:25 and popped out of bed to watch.

The eclipse was progressing nicely, over half way. I wanted to take some photos, so I retrieved my camera from my desk. But how do I take a photo in the middle of the night of the moon that is nearly in full shadow of Earth’s shadow?

In the old days, I would have gotten out my “night photos” slide rule and done some calculating, put my Nikon on a tripod, and taken lots of photos at assorted camera settings, hoping for a few good ones. Then I would rush the film to a processor and await the prints to see if my informed guesstimates were good.

But this morning, I just let my Canon PowerShot SX 210 IS digital camera make all the decisions because it’s much smarter than I when it comes to picture taking—and who knows what else. So I just set it on AUTO, went out on the deck, learned up against the brick wall of our house, and fired away. The posted photo shows the moon at 2:40, about 36 minutes before the total eclipse.

The Washington Post this morning added another thought to my experience. The December 21, 2010, total lunar eclipse occurred on the same day as the winter solstice, our shortest day, for the first time since 1638. The next double occurrence will be in 2094. Maybe I’ll make that if I faithfully take my daily “Adult 50+ Mature Multi Vitamins and Minerals” tablet. I’ll be 154 then.

The winter solstice officially occurred at 6:38 a.m. No, I didn’t sleep through that and experienced nothing except the usual dizziness I get when Earth tilts at such a steep angle from the Sun. (Please note that the dizziness idea is attempted humor.)

About 2:55 this morning the 26° temperature and the slight breeze reminded me that my cotton pajamas weren’t outside wear, I might be embarrassing the deer, and a warm electric blanket beckoned. I slept through the total eclipse at 3:17.

Now I’ve got to mark December 21, 2094, on my schedule so I’ll remember the next double occurrence of a lunar eclipse and the winter solstice. I wonder if my Outlook calendar records entries that far into the future.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Season's Greetings!

Season’s Greetings
Best Wishes
A Healthy and Prosperous
New Year!

Bob & Ellen

Our holiday “tree” is a home-grown Simpsons Curled lettuce plant decorated with cranberries

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Deer Country 2: Know Your Adversary

Ever wonder why deer seem to prefer to browse on the youngest, tenderest shoots and leaves in your landscape?

The reason is that deer don’t have upper incisors (cutting teeth). Instead, they have dental or browsing pads. They bring plant material into their mouths with their tongues and pinch it off between their dental pads and their lower incisors. That operates best when plant material is relatively soft or herbaceous, not woody, so for efficient browsing, deer prefer new or soft plant growth.

Good-bye, pansies. Good-bye, hosta leaves. Good-bye, new growth on maple and redbud trees. Good- bye, azalea buds.

Now that you know about deer dentition, you’ll understand many of their seasonal dietary preferences for foods that are relatively soft:

Spring (April to June): Herbaceous (not woody) plants and grasses and then buds and shoots of shrubs and trees.

Summer (July to September): Herbaceous vegetation, young leaves, new growth of shrubs and trees, and gardens. My two September photos show (1) a deer eating leaves, but not the more woody branches, of a kousa dogwood and (2) doublefile viburnum branches similarly stripped of their tenderer leaves.

Fall (October to December): Fruits and nuts (called mast). Acorns may make up half of their diet. Then come bramble leaves (blackberries, raspberries), mushrooms, and gardens.

Winter (January to March): Evergreen leaves, deciduous bark and dry leaves, acorns and nuts, winter fruits, such as rose hips and sumac and poison ivy seeds.

Deer diet, of course, varies from place to place and year to year depending on plants available and ever-changing weather patterns.  Scott Aker, horticulturist at the U.S. National Arboretum, noted that no edible is really off limits: “Deer will attempt to eat almost anything if their population is high and they are running out of food. That happens most often in times of drought or near the end of a colder-than-normal winter.”

It’s almost winter now, so while there is little snow cover, local deer are browsing on the remnants of grass, clover, and winter weeds. It’s been a good acorn year, so they’re vacuuming acorns under the oaks. And, alas, they’ve already stripped the buds from two of our azaleas—buds which would have been next spring’s blooms.

If the snow covers the mast and low-lying herbaceous vegetation, local deer will begin to browse on food they generally ignore—such as the tough and scaly leaves of cedar trees. After last winter’s Snowmageddon, I watched several deer awkwardly rearing up to reach cedar branches. They grabbed the ends of branches and then shook their heads, trying to pinch off or pull off pieces of greenery.

You may have noticed that for almost half the year deer prefer things growing in “gardens.” Thank you very much, gardeners in deer country. Two thumbs up for your well-stocked salad bar—so soft, so juicy, so browseable.

In next week’s Deer Country posting, I'll recommend publications about deer management for your wintertime reading.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Oh, Nuts ... and Suet and Seeds too

With the ground snow covered, I think birds must find it difficult to find food. Our three feeders at the front of our house are full—suet for fat-eaters and sunflower and nyjer for seed eaters. Because of the snow, when I filled the feeder this morning with the sunflower seeds, I scattered extra handfuls nearby on the snow and under evergreen trees where many of the birds seek shelter.

In the backyard, I put extra peanuts (in shells) out for blue jays, which is a joke because the blue jays “sleep in” and crows get the peanuts 95% of the time—as they did again this morning. The late-arriving blue jays didn’t lose out entirely because they soon were vacuuming up sunflower seeds under the feeders in the front yard.

Our feathered visitors never cease to fascinate me. When the jays discover their morning seeds or peanuts, their screams echo through the neighborhood with the news of food discovery.

The crows approach the peanuts with all the dignity of pigs—often trying to stuff two or three unshelled peanuts into their mouths and beaks before flying a more secure place to shell the nuts. That can be comical if a crow puts a large peanut into its mouth and then tries to pick up a smaller peanut with its beak. The beak just won’t close enough to pick up the smaller nut.

The cardinals and juncos are the “early birds,” arriving before the sun rise above the pines and leaving after sunset. And then there are the one-seed-at-a-time titmice and chickadees—making endless trips to carry away one seed at a time while other species just sit at the feeders and shell away.

My favorites are the song sparrows, ground feeders who kick up a storm of mulch or snow seeking bits of seeds dropped from the feeders by other species, though a few have figured out how to enter the feeder. What I really enjoy most, though, is when a song sparrow hops onto our nearby window ledge and pecks on our window, as in the first photo. I’m flattered that the bird likes to greet us--and I dismiss any thought that it really is attacking its own reflection in order to guard its “turf.”

What a relaxing and entertaining wintertime hobby—feeding the birds.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Nativity Story: Internet Edition

Tired of the same-old, same-old Christmas story that arrives in sparkly Christmas cards that you really don’t read? But are you ready for the Story of the Nativity in the Age of the Internet—in less than 3 minutes, the whole story so fast you’ll want to watch it two or three times and smile even more often?

Ready? Ok, CLICK HERE.

Two-thumbs up for this one!

No Creatures Were Stirring, Except...

‘Twas a week before Christmas,
When all through the house
No creatures were stirring,
Except brown marmorated stink bugs.

‘Tis true. I was sitting at my computer trying to figure out how “Subscribe to Blog” works when an insect caromed off the wall and landed on the shade of my desk lamp.

With temperatures running 10 degrees below normal and the outside temperature registering 26.4° F. at that hour, any respectable insect should be tucked away in some protected place waiting for warm spring breezes.

The visitor, of course, was a brown marmorated stink bug. Note the past tense. I went to the kitchen for my “Stink Bug Collector,” a peanut jar that I rescued from our recycling bin and now use to collect stink bugs inside our house.

The secrets of stink-bug collecting aren’t profound: (1) Fill bottle with an inch or two of water and then add a squirt of dishwashing detergent. (2) Remove lid and slide bottle from below the bug until it touches the bug. (3) Bug usually takes evasive action by dropping toward the floor, hopefully right into positioned bottle and sudsy bath. (4) If bug evades jar and lands on floor or desk, maneuver bottle cap until bug climbs onto it and then tap bug into suds. (5) Bye, bye, stink bug.

On my way from kitchen to study with the collector, I saw one stink bug hiking on the living-room floor tile. I positioned the jar top for that one to climb on and tipped him into the suds. In my study, I nudged the bug on the lampshade from below—and it dropped into the bottle and subs. And as I turned to leave my study I saw a third on the drapery, but soon it too was swimming in the suds.

Ah, three stink bugs collected in as many minutes—nearly a whole day’s worth. My guesstimate is that we’ve collecting, or flushing, 30 to 40 a week, say four or five a day.

I’m no longer seeing them in the frigid outdoors, so where are they coming?

My suspicion is that I’ve been catching the stink bugs that sought warmth when fall temperatures plummeted by squeezing into our attic around the soffit and fascia trim on the outside of our house. Now that the attic is getting cold, they’re making their way to our warm living quarters.

Every time I think about the bottle of floaters, I think, “What is the plague going to be like next summer? What devastation will stink bugs inflict on my tomatoes, blackberries, raspberries, beans, and who knows what else?

I’ll be monitoring all kinds of gardening and agricultural sources this winter to find the latest suggestions and recommendations. I don’t want “Gardening Year 2011” to be “Year 2 of the Stink Bug Plague.”

In the meantime, I’ll keep my “Stink Bug Collector” nearby.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Try This Yummy Holiday Slaw

Looking for a delightful slaw—slightly different—for a holiday potluck or feast?

Look no farther!  The Food section of the Washington Post recently included a yummy recipe for what I’ll call “Holiday Slaw.”  Unlike most slaws, this one is served at room temperature or even warm.  But it’s “holiday” because it contains chopped dried cranberries and crystallized ginger.

Is your mouth watering yet?

I have a reason for calling this yummy dish “Holiday Slaw” and not the name printed in the Post.  The reason is that the basic ingredient is Brussels sprouts, a veggie many people love to hate.

On Saturday we visited Bill & Noelene, friends who also had seen the Post recipe and asked us to contribute this dish to their dinner: “Shredded Brussels Sprouts with Cranberries and Ginger.”  The dish was a hit.  We’ll be making it again.  It replaces roasted Brussels sprouts as our favorite sprouts recipe.

I salivate as I recommend it to you for holiday feasting—while fresh sprouts are available in the stores.
I found it more economical to buy the sprouts by the stalk—with the spouts on the stalk equaling about four and a half 10-ounce tubs of sprouts—and in far better condition.  We’ll make two dishes out of sprouts from one stalk.

If this recipe has a downside, it’s that it’s labor intensive—shredding those small sprouts.  I do it manually, which takes a half hour or so, but perhaps you have some new-fangled machine that would reduce that job to a minute or two.

When I took the label from the stalk, the brand name caught my attention: “Queen Victoria.”

That gave me an idea for a more inviting name for this recipe:  “Victoria’s Secret Slaw.”

Isn’t that a winner?

To go to the Post recipe, CLICK HERE.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Phone Books—Joining the Dinosaurs?

Remember the old black telephones with the operator at the end of the line: “Num-ber, pah-leez”?


See, I remember our family’s 1940s telephone number. Mother and Dad had me memorize it just in case I got lost or kidnapped, though that was pretty much impossible in Alloway, the small New Jersey town where he grew up. Alloway had one blinking traffic signal at the center of town (red for vehicles on Greenwich and yellow for those on Main) and a host of moms and dads who “kept an eye out” for everyone’s kids, not just their own.

When the phone rang three times, I sometimes was asked to answer—in the proper way of course: “Nixon residence.”

Most operators were fired a couple of generations ago—replaced by rotary and then push-button phones. And now another part of telephone history since 1878 is about to disappear—the telephone directory—the white pages with residential telephone numbers.

Our current phone company, Verizon, has asked state authorities permission to stop delivering the white pages.


Most people now look up numbers online—or have them stored already on their home phones or cellphones. A survey showed that only 11% of households in 2008 used the white pages to find telephone numbers.

What then are all those thick directories used for?

Kindling wood—booster seats—pressing four-leaf clovers—but mostly for filling recycling bins.

Will I miss the local phone book?

One of the 7 a.m. exercise group at our community center recently was hospitalized. I wanted to call his wife and inquire about his recovery and to send a get-well card. I went to a cupboard in the garage, found the local phone directory, but found no entry for our friend. Then I went online and within a few seconds found his phone number and home address including zip code.

I probably won’t miss receiving the local directory. And the blue recycling bin at Meadow Glenn will be full at times—with the annual two-volume edition of the to-be-continued Yellow Pages.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Deer Country 1: Gardening in Deer Country

Three deer (Photo 1) checking for browseables in one of our flower beds just 15 feet from our front door on an October afternoon are unremarkable—because more often there are 5 or 7, sometimes 15 or 25, in our flower beds or on the lawn just beyond.

And just because we have a plague of deer doesn’t mean we cannot grow flowers, as Photo 2, of the same bed in June, illustrates. The blooming perennials are unprotected by fencing, rotten-egg or hot-pepper spray, bars of soap, wads of hair, water jets, landmines, or any other “thing” that might keep deer away.

What’s my secret?

The answer is that it took me nearly 10 years to figure out what the problem was and how I wanted to solve it.

When we moved to Meadow Glenn in 1997, I was excited about plans for beautifying our small piece of Piedmont Maryland, Earth 21029. Bed 1: Sunflowers. Bed 2: Pansies. Bed 3: Hostas. Framing the house: A row of Nellie Stevens hollies.

Over the first few months I learned that the deer we seldom saw considered our plantings a welcome addition to their salad bar. Sunflowers and Nellie Stevens hollies: Every leaf eaten. Pansies: Eaten to the ground. Hostas: Left with leafless stems.

Frustrating, yes—destroying dreams of endless flower gardens stretching to the horizon. Expensive, yes—if I total the cost of all the flowers, shrubs, and trees we bought that were eaten by deer. To compound the problem, the deer population over the years increased from “2 or 3, but seldom seen” to “20 to 25, and almost always present.”

But I didn’t surrender. I wondered how other gardeners solve the problem. I read books, magazine and newspaper articles, and Internet postings. I attended seminars. I read official county and state reports. I talked with neighbors and surveyed local Master Gardeners. I hung bars of soap, scattered hair clippings, sprayed foul-smelling liquids, and slathered on grease-like gunk.

Some things worked a bit, and some didn’t work at all for me. After more than 10 years of trial and error, I reached the point where I usually plant flowers, shrubs, and trees that the deer don’t prefer to eat.

In the Ancient Gardener Blog I’m going to share what I’ve learned—with a series of postings labeled “Deer Country.” My hope: What works for me will work for you.

Please check back from time to time and look for postings labeled “Deer Country” or “Subscribe” so you will know when I post. My goal is to add a new “Deer Country” posting once a week. If you know gardeners who have deer challenges, encourage them to visit this blog.

And please post your Comment about how you cope with deer that visit your garden. If you learn something from me, it’s only fair that I learn something from you.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Holiday Treats: Mud Pies & Meatballs

As a kid, I liked to play “cook”—you know, making mud pies. I once stuffed dried grass into a little cast-iron stove and lit it with a match I had borrowed from my dad—without his knowledge. My mother was not amused in the slightest at that culinary experiment, and apparently she communicated clearly because I never started a fire in the little stove again.

I still have no urge to stuff dried grass into our kitchen stove, but, quite frankly I still don’t mind getting my hands messy in the kitchen, so when it comes to making holiday treats that require special handling, I volunteer.

This year Ellen and I agreed we’d make baked veggie meatballs and cranberry-apple chutney for the holiday luncheon of her quilt guild and for my Master Gardener holiday celebration. Of course I volunteered to make the meatballs because I like to scoop the meatball mix with a teaspoon in my right hand and dump it into my left hand, where I then squish it around—no, no, where I gently roll it into a ball. You get the idea—just like when I was a kid, but now the mud pies are edible.

The recipe we use was given to us 30 years ago or so by Lola Benson, a great New Jersey cook, who’s now 89 years old. Thank you, Lola. It’s an unusual meatball recipe in that you bake the meatballs rather than frying them in fat of some sort.

Last year we glazed the meatballs with a sweet-and-sour sauce, but this year we’re taking a bowl of chutney to accompany the meatballs as a traditional holiday relish. To link to the chutney recipe, CLICK HERE.

Lola’s recipe makes friends wherever we take it, so, before you ask, here’s the recipe:

Lola Benson’s Baked Vegetarian Meatballs

4 eggs
1 cup chopped nuts
1 teaspoon chopped or minced garlic
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1 small onion, chopped
1 cup shredded cheese
1 cup Italian bread crumbs
1 package onion soup mix

Mix all ingredients, adding water a tablespoon at a time as needed until ingredients stick together when you form the balls. Bake on cookie sheets until lightly browned, 15 to 20 minutes, at 350° F.

Bob’s notes: I make 48 to 55 small meatballs from the recipe, but you may want to make them larger. That is no problem, but check while they’re in the oven to prevent overbaking. Both pecans and walnuts work well. I put a sheet of parchment paper on the cookie sheet for easy cleanup. I take the meatballs from oven when they’re golden, not dark, brown. They freeze well, so I often make a double recipe and then freeze half. Then I pull out six or so when we make spaghetti and add them to the bubbling sauce long enough to warm thoroughly.

I made 109 meatballs from a double recipe this time. Ellen put 40 in a covered bowl that she warmed in the microwave and took to her guild this week. I put 65 in another bowl and then into the freezer. I’ll thaw and reheat them for luncheon next week.

Now let’s check those figures: 40 + 65 = 105.

What happened to the other four?

Ho, ho, ho.

I’ll never tell.