June 24 • 03:04 PM
Rural Roots Blog
Exploring the world outside our windows through gardening, farming, cooking, decorating and more.

In the spring birding spirit

In the spring birding spirit

May 05, 2017 | 09:02 AM

So there's plenty of other things to see outside my window this time of year, like lovely daffodils, tulips and soon to be blooming lilacs, but I'm keeping an eye on my feathered friends too. They're still feasting on seed, gathering nesting materials and there are those travelers, stopping for a bit on their spring migration.

On a Monday morning last month, a flash of red caught my eye. A red-headed woodpecker visited our feeder, stopped at the suet and seemed quite entertained by the antics of our resident population. It hung around for a few hours. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology says this bird is commonly referred to as a "flying checkerboard," and I can see why. It is very distinctly color blocked in red, white and black, unlike most birds that have some kind of striped or speckled feathers. They're considered partial migrants who head south in winter, but that distance depends solely on where food sources are. According to Cornell's map, they're considered year round residents of southern Michigan and choose the Thumb and northern regions for summer breeding.

The red-headed woodpecker will visit suet feeders in winter but they prefer to dine on insects, nuts and fruit. This might be why I've never seen this bird before, but its declining population could be a factor too. According to Cornell scientists, the red-headed woodpecker is considered "Near Threatened" since their numbers have dropped an estimated 70 percent since 1966. This is attributed to fewer nut trees and fewer dead trees in which to build nests.

Those birds that seem almost tame are a treat too. Chickadees are famous for that. They don't have any qualms about stopping at a feeder, bird bath or tree even when humans are nearby. A few white-breasted nuthatches are pretty friendly too...perching just above a feeder while I fill it. Last week, a sparrow happily searched for seed in the grass as I approached with my camera. Turns out it was a white-throated sparrow likely fueling up for the next leg of its journey to this species' summer breeding grounds in Canada.

It's rather striking in appearance with the somewhat drab body of most sparrows that contrasts with bright white and black stripes on its head along with vibrant yellow lores—that spot above their eyes.

Interestingly, these birds don't mind spending time on solid ground, the Cornell experts say. They are considered ground foragers and typically build nests on or near the ground. That may explain its tolerance of me.

Besides seed from feeders, white-throated sparrows like to dine on the buds, blossoms and seed of trees like oak, apple and maple. Once there's more vegetation, they choose grass and weed seed including ragweed and get a bit of protein from wasps, stinkbugs, spiders and snails.

Soon, some more flashy visitors should be appearing like Baltimore orioles (saw one Tuesday morning!) and hummingbirds and the view outside the window will stay interesting!

Contact Maria at

Maria Brown
Receiving the royal treatment?

Receiving the royal treatment?

Processes protect, enhance seeds prior to planting

April 10, 2017 | 02:13 PM

I think my last two columns have established that a seed is not "just a seed." These little packages of potential are packed with fascinating histories, created with precise science and, unfortunately, ripe for misunderstanding and marketing mis-truths. We know what is and is not in them (no GMOs in the case of all garden seed) and where they came from (prized backyard heirlooms and vigorous plant lab hybrids) but there's one more label that's worth a deeper look...but we don't have to dig deep, it's on the surface—seed treatments.

Seed can receive any number of treatments from that time between harvest and storage. It's an important process for row crops and commercial vegetable farmers who make significant investments in seed and utilize machinery to plant that seed. It's not as common a practice for seed destined for the home garden. As a result, that 'untreated' label you might encounter is rather meaningless.

Although the term 'treated' might make one think first of chemicals, seeds can be treated with something as benign as hot water to protect it from pathogens or coated with plain old clay to make a pelleted seed that's larger in size and easier for handling and planting.

Some clarification on this matter might be most helpful when describing the differences among the two camps of treated and untreated seed—the 'haves' and the 'have nots.'

Untreated seed is just that-it hasn't received any kind of treatment, but it doesn't imply anything about the way it was cultivated. Raw seed can essentially claim the same definition. To bear an 'organic' label, that seed must have been grown under certified organic conditions and remain untreated after harvest. Certified organic growers are allowed to use untreated seed if a comparable variety is not available in an organic form.

Treated seed has been subjected to chemical or biological methods to defend against specific pathogens. Corn seed can be treated chemically to reduce damage from several pests that will attack it after planting. Some pumpkin, squash and melon seed receives a treatment that protects it against soil-borne diseases and can provide early season protection from beetles. Note that 'early season protection' description...that's true of virtually all seed treatments. They only provide a temporary benefit that quickly dissipates in the soil.

Pelleted seed is especially small seed that's been coated with an inert material, like clay, to make it larger and more uniform in size. Many online retailers offer pelleted carrot, lettuce and onion seed. If you grow large rows of any of these crops and want to spare yourself the time it takes to thin them, pelleted seed may be the answer.

Filmcoat processes can also be used on seed. Coating seed with a food-grade material can also contribute to better handling and, when a mechanical seeder is being used, better flowability. Better handling is also the goal when seed is detailed, that is, fibrous tails were removed either chemically or physically.

In seed treatment descriptions you'll see the term 'clean' in nearly all of them. Again, that doesn't imply anything has been unnaturally stripped from them, it just indicates that the seed is free from any plant material that is sometimes collected during harvest, like stems and pods.

Harris Seeds offers a basic but thorough list of seed treatments at

The goal of this three-part series about seeds, labels and marketing claims was to reassure gardeners and the general public that we have a safe food supply thanks to science. It's important for everyone to seek out facts about plant material and propagation and ignore the fear tactics many companies choose to use. Find some seed (regardless of what the labels say), plant it and enjoy whatever you're able to grow.

No luck in the garden? No worries. Thanks to the bountiful food supplies in this country, you won't go hungry. Just plan to make weekly visits to the farmers market!

Maria Brown
Hybrid vs. heirloom

Hybrid vs. heirloom

March 21, 2017 | 02:27 PM

I don't know if the hybrid vs. heirloom debate should be classified in the same 'gimmick' category as non-GMO (genetically modified organism) garden seed but there is plenty of false information about superior seed and plant material and, unfortunately, it's the proprietors of these materials spreading half-truths.

There's a resurgence in the popularity of heirloom vegetable and flower varieties and for good reason. They offer unique tastes, colors, shapes and sizes, thanks to the practice of open pollination, in which members of the same species are crossed with the help of pollinators or wind. This helps contribute to genetic diversity in plant life. Undeniably, the heirloom craze started with tomatoes. Growers sought old varieties that were prized for their taste and distinct flavors. (I can attest to the wonderfulness of Cherokee Purple. It's my favorite tomato, hands down.) Because of heirloom's history, many have intriguing stories tied to their origins. Take for example 'Mortgage Lifter,' the tomato developed in the 1930s by a man who went by the nickname 'Radiator Charlie.' He allegedly crossed several heirlooms to create this pink-skinned fruit that went on to generate enough money through tomato and plant sales that he could actually payoff his mortgage. Those varieties considered 'family heirlooms' are seeds that have been passed down through several generations. Who wouldn't want to continue that unique tradition and grow the same kind of corn that grandpa did? Just for reference, a hybrid is created when breeders intentionally cross-pollinate two varieties with the intent of producing a new plant that exhibits desirable traits from each of its parents. Hybrid fruit and vegetables usually display more vigor, yield and disease resistance than heirlooms.

While those are all admirable attributes, marketers have seized on several gaps in the heirloom market for their benefit.

First of all, the definition of just what 'heirloom seed' is quite broad. In general, varieties must be at least 50 years or older or pre-World War II. Their origins can be of the 'family' type or they could have had their start in the commercial realm, either as a pre-1940 introduction or having been in circulation for more than 50 years. One seed company wants to capitalize on the 'oldness' of heirlooms, suggesting that they correlate with a time when pesticides and herbicides were not used. That claim is not true. Farmers and gardeners have used treatments on their crops for a long time, and as noted previously, some heirloom crops are more susceptible to diseases and pests, requiring more treatment. Additionally, hybrids have a 50 year-plus history too. The first tomato hybrid was released in 1946.

Second, the assertion that all heirlooms are 'wild' or 'original' varieties, free of human intervention, is also false. Open pollination creates a constant cycle of change. To maintain an heirloom strain for seed production, growers must use tents, greenhouses or other enclosures to isolate the plants and prevent them from coming in contact with other pollen sources. That means pollinators must be controlled throughout the process as well. Technically, some heirlooms were created by crossing an heirloom and a hybrid variety. Again, if age and open-pollination are the only criteria, the number of plants that could classify as heirlooms might be much larger than we think.

Third, there is this wild claim that over-hybridization has drained the nutrition out of produce. One seed company's webpage claims that home gardening is the only means to "be in charge of your nutritional intake." Wow, what a grim outlook. So those people who either don't have the space, time or financial means to have a garden might as well just bypass the produce section or farmers market altogether? This company's claim is a blatant and outright lie. In fact, plant breeding has actually helped increase the nutritional content of many vegetables. Monsanto has developed a type of broccoli with three times the amount of a phytonutrient, glucoraphanin, as compared to other broccoli varieties. They also bred romaine and iceburg lettuces to create a hybrid green with folate and Vitamin C levels far and above those found in iceburg lettuce.

These kind of lies only contribute to the overreaching problem in this country regarding fresh produce consumption. According to the Centers for Disease Control, only one in ten consumers eat the recommended daily amounts of fruits and vegetables. It's pretty easy to bypass the salad bar if you're under the impression that fresh produce is nutrient deficient. I guess that selling fear, not facts, is much more profitable for this non-hybrid seed proprietor.

Yes, some produce purchased at grocery stores is on the bland side, but that is due to the fact that it's harvested before being fully ripened, regardless of whether it's an heirloom variety, hybrid, organic or conventional product.

Fourth, heirlooms are to be prized because their seed can be saved and replanted from season to season, making them more 'natural,' their proponents say. Some seed dealers want to suggest that there's some conspiracy behind a gardener's inability to save seed from hybrid plants because that seed, if planted the following year, won't likely 'come true' or yield the same exact fruit as before. There's no conspiracy here, that's just a basic plant science fact. Not everyone has the time or means to save seed from year to year and, in the event of crop failure, it's important that there are still means of procuring seed. Many like to claim that hybrid seed is more expensive than heirlooms because of the time-consuming process. That may have been true in the past, but my survey of a 2017 seed catalog with both heirlooms and hybrids showed no significant price differences at all.

There's plenty of room in my garden, as there should be in yours, for both heirloom and hybrid plants. Cultivating and preserving heirlooms is fun for the home gardener and essential to maintain the genetic diversity plant breeders need to address the constant onslaught of pest and pathogens that attack our food supplies. Hybrids are necessary to keep those food supplies at adequate levels and lessen our reliance on crop treatments.

Contact Maria at

Maria Brown

The great label letdown

Companies selling plants and seeds use misleading marketing claims to push fear and overlook facts

March 21, 2017 | 02:20 PM

It's time to buy that garden seed and scope out new plant material for spring planting. You've got lots of choices, or do you? Sure, you can select from four different colors of carrot seed, decide between bush vs. pole beans and choose a tomato that has tiny or gigantic fruit. Those are choices we can all appreciate. The choices I'm questioning have to do with those extra labels suppliers are choosing to universally slap on every seed packet or display—today's most popular claim is "non-GMO."

Let me start by saying I personally don't have a problem with genetically modified plant material. We've used GMO corn, soybean and sugar beet seed on our farm for years and have seen the environmental benefits it promises. We use fewer herbicides and fungicides and perform less tillage on the land thanks to the technology utilized by plant scientists. Additionally, numerous studies have shown (the latest being from the National Academy of Sciences in 2016) that genetically modified crops are safe for consumption. All have undergone testing and received approval by three federal agencies—the Food and Drug Administration, the United States Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency.

As a result, those "non-GMO" labels don't mean much to me. I wouldn't hesitate to use that kind of seed in my garden but the often overlooked fact is that I can't. There is no genetically modified vegetable seed currently available to home gardeners and likely won't be anytime in the near future.

Technically those now common labels are correct in that the pepper seed you purchase was not developed using genetic engineering. But I believe that label implies that somewhere there are GMO pepper plant seeds available and what you hold in your hand is somehow superior. That raises another issue—only a select few crops have been genetically engineered at the commercial level—and peppers aren't one of them. Besides field crops (corn, soybeans, canola, cotton, sugar beets and alfalfa), there are just a handful of genetically engineered (GE) fruits and vegetables: papaya, sweet corn and summer squash. Three other GE foods have been approved by government agencies but aren't yet available for purchase—the Arctic apple, Innate potato and Aquabounty salmon.

Genetically engineered sweet corn seed can only be purchased through select companies that also sell seed to row crop growers (i.e. grain corn, soybeans). Summer squash that has a built-in resistance to crippling viruses is only available for purchase by commercial growers. As is the case with all GE seed, growers must sign agreements with the seed companies and follow federal regulations regarding these crops.

For the most part, seed companies see more benefits in using advanced breeding techniques in the vegetable market than with genetic modification. It takes an average of 10 years and significant funds to take a GE product from the research stage to market.

I understand that seed and plant companies have probably decided to add these extra pronouncements on their packaging for uniformity and convenience's sake but I find them misleading and unnecessary. As is typically the case, one company probably started and the rest followed suit so as to not appear inferior. I understand that this may seem like a trivial argument to make but I don't like marketing gimmicks of any kind especially when they involve food and food production. I see slippery slopes ahead and half truths should have no place in something as important in food. It hurts both the producer and consumer.

Here's an analogy to consider. You're shopping around for a new vehicle and want to get something that will protect your family in the event of an accident. A salesperson or sales brochure tells you that this particular SUV is tops in its class for crash safety ratings. While that may not be a lie, your eyes eventually scan the fine print and find your selection was only one of two vehicles tested in this particular category. Your model got two stars out of five and the other got one. Again, it's technically not a lie but some marketing type has opted to overlook the necessary background information and push what 'good' claims they can find.

We all like to have choices, but to suggest options exist when in fact they don't—that qualifies as a gimmick, in my opinion. In this particular case, unnecessary labeling on garden seed has only upped the 'fear factor' and confusion among consumers (and now gardeners) about what is and isn't in our bountiful and safe food supply.

Next week, I'll examine the marketing claims associated with heirloom and hybrid seed.

Contact Maria at

Maria Brown

Start smart for ag safety

More than 200 take part in training day in Attica

March 21, 2017 | 02:16 PM

ATTICA TWP. — From grain bins and silos to tractors and livestock-just about everything found on working farms needs to be treated with caution. That was the message instructors sent to the students, farm families and first responders who all took part in Thursday's (Feb. 23) 'Agricultural Safety: Think Smart Before You Start' event at the Lapeer County Ed Tech Center.

Facilitated by Emergency Services Rescue Training, Inc., the day was meant to reach a broad spectrum of people who live or work on farms or serve rural communities. Making it all possible was a collaboration among many groups including host Lapeer County FFA and multiple local sponsors. All events were free to the public.

Instruction and statistics from the experts were accompanied with personal stories of tragedy too.

"An average of 18 people are killed in farm-related accidents every year in Michigan," said lead ESRT instructor Wayne Bauer.

"Across the country, two children are killed every week in these kind of accidents."

Linda Esckelson's son, Tommy Osier, was one of those statistics. The 18 year-old from Arenac County died in 2011 while working on a dairy farm after becoming trapped under tons of damaged corn in a cement silo.

"He lived life to the fullest," Esckelson said of Tommy who was active in FFA and familiar with farm work but wasn't provided with the proper training or protective gear before entering the silo.

"It's anger that drives me...this should not happen to anyone," she said of her decision to share her family's story.

Esckelson encouraged attendees, particularly youth and teens in attendance, to not be afraid to say something if they find themselves in a potentially-dangerous situation.

"If it doesn't feel right, make sure you find someone to help you," she said.

Bauer notes that there's an average of 35 grain entrapments resulting in 17 fatalities per year across the United States with three-quarters of those incidents happening in the Upper Midwest, including Michigan. That correlates with the fact that most on-farm storage is concentrated in this part of the country.

Bauer said that the best management practices to prevent such entrapments is to stay out of the bin if possible. If entry is required, don't enter alone, be sure to shut down and lockout equipment and use the proper restraint system.

"This should always be a two-person job," Bauer said.

There's still weeks or months to go before the official start of the 2017 planting season, making it the ideal time to evaluate potential hazards on the farm.

"Now is a great time to make sure your safety measures are up to date," said Dr. Jeannine Schweihofer, a Michigan State University Extension educator.

She recalled farm-related accidents that occurred in Lapeer County and surrounding area within the last 10 years, two of those being fatal. All of those incidents were equipment-related. More than half of farm accidents involve some kind of machinery.

Schweihofer noted that statistics show these accidents happen at all hours of the day "not only when someone is fatigued or running a second shift."

The biggest dangers come from tractor overturns and tractor run overs.

"From 2001-2006, there were 55 tractor deaths in Michigan," she said.

Surprisingly, 80 percent of rollovers happen to operators who were considered 'experienced' or 'very experienced.'

Schweihofer stressed, "safety is not a one time thing" and encouraged growers to take precautions when upgrading or trading equipment by reading operator manuals and retraining employees.

During the school day, ESRT staff met with more than 100 ag science and public safety students to discuss best practices on the farm and cover career opportunities in the food sector.

Following the afternoon session, an appreciation dinner was served up, made possible by Helena and the Lapeer County FFA Chapter and Alumni.

Before the evening session kicked off, State Representatives Dan Lauwers and Gary Howell welcomed participants. Lauwers serves a portion of St. Clair County in the 81st District and Howell represents all of Lapeer County in the 82nd District.

The last program of the day, 'Best Strategies for Farm-Related Emergencies' was tailored to local fire departments and other first responders but was open to members of the public as well.

"It was one of the best activities or programs our FFA has ever hosted," Hyatt said.

"We feel if we can save just one life by this education than it is worth it. All of the presenters and their testimonials had an extreme impact on our students."

Maria Brown

Sounds of the night: Eastern Screech-owls

Small birds lend mighty song to nighttime chorus

November 29, 2016 | 03:16 PM

It was one of those mild days last week. The air was a bit heavy and after having made dinner, the kitchen was in need of some fresh air. Through the open window, we heard that noise, that same mysterious creature call that punctuated the air most nights this summer too. "Must be an owl" we've said every time that trill catches our attention. This time, we finally took the initiative to investigate. Sure enough, that piercing, somewhat eerie song comes from a tiny bird of the night, the Eastern Screech-Owl.

Paging through our bird guide didn't help much. Without being able to see the bird, it's difficult to know what you're looking for. There aren't a lot of birds in the Strigidae and Tytonidae families but many have a presence in Michigan at some point in the year. Listening to recorded calls did the trick. After clicking through several species, we hit on the Screech-Owl. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Eastern Screech is rather small, comparable in size to a pint glass. It hunts a wide array of small animals for food including birds, earthworms, insects, crayfish, tadpoles, frogs, rats, mice, squirrels, moles, and rabbits. Biologists say this owl is agile enough to even prey on bats. According to the Blanford Nature Center in Grand Rapids, which takes in injured birds, Eastern Screech-Owls are credited with keeping small rodent populations in check.

They raise their young in tree cavities, often utilizing spaces created and abandoned by squirrels and woodpeckers. We have more than our fair share of those two critters, plus several maple trees with nooks and crannies, so I suppose we shouldn't be surprised that these owls have found a home in our yard. Eastern Screech-Owls will also utilize man-made nest boxes, like those for wood ducks and Purple Martins, Cornell experts report. They lay between two and six eggs, raising just one brood per year.

The call that caught out attention is referred to as a whinny, which is appropriate, as it mimics the descending whinny of a horse. It's used most often to defend territories, the Cornell experts say. The birds communicate with one another through an even pitched trill, reminiscent of a cat's purr. Mated pairs will sing to one another, both night and day.

Their populations are considered strong due to their broad diet and ability to nest anywhere there are trees. Eastern Screech-Owls do not migrate and they're found in a large portion of the United States from as far north as Manitoba, as far west as Montana, south into Mexico and all along the Eastern seaboard.

According to the Sibley Field Guide to Birds, other owls that call Michigan home for at least part of the year include the Barn Owl, Long-eared Owl, Short-eared Owl, Great Horned Owl, Snowy Owl, Barred Owl and Northern Saw-whet Owl.

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Maria Brown

Birds of a feather flock together?

November 29, 2016 | 03:15 PM

Birds are on the move this time of year, forming flocks and heading someplace warmer for a couple months. It's always neat to watch that V of Canada geese fly overhead (and see if they're actually going south) in a rather orderly fashion. Almost on the other end of the flock spectrum are those swarms of small birds that group up, descending on farm fields or perching on big maples.

Seven Ponds Naturalist Nancy Kautz refers to them as "rivers" of birds. I think that's a very appropriate term. Several were in the neighborhood last month. I watched one group swirl over a fallow farm field across the road; another raucous flock took a pit stop in our trees while Lauren and I waited for the bus one morning and on a rainy Saturday, another group descended on our yard, bumping up the decibel level with all their noisy chatter. One gets spooked and within seconds they're gone. When they're airborne, they move in an intricate choreography.

Kautz said those flocks of medium-sized, dark-colored birds are likely a mix of blackbirds including rusty blackbirds, red winged blackbirds, grackles and the occasional cowbird. Although they are different species, these critters have one thing in common-insects comprise the biggest part of their diet. They dine on seeds too, but these birds opt to head south (but not too far) for more food options. Kautz says blackbirds stay within North America and those that call Michigan home may only go as far as southern Indiana if the weather is sufficiently mild.

So that common saying "birds of a feather flock together" rings true in the animal world but maybe not quite in the way I imagined. Researchers at Lehigh University say birds group in a myriad of ways when it comes time to migrate. There's the biological similarities that draw them together (like the blackbirds) and we all know the geese do what they do for aerodynamic advantages. Sometime migrants flock up with non-migrants to protect themselves from predators in a "strength in numbers" sort of move. Other species move to their winter homes in groups based on age with some birds leaving their young while others wait to leave until after their young are gone. Then there are those that segregate by sex, with one group of males or females migrating together, and leaving a partner behind based on parental roles.

Traveling in flocks is not just a migration thing. In general, some species never go it alone while others like their independence. David Sibley, author of Sibley bird guides, notes that only a handful of species fly long distance in cohesive flocks. They include finches, blackbirds and waxwings. Others whose groupings are a bit less formal are starlings, robins, bluebirds and some sparrows.

Maria Brown

On the rebound

Landscape recovers swiftly from summer's drough

November 29, 2016 | 03:14 PM

The grass is growing, the garden is producing and a few pesky mosquitoes buzz around our heads at night when we venture out to pick tomatoes. The clouds finally opened up a few weeks ago and that brutal summer drought was broken.

As of this week, data from the Enviroweather station in Emmett showed we had just about pulled even with the five year rainfall average to date of 16.8 inches. The Lapeer station is still several inches behind the 19 inch average.

Although it wasn't pleasant to watch the plants and yard suffer through those dry times, it was interesting to see how some did (or did not) adapt to the conditions. Resilience is the word of the day.

The Red Delicious apple tree was one of the first and most obvious casualties. It started to turn brown in early summer. It's been under stress for a couple of years and I gambled this spring by pruning it rather severely. It seemed to be okay, and even started to develop fruit before those couple dry weeks. It went from good to bad seemingly overnight. The leaves and fruit are completely brown and have been that way since June. Strangely, the tree, even in death, isn't quite ready to wither away.

According to Jim Sellmer of PennState Extension, it's not uncommon for deciduous trees—he mentions oaks—to retain their foliage even after they're dead. Sellmer said this happens when leaf death occurs so quickly that the abscission layer doesn't form, the tree will remain in full leaf. The abscission layer is the development of a 'weak zone' at the base of the petiole (the stalk that connects a leaf to a stem). Stress or the changing seasons cause that layer to expand which, in turn, sheds the leaf from the plant.

Conversely, other things shriveled up and disappeared completely, namely some small, recently transplanted perennials. When the rains began, those ferns and hostas magically reappeared. This phenomenon would likely fall under the 'midsummer defoliation' term. Sellmer says this leaf drop phenomenon is often seen in trees, starting at the top.

Another is leaf scorch. The dogwood in our front yard is good for putting on this unflattering show. Last month the characteristic brown-tipped leaves appeared. Sellmer says maples also readily show leaf scorch symptoms too.

The timing of the drought and rain also mimicked the changing of the seasons too. I noticed a few petite blooms on a lilac bush just last week and the poppies, which melted away after their bloom, have a spring-like look to the fresh leaves poking out of the soil.

Although the vegetables in the garden didn't enter a true dormancy stage, it almost seemed that way. Nothing much withered from the drought but most things just stopped producing. We went several weeks without any snap beans but now they've sprang back to life.

Our tomatoes soldiered through it all without much fuss. Once the rain came, it was apparent my alternative support system would not work. Lauren helped me prune back the overzealous plants, especially those cherry tomatoes, and it looks like we need to do this again. I'm the only fresh tomato fan in our household. Those little buggers are literally tumbling out of the fridge.

I guess it's time to rifle through the recipe box.

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Maria Brown
Eat, eat eat: Birds with a mighty appetite

Eat, eat eat: Birds with a mighty appetite

September 15, 2016 | 03:59 PM

It's a quiet Sunday afternoon. One kid is napping, the other is riding in the tractor with her dad. I make myself a sandwich and slice up tomatoes from the garden (yeah!) to stick on top. Outside the kitchen window, one of our resident hummingbirds, a Ruby-throated, is getting a bite to eat himself, buzzing from bloom to bloom on a Rose of Sharon bush.

A little bit later I'm enjoying a bowl of cream of tomato soup courtesy of my generous mom. I'm one of those people that eats most often standing up and while, leaning by the sink with bowl in hand, I see that tiny green body hovering near the flowers again.

I go on to do a few household chores but my taste buds are calling for something sweet. A spoonful (or two) of Nutella should do the trick. Sure enough, as I reach into the drawer for a utensil, I spy it again, pausing in front of many of the same flowers he visited less than an hour earlier. I like to eat regularly (obviously) but his routine seems exhausting.

It's possible that I've seen two different birds that look identical—we've witnessed the duels/chase that can ensue between territorial males—but even then, those ten minute foraging cycles seem brutal.

It turns out the feeding patterns I've witnessed are the norm for these little dynamos. The Audubon Society reports that hummingbirds must eat once every 10 to 15 minutes and visit between 1,000 and 2,000 flowers per day.

The San Diego Zoo offers more stats on this topic noting that hummingbirds need to consume between 3 and 7 calories per day. To put it in human terms, if we had a similar metabolism, we'd need to devour 155,000 calories to make it from day to day.

On their non-stop flights from plant to plant, hummingbirds are also keeping an eye out for an array of insects that constitute that other portion of their diet.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the birds' main prey include mosquitoes, gnats, fruit flies, and small bees. They've been known to snatch small caterpillars and aphids from leaves too.

The birds also appreciate the sugar water food we humans provide for them in feeders too. There's this strange theory that leaving those feeders out into the fall somehow interferes with their southern migration and that theory is false. Like most creatures, their instincts/internal calendar, prod them to head to their winter home, not a lack of food.

The Hummingbird Society suggests waiting three weeks after not seeing any activity at the feeder before taking it down for the season.

Fortunately, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird has a healthy, growing population. According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, their numbers have steadily increased every year from 1966 to 2014.

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Maria Brown
Standing out in the crowd

Standing out in the crowd

September 15, 2016 | 03:47 PM

As wild flowers go, Queen Anne's Lace, also referred to as wild carrot, are at once both stately and simple. This time of year, they turn most fencerows and ditches into a sea of white…mostly. While mowing the grass in our apple orchard a few weeks ago, I noticed a few stand outs in an adjoining field that were of the same design but not the same color. A handful of these flowers were purple. In my quest to find out if that was a common occurrence, I learned quite a few interesting facts about this plant-the source of cultivated carrots.

First of all, as much as it looks at home here, it's not. In Michigan, the wild carrot is considered a noxious weed. According to, the plant is native to Europe and southwest Asia. A similar species, the American wild carrot is considered native to several southern and western states. Although it's really an invader, the plant has some admirable qualities. According to Dr. John Hilty's Illinois wildflower website, pheasant and grouse eat the flower's seed. Most mammals don't feed on the foliage because of its bitterness but at least one bird species, the European Starling, uses the foliage for nesting material. Hilty cites researchers who believe the insecticidal and antibacterial properties of the plant help keep hatchlings healthy by fending off nest lice and other parasites.

Just as the wild version was cultivated to become the orange vegetables we know today, breeders have also selected and cultivated Daucus carota and the related Ammi majus to create versions that are grown commercially as cut flowers. Among them are Daucus carota 'Dara' which, interestingly enough, has lacy blooms that range in color from soft pink to dark purple. Other varieties in the Ammi genus have pale green and white flowers. I'm not exactly sure what the distinction is between the two but several seed sources claim that Ammi is the less invasive of the two. Daucus is much more prevalent, found in the Lower 48 plus nearly all of the Canadian provinces, according to the United States Department of Agriculture while Ammi is only found in 12 states.

So, I wonder, do I have a few plants that were the precursor to purple cultivated types or it is possible this clump is changing its hue based on what might be in the soil below? Like carnations, wild carrot flowers will transform their color when their cut stems are stuck in colored water—chameleons of the flower world. We tried it out ourselves with leftover Easter egg dye. Sure enough, the flowerettes of the flower took on a tinge of orange.

The mystery remains...

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