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Rural Roots Blog
Exploring the world outside our windows through gardening, farming, cooking, decorating and more.

The feeder season has begun

January 09, 2018 | 03:24 PM

The cold and snow has made for a busy and interesting bird watching season so far this winter.

There's a constant flurry of activity at my seed and suet feeders at home as the birds fuel up to stay warm.

So far there seems to be fewer types of birds visiting the feeder…maybe it's early in the season. It seems like the sparrows—a gang of a few different species—would mob the scene on a daily basis. They've made sporadic visits so far. The same can be said for the usually bold starlings and grackles.

I've seen more goldfinches flit through than usual and the juncos are regular staples. Of course, the blue jays are ever present but their group is smaller than in past years and one is curiously missing its long tailfeathers.

As for those regular suet feeders, it's been dominated by boys. There are two downy woodpecker females, but all the rest—downy, hairy, red-bellied woodpeckers and a northern flicker—have all been males.

Then there are the cardinals. They always appear at the feeders with their mates in tow unless they're preoccupied with chasing off other male cardinals.

Those interactions, particularly what species yields to another, has been studied in depth by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Using Project FeederWatch data, they've created a ranking of the the "toughest" birds and, not suprisingly, size does matter. The results from more than 7,600 documented observations shows wild turkeys are the toughest feeder birds out there, largely because no other bird is big enough to displace them!

Other dominant species include common grackle, red-bellied woodpecker and northern flicker...in that order. Not too far behind is the ever present blue jay.

Sounds about right!

• • •

This season I'm opting to only use sunflower seed in my feeder. I know it's what most experienced birders recommend but I was convinced to bypass the regular stuff after reading about the potential for mixed birdseeds to harbor serious weed seed.

A study by the University of Missouri has found that most commercial birdseed mixes contain Palmer amaranth, common ragweed, velvetleaf and morning glory, the Progressive Farmer reported.

Contact Maria at mbrown@pageone-inc.com.

Maria Brown
No need to dig deep
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No need to dig deep

Plant shallow, mulch soil to protect bulbs


November 07, 2017 | 02:25 PM

I think most gardeners have good intentions when it comes to planting bulbs but then other things happen like crummy weather (happening now), a busier than expected fall (that was me last year) or a lack of energy to dig sufficiently deep holes (this is me almost every year!).

I happened to stumble across this very welcomed article about that last factor—planting depth. If you still have a few bags of bulbs to plant, take note of this research and give yourself and your shovel a break. Use that energy to spread some mulch instead!

Dr. Bill Miller of Cornell University highlighted the findings from a multi-year study in the June 2017 Flower Bulb Research Program newsletter that studied the relationships between planting depth of tulips and perennialization, that is, the tulips' return and persistence in flowering over multiple seasons.

Generally, planting guides recommend tulips sit six to eight inches below the soil line from the bottom of the bulb. Miller notes that the common thinking is that depth protects the bulbs from temperature fluctuations.

"What this fails to account for is that tulips are native to snow-covered gritty soils, moist cool spring and dry, generally hot summers," he said, referring to the mountainous regions of the Middle East where most bulbs hail from.

In the field trial, tulips were planted at depths ranging from 1-8 inches and then covered with hardwood bark mulch in a range of 0-6 inches. The trial was performed in North Carolina in a USDA hardiness zone of 5b. The Tri-City area is just one zone below that in 6a.

Miller notes that there were few distinctions between the different plots in both year one and two other than those planted at the shallowest level-one inch-were mostly dead thanks to animal activity or direct freezing.

More concrete observations were noted in year three, Miller said. First of all, those bulbs planted eight inches deep had the fewest number of blooms that third year. Those planted at just one or three inches performed the best as long as they were sufficiently mulched.

Many gardeners don't care whether their bulbs last more than one season but, Miller points out, the findings of this study apply to them too.

"Even in an annual planting system, deep planting would seem to have no benefit, as all planting depths performed well in the first flowering season," he wrote.

"What is especially interesting is that we saw no evidence of injury from ground freezing over the three years. Even shallow-planted bulbs, when covered with 2 or 4 inches of mulch did not freeze and performed well."

So, what is his recommendation, based on the results of this research?

For large scale plantings-like one big bed of tulips-till the area to a depth of 3-4 inches and then incorporate fertilizer. Using a small spade, create a 2-3 inch deep hole for each bulb. When done, rake the soil then smooth out the surface and cover with 2-4 inches of aged mulch or well-rotted compost.

To plant on a smaller scale—such as among perennials in an established bed—dig a 3 inch deep hole, place the bulb and cover with soil. Then apply 2-4 inches of mulch.

I managed to plant nearly all of my tulip, crocus and grape hyacinth bulbs two weeks ago when the weather was still pleasant. I stuck them in the ground between 3-4 inches and it actually was a pleasant, speedy task! This week, I'll be applying some mulch...obviously.

Happy planting!

Maria Brown
How did your garden grow?
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How did your garden grow?

What thrived or just survived this season


November 07, 2017 | 02:23 PM

Last week's frost meant that the vegetable garden season was officially over. Not bad, considering it meant I was harvesting peppers, squash and tomatoes as late as October 25.

For the most part everything performed relatively well.

As in past years, we sourced most of our plant material from local greenhouses. I just don't have the time or space to start plants from seed. This year my five year-old showed an interest in selecting plants so we came home with a few "new" things like watermelon and sweet corn.

As we anticipated, the sweet corn never had a chance thanks to our ravenous raccoons. Surprisingly, the watermelon did much better than expected...almost too good. My "try something new" was the tomatillo plant I wrote about a few weeks back.

The standard cucumber, summer squash and winter squash greenhouse plants did well. One tray (four plants each) of butternut squash yielded 12 and one tray of buttercup resulted in 5. One tray of cucumbers (the burpless kind, I believe) netted dozens of cucumbers. There are still two and half quart jars of refrigerator pickles to eat!

My bell peppers suffered through the late summer drought and weren't very prolific. The mini pepper plants that my mom started from seed did better and make a perfect, just picked snack for little hands.

As for the specific varieties we grew in 2017, here's a recap-

•Tomatoes: I went the tried and true route with Cherokee Purple, the slicing kind, and Sun Gold, the cherry tomato kind. I've sang the praises of these tomatoes before. I like them both based on taste. This year, the Sun Gold was quite prolific too, producing a bowlful from two plants right up until last week's frost.

I made a few batches of vegetable soup with the Cherokee Purples and did a slow roast of halved Sun Golds. They taste like candy after two hours at 225 degrees.

•Snap beans: We went all yellow this year. I picked up a packet of 'Cherokee' wax beans from Burpee. One packet yielded three small rows and that provided several meals worth for a period of two months. I planted the seed just before a hard rain but that didn't seem to deter them from pushing through the soil.

•Carrots: Lauren and I planted Chantenay seed in a raised bed and were vigilant about watering it regularly. The variety is meant to stay small and blunt. Unfortunately, we waited too long to harvest them and bitterness had set in. Maybe we'll have better luck next year.

•Sunflowers: I really don't think you can pick a bad sunflower. They all have their merits. I like the traditional yellow with a few other colors thrown in. Burpee's 'Evening Sun' mix fit the bill. They grew tall and strong with little attention and made for several nice bouquets.

•Watermelon: I've never had much luck with growing any kind of melon but 'Sugar Baby' didn't seem to mind the hard clay soil. It put out lots of strong vines before finally setting fruit. The variety is supposed to be of the "ice-box" size which I interpreted as being "small." I guess I was wrong. These easily weighed in at five pounds before they ripened. Obviously, I didn't read the plant tag carefully. It states "Fruit size: 6-12 lb." The taste was good but I guess we're spoiled by the seedless varieties. Slicing up these melons for a fruit salad was work intensive and finding room in the refrigerator for that bulk was a challenge.

I guess that common saying "you don't know until you try" has a fitting home in the garden.

How did your garden grow in 2017?

Contact Maria at mbrown@pageone-inc.com.

Maria Brown
Tomatillos on a whim
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Tomatillos on a whim

October 12, 2017 | 02:08 PM

I picked it up on a whim at the greenhouse, stuck it in the garden and went about my business. A few weeks ago I finally decided to do a bit of research about the tomatillo plant that was getting gigantic and loaded with fruit.

Just about everyone says "what?" when I utter that word-tomatillo. "It's kind of like a green tomato but, in my opinion, better," is my reply.

Although the tomatillo is much different in taste and texture than a green tomato, the fruit can be used in many of the same ways as mature tomatoes. Different, but alike, this can be attributed to the fact that both, along with eggplants and peppers too, are members of the nightshade family, according to Iowa State University Extension.

The tomatillo plant is similar in structure to an eggplant or pepper but the fruit...it's very unique. The flowers turn into papery husks and the fruit forms inside of them. It's quite a pretty display and unique to the vegetable garden.

In my post-planting research, I learned that most experts recommend planting more than one plant for purposes of pollination. Maybe because my tomatillo was directly next to three tomato plants, that was sufficient? I'm not sure why, but my lone plant was very fruitful.

The deer seemed curious about this new plant and browsed the top leaves from time to time but the damage was minimal. The year's one and only tomato hornworm was gorging on the tomatillo in mid-summer but we quickly took care of him.

When I decided to trade my blissful ignorance for actual facts, I was a bit too late. The first fruits I harvested were cracked. It wasn't a huge deal but the blemishes make them spoil sooner.

Here's what I determined when it comes to maturity-pick the tomatillos when the husk just starts to turn a yellow or tan color. Those that are ready will easily release from the stem. Depending on the variety, the fruit might not actually fill the husk by the time it's ready and that's okay because quality trumps size. I lost my plant tag but I think mine was a 'Toma Verde.'

The tomatillo is native to Mexico and is used in a range of traditional Mexican dishes. I opted to go the traditional, familiar route and make salsa verde with my crop and, wow, I'm glad I did! The result is a tangy but refreshing salsa that goes well with just about everything. I've had it on chips, quesadillas, scrambled eggs and with chicken tenders. My husband slathered it on leftover turkey the other day and gave it rave reviews.

According to the Iowa State experts, fresh tomatillos in their husks can be stored in the refrigerator in a paper bag for up to two weeks. Remove the husks and they'll last for an impressive three months in the fridge. The fruit can be frozen or canned for future use.

Here's my version of Salsa Verde, inspired by several recipes, but tailored for our tastes:

•15 medium tomatillos, husks removed

•2 small jalapenos, stem removed

•Half of a white onion, cut into thin slices

•1 tsp. chopped garlic

•12 cilantro leaves

•Salt and pepper to taste

Rinse and dry the tomatillos. Place them, the jalapenos and onions on a foil-lined baking sheet. Roast in a 425 degree oven for 20-25 minutes or until the tomatillos have started to brown. Let roasted veggies cool slightly.

Add the jalapenos and half of the tomatillos and onions to a food processor along with the garlic and cilantro. Process until smooth.

Coarsely chop the remaining tomatillos and onions by hand and add to sauce. Add salt and pepper to taste.

For a smoother salsa verde, process all ingredients in a food processor or blender.

So what's the moral of my story? Don't be afraid to try something new each season. At a mere $2 (or less, I don't recall the exact price), my tomatillo experiment was cheap, whether it lived or died.

Contact Maria at mbrown@pageone-inc.com.

Maria Brown
Summer, fall or what?
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Summer, fall or what?

Gardeners, farmers might appreciate more heat


September 28, 2017 | 11:43 AM

Spring often gets a back rap for having such fickle weather but the summer transition into fall can be turbulent too if you use this year as an example. It's like September came into sight and August decided to check out early. As a kid I remember sweating my way through the first few weeks of school. This time around, my kindergartener and I had to do calisthenics in the morning to stay warm while waiting for the bus. Temperatures in the 90s this weekend....what happened?

A new record low of 36 degrees was set in Flint last Saturday the 9th, surpassing the 1995 record of 38 degrees as reported by the National Weather Service (NWS). According to Enviroweather, the thermometer dipped near 32.5 in Lapeer that same morning. Five new record high temperatures have been recorded by the NWS in Flint since last Thursday.

The mild temperatures were certainly comfortable but, for the sake of my garden and many farmers, I'm glad that the mercury has risen again. Still, overall in terms of growing degree days, we've seen less heat than last year. According to Enviroweather, both the Lapeer and Emmett weather stations are reporting degree day figures below the five-year average across the board. At a degree day base of 45 degrees, the Lapeer station is 216 units behind the five-year average. For specific crops, like alfalfa, the Emmett station is 85 heat units under the six-year average and 96 fewer for corn development as of Tuesday.

This heat has hopefully helped our late planted soybeans can fill out those pods.

Most things in my garden developed normally although my Cherokee Purple tomatoes took longer than usual to start ripening and my basil plant hasn't gotten very big.

I was grateful for the slow down in cucumber production when temperatures dropped. I've brought veggie and dip trays wherever I can, made a batch of refrigerator pickles and pawned off quite a few on co-workers (thanks Rita!). In recent years, my plants have succumbed to disease mid-season so I'm not used to this kind of bounty.

Some crops, like apples, are actually ahead of schedule when it comes to maturity. Michigan State University Extension educator Bob Tritten, who's based in Flint, said that this is due to an early and extended bloom period this spring in most of eastern Michigan. Many apple varieties have been ripening up to a week ahead of their normal harvest dates.

At this point, precipitation or the lack thereof, is the most pressing issue both gardeners and farmers are seeing. This growing season seemed to feature several extended periods of no rain that obviously stressed crops, landscapes and gardens.

The Lapeer weather station shows a 2.12 inch deficit compared to the five-year average as of Sunday. In Emmett, the difference was just a half inch.

Although the heat helped pump up production in my garden once again, the dry conditions have slowed it down once again.

Believe me, fall is one of my favorite seasons but I was grateful for one last bout of summer-like weather before the snow starts to fly.

Now, where's that rain?

Contact Maria at mbrown@pageone-inc.com.

Maria Brown

An ode to August

September 19, 2017 | 03:14 PM

I haven't always liked summer. For a time in my early teens, the hot sun and I didn't get along. I had a perpetual headache that started in June and lasted through August so I chose to stay in the shade or vegetate indoors with a book. It wasn't an awful existence but as someone not so fond of winter, I really wanted to soak up those warm rays when I had the chance.

Eventually, my eyes adjusted to the brightness and my head stopped throbbing due to the summer environment. Technically, I had a new headache trigger by then-college exams! Getting to like summer again as a newbie gardener was fun and now, experiencing the season with kids is an even greater thrill. And I've decided that August has to be best the summer month. Essentially, everything in my life aligns to this place where there's peace and satisfaction.

Work-wise, things are usually pretty quiet this time of year. The festivals and fairs are over and everyone's finding some last minute summer fun before the school bells ring. I get fewer phone calls and emails and that's okay. It gives me the chance to wander outside and write columns (like this one!).

Obviously, it's a great time in the veggie garden. Most plants are hitting their stride, a gardener can plan on incorporating the harvest into meals and we're not tired of zucchini...yet.

There's no excuse to not have a fresh vase of flowers on your table. Perennials, annuals and weeds—all are in full bloom right now. Just about anything and everything pairs well with some Queen Anne's lace, goldenrod and some sprigs of sage.

In general, I don't mind mowing the lawn but I'm rather grateful when the grass' enthusiasm wanes in this eighth month. It seems like the only "outside" time I get in May, June and July involves a mower or weed whip so I welcome the chance to spend a Saturday afternoon doing something else, even if it's also a futile exercise, like sweeping three inches of pine needles off the patio.

Early summer feels like a constant game of catch up in the yard too. Weeds are popping up everywhere, shrubs grow out of their bounds and require a trim, and it seems like every plant needs dividing. Now, plants and trees are settled and just being.

I love to see our field crops in full stride this time of year too. The field corn is reaching toward the sky and obscuring the landscape, in a mostly good way. It becomes this green screen that provides a temporary privacy fence of sorts along our yard. The soybeans are blousy and putting their energy into pod and bean production. The sugar beets are transitioning from pushing out leaves to storing the sweet stuff in their roots. By now, at least one crop is harvested-wheat-and the straw is baled. There's hay to cut but...there's always and forever hay.

It's all an indication that the fall harvest isn't far off but that's a September thing.

The thought of sipping a cup of coffee outdoors some morning feels like it could become reality. When that opportunity comes, I'll scan the backyard, start to make a mental list of what practical projects I should tackle post-Labor Day and then daydream about some not-as-practical ones. Wouldn't a water garden be nice?

The sun in its course seems a bit more hospitable right now. Sleep in on a Saturday morning in June and you're assaulted with brightness once the shade opens. Now my bleary eyes get a chance to adjust. It's certainly easier to corral children and point them towards the bathtub since the August sun starts to set at a reasonable hour.

Yes, more reasonable things will dominate life as the days march toward September but, for now, I'm savoring the easy breezy days of August. Popsicles for breakfast? Why not!

Contact Maria at mbrown@pageone-inc.com.

Maria Brown
Gardening for our winged friends
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Gardening for our winged friends

A tour of local butterfly gardens


August 15, 2017 | 11:12 AM

Butterfly gardens are pretty popular these days and for good reason. They're both pretty and have a good purpose. Recently, I had the chance to scope out three public gardens that cater to our winged friends, take lots of pictures and admire the work volunteers are doing to create beautiful and beneficial plantings.

In late July I strolled through the Butterfly Garden at Seven Ponds Nature Center in Dryden Township. One week later, on a trip to Crossroads Village, I admired the plantings created there by the Master Gardener Association of Genesee County. Last week we checked out the new butterfly garden on Third Street in Imlay City.

I studied those pictures, did a bit of research and gleaned some ideas for making any landscape more attractive to butterflies. Creating a dedicated space is certainly fun but not necessary if you can incorporate these concepts into an existing garden or yard.

•Grow plants that complement a butterfly's lifecycle: Butterflies rely on plants for two main things—to obtain nectar as food and to lay their eggs. Fortunately, butterflies will utilize many plants for both activities, including milkweed.

According to Michigan State University Extension, there are ten milkweed species native to Michigan including butterfly milkweed and swamp milkweed. Milkweed is the only host plant monarchs will utilize. Similarly, other species like to stick with one family of plants. The Black Swallowtail favors anything in the carrot family including dill, parsley, fennel, carrot and wild carrot.

The list of nectar plants is a pretty long one-phlox, coneflower, beebalm, sunflower, zinnia, cosmos, verbena, yarrow.

North Carolina State Extension recommends that gardeners choose flower blooms of different sizes and depths that accommodate some of the smallest butterflies, like skippers, that have shorter proboscises (their straw-like 'tongue'). The Crossroad Village gardens have a plethora of blooms for the smaller types-open faced daisies, coneflowers and zinnias.

•Cover all three seasons: It's key to provide nectar sources for adult butterflies in all of spring, summer and fall.

Many spring flowering trees and shrubs will attract butterflies, like lilac and redbud.

It's quite easy to keep butterflies fed during the summer months, especially with summer annuals mentioned above.

Fall...well, that's another story.

Some researchers are beginning to think fall-blooming perennials that provide nectar are nearly as important as milkweed is to summer breeding areas. According to the University of Illinois Extension, plant ecologists say that although is there is less milkweed in crop fields, natural areas are "buffering that loss" and allowing monarchs to maintain their normal populations through the summer. Researchers with the Illinois Natural History Survey believe that overall monarch population declines may come from too few floral resources in the fall when the creatures head south to Mexico. For that reason, gardeners are being urged to plant fall-blooming perennials like Liatris, Joe Pye weed, bee balm, purple coneflower and downy sunflower.

The Crossroads gardens had impressive stands of Joe Pye weed, lots of coneflowers and Liatris.

•Mass flowers of similar color: This idea harkens to the Victorian practice in formal gardens where a perennial border was ordered by color. Today's garden design favors a more integrated look in terms of hue so gardeners may have to fight their urges and instead create big displays of single colors which butterflies are more likely to notice, according to Better Homes and Gardens.

Imlay City's Butterfly Garden had a nice grouping of black-eyed Susans which should grow and propagate easily, creating a mass of bright yellow nectar-rich flowers.

Choosing plants with clustered blooms, like phlox, is also recommended.

Another option to concentrate plantings by bloom time which gives the creatures easy access to nectar sources without increased exposure to predators. This advice from the NC State Extension.

•Don't plan to spend a fortune: So many of the plants butterflies favor are common and several freely multiply. Hit up a friend whose garden is overflowing with phlox, alyssum, hollyhock or bee balm.

It also helps that many of these common butterfly plants are exuberant growers. Take, for example, the butterfly bush. In Michigan, our cold winters make most plants die back to the ground nearly every year but many varieties quickly spring up and easily grow to five or more feet tall.

•Use hardscape: Both Seven Ponds and Imlay City's gardens included seating for observers to utilize but it turns out butterflies appreciate these structures too. Imlay City's chairs and table or Dryden's bench could serve as a sheltered place for caterpillars to pupate. This recommendation comes from the Student Conservation Association.

Back to the human aspect of including hardscape....having a spot to sit and observe winged visitors makes a lot of sense too. Taking the time to see just who is visiting the plants should be a goal of most gardeners. Sit and enjoy the beauty of your work in both the flora and fauna.

Contact Maria at mbrown@pageone-inc.com.
Notes from a wet garden
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Notes from a wet garden

August 15, 2017 | 11:05 AM

This is kind of a misleading headline. My garden and landscape aren't drowning in water. In our small corner of the world, we've been fortunate to get regular, manageable precipitation in recent weeks, avoiding some of the downpours others have seen. Now, after a few dry days, my car is caked in dust. At the same time, there's no denying we're above average for the amount of rain that's fallen so far this growing season. According to the Michigan State University Enviroweather station in Emmett (closest in proximity to me), an average of 9.88 inches typically falls between April 1 and July 28. So far this year, during that same time span, 12.44 has been recorded.

Here's how that reality is manifesting itself in my garden and landscape:

•My shrubs and perennials are super happy-growing and blooming with abandon. The yews that almost got destroyed by hungry deer in a past deep freeze have a good six inches of new growth on them. The Echinacea that's been so-so for several seasons stands tall and is covered in flowers. Those perennials that I transplanted weeks ago are well on their way to getting established in their new beds.

Then there are a few show offs, like the Korean lilac that decided to start blooming again! I notice the first flower while mowing and figured it was a fluke but since then, the shrub has put out another half-dozen blooms. I've seen this before (and documented it here) when a different bush in our yard put out two or three blooms in late fall when the mild weather mimicked spring-like conditions. I guess this one doesn't mind the heat of summer!

•Slugs...they are everywhere! I see them on fruit, veggies, flowers and in the grass. Whether or not you consider them a pest depends on the plants. I've pulled several off of raspberry leaves without noticeable damage. One was residing on a freshly picked cucumber and had taken a few bites but the damage was minimal and the slime washed off with water. They can take big bites out of tomatoes and will gorge themselves on hosta leaves so I'll be keeping a close eye on those plants.

•Downy mildew-so far, no sign of it yet, but MSU Extension is warning home gardeners to be on alert for cucurbit downy mildew on their cucumber, melon, pumpkin and squash (both summer and winter) plants.

So far, it's been positively identified in Monroe, Gratiot, Lenawee, Bay, Wayne and Saginaw counties in commercial operations. It's apparent when the top surface the of the leaves turn yellow and velvety or fuzzy dark spores are found on the underside of leaves.

Currently, MSU researchers are monitoring the situation with the help of spore traps and should the disease come close to Lapeer or St. Clair counties, you may want to preventatively treat your plants with a fungicide containing the active ingredient chlorothalonil.

Contact Maria at mbrown@pageone-inc.com.

Maria Brown
Won't you grow some oregano?
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Won't you grow some oregano?

July 13, 2017 | 12:49 PM

If you don't have an oregano plant growing in your yard or garden, you're missing out. It seems like everyone goes ga-ga for basil in the summertime or thinks about the typical garnishes like parsley when it comes to herbs but oregano, in my opinion, is a versatile, unsung hero in the kitchen.

It's super easy to grow. The plant I have was started from seed some four years ago. Residing in a raised bed, it endures long periods without water and hasn't had much in the way of fertilizer or compost. This spring I rather clumsily tried to divide it but things didn't go well thanks to my dull shovel and the oregano's dense core. Despite that abuse, it's still going strong. Next time I'll take smaller divisions from the perimeter of the plant or just dig up the volunteers I notice.

Right now, it's blooming. The buds are a vibrant purple that open to reveal pretty white flowers attract lots of important pollinators.

Just before the bloom, I harvested young stems for drying. According to the experts at Bonnie Plants, that's the ideal time to do it.

I gathered the stems, tying them at one end and left them on the kitchen counter to dry. Once they're crispy to the touch, simply strip the leaves from the stem and pulse them in a food processor. I happily dumped out the gray, dull leaves in the dollar bottle that's called my spice cabinet home for a couple of years and replaced it with the new, fragrant leaves.

Of all the herbs I grow, I'm certain that oregano has the most uses across cuisines including Italian, Mexican and Greek. The smell of the fresh stuff reminds me of the homemade pizzas my mom made when I was a kid. I reach for the bottle when I'm making my own taco seasoning or a chicken fajita marinade. Most recently I chopped up oregano for a Greek salad vinaigrette. It paired well with tomatoes, cucumbers and beet tops that I thinned from the starts in our garden.

Here's the rough recipe I used:

1 tbl. olive oil

1 tbl. vegetable oil

2 tbl. lemon juice

2 tsp. chopped fresh oregano

Salt and pepper to taste

Prepare the vinaigrette and refrigerate at least an hour. Combine chopped cucumber, tomato, beets (or beet tops), red onion and feta cheese. Dress with vinaigrette and stir well. Top with croutons if desired.

Some of my other favorites:

-Betty Crocker chicken fajita marinade (https://goo.gl/PwFR6N)

-Perry's Plate homemade taco seasoning (https://goo.gl/nKPrXb)

Email Maria at mbrown@pageone-inc.com.

Maria Brown
In the spring birding spirit
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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 mbrown@pageone-inc.com.

Maria Brown
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IC DDA
IC Chamber
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