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.



October 18, 2019

An unusual way to keep deer out of your garden

Of all the complaints I hear about problems in the garden, damage done by feeding deer ranks near the top.

Deer hunter numbers across the state continue to decline. As a result, the overall size of the deer population is getting harder to manage. It’s not just the rural areas that are seeing more deer either. Every year we hear about deer in cities causing so many problems that sometimes they resort to special hunts to thin the herd.

In the meantime, gardeners are trying all kinds of things to minimize deer damage to their gardens. They can all be effective to varying degrees depending on the circumstances. The more common methods include: hanging scented bars of soap; hanging bags of human hair; applying hot pepper sauce or other assorted repellent sprays; motion detector activated devices; and others.

Fencing is really the best way to keep them out, but effective deer fencing can be cost prohibitive and usually doesn’t look all that attractive..

This summer, a friend of mine stumbled across a low-cost alternative to fencing that has kept the deer out of his vegetable garden all season. He used moderately heavy monofilament fishing line to create a barrier around his garden.

Although the thin line is hard to see, it’s high tensile strength makes it quite sturdy.

Although the thin line is hard to see, it’s high tensile strength makes it quite sturdy.

When deer approach the line, they stop and seem confused. Apparently, they just don’t know what to make of it. Even the smallest deer could easily snap the line by just walking through it but for some reason they don’t.

This was for a vegetable garden and there were other gardens nearby. It could be the deer just moved on to easier pickings. I’m not sure how well this would work for a single garden alone by itself.

To make a monofilament barrier, just set some fence posts around the perimeter of your garden. Attach the line to the posts stretching it fairly tight so it doesn’t sag. Run four strands of line about a foot apart with the first one a foot above the ground. Of course, you’ll need to have some way of getting in, I’ll let you figure out how you want to build a gate.

Deer are smart in their own way. I’m wondering if after a season or two the deer will figure out what’s going on and ignore the line, but for now it’s working.




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.


November 14, 2017

Canada geese and rye seeds

Filed under: Animals,Cover crops — bob @ 6:35 am

One of the best things you can do for your garden is to plant winter rye; the same crop that farmers grow for flour that eventually gets made into rye bread. Last year at this time I wrote a couple of posts about how to sow rye. You can scroll back and find those posts if you’d like to read about it.

This year I planted my rye about ten days later than usual — big mistake. Not only was it late for planting, it turned out to be the middle of the Canada goose migration.

I carefully prepared the soil by removing weeds and debris. Then I mowed the finer textured plant material that was left. Next, I roto-tilled to make a nice seed bed.Broadcasting the rye with a seed/fertilizer spreader works good, which is what I did. Since my original plan was not to rake in the seed, I doubled the recommended seeding rate. With that all of that done I was sure the garden was all set for a long winter’s nap.

A couple of geese had discovered all of that rye seed laying on top of the ground in my garden and decided to help themselves to a free meal. It wasn’t long before other migrating geese looked down and saw what was happening in my garden. It turned out to be a free-for-all once they landed.To a goose, the seed must look like an easy meal.To a goose, the seed must look like an easy meal.


By the time I checked my garden a couple of days later, it was all over. Not a seed could I find, the garden looked like it had been used as a feed lot. Goose tracks covered every square inch. They ate all 100 pounds of my rye seed in one day.

I re-seeded again the next day only this time I raked in the seed and surrounded the garden with wooded stakes with twine strung between then. The twine is about a foot off of the ground and has some plastic ribbon tied to it. That seems to be enough to deter them.

Canada Geese are strong, graceful flyers and are at home on the water. But on land, they’re at a disadvantage. They can waddle to move short distances but can’t run very fast or negotiate obstacles very well. Being on land makes them more vulnerable to predators than when they’re in the water or flying. That twine is just enough to to make them nervous about getting tangled up so they stay out of the garden. A few strands of twine criss-crossed inside the garden reinforces the effect.

If we have a mild late-fall, my rye may have enough time to germinate and get established. If not I’ll have learned a valuable lesson about putting off planting my cover crop.



July 6, 2016

Ping-pong ball shaped snapping turtle eggs in the garden

Filed under: Animals — bob @ 7:43 pm

There’s a corner of the garden that I rototilled earlier this spring but never got planted so the weeds were really out of control. I decided today it was time to re-till the area and do something with it.

It was a real struggle to get the tiller to knock down those tall weeds but I managed to get most of them. On the second pass with the tiller I spotted what looked like a pair of under-sized, off-white, leather ping-pong balls. I recognized them right away, they were snapping turtle eggs.

Snapping turtles spend almost their entire lives in the water. The only time they come out on to land is to lay eggs.

I’ve seen websites that say snappers typically lay 20 to 40 eggs in a single clutch. The most I’ve ever found was 19 eggs several years ago in a different garden in another part of the state. Maybe you’ve seen more.

Raccoons, skunks, foxes, crows and other predators love to eat turtle eggs.

Raccoons, skunks, foxes, crows and other predators love to eat turtle eggs.

I’ve come across them in compost piles, piles of wood chips and mulch, flower beds and areas of loose sandy soil. Female snapping turtles will walk quite a distance to find a spot she thinks is best, up to a mile in some cases. This one was about two hundred yards away from the water. The problem I see with that is that the newly hatched turtles have to walk all the way back to the water. The farther away it is, the longer they are exposed to predators. Which brings up another question: how do the hatchlings know where the water is?

Back in the garden, I discovered I had inadvertently tilled up the entire nest and broke at least a half dozen eggs. None of them looked like they had any developed turtles inside. They just looked like tiny, off-colored scrambled eggs laying in the dirt.

I took the two undamaged eggs and put them in a protected area where the pumpkins are growing. Now we’ll have two cute baby turtles in the neighborhood that will grow up to be mean, ugly grown-up snapping turtles.



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