Seeing Red

Do you recognize him? You’ve certainly seen him before. He was a well-known television personality for 15 years, the author of 5 books, a former science editor of Horticulture Magazine, a lecturer, and the author of numerous magazine articles. He earned his graduate degree and PhD. from Harvard in Biology.

If you haven’t guessed by now, it may be because he is out of uniform. You need to see a little red.

Roger SwainYou should recognize him without the gray vest. He’s the beloved man in the red suspenders,aka Roger Swain, who hosted the popular PBS show, The Victory Garden until 2001. We are fortunate to claim him as a fellow New Hampshire The man in the red suspenders.resident and mister gardener and I were lucky to hear him speak at a combined meeting of local garden clubs.

He spoke to the crowd in his usual chatty style, full of enthusiasm, wit and humor while passing on knowledge about what he loves and believes in: vegetable gardening.

“Gardening is the single greatest skill that humans have ever come up with because we harness photosynthesis for human sustenance. Every population on the planet is absolutely dependent on the skills of gardeners.” And he added, “A garden without something to eat in it isn’t really a garden.”

Wikimedia Commons "Groundwork for Victory. Grow More in '44" He was the third host of PBS’s Victory Garden. He told us the original war gardens began in WWI with a “Can the Kaiser” campaign to encourage vegetable gardening. The term Victory Garden grew from that. Victory Gardens returned in WWII. “Grow More in 44!” was the phrase on this WWII poster. In 1944, 44% of fresh food was grown by 20 million amateur gardeners. So much was grown that there was a food shortage after the war when gardens were turned back into lawns.

Why does he want us to garden? We need to understand that the vegetables we buy in stores today are commodified or bred for color, longevity, and shipping but not taste. The best tasting vegetables are those picked at peak of ripeness from your own garden. When asked what is the best tomato, he said, “The best tasting tomato is a ripe tomato. The one I like best is the one I just ate that was ripe.”  Today, we have other choices.  Farmers’ markets are all the rage, especially in New England. There are currently 8,100 farmers markets selling local vegetables in this country. To champion agriculture, his philosophy is to spend $10 every week at his local farmers’ market.

But his message to us was to grow it yourself whether in community gardens or at a neighbor’s or in pots or in your own garden at home. Then be a role model. Pass along the interest and skills to the next generation. A child who learns to love gardening will garden for a lifetime.


I would think it’s a dangerous time of year for wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) to be wandering around in the open. Most of us have plans for their domestic cousins to be the Thanksgiving feast… but there are many who prefer wild turkey on the menu.

We’ve watched our little flock of 30+ turkeys for weeks as the juveniles have fattened up with several families banding together in the protected wooded areas surrounding our neighborhood. They slowly strut in single file down driveways, across lawns, along the edge of roads and back into the cover of the woods. They will saunter to the berm for cars but hardly move for people unless you approach too close. I’ve heard of Toms attacking joggers or mail trucks during the breeding season but our turkeys seem to be very well-behaved…. so far.

This morning they were foraging for acorns on the roadside near us.  I walked out but not close enough for a good photo. Only a male raised his head and seemed to pay me any attention. The iridescence of their feathers was beautiful in the sunlight but, when they entered the woods, I was amazed at how quickly they disappeared into the camouflage of leaf litter. Fare well, feathered friends.

Wild Turkeys

As The Crow Flies….

A couple of weeks ago on a chilly Virginia morning, my brother prepared to climb a ladder to install a security light near his trash receptacles. He’d been recently spooked by a couple of brazen raccoons on his nightly delivery of refuse and recycling and decided to throw a little light on the area.

The light in one hand, the drill in the other, he made his way to the top of the ladder concentrating on the impending task. Then without warning, a large bird attacked his back, flapping its wings, attempting to hang on, he believed with talons belonging to one of the several hawks that frequent the yard. He dropped the light and drill, fell to the ground and high-tailed it for his garden house….slamming the door. He peeked out of the windows up toward the trees. Nothing. Noticing movement on the driveway, his eyes widened at the sight of a large American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) marching slowly toward the garden house. My brother cracked opened the door to shoo him away. He didn’t budge. When the crow came too close, my bro closed the door. The crow flew up to the Virginia flag by the door and waited. Poor brother was trapped.

Garden HouseEventually he saw the crow fly toward the bamboo. He didn’t waste a minute. He jerked opened the door and sprinted to the back of the house and the protection of his basement. Whew!  A bit later, he nervously finished installing the security light while my brave sister-in-law stood watch by the ladder.

That same day, they had a home visit with their insurance representative. They opened the door to welcome her, but she was calling for help as she hurried toward the house with crow on her back, flapping and trying to bite her earrings. My brother grabbed a crab net. Another neighbor who heard the disturbance came to help but the bird was gone again.

Later, he glanced out of the window and saw two ladies hurrying down the street with umbrellas on this sunny day. He opened the door and asked if they’d been attacked by a crow. “Yes!,” they replied with gory details of the assault. He joined them as another neighbor shared that she was a witness. Yet another neighbor said that it had been pecking on her kitchen window. Someone else would not get out of their car because of the bird on the windshield. Two terrified children had locked themselves in the home and sent a message to my brother to please kill it.

At that moment, something clicked with my brother. He had a light bulb moment, a sudden realization of just what may be motivating the crow’s bizarre actions. He asked one of the neighbors for a slice of bread. She hurried it to him. Without further ado, the crow landed on his arm and my brother began to feed him. This was a young hand-raised crow that was released or escaped. Sadly, he was imprinted only to humans and could not forage for food.

BaldwinHe took the crow home until he could decide what to do. Crow roosted in the garden house that first night, then moved to the basement. They fed him well and for a few days, they and the entire neighborhood, including the children, fell in love with him. The neighbors voted to name him Baldwin after their neighborhood. Baldwin was a lucky crow to land in this neighborhood with a brother like mine who probably saved his life.

Personality, brains, playfulness, mischievous, handsome, lovable, and charming were some of the descriptions I heard. He bathed in their creek, he played fetch and tug of war. He had quite a vocabulary and got excited when he heard my brother talking on the phone. He tried to communicate, too, with murmurs, low caws, and clucks.

If they could have kept Baldwin, they would have. But it is illegal to keep a crow as a pet and they worried whenever he flew out of sight. So many dangers. Early last week, they made the long drive to Rockfish Wildlife Rescue in Schuyler VA where they had arranged for Baldwin to be acclimated to the wild. But somehow I think that Baldwin will forever live there as their Good Will Ambassador. Of course, he will have his adventures… flying through the forests and soaring over Walton’s Mountain but I’m pretty sure he will always be home for dinner.

Click on any photo to enlarge and to learn more about crows, watch PBS’s A Murder of Crows online.

The North Wind Doth Blow…

Old Man Winter is quietly slipping into New Hampshire. On our morning outings we see more signs that he has a foot in the door.

Vibrant colonies of  the holly shrub winterberry (Ilex verticillata) dot the brown landscape in ditches and low lying areas.

Winterberry What a showstopper! I read in the blog New Hampshire Garden Solutions, that due to low fat content, birds may not have these berries at the top of their menu in the winter. Therefore the berry laden branches are available for folks to cut for Christmas decorations. I like to purchase cultivar branches at nurseries so I can enjoy the native berries in their natural surroundings.

winterberryYou don’t see cord wood like this in Tidewater Virginia, but homes around here are often heated with wood. I am still stopping to stare at sights like this! This family is ready for winter.

woodMost mornings finds thin ice covering low-lying area ponds and creeks.

frozenRunning water falls from an icy ponds and leaves have fallen from deciduous trees allowing the evergreens and berries to take center stage this time of year.

water fall/winterberryIt is also common to see small flocks of Dark-eyed Juncos and White-throated Sparrows foraging beneath our feeders. These birds are likely migrating from Canada to warmer climates for the winter… although some stay here. Both are in the sparrow family, flock together and are known to produce hybrid offspring.

Lastly, with the leaves gone from the mighty oaks and maples, a synchronized scene is taking place in every yard in Exeter. The last of the leaves are being blown, mowed, raked or bagged all over the area. Let’s hope that most end up in a nice compost. How GREEN!

leaf raking

Let me in! It’s cold outside….

With the season changing and evening temperatures dropping, there have been one or two visitors that have found their way indoors this fall. And we’ve seen a few wandering around on the outside of the house.  It’s the Tree Stink Bug, Brochymena spp., sometimes called Bark or Rough Stink Bug. They’re all looking for a warm place to spend the winter months. Most will hibernate in leaf litter or under the bark of a tree but they can feel the warmth of our man-made shelter and are drawn to it.

Tree Stink Bug

Tree or Rough Stink Bug

These true bugs have spent the summer gorging on flora with their piercing mouthpiece and now they are looking for a good hibernation spot. The one pictured above had hibernated in leaf litter and I uncovered it while putting my garden to bed for the winter.

The Tree Stink Bug is very similar in appearance to a more dangerous stink bug, the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug, Halyomorpha halys, that has swept into the USA after being  accidentally introduced in the late 90’s. Two characteristics that can tell these two stink bugs apart are the toothed or ridged shoulders and the lack of white banding on the antennae on the Tree Stink Bug.

Tree Stink Bug

The Tree Stink Bug has ridges along the shoulder.  The Brown Marmorated Stink Bug does not. Click the photo to see the ridges up close.

Most folks are aware of the invasion of the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug. In some areas of the country, the insects have invaded homes by the hundreds. And they are the cause of great damage to fruits and crops. Pesticides have limited effect on the insect and there is no natural enemy in our country. The insect has been spotted in one neighborhood in Portsmouth.  UNH Cooperative Extension Specialist, Alan Eaton, and State Entomologist Piera Siegert ask to be notified if you spot the Brown Marmorated Stinkbug (BMSB) anywhere in New Hampshire. Check out the Wikipedia photo of the BMSB below. There is white banding on the antennae and there are no ridges on the shoulders.

The Brown Marmorated Stink Bug need to be reported if seen in NH. (Wikipedia photo)

The Brown Marmorated Stink Bug needs to be reported if seen in NH.

Fried Green Tomatoes

Okay, so last week I ran, not walked to the last outdoor Exeter Farmers’ Market. I knew they would have what I’ve been hankering for the last few weeks. Green tomatoes are plentiful when the weather turns brisk and the tomato growing season comes to an end.

Green TomatoesMy first solid food as a babe might have been green fried tomatoes. They were a summer treat as soon as the tomatoes were big enough to pick. To me they are so divine tasting, not the most nourishing food, but flashes of ‘down home’ with every bite.

Green TomatoesMy mother cooked tomatoes in bacon grease. I compromised and used about three tablespoons of bacon grease for flavor (no preservatives), plus oil to make about 1/8″.  I dipped slices in an egg wash, then a good coating of seasoned flour with a bit of dry bread crumbs, fried them on each side until tender and golden brown. Drained well on a paper towel, I served them up to mister gardener. He initially turned his nose up when I put a small tomato on his plate. I forced a taste. He loved them and asked for seconds, then thirds. I wasn’t surprised. What’s not to like?

Green Fried Tomatoes

The Arborists’ Crime….

Maybe locals in New England have heard of “Crape Murder” in the south when the tops of beautiful crape myrtles are hacked off to control size. It’s a sad sight done in the name of pruning every spring but it’s a familiar scene in strip malls and neighborhoods in Virginia.

I had a similar thing take place by the arborists who labored in our neighborhood last week. I’m sure they were hired to work fast with the only tool they carried… the chain saw. I stepped outside to the sound of the saw and to my horror, they had sheared the doublefile viburnum into a ball shape. By the time they saw me, there were only two or three stems left to cut.

doublefile viburnum

This is a species with a naturally graceful horizontal form. In the spring, lacy white blooms line up like soldiers along a bough, developing into tasty drupes adored by birds in the fall. Shearing all the ends of the branches destroys the viburnum’s natural form. Terminal buds are removed and the lateral buds are stimulated to grow creating a water sprout nightmare at the end of each stem requiring more maintenance than ever. And removing the stems this time of year also sacrifices spring blooms and the subsequent fall fruit that birds adore.

What this shrub needed was thinning or trimming back branches that allows the tree to maintain its natural form. Viburnum authority, Michael Dirr, summed up pruning viburnums, “Pruning viburnums should be an exercise in restraint…again, as with so many things, less is more.”

Judging from the broom-like tips of the branches, this viburnum was probably sheared yearly. Once done, is there any help for the shrub? My guess is not… unless it is taken back almost to the ground and allowed to redevelop naturally. Yes, I think I must do that.


The Arborists Cometh….

It was an incredible 70° when the arborists came to work in our small neighborhood.  I knew they were coming and I looked forward to it, hoping to have an input on certain flora in our small landscape… most of all the common lilacs.  Last March when we moved here, the shrubs were without leaves. Odd looking, I thought, that these tall lilacs are growing at such an extreme angle to reach the sun. I cut out just the dead limbs from the lilacs and trimmed some of the pine boughs that gave the most shade and looked forward to spring and glorious lilac blooms.

But the blooms were sparse and the shrubs struggled. I trimmed a few more pine boughs. But after a summer living with these sad lilacs, I knew they would never do well with towering pines as companions. They were too shaded, leggy, covered with powdery mildew, and some were infested with white peach scale. Thankfully, our landscape committee agreed. The arborists arrived armed with power saws and removed every one from under the pines…. a good decision. They also limbed up the pines fairly randomly…. and when they left, I climbed our pines and sawed every dead branch up as far as I dared. (I cannot tolerate dead branches.)

lilacsAlthough I was (mostly) satisfied with the results of the day’s work, I was not prepared for the new association I have with neighbors. Yes, we have a new garden area with exciting opportunities but for a while, smiling neighbors can wave to each other. Before the sun had set on the day, I planted two rhodies that I bought in anticipation of this new hole in the living hedge. In the spring, more developments will materialize. My plan is on paper now!