Sunday, February 15, 2015

Feeding Birds in Winter

Suet is a great option for feeding birds in winter. Here, a red-bellied woodpecker enjoys a tasty treat from a suet feeder. Image credit: Mike's Birds
As winter temperatures plummet, survival becomes more difficult for most species of birds. Their summer and fall food sources have diminished or disappeared completely. In addition, the colder temperatures require that they take in more calories to keep warm. For that reason, feeding birds in winter brings a different set of challenges for bird lovers. 

It’s All about Calories 

Keeping warm burns calories. So the colder it gets the more calories a bird needs to stay warm. The seeds we fed our backyard birds from March through November may no longer give them the extra calories they need for winter survival. Just as their eating habits have changed, our feeding habits need to change as well. Feeding birds in winter should include lots of high fat, high energy food choices. 

Healthy Options for Feeding Birds in Winter 
  •  Fat – Suet is 100% fat and is an excellent choice for feeding birds in winter. You can either purchase suet (usually found in square cakes) or make your own. It’s fun and easy to make yourself – check out this suet recipe for birds if you’re interested.
  • Peanut butter – Peanut butter is also high in fat and is a favorite of birds like nuthatches and woodpeckers.
  • Dried mealworms – Dried meal worms can be found in most large pet and feed stores. They are also high in fat and make a great nutritional supplement for feeding birds in winter.
  • Dried fruits – All-natural chopped dried fruit (like raisins, mango and prunes) make excellent additions to your homemade suet for feeding birds in winter. The sugar content of most dried fruit is very high, thus giving winter birds the extra calories they need to keep warm.

Tips for Feeding Birds in Winter
  • Place feeders out of the wind. Food items such as seeds and dried meal worms are very light weight and will blow out of a feeder in high winds.
  •  Frequently remove snow or ice from feeders. One of the reasons wild birds have such a difficult time in winter is because snow and ice often cover their natural food sources. This can happen with feeders, too. Be sure to check your feeders frequently and remove any snow and ice that may prevent birds from eating.
  • Don’t forget the water! Birds need water, too, and when temperatures drop below freezing their water sources are all but eliminated. Bird bath heaters are available at most pet and feed stores, and are a great way to ensure your birds have a constant source of water.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Ways to Preserve Fresh Basil


In the months of July and August when the sun is at its brightest and temperatures are at their highest, most varieties of basil grow like wildfire. For cooks who find themselves unable to use all this aromatic bounty before it goes to seed, all (your basil) is not lost. There are multiple ways to preserve basil so that you can enjoy its fragrant essence all year round.

Frozen Basil Brittle
Freezing basil brittle is a quick and easy way to preserve the freshness, aroma and color of your basil without totally losing the essence of the herb. Pick four to six cups of basil leaves and wash them thoroughly. Remove any darkened or damaged leaves and discard. Roughly chop the leaves into small pieces, but not so finely that you lose the sense of “leaf.” Place in a deep bowl, and with your fingers, massage in enough extra virgin olive oil to coat. Spread the coated leaves evenly onto a baking sheet and flash freeze. Once frozen, break the brittle into pieces and store in an air tight freezer container.

Basil Vinegar
Nothing is quite as easy as this basil vinegar infusion. Simply pick, trim and thoroughly clean a bunch of basil (about six nice stems). Place it in a glass jar with tight-fitting lid. Cover with white wine vinegar and store in a cool, dark location. The vinegar will be ready to use in just two weeks and will keep for up to a year.

Pesto Ice Cubes
Preparing and freezing pesto is a great way to preserve basil. Just whip up your favorite pesto recipe and transfer into the sections of an ice cube tray. Once frozen, pop them out and store them in an air tight freezer container. When ready to use, simply thaw the appropriate number of cubes for your recipe.

Basil Oil
Making basil-infused oil is another favorite way to preserve your summer’s bounty of basil. After your leaves have been cleaned and dried, add them to a food processor with your olive oil. Pulse until thoroughly mixed and then strain out all the solids. It is advisable to store your basil oil in the refrigerator to avoid spoilage, and do not add garlic due to the risk of botulism. 

Dried Basil
Probably the most familiar method of preserving basil is by drying it. The trick here is to dry and store the leaves whole to help preserve the flavors. Cut your basil with ample stems attached. Wash it thoroughly and remove any damaged leaves. Pat it dry and bundle it by tightly tying the stems together. Hang it out of the sun in a dry, well ventilated area for about four weeks.  Carefully remove the leaves from the stems and store whole until ready for use.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Teaching Kids to Appreciate Nature

Regardless of what you believe about climate change and global warming, most people agree there is value in learning to appreciate and respect our natural surroundings. How can we instill these values in our children so that they will be good stewards of the earth for future generations? The answer lies in education and mentorship, and making the natural world a priority for your family.

Begin your child’s natural education early.

Don’t wait until your child is in elementary school to get him a bug box and start exploring the natural wonders of your back yard.  In fact, kids are ready to start learning about nature in their first few months of life. Read them books about trees and squirrels and flowers and butterflies. Once they are three or four, begin taking your field guides with you on outings and start generating an interest in species identification and habitat. 

Prioritize nature.

When your child becomes old enough to participate in group activities like t-ball or dance, consider enrolling them in nature classes and day camps that put an emphasis on outdoor education.  Show as much enthusiasm for his discovery and identification of a praying mantis that you would for him getting a base hit. When presents are called for, be sure to include items like binoculars and field guides in addition to old standbys like Barbies and toy trucks.

Be a good role model.

Your children will learn more from you than any other teacher in their lifetime. Be a good example and let your actions speak for themselves. Don’t be squeamish about spiders and mice. Instead, take the opportunity to teach your children about the value these creatures have in nature and why their existence is important to the cycle of life. When encountering them in your home, humanely capture and release them back into the wild instead of killing them.

Build an animal sanctuary.

The four main needs of wildlife are food, water, shelter and a place to raise their young. A simple brush pile in your back yard can be a safe haven for bunnies and other small mammals. Even if you live in an apartment, there are still ways you can attract and help animals. A small bird feeder that attaches to a window with a suction cup or a dish of water left on a ledge can attract both birds and insects for viewing.

Enjoy wildlife together.

Turn off the cartoons and take a few minutes to sit outside with your children and watch for wildlife. Make a game out of who can spot and identify the most different birds or who can find the first insect. Look for animal tracks in the dirt or snow and help your kids identify what kind of animal left them.

Be a good steward of the earth yourself and show your kids how it’s done. That’s likely all that will be necessary for them to follow in your nature-loving footsteps.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Should You Cage Your Cucumbers?

This is my first season growing in my new small space container garden. To accommodate more cucumbers, I decided to cage them, something I’ve never done before. Caging did allow me to grow more, including four different varieties, but my results were mixed at best. Based on this season’s outcome, I’m not sure I will cage them again in the future. Here are the pros and cons of caging cucumbers that I found through my personal gardening experience.


Space – Caging your cucumbers certainly is a space saver. It only requires about an 18-inch footprint, compared about 36 square inches when grown the traditional way. 

Spraying – If you spray your cucumbers to control pests, having all the foliage compact and close makes it easier and quicker to reach all affected areas.


Pests – Because there are more shaded surfaces when cucumbers are grown in cages, critters that prefer the cooler, shaded undersides of leaves have more area for refuge. The crowded conditions also encourage rampant breeding of pests and the spread of infestations.

Sun – Caging cucumbers makes sun exposure uneven at best. The outside foliage gets plenty, while the inside stems and leaves get very little. I’m not sure to what extent that harms a plant or its ability to produce, but it is likely to invite pests that prefer shade.

Ventilation – As you can imagine, air flow through a densely packed cage of foliage is very limited. This makes it prime territory for attack by fungi like powdery mildew.

Pollination – I had tons of blooms this season, but comparatively little fruit. Although this can be partly attributed to fewer pollinators available to do their job, it had mostly to do with the blooms being inaccessible to the pollinators that were available. Many of the blooms were buried deep inside the packed foliage, where bees and other pollinators could not easily reach.

Harvesting – Not only is it harder for pollinators to find and reach the blooms of caged cucumbers, it’s harder for me to find and harvest the fruit as well. You have to be really careful when pushing aside vines looking for cukes so that you don’t damage the plant. Doing so in such a densely packed environment is challenging at best. 

My results don’t necessarily agree with those of other gardeners. For instance, some say that growing cucumbers in cages increases air flow and makes harvesting easier. In my experience, due to the density of the foliage, that was not the case. I will just need to decide whether or not the space advantages of growing in cages outweigh the disadvantages I experienced.