The Yellow Farmhouse Garden

January 9, 2020

Boxelder trees can be a refuge for wildlife

So far this winter has been relatively mild which is good for all kinds of wildlife including birds and small and large mammals. Milder temperatures means fewer calories are needed to stay alive.

There is no deep or ice-encrusted snow to keep wildlife from getting to their food sources such as nuts, seeds, fruits, grasses, etc.

During a severe winter, wildlife can rapidly use up the fat they gained through the summer and fall. They also have to work harder to get to winter food if it is covered by a deep blanket of snow or a layer of ice.

Fortunately, there is a common native tree  that helps wildlife make it through the winter by providing food and shelter. That is the humble boxelder tree.

Boxelder trees been disdained by landscapers and arborists so much and for so long that we forget they can contribute in a positive way to the local ecosystem.

There are few reasons why boxelder are scorned. First is because of their looks. Unlike many other species of trees that grow in symmetrical, predictable shapes, boxelders tend to grow asymmetrically, mainly due to the loss of branches. To me this gives each individual boxelder tree its own personality.

Unlike slow-growing hardwood trees like the mighty oaks or maples, boxelder’s wood is brittle and weak due to its fast growth habit. Weak wood means weak branches that frequently break off during winds, storms, heavy snow or, so it sometimes seems, for no reason at all..

A boxelder in someone’s yard means having more tree debris to clean up. Plus falling branches can cause damage If the tree is near a house, shed or other structure.

But the soft wood of boxelders is beneficial to birds and mammals. Those branches that break off often leave a spot for fungus to get a foothold and start decaying wood. Since the wood is so soft, it quickly decays leaving holes and nesting cavities. Larger branches and trunks of older trees can eventually become hollowed out and provide shelter for larger mammals and birds.

Since boxelder trees are a type of maple, their seeds look  much like maple tree seeds enclosed in little  “helicopters” called samaras.

Since boxelder trees are a type of maple, their seeds look much like maple tree seeds enclosed in little “helicopters” called samaras.

Boxelder trees are often called weedy trees because they are able to sprout up just about anywhere. For example, in urban areas they’re sometimes found growing against the walls and foundations of buildings. Female boxelders produce enormous amounts of seeds that are carried by the wind and dropped randomly.

The nutritious boxelder seeds hang on the tree through winter making them easy to find by critters during harsh winters.

Even though it is a native tree, you may not want to introduce boxelders onto your property due to their aggressive growth.

On the other hand, if you already have a boxelder growing on your property and it’s in an out of the way spot, consider letting it grow so it can continue its role in your local ecosystem. When bitter winters occur in the future, your boxelder might be the difference between life and death for some of your wildlife population.



April 26, 2019

Natural nest building material for birds

The other day while I was relaxing on our front porch, I had a chance to watch a female robin work on building her nest. She was collecting mud and other muddy debris from the edge of a water puddle to use to cement her nest materials together. She’d look around for the right bit of mud and scoop up a big mouthful then fly off to her nest in a tree on the other side of of our yard. She’d work with the mud and when was done with it, she’d fly back to the puddle for more.

Watching that robin reminded me that nearly all songbirds are in the process of making their nests right now. Although they are perfectly fine on their own, we can help make it easier for them by providing natural nesting material.

Different species of birds use different materials for their nests. It’s usually a specific size of material that they are looking for. Some larger species may use primarily sticks and twigs, other birds may prefer pieces of grass. Many species line their nest with soft material.

Birds will collect all kinds material for their nest. The latest research however suggests that made-made materials such as cloth, string, or drier lint among other things, may cause harm to hatchlings or in some cases even adult birds. So what can we do to help?

The easiest the thing is to let a corner of your yard go wild.  Encourage helpful plants such as shrubs that provide small twigs; milkweed and thistle that produce down for nest lining; grapevines have stringy bark that birds remove in strips for their nests; pine needles are a favorite for many birds; lengths of fine grass are a very attractive building material.

Many bird species like to line their nests with moss.

Many bird species like to line their nests with moss.

Invertebrates such as spiders will set up shop in your wild area and begin to spin webs. Those webs in turn will be used by hummingbirds as nest building materials.

Consider leaving a bare patch of soil in your natural area that you can soak with water to make mud for birds to use.

As an alternative to having a natural wild area in your otherwise manicured lawn, you can collect the aforementioned material yourself and leave it in a spot where birds can easily get at it.

Many species of birds lay more that one clutch of eggs through the summer therefore need nest building material on and off during the summer.

Although birds will sometimes cause a gardener problems by damaging fruit, the good they do by eating harmful insects outweighs the bad. Plus, it’s a lot of fun watching birds as they work on building their nests.


March 28, 2019

If possible, save dead trees for woodpecker nests

I spend a lot of time outside and one of my favorite sounds this time of year is the drumming of woodpeckers. In our neck of the woods we have mostly hairy woodpeckers and downy woodpeckers.

We live in a rural area and there are plenty of trees around to provide nesting sites for woodpeckers. If you remember, woodpeckers only nest in holes that they carve in tree branches. When looking for a likely nesting spot, they always choose dead branches first because the wood is softer due to decay making it easier for the bird to excavate a hole.

This branch is about ten inches in diameter and about twenty-five feet off the ground. They were most likely made by hairy woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers prefer smaller diameter branches.

This branch is about ten inches in diameter and about twenty-five feet off the ground. The holes were most likely made by hairy woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers prefer smaller diameter branches.

Unfortunately, people don’t always think about birds when it comes time to cut firewood or tidy up the woodlot. Often, dead or dying trees are the first ones that get cut down. That reduces the number of nesting opportunities for woodpeckers.

When there is a lack of trees,woodpeckers will look for other places to build their nests. The outside wall of a house can be tempting for them, especially if it is covered with wood siding. They can be fairly destructive if they drill into a wall to make their nest.  More dead trees left standing may draw woodpeckers away from homes and back to their preferred habitat.

It’s not only woodpeckers that benefit from standing dead trees, other species of songbirds and small mammals will move into old woodpecker nests once the woodpeckers have eventually moved on.

If you decide to leave a damaged tree standing, just make sure it is in a location where it won’t cause any damage if the branches, or even the whole tree, falls.


September 8, 2016

Keeping birds from grapes

Filed under: Birds,Fruit — bob @ 7:41 am

We absolutely have to get our bird netting on the grape vines this week.

The grapes have been turning purple very quickly and are getting sweeter by the day. That whole process  of ripening is known as veraison  in the wine making world. But for me and the neighborhood birds, it’s just plain ripening.

The birds are starting to sample the grapes and I can tell more fruit is missing every day. They are not eating a lot of grapes just yet. Even though the grapes are becoming a deep purple color they are still not sweet enough. Birds start eating grapes when the sugar content reaches about 15%. Grapes need to be around 22% in order to make wine. A little simple math tells us the grapes will be long gone before they ever get sweet enough to make wine or even grape jelly for that matter.

Our main grape crop i

Our main grape crop i

Really, the only way to keep birds from decimating a grape crop is to install a barrier so they can’t reach the fruit. That’s where the netting comes in. This year we invested in new, premium polypropylene bird netting. The netting is 14 feet wide and 45 feet long — two panels will cover the row.

We unroll, then drape the net over the vines. Then we fold the bottom edges up and fasten it back on itself to enclose the entire  grapevine.

Once we get the vines covered and they are protected from the birds, we’ll be able to taste test the grapes at our leisure and pick them once they have sweetened up to our liking.




May 2, 2013

Flowers for hummingbirds

Filed under: Birds,Flowers — bob @ 12:32 pm

Bees and butterflys are fun to watch  but, I think humingbirds are the most facinating visitors to a garden. No matter how many times you see them, they never fail to surprise and amaze.

Hummingbirds use a huge huge amount of energy in realation to their size.  Sugars found in flower nectar is source of this energy. Everyday they eat their body weight in nectar so they are constantly on the lookout for nectar-producing flowers.

You can encourage hummingbirds to visit your yard by planting the flowers they’re looking for.

They prefer red and orange tubular flowers but will feed on most brightly-colored flowers with nectar. There’s plenty of flowers that meet these requirements.

Here’s a partial list to consider: monarda, red salvia, agastache, honeysuckle vine, fushia, verbena, phlox, butterfly bush, daylily, trumpet creeper, cypress vine, coral bells, heirloom petunias, penstemnon, morning glory, bugle weed, red-hot poker, and many others.

Like people, hummingbirds also need protien and fats in their diet. They get those nutients by eating gnats, mousquitos and other small insects. So, having an area of wild plants — weeds — nearby will provide space for these small insects to grow.

If you have the space for it, a mixed garden like this will provide all the nutrients hummingbirds need. Tubular flowers for nectar and other flowers for small insects to live in.

Finally, hummingbirds need trees and shrubs to provide a place for them to nest and to escape from predators.

If you look around, you’ll probably see that most of the things hummingbirds need are already in your neighborhood.

Planting the right kind of flowers is the best way to get hummingbirds to hang out in your backyard.

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