Birding Trails


When I first encountered the term “Birding Trail,” a mental image flashed into my mind of a migrating flock trudging down the road, heading south with their suitcases tightly grasped in their wings. Turns out that wasn’t quite right.

Birding trails are actually comprised of a series of birding hotspots (places where birds are known to congregate)  connected by a driving route. You pick up the map, hop in the car, and set off on your birding adventure.

Texas started the whole idea several years ago with the establishment of the Texas Coastal Birding Trail. A special map marks out the route, and signs along the highway indicate where to pull over, take a break, and look for birds. The concept is so popular that half the states have followed suit, and birding trails abound.

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How to Grow a Houseplant: Light & Temperature

spider-plant_home_20090908_lah_0280“Mom, can you fix it?”

My college freshman was looking at me with a dejected, mournful expression, holding the spider plant I had sent to school with her. It looked awful. Wilted, brown leaves hung limply over the edge of the plastic pot. There were no signs of life.

“Well, that one looks kind of done, but I can give you another one. I’ve got plenty of spider plants. What happened?”

The story unfolded… it was well below freezing outside, but the central heating in the dorms was turned way up. Suffocating in her room, she’d opened the window a crack. No one thought to move the plant on the windowsill. Unfortunately, tropical spider plants aren’t equipped to survive 6ºF drafts. The poor plant had succumbed during the night.

As I potted up another victim, er, spider plant, I explained to my daughter that the primary thing to remember is that plants are alive. I know this seems obvious, but too many people treat them as decorations rather than living organisms. It’s better to think of them as pets—sort of like green hamsters without the exercise wheel. They need food and water, shelter and room to grow. If you meet their needs, they’ll not only survive, they’ll grow and perhaps even bloom. It’s really not that hard.

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R.I.P.: Colorado’s El Paso County Master Gardener Program

Master Gardeners making selections at the annual plant swap.

Last month I learned that, as of October 1, I would no longer be a Colorado Master Gardener. Due to extreme budget deficits, our county can no longer fund their portion of the “cooperative” extension program, and the Master Gardener program is being put on furlough. The long-term prospects remain unclear, but for the present, I’m going to have some extra time on my hands.

On one hand, I’m sad. Volunteering as a master gardener for the past nine years has benefited me in many ways. I’ve improved my writing and photography skills, gained confidence as a public speaker, and learned a huge amount about horticulture. I also had a lot of fun. After focusing primarily on raising our kids for so many years, it was good to get back into the bigger world out there.

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Recycled “Greenscapes”

continer-whimsy-dbg-2008jun26-lah-461“Don’t throw that away!”

My family is used to my exhortations by now. Mom, the recycling nut. It’s true—I have a bin for metals and one for plastics, 1 through 7. Glass has its own container, next to the compost bucket. Worms eat my garbage. Paper and cardboard pile up in old laundry baskets (I’m recycling the baskets too). Still-usable discards go to the thrift stores, worn out clothes get used as rags. Not much ends up in the small trash can we lug to the curb every week.

As a gardener, I want to extend my recycling efforts to my yard. How can I avoid making new purchases for my garden?

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Photo: Joseph Berger,
Photo: Joseph Berger,

We hardly notice them most of the time… they’re out of sight, underground, aerating the soil, creating humus, increasing fertility. It’s only after a rain storm, when the ground is saturated, that they come up for air. Then we see their desiccated carcasses strewn across the pavement. Robins eat them, anglers use them for bait, and little kids bring them home in their pockets as pets. Most of us dissected one in biology, carefully counting the five aortic arches while debating the coolness of being squeamish. Yet, for all their inconspicuous habits, earthworms play a major role in both our gardens and in the wild.

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Cotoneaster Offers Berries, Fall Color

cotoneaster-apiculatus-cranberry-cotoneaster-dbg-28jul04-lah-411As summer’s flowers fade, plants that produce berries take center stage. Branches covered with bright red berries make cotoneasters especially attractive now, but they offer year-round interest. In spring, tiny but abundant white to pink flowers may be obscured by the shiny round green leaves. Foliage turns orange-red in fall. Finally, the berries persist into winter, or until the birds pick them clean.

cotoneaster-in-winter-dbg-lah-002The hardest part of growing cotoneaster is pronouncing it correctly (it’s “ko-TON-ee-AS-ter”). These shrubs thrive with little attention, handling poor soils, full sun to afternoon shade, and moderately low amounts of water. New shrubs should be coddled a bit until vigorous growth begins. Give plants room to spread, pruning only to remove oldest wood and enhance appearance. As with all members of the rose family, cotoneasters are occasionally susceptible to fire blight; some new varieties are tolerant of this disease. The many different species in cultivation vary in hardiness. Most will survive zone 4 or 5 winters, but check the label for the variety you are purchasing.

There is a size and shape for every use. Spreading plants under three feet high make good groundcovers. Try planting them where their arching branches can spill over a wall. Small, stiffly erect shrubs may be used as informal hedges. Tall, fountain-shaped growers form good screens.

What are your flowers up to?

sex-in-your-gardenSex in your Garden, by Angela Overy

“In gardens, beauty is a by-product. The main business is sex and death.” —Sam Llewelyn

With the accuracy of a botanist and the flair of a Madison Avenue advertising agency, Angela Overy (yes, that’s her real name) has produced an exceptional guide to plants and sex. Lest you think this is a dull subject, let me assure you that you will be fascinated by her lurid descriptions of the myriad ways plants manage to achieve pollination.

As living things that can’t get up and pursue a mate, you would think plants are at a disadvantage when it comes to reproduction. Reading this book will dispel any such notions. Colors and scents are just the beginning. Some plants go to great lengths to please a pollinator, others actually eat those who try to help them. Bats, beetles, birds and, amazingly, possums join the ranks of those who do the plants’ dirty work. Even people get into the act.

I particularly love the way Overy juxtaposes photographs of flowers with pictures of models, largely taken from advertising. It seems that life is largely about selling, and we’re all going about it in the same way. Tantalizing forms, bright colors, offers of rewards … isn’t that how we make things attractive?

Enjoy this book and I promise—you’ll never again consider flowers in quite the same light.