Pileated Woodpeckers come a knockin’


Click for short video

There’s nothing like the call of the Loon or the Pileated Woodpecker to make you aware you are somewhere in the North Woods. In my case it’s Minnesota, but not quite “Up North,” so we only hear our State bird, the loon, occasionally. Pileated Woodpeckers cover much of the Loon’s northern territory into Canada, and even more to the south and east in the United States.

Click for larger image

Click for larger image

Whether its their call, territorial drumming or the rapping at trees for a meal, we have been hearing Pileated Woodpeckers in the neighborhood on and off since we moved in our suburban home over 20 years ago. We’ve always seen them in the yard individually, at least until this past Sunday morning.

The image to left shows the female holding a bug she plans to feed the male. His red crown is in full display mode. This feeding behavior is seen in many mating birds, however it is often the male feeding the female. (The female is in foreground in both images.)

For more information on the Pileated Woodpecker I recommend Nature Works. Below  the link.


Finding the right site for a plant and the other way around

Our yard has varying light and soil conditions. We have deep shade, dappled shade, morning sun, mid-day sun, and a couple of spots with nearly all sun. We have areas where the ground drains quickly and others where it is nearly always cool and damp. We have rich soil and poor rocky soil. Some areas have a large amount of clay, while other areas are predominately sandy.

A problem area in our yard for many years was the hill of fill coming off the northwest corner of the garage. After taking out the apple tree that had died and the raspberries that covered the rest it when we moved in, we built a deck (pictured  is the current deck). We enriched the soil with organic matter, and tried any number of shrubs, perennials and annuals on it. The only shrub that remains is just off the hill by the corner of the deck, a boxwood that is now over six feet in every direction. It’s visible on the right side of the image that will open to a larger one, if you click it.

Click for larger image

Click for larger image

Astilbes turned out to be the answer.Since almost nothing else did well in the soil on that northwest facing slope, of which a large part only catches sun in the middle of the day, Astilbes are pretty much all we planted there. We had different kinds and varieties of Astilbe in several locations in the yard, but now most of them are on this hill. There’s also some Japanese Painted Fern and Ostrich Fern on the edges and to the back, as these grow almost anywhere in our yard.

 The hill was also boring as it lacked a feature and something to separate the Astilbes from the hillside of Ostrich Ferns on the north side of the garage The ferns are shaded from the morning sun by the only apple tree still standing on the property, unseen, off the northeast corner of the garage.

Before re-arranging, transplanting and adding a couple more Astilbe three years ago, I built a short, nearly-circular retaining wall which features a Pinky Winky Hydrangea. The retaining wall adds a layer of visual interest and enabled me to enhance the soil for the hydrangea, which catches sun from late morning to mid-afternoon. To edge the inside of the retaining wall, I’ve put in some annuals along with some Lamium “Aureum” that will ultimately surround the hydrangea.

Rodgersia, Rodgersia, where for art thou, Rodgersia?

A large, striking and very interesting broad leaf plant is the Rodgersia. It’s named for Admiral John Rodgers, who brought one back from Japan in the late 19th century. These plants are ideal for a boggy shade garden. They like constantly moist soil and the leaves can dry out quickly in wind, so putting them in a protected and moist area is important. We don’t have a bog, so I planted these in a low area next to the woods in the southwest quadrant of our yard, which is rich in humus and always damp. They get some morning sun and are protected by ferns, shrubs and Pagoda Dogwood to the back, and flanked by Ligularia on the left, which also enjoy constantly moist soil and protection from the afternoon sun.

Click for larger image.

Click for larger image

The Rodgersia have done very well in this protected spot. Additional protection is provided by some anti-deer/rabbit spray after the plants start coming up in the spring and until they are fully leafed out. This will insure a nice flower spike in late spring.

This picture was taken in June and shows their flowers, which have a slight licorice scent. Early in the season the leaves are a light to medium green, but as the season wears on they will take on an attractive bronze cast. It’s a great plant for contrast against the dark greens and purples of the Ligularia and the blue of the Sieboldiana hosta that can be seen behind them, and, not shown, the hosta “June” with its yellows, greens and blues bordering the lawn in front of them.

Other Yards: Wind Chimes at the Walker Sculpture Garden

 Video of "Wind Chime" (after "Dream) an art installation by Pierre Huyghes

Video of "Wind Chime" (after "Dream) an art installation by Pierre Huyghes

I’ve heard some wonderful wind chimes, but to hear dozens in a grove a birches is mesmerizing. An installation called Wind Chime (after “Dream”) by Pierre Huyghes in the Walker Art Museum’s Sculpture Garden is a wonderful experience. You can almost feel the breeze under the canopy of sound. (Click image above for video.)

Remembering with Flowers

Grandma's Peony

June always reminds me of going to North Dakota to visit my father’s side of the family. School was out and we kids would pile in the backseat of the car and we’d head across country. We always loved taking car trips, and this was always one of the longest we would take.

What is now I-94, a pair of concrete ribbons with wide open shoulders and median, was Old US 10–a two-lane blacktop with the grasses growing right up to the nearly non-existent shoulders. There wasn’t much Interstate highway in the Midwest in the 1960’s, no less in sparsely populated North Dakota. Fields of grain, sloughs with ducks on them, and farmsteads protected by shelter belts were about all the sites to see, excepting the occasional pheasant, or nearly as rare oncoming car or truck. Tractors seemed more common, slowing our car to a crawl when every we came upon one.

You could see for miles over this flat open country. The land went on and on to the horizon, but was dwarfed under the immense sky. This boundless blue was usually dotted with “fair weather clouds,” as my dad would call them, or cast in steely gray fast moving clouds sprinkling cold rain. Rain or shine a near constant was the bulrushes and wheat bending to a relentless wind, fields rippling like cloth attempting to be spread flat by invisible hands.

We almost always stayed at Grandpa and Grandma’s house the first night before heading out to the farm or to one of the cousins. My grandparent’s little white stucco house trimmed in green didn’t seem as small once inside, so long as no more than four adults were in a room. I would head to the basement to play with the old radio, if it were cold or rainy out, but otherwise would be in the yard by myself or with my sisters. The pink peonies separating the clovered lawn from the neighbors would be in bloom, their wonderful fragrance filling the air. Grandma’s peonies were joined in that verdant yard by purple irises near the back steps.

I will always remember Grandma’s peonies and Siberian iris in June, because I have them in my yard. When she left her home for the nursing facility in the mid-1990’s and the house was to be sold, our family visited. Everyone was told to go over to the house to see if there were any keepsakes we wanted. Other than some salt and pepper shakers, my wife and I dug up part of one of the peonies and put it in a bag. We dug up part of an iris, too.

Despite our worries, the transplants survived the 500 mile journey home without incident. These are both very tough plants. Grandma’s peony has been moved and divided since, as the first site became too shady over the years. Peonies will grow in part shade, but they thrive in full sun. Surprisingly, the iris moved to a better spot on its own under the Silver maple. Although the parent plant is still where we planted it, it is in decline.

I figure Grandma’s peonies are at least as old as I am. Before I move from this house, I would hope one of my young relatives would come and dig up a transplant for their yard. I can’t think of a more lovely reminder of family.

Above: Grandma’s peony, a Sarah Bernhardt. Below: Grandma’s Siberian Iris
and some of the other peonies in the yard.


You’d normally expect to see a Wood Duck using this box

"Oops, someone has already moved in!"

"Oops, someone has already moved in!"

We’ve had Wood Duck chicks jumping out of this fiberglass box several times since putting it up years ago. A wood duck looked at it this year, but it ended up being used by a different family, which started to move in on Memorial Day Weekend. Check the link for a video of this house being made a home.

Spring, yes, but with many lawns it looks like late summer

After what seemed a very long winter, we’ve had an erratic and very dry spring here in Minnesota.

For the fifth year in a row our May, a normally wet month, was dry. Less than a half inch of rain fell this May, with only two other May’s on record having had less. This is hard on young plants trying to get a start on the season.  Luckily it has been cool. The windier conditions we’ve had are drying enough without adding heat to the equation.

The forecast is calling for a chance of rain everyday over the next several days. I hope we get some everyday, the ponds and lakes are low. We are down about three inches on the year, and last year we were down eight inches.

What can we do? Reduce the size of our lawns, and reduce the affect the sun has on drying the earth by planting trees and shrubs.

Should we water our lawns? Yes, but when it is really dry, we need to think of saving trees and shrubs, too, if not first.

Not water smartly will be costly for this neighbor

The failure of the neighbor across the street to water will be costly.


Water is a precious resource, and we don’t want to waste it. Many people think watering trees and lawns is a waste. However, not watering will invite weeds, which have to be dealt with through labor and/or herbicides that may be damaging to the environment. Trees, shrubs and plants have greater value than grass, except in native grasslands–the prairie. The time invested in a tree is valuable, too. Lose one, and it takes years to replace, plus the plant life that has adapted to living beneath the canopy also suffers. Replacing trees, plants, and lawns is costly, so avoid it by taking care of the plants you have.

Nature abhors a void, and will fill it with a plant or two not wanted in that spot, the true definition of a weed. Healthy lawns keep weeds out. A lawn that is drying up and dying, and even a lawn getting thin, invites weeds. Herbicides are expensive and generally aren’t healthy for life in general, but it’s how most people deal with weeds. So, be good to the environment, your pocketbook, and to your lawn and other plants by watering smart.

Smart Watering means Watering Deep

The roots of most plants– trees, shrubs and grasses, serve three purposes: to (1) hold the plant in place so it can (2) feed and (3) drink, with the goal of growing and reproducing. The entire root system holds the plant in place, while specialized parts of the roots absorb nutrients and water necessary for life. Feeder roots are near the surface and extend beyond the drip line. They are close to the surface because that’s where most of the nutrients are located. Water is required for feeding. An unwatered plant won’t get any nutrients and will die. Many plants have tap roots, too, which are designed specifically for obtaining life-sustaining water from deep in the ground.  

In drought conditions and really hot weather, it is important to get the water deep under the surface. Water on and close to the surface of the ground easily evaporates. When water gets a few  inches below the surface the soil retains the moisture, which is often measured by agronomists, and is called sub-soil moisture.

Watering deep encourages grasses and other plants to send their roots down deep. Lightly watering causes more harm than good. Unless one waters deeply the plant doesn’t use its energy to send its roots down. It concentrates its efforts in that first inch or two of soil when it is lightly watered, say with an automatically sprinkling system every few days. When drought hits, or unusually high temperatures occur for several days, these shallowly watered and rooted plants are the first to dry up and die. Their tap roots weren’t fully developed, and thus can’t reach sufficient sub-soil moisture beneath the top soil in cooler, insulated earth. (This is where mulch comes in.)

In the spring, water deeply when there have been reports of low sub-soil moisture, and before high temperatures or drought can occur. This provides several benefits. The most important is it will save your plants, but it also means won’t have to water as often. A lesser percentage of water will be lost to evaporation with more going to the plant. Less water will be used overall, because watering deep is more efficient.

I recommend watering in the early morning before the wind normally picks up, and the leaves can dry to avoid fungus and other issues.

What is Watering Deep?

Watering deeply means putting down at least an inch of water, maybe two. If you are using a sprinkler system, you can gauge how much water is going down by putting a pot saucer (one at least an inch deep) out in the path of your sprinkler. If you are hose watering large plants and trees, water until it puddles around the plant, go to another plant, then return to the first plant and water until it puddles around the plant again, draining more slowing. Showering a plant will put the water on the drip line, and once identified if the leaves aren’t touching the soil, water a few inches either side of the drip line and toward the center if the plant is known to have a deep tap root. 

In the heat of the summer, thirsty plants like roses, and grasses kept short, need about an inch a week to flourish, but most other common plants require less. To protect the earth and your lawn as higher temperatures arrive, or if little or no rain is in the forecast, set your lawnmower up a notch or two. While I don’t scalp my lawn in the spring, if we are getting good rainfall I will keep it very short while it is still cool to encourage rhizome growth for a healthy, thick lawn that will prevent weeds from getting a foothold. Then I increase the height of my mower a setting every 10° (F) increase in temperature.

One last thought on watering smart, efficiently and effectively. Know your plants so you can properly site and care for your plants. BTW. I didn’t finish this last night, and this morning it is starting to rain.