February 23 • 11:31 AM
Rural Roots Blog
Exploring the world outside our windows through gardening, farming, cooking, decorating and more.

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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Maria Brown
Tomatoes are movin' on up in the garden

Tomatoes are movin’ on up in the garden

August 01, 2016 | 10:08 AM

It's one of the "good" problems to have in the garden—robust tomato plants in need of hefty supports. Traditional tomato cages are okay but most years, something a bit more resilient is in order.

In the past I've wrangled with those cages. Trying to stick them deep enough into the soil is challenging especially when their tines strike a rock underground or the soil's just too wet. My solution, when those cages started to sag come August, was to pound a t-post into the soil and connect a few support lines with baler twine. Nothing glamorous but it worked.

This season I opted for something new—my own form of trellising. I repurposed the cattle panels, typically used for growing beans and peas, into tomato supports, planting three to a panel, one on one side and two on the other. I had planned to espaliered them, pruning them to have a flat back that would be secured easily to the panel but life got in the way and last weekend I found myself with many bushy plants that had grown out and away from the support.

So, back to the baler twine (and t-shirt ties) I went and devised another makeshift system that's kind of a mash up of the two most common supports that serious growers and farm market types employ.

According to Andrew Mefferd of Johnny's Select Seed, the type of trellising system you choose should be based on the type of tomato—determinate or indeterminate. Determinate varieties, the kind that put out a crop all at once, do best on panel type or basketweave support like mine. That's because they don't grow to huge proportions and because of that typically don't need to be pruned. Indeterminate, the types that produces fruit throughout the season, benefits from a stake and wire or hanging trellis system, Mefferd says. In this set up, a string is tied to each stem which is then connected to a horizontal wire above. This allows for pruning throughout the season, something that spurs the plant to focus on fruit, rather than foliage, production.

My plants are getting the best of both worlds this season. I fished out the longest stems and tied them loosely up on the panel. The shorter ones I left alone and they'll eventually be on the ground but considering the drier than normal weather we've been having, I'm not too concerned about air circulation and associated diseases at this point in the season. I'm eager for the tomato season to begin…my stack of recipes is getting tall!

Maria Brown
Michigan lily a rare beauty

Michigan lily a rare beauty

July 14, 2016 | 11:20 AM

It's rather exotic looking and calls a big swath of the Midwest home so I was surprised to learn that the pretty flower in bloom along dirt road ditches right now has the lovely but simple name of Michigan lily.

An email from friend and reader Chris Cecil of Almont sent me on a quest to learn more about this elusive bloomer. A photo attached to his message showed a big bunch of the beautiful blooms and Chris noted that, to his knowledge, it was rather rare to find a big clump of this flower in the wild. Just the day prior I had spotted some on a trip into town. Although similar to the orange Tiger lilies that naturalize readily, the Michigan lily is much daintier and its curved petals catch the eye, transforming the typical star-like bloom into something more bulbous. The rich orange color of the petals are enhanced with purplish brown spots. The flower's stamens usually point to the ground since the petals curve back toward the base of the bloom.

That drive by encounter had me thinking these were some Oriental or other type of garden lily that had escaped cultivation and found a new wild home. Nope, they're in a class of their own.

According to the University of Michigan Herbarium, the Michigan Lily occurs in nearly every county of the Lower Peninsula and a handful of those in the Upper Peninsula. According to the USDA Plant Database, the Michigan lily calls many states home, considered native in as far south as Alabama, as far as east as New York and as far west as Oklahoma. It's even ventured across the border to reside in Ontario too. Speaking of New York, the Michigan lily is considered endangered and it has threatened status in Tennessee.

Several nurseries and seed suppliers appear to sell the plant for propagation but, at the same time, it's fickle nature must make it difficult to grow. Wildflower groups in various states report that populations will simply collapse after a few seasons. The Ohio Prairie Association claims the plants shouldn't be touched because deer apparently eat them if human scent is left on flowers or leaves and, when grazed, the plant enters dormancy.

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Maria Brown
Ants are garden friends, not foes

Ants are garden friends, not foes

June 16, 2016 | 03:27 PM

As the weather warms, the insect world springs to life. Bugs of all kinds are winging through the air or crawling over the ground or feasting on new plant growth. One common guest in our yards and gardens—the ant—is a friend, not a foe.

Sure, the hills they create can be a nuisance in the form of sprained ankles but that's just evidence of the good work they're doing. The tunneling, underground work they perform is on par with the good soil aeration attributed to earthworms. Additionally, ants are known for being excellent seed planters and they keep bad bugs away from plants.

If you have a gorgeous peony plant in bloom right now, you'll likely see ants scampering along the stems and over the buds. You might not appreciate them as hitchhikers if taking some of the cut flowers indoors for an arrangement is your intent but know that they're performing an important job outdoors. According to Donald R. Lewis, with the Iowa State Extension, ants are attracted the nectar found on outside edges of the scales of peony buds and make it their job to keep other bugs from enjoying the feast too, attacking herbivores and seed eating insects, knocking them off the plant. Lewis notes that the old notion of peonies needing ants to bloom is false. In fact, the Heartland Peony Society notes that ants seem to prefer some varieties and not others so a lack of ants on a plant shouldn't be a cause for concern.

Ants have also been observed dispersing the seeds of several woodland spring flowers like Bleeding Heart (Dicentra), trout lilies and most violets. According to scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Field Station, many of these ephemerals use a special attractant called an elaiosome that causes the ants to visit the plant and take the seeds back to the nests. These packets are rich in lipids and ants feast on them but they don't damage the seed, leaving it behind to germinate.

Research also suggests some ants help keep plant surfaces clean as they forage, combatting things like disease and fungi from attacking the plant.

Steven N. Handel and Christina M. K. Kauzinger in a Fine Gardening magazine article note that ants are an important part of the food web cycle too, serving as a food source for birds, frogs, spiders, other insects and some mammals.

So think twice before you stomp out that ant hill. Those tiny, hard workers are likely benefitting, not harming your garden.

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Maria Brown
Selecting stellar sunflowers

Selecting stellar sunflowers

June 16, 2016 | 03:23 PM

You can't go wrong with sunflowers. They're easy to plant and grow and all are pretty regardless of what varieties you choose from among the dozens on the market. The selection of seed includes a range of plant height, color, type of head and stem, pollen production and more. Plant breeding in the sunflower world has evolved to meet the needs of professional or cut flower growers but many of the characteristics sought by sellers are now available to home gardeners too.

Height: From the container gardener who wants something diminutive to the county fair contestant who wants a giant, there's truly something for everyone.

Traditional tall types include 'Mammoth' and 'Mammoth Russian' which top out at 8 to 12 feet. Depending on conditions, these sunflowers can become top heavy and fall over in wet and windy weather. Hybrids offer a more uniform plant that's been bred to have a stronger stalk like 'Giant Edible Sunzilla' that can reach heights of 16 feet or more.

Dwarf varieties are great for containers or as bedding plants. Last year I tried out 'Music Box Blend' which performs best in a display bed as it's not ideal as a cutting flower.

Color: Yellow is classic but I'm a big fan of some alternative hues out there. I particularly like anything that's dark and brooding, like 'Chocolate Cherry,' which has both brownish red rays (those are the petals) and centers. Then there are the colors that span that light and dark divide including several orange and gold types. There's even a few white sunflowers out there too like 'Italian White' and 'Coconut Ice.'

Type of head: Sunflowers either have a defined 'center' or they don't. The center is where the seeds develop. Those without a center include double types which resemble a chrysanthemum.

Type of stem: You have your choice of single or branching stems. Cut flower growers prefer single stem varieties when creating a traditional long stem bouquet but I've found the branching types to work just fine for the home gardener especially if creating more casual mixed arrangements is your thing.

Pollen: Pollen-less types are prized by florists and many home gardeners enjoy these sunflowers too. Besides not leaving a mess on the table underneath an arrangement, pollen free varieties have a longer vase life too. There's no need to worry that bees and other pollinators will be deprived of critical food with pollen-less flowers. Creatures are still attracted to the plants and can feast on their nectar.

For consumption: Many of the giant varieties are well suited for both human and animal food but you better be comfortable with heights if this is your end goal. According to the University of Minnesota Extension, wait to cut the head from the plant until the green disk at the back of the flower has begun to turn yellow. Sometimes that requires climbing a ladder to cover the heads to keep the birds away. They suggest storing harvested seed in a cloth bag with good air circulation to prevent mold.

What's your favorite sunflower?

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Maria Brown

Rhubarb: An exception to the color rule

June 16, 2016 | 03:22 PM

Red, or at least some other color than green, typically indicates ripeness but did you know that rhubarb is an exception to that rule?

One of the first vegetables harvested from most Midwest gardens often has a mix of green and red stems when it comes time to pick the first batch. It only makes sense to seek out the reddest ones first but I was surprised to learn color has little to do with taste. While paging through a Cook's Illustrated magazine, I spotted a reader submitted question about the shades of this unique plant and how it related to taste.

The magazine's test kitchen cooks took chucks of red and green rhubarb, simmering them separately in orange juice and sugar "to soften the plant's tartness" placing the finished product in front of a panel of tasters. Although the red rhubarb was more appealing in terms of appearance, the red and green were identical in terms of taste, the panelists reported.

Cook's Illustrated says the red color comes from anthocyanin pigments and the volume of those pigments varies between rhubarb varieties. Additionally, they note those pigments are nearly tasteless and, for that reason, they are utilized as a natural food coloring since they don't mar the flavor of other ingredients. If appearance is important, seek out varieties that boast red petioles of leafstalks. According to a list provided with the University of Illinois Extension, most have 'red' in their name or harken to the color, like 'Ruby' or 'Valentine.'

That pungent sourness is due to presence of two acids: oxalic and citric. According to the University of Illinois Extension, toxic levels of oxalic acid are concentrated in the plant's leaves and roots, making them inedible.

When it comes to using rhubarb, you shouldn't have a problem finding good uses for it. It pairs well with all kinds of fruit, preps very quickly and doesn't require much more than sugar, flour and an egg or two to make a great dessert.

Here's a simple and delicious recipe from our neighbor Bernice who passed along her Aunt Kathryn's Rhubarb Pie recipe.

Fill a pie crust with cut up rhubarb. Lightly beat two eggs and mix with 1 ½ cups sugar, ¼ tsp. nutmeg, 2 tbl. flour. Pour mixture over rhubarb and bake at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes.

As always, there's a plethora of unique online recipes, including many for preserving rhubarb. I'm interested in a vanilla rhubarb jam that uses one of my favorite beverages, Earl Grey tea.

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Maria Brown
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