LBJs Are Eating All The Bird Food

Not clones of the Texas-born President. Rather, the dull little birds that Judy calls LBJs, or Little Brown Jobbies.

Lately I’ve been re-filling the peanut feeder almost every day, and the bulk of its contents are going down the gullets of LBJs. I’d say they’re eating most of the sunflower seeds as well.

House sparrows gorging themselves on peanuts bought with my hard-earned dollars.
House sparrows gorging themselves on peanuts bought with my hard-earned dollars.

The real offenders are the house sparrows, also called English sparrows. Despite what they call themselves, they are actually finches, which gives you an idea of how unethical they are. These rather drab creatures, a European import, are voracious eating machines. They travel in flocks and tend to squeeze out other birds. There are larger nuisance birds like grackles and starlings, but they at least are somewhat easier to deter.

At times I consider putting an end to my backyard bird feeding because of the LBJs. But I always conclude that the pleasure of watching orioles, cardinals, grosbeaks, woodpeckers, nuthatches and others outweighs the irritation of watching LBJ devouring my peanuts, sunflowers, and money.

Besides, there’s no point in being a bird snob. We’re never going to get rid of the house sparrows, so we might as well get used to them. What’s more, if you look at them in the right way and squint a little you can see that they have a sort of understated charm. There’s that little black bib and the white patches on the cheeks … OK, the charm is very understated.

White-crowned sparrow
White-crowned sparrow

There are other LBJs which really are more appealing, especially if you look closely. It’s kind of like stamp collecting. White-throated sparrows and white-crowned sparrows have attractive head coloring. They are also mostly ground feeders, and so shouldn’t be blamed for emptying out the bird food.

White necked sparrow.
White-throated sparrow.

So how do you feel about the LBJs – frustrated, resigned, or ready to give up on the whole bird-feeding game?

Book Review: Home Ground, by Allen Lacy

I fear that garden writer Allen Lacy is simply no longer read as often as he should be. Lacy was a native Texan, a philosophy professor who gardened and wrote on the side. Living in southern New Jersey for most of his career, he was a garden columnist at the Wall Street Journal for five years and at the New York Times for seven.

home ground 2

Lacy wrote or edited ten books. Favorites of mine include Further Afield (1986), In a Green Shade (2000), and The Garden in Autumn (1995). If I had to pick just one, however, I would unhesitatingly go with Home Ground (1984). Except for The Garden in Autumn, all of these books are collections of short essays.

Cheerful, earthy, and erudite are three adjectives which all describe Lacy’s prose. His passion for gardening was heartfelt, and he was subject to serial and alternating obsessions: for daylilies, for daffodils, for hostas, for Oriental lilies. But he maintained a sense of perspective and a sense of humor.

My favorite passage from Home Ground concerns his attempt to camouflage his emerging daffodil obsession:

“I’ve got this daffodil catalog from Oregon,” I said, hoping my voice didn’t betray mania, obsession, or grave infatuation. “Did you know that a daffodil called Lyrebird costs $100 for just one bulb? What kind of damned fool would pay that kind of money for one bulb?”

“Be careful now,” she said. It was clear that she thought I might be precisely the sort of damn fool I referred to.

“What do you mean, ‘be careful’?” I asked.

She had me cold. I once bought the same shirt in eight different colors, and I had just shaken a mania for daylilies … I had no intention of buying Lyrebird, but by dwelling on its outrageous price I was perfectly capable of convincing myself that at only $50 Impressario was an outright steal.

In addition to abnormal gardener psychology, Lacy’s essays deal with the virtues and defects of a variety of plants, with what makes a garden inviting and beautiful, and with a variety of other subjects including the decline of decent watermelons since his childhood in Texas. I particularly liked his parody of certain garden advice columnists of the day and their tendency to deal in worst case scenarios.

allen lacey
Allen Lacy

Your diefenbachia is infested with artichoke mites … Unfortunately, they carry Herpes IX, a virus which spreads rapidly to apple trees, juniper, sedum, delphiniums, zinnias, and humans, where it causes impotence, a yearning to travel to places you can’t afford, and sometimes an untimely death. Burn your house to the ground immediately, see a physician, and make certain that you have a valid will.

Advice like this makes it clear that we all would benefit from reading a copy of Home Ground, or some of Lacy’s other books.

Chicago Botanic Garden’s Dixon Prairie

Here’s another post about a summer visit to the Chicago Botanic Garden. This time I want to write about Dixon Prairie, one of the less visited parts of CBG.

Dixon Prairie is a 15 acre restored prairie with six different ecological communities, from wet to dry, black earth to sand and gravel. In addition to the grasslands, there is burr oak savannah, wetlands, and lagoons. Wildlife – insect, bird, mammal – ┬áis numerous and diverse.

We were there in July, when the wildflowers seemed to be at their peak. Fortunately, Judy brought her camera.

Blue Heron in the lagoon along the prairie. CBG is working to improve shoreline erosion.
Blue Heron in the lagoon along the prairie. CBG is working to improve shoreline erosion.
Heron in flight.
Heron in flight.
Doe in the grasses.
Doe in the grasses.
2009-07-19 13.55.13
Purple Martin House.
Culver's Root (Veronicastrum virginicum)
Culver’s Root (Veronicastrum virginicum)
Leadplant (Amorpha canescens)
Leadplant (Amorpha canescens)
Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
Purple Prairie Clover (Dalea purpurea)
Purple Prairie Clover (Dalea purpurea)

If you live in the Chicago area, go see the Dixon Prairie! Do you have a favorite local prairie, meadow, or “wild” garden?

Before concluding, I want to respond to the questions asked by Nadezda at Nadezda’s Northern Garden.

My favorite Christmas flower: Amaryllis.

Christmas preparation I never miss: Buying gifts.

What is the scent of Christmas: Judy’s baking.

Favorite Christmas song: Dropkick Murphys’ Christmas Song (with thanks to my friend Joanna).

Said the Robin to the Botanist …

If I were Lewis Carroll I would write a poem to go with these photographs. I found them while perusing old pictures, something I do a lot of when the weather turns cold. These were taken during a summer visit to the Chicago Botanic Garden. Judy found a robin who felt that the statue of Carl Linnaeus in the Discovery Garden made for an excellent perch.

Robin: "Don't look so pleased with yourself."
Robin: “Don’t look so pleased with yourself.”

Linnaeus has a rather beatific expression. The robin seems to be scolding him, saying: “Time to get serious! Life is no picnic!”

Robin: "You think you can support a family studying flowers?"
Robin: “You think you can support a family studying flowers?”


2009-06-14 15.57.19







Venice of the North

A few days ago I reminisced about visiting my older son Daniel while he was studying in Russia. That first post was about the few days we spent in Moscow. This is a follow-up about the second and final leg of the journey in St. Petersburg.

Let me start with a bit of advice for people traveling with their college-age children. You can congratulate yourselves if you have instilled the value of thrift in your offspring. However, beware of letting those children purchase the train tickets for your overnight trip from Moscow to St. Petersburg. Otherwise you will find yourself lying in the very narrow upper bunk of a four bed compartment, afraid to fall asleep because you might roll over and flop onto the floor. Much more comfortable accommodations are available for a very reasonable price.

Enough grousing. Actually, Daniel found me a very comfortable small hotel on Nevsky Prospekt, which is a sort of Main Street for Downtown St. Petersburg.

The Hermitage.
Hermitage in the evening.
Hermitage in the evening.
In the Hermitage Courtyard.
In the Hermitage Courtyard.

This is a beautiful city that is very much worth seeing. To start with, there is the Hermitage, which was once the Winter Palace of the Czars. We mostly looked at the building itself, and only examined a handful of items from its massive art collections. The views from within the Hermitage courtyards are especially lovely.

St. Petersburg is built around rivers, canals, and the sea – hence the nickname Venice of the North. Many buildings are painted in pastel colors which, combined with the waterways, give this city a feel very different from Moscow. Danny and I took a boat ride through the canals which was great except for the fact that we froze our tushes off.

A city of canals.
A city of canals.
Canal view.
Canal view.


We spent a good deal of time at the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood, which was built in the 19th Century on the site where Czar Alexander II was assassinated. I thought this church was even more remarkable than St. Basil’s, though it is not nearly as old.

Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood.
Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood.

St. Petersburg is a great city for walking and wandering. The subways are easy to use, though they are build very, very deep in the soggy earth. When Danny and I got tired of walking, we stopped in a cafe for hot chocolate, which is extremely thick and sweet in Russia. Our favorite was Cafe Singer, located on the second floor of a bookshop. This provided an excellent vantage point for watching the people and traffic on Nevsky Prospekt.

Danny making a fish face during our boat tour of the canals.
Cafe Singer on Nevsky Prospekt.
Danny making a fish face during tour of canals.

My last evening in Russia was spent with the family Daniel had been living with while studying at St. Petersburg University. They were extremely welcoming, and provided a homemade feast along with a lot of high quality vodka. I very rarely drink hard liquor, and as we toasted each other my hosts scolded me for sipping instead of downing each glass at one go. Next morning I took a cab to the airport, slightly hung over but very glad I had been able to share Daniel’s experience in Russia with him.

Book Review: The Well-Tended Perennial Garden, by Tracy DiSabato-Aust

If perennial flowers are the backbone of your garden, as they are of mine, you may occasionally feel the need for an orthopedist. Keeping perennial flowers blooming, attractive, upright, adequately contained, and the right size and shape is an ongoing challenge. Experience and occasional expert advice are necessary to meet that challenge with reasonably consistent success.

well tended per garden

That’s where The Well-Tended Perennial Garden comes in. Author Tracy DiSabato-Aust has written a useful and engaging book that should be read through once and then kept on hand as a reference work.

The first part of the book deals with staking, dividing, pruning, cutting back, bed preparation, rejuvenating old beds, and the intersection between plant maintenance and garden design. I found the sections on staking and cutting back to be particularly useful.

I grow a lot of wildflowers that exult in my fertile garden soil, often growing much taller than books and catalogs indicate they should. I usually end up cutting back AND staking a lot of these plants. And with all that, I may still end up struggling with floppers.

From reading DiSabato-Aust, I learned that I should probably be cutting back many plants earlier and harder. In some cases I should cut back a second time (I’m talking about you, New England Aster). I realized that my Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) didn’t bloom much this year probably because I cut it back too late in the season. And it turns out I could be cutting back the spires of Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) for more compact plants, whereas I thought cutting back would result in no blooms at all, which is the case with Smooth Penstemon (Penstemon digitalis).

I would have had more of these Wild Bergamot flowers if I had cut the plants back earlier.
I would have had more of these Wild Bergamot flowers if I had cut the plants back earlier.

There were also some interesting ideas about staking I’d like to try out. For example, tying stakes in an X pattern holding back plants as a group, rather than vertically to individual plants. This could work with taller, bushier plants like asters and Monarda. I’m also curious, though a little skeptical, about using chicken wire with stakes. Can that really be done in a way where the chicken wire is not visible?

Spare the shears and spoil the New England Aster. I should have been cutting them back harder!
Spare the shears and spoil the New England Aster. I should have been cutting them back harder!

DiSabato-Aust appreciates that gardening is an art as much as it is a science. Few cookie cutter formulas can be applied because there are so many environmental variables. In addition, every approach to perennial maintenance involves trade offs: more compact plants versus delayed bloom, longer bloom time versus smaller flowers, etc. You cannot approach these trade offs without having a personal vision of the kind of space you want your garden to be.

Cardinal Flowers can be cut back. Who knew?
Cardinal Flowers can be cut back. Who knew?

The second part of The Well-Tended Perennial Garden is a guide to the maintenance of about 300 perennial species, with an emphasis on pruning. This section especially merits use as a reference book on its own, a valuable one because plants can differ dramatically in how they respond to being cut back, pinched, etc. In addition, there are lists of plants by maintenance characteristics.

I’m not ready to embrace everything that the author recommends here. For example, she is enthusiastic about peat moss in bed preparation, and declares it environmentally sound without any hint regarding the fact that others disagree.

Even so, The Well-Tended Perennial Garden is a stimulating and practical book that would enhance any gardener’s library.

The Well-Tended Perennial Garden: Planting and Pruning Techniques, by Tracy DiSabato-Aust, Timber Press, Portland OR, 2006.

Tardy Wildflower Wednesday: Celandine Poppy

Gail over at Clay and Limestone hosts Wildflower Wednesday on the fourth Wednesday of the month. I’ve been travelling and forgot about this, but I’m not too embarrassed to bring up the rear with a tardy post.

Celandine Poppy
Celandine Poppy

I don’t know about you, but it does me good as I hunker down for winter to think about cheerful spring flowers. One of the most cheerful, to my mind, is Celandine Poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum). This is a native of moist woods in Eastern North America.

Celandine poppy has four-petaled, bright yellow flowers. It blooms in April and May in my garden, which makes it good for combining with grape hyacinths. It has interesting leaves – deeply lobed, with a slightly downy look and a nice blue-green color. There is occasional re-bloom in cool weather. The plant makes interesting nodding seedheads.

Cellandine poppy blooming with grape hyacinths.
Celandine poppy blooming with grape hyacinths.

This is a flower that is easy to grow and requires no coddling. Some people consider it to be a thug. That has not been my experience, though it does self-sow moderately. The seedlings are easy to transplant. Celandine poppy is not really a poppy, and is unrelated to the invasive Ranunculus poppies.

The foliage will die back in hot summers. When this happens, it sufficient to cut the leaves back and you will get new growth before too long.

If you’re looking for something with yellow blooms for spring that can tolerate some shade (and you’re tired of daffodils), Celandine Poppy is worth considering.

Moscow Memories

In these post-Thanksgiving days, I’ve been feeling a little nostalgic about past experiences shared with our kids. One such that involved myself and our older son Daniel was when I visited him in Russia just about three years ago. He was spending the fall semester studying at St. Petersburg University, and we all decided that I would visit him for one week in November.

Our hotel in Moscow. Really much better than it looks.

Going to Russia is still a little complicated. Based on reliable advice, I spent a couple hundred dollars hiring a travel agent to make sure there were no problems in obtaining a visa. The visa application was rather odd, as I remember it asked about my military training (including any experience with nuclear weapons – I could honestly say I had none), as well as a list of political and other organizations I had ties to. Now, I give money to a lot of organizations, but I scrupulously attached a list including the Audubon Society, Friends of the Cook County Forest Preserves, etc. It seems none of these were deemed too troubling, as I did get my visa.

Daniel met me at the Moscow airport. We took a train into the city, where we checked into the guest house Danny had found.

This guest house was located on the third floor of an old apartment building near the center of town. Of course, Daniel travels like a student, so the place he found was pretty cheap for Moscow, which can be a pretty expensive city (there are plenty of luxurious hotels if you can afford them). Certain amenities were missing, as the rooms had no windows and the bathrooms were shared. On the other hand, we were within walking distance of the Kremlin and Red Square.

Daniel outside our hotel in Moscow.

That first night we had dinner in a sort of club where there was singing and dancing. The singer had a good voice, although she sang “Strangers in the Night” in English without realizing that the word “strangers” is pronounced with a soft g, so the lyrics came out as “Strongers in the night…” Despite this, I would say that people were definitely having a good time.

Red Square sits just outside the Kremlin walls. It is built on a monumental scale, and is bordered by a variety of landmarks, including St. Basil’s Church, a historical museum, the Lenin Mausoleum, and a World War II memorial. This is one of those places where the sense of history is awe-inspiring, almost intimidating.

Entering Red Square. St. Basil’s can be seen in the distance.
Kremlin walls and Presidential Palace seen from Red Square.
St. Basil’s Church
Red Square: another view.

We spent a day and an evening wandering Red Square and the environs. It doesn’t take long to realize that this is very much a post-communist society. There are McDonald’s, high-end stores, and stalls everywhere selling just about everything. While there are clearly wealthy people, you also got the feeling that many are not materially better off under the new regime.

Red Square McDonald’s.

The following day we came back to see the Kremlin. To enter you must be accompanied by a licensed guide. Kremlin simply means fort, and the Moscow Kremlin is essentially a large walled compound containing the Presidential Palace, various governmental buildings, and several churches and other structures left from the days of the Czars.

Inside the Kremlin.
More inside the Kremlin.

We also spent a day exploring other parts of Moscow, using the subway system originally built in the 1930s. I thought the Moscow subway compared favorably to the rapid transit systems in Chicago and New York. I especially liked how the subway stations had chandeliers and clocks showing the number of seconds since the last train had left.

In the Moscow subway. I think more subway systems should have chandeliers.

We left Moscow on an overnight train for St. Petersburg. We had seen only a small fraction of the city, and I would jump at a chance to go back. I’ll write a follow-up post on St. Petersburg sometime soon.

The Vole Patrol

It’s more about rabbits, actually, but I couldn’t think of anything that rhymes with rabbit (Babbit?).

The biggest catastrophe that befell my garden last winter came as a result of nibbling and gnawing creatures. The worst damage was to three dwarf Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) ‘Iroquois Beauty’ that I had just planted. Every single stem had been chewed down, and while they weren’t killed, they did not quite recover during the growing season. There was lesser damage done to some serviceberries (Amelanchier) as well.

While I’m quite sure the damage done last year was by rabbits, I’ve recently learned about the Vole Menace at my Plant Health class at Chicago Botanic Garden. Voles, which are like even smaller versions of mice, can girdle young trees and shrubs by chewing the outer layers at the base of the plant. I’m pretty sure there are voles living in my garden, but I haven’t spotted that sort of damage to date.

So yesterday Measures Were Taken. Specifically, I surrounded my Aronia, my two youngest serviceberry, and my new flowering dogwood with a barrier of hardware cloth, which is like chicken wire but with much smaller holes. From this exercise I can offer my readers two pieces of advice.

First, if you do something like this, wear gloves. Well, of course, you might think. I never think “of course” when it comes to wearing gloves. Partly it’s because I like to feel the soil in my hands when I garden. But my point now is, despite the name, hardware cloth is not made of cloth. It is made of metal wire, with lots of sharp pointy bits sticking out when you cut off lengths of it. These pointy bits will hurt and cause your hands to bleed. While this does provide a unique opportunity to impress your spouse with what you remember of the dialogue from Macbeth, I don’t recommend it. Neither does your spouse, or mine.

Second, measure the lengths of hardware cloth before you cut them. Once again, you might think this is obvious. But it is not obvious if, like me, you pride yourself on the ability to do things by eye. I keep forgetting that this pride is entirely misplaced. If you don’t measure, you may very well finish off what the rabbits started by breaking off live twigs trying to install lengths of hardware cloth that are too short.

In addition to hardware cloth, I also sprayed an animal repellent, Repels-All, on and around the lower parts of the plants. It claims to be effective for two months. We’ll see. It smells like rotten eggs, which turns out to be one of the ingredients.

What are you doing to protect your garden from hungry critters over the winter?

Something Different for Thanksgiving Dessert

We had a fine Thanksgiving. Both kids were home – David had taken the bus down from Minnesota. Also taking part were Judy’s brother and sister-in-law Paul and Paula; also their son Marc, his wife Cathy, and granddaughter Miranda. Miranda, not yet two, was the star of the evening.

We had many of the staples: turkey, mashed sweet potatoes, braised brussels sprouts, two kinds of cranberries. For dessert, though, Judy (with assistance from Daniel), made something a little different: galettes, which are a sort of open-faced pie. There were three kinds: cherry, mixed berry, and pear with ginger.

Freshly baked galettes: mixed berry (right), pear and ginger (center), cherry (left).

The prear galette recipe was kind of improvised, so here it is, as dictated by Judy and Daniel.

  • Cut two pears up into little pieces. Mix with the juice of one lime and a scant tablespoon of grated fresh ginger. Add sugar to taste and about a tablespoon of cornstach.
  • Roll out one pie crust. Put pear mix in the middle. Fold the pie crust edges over and crimp (see picture).
  • Brush crust with egg wash if desired for browning.
  • Bake at 400 degrees F for 35 to 40 minutes, or until browned. Allow to cool before cutting or it will be runny.


Miranda, the guest of honor, with parents Marc and Cathy.


The other guest of honor.
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