Archive for December, 2014

A bluebird fluffs up against the cold

An array of bird feeders keep the birds fed all winter!

An array of bird feeders
keep the birds fed all winter!

This post written in December of 2010 is just as relevant now as it was back then. I only wish we had some beautiful snow on the ground for the holidays! Oh well – there’s still time! We DO have the birds, though and they are hungry!

Keep your feeders and bird baths full!

It’s Saturday morning – time to light the gas fire, re-fill the bird feeders on the deck, grab a cup of coffee and sit down in the sunroom to enjoy the birds as they happily feast on sunflower seeds, thistle seed, and suet!

Wintertime is bird feeding time!

Living in the woods like we do means lots of different bird species visit our feeders. Over the years, we have accumulated many types of bird feeders and they get filled with a variety of different food choices. One thing we have found is that it’s important to choose good quality bird seed that is fresh and free of filler seed that the birds won’t eat. This filler is often composed of weed seeds that get kicked out of the feeder and into your garden!

A hairy woodpecker enjoys peanuts from a peanut feeder.

A hairy woodpecker enjoys peanuts from a
feeder at my sister’s house in Vermont.

Chickadees, tufted titmice, cardinals, and both the white-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches love the black oil sunflower seeds and the mixed seed filled with sunflower, cracked corn, and other nutritious seeds. The house finches, purple finches, and goldfinches flock to the thistle seed feeders and our suet feeders attract the nuthatches, chickadees, and wrens, as well as four different species of woodpeckers; downy, hairy, red bellied, and even pileated woodpeckers. “Woodpecker Woods” – that’s what we call our place! I think the woodpeckers, the wrens, and the little red-breasted nuthatches are my favorites!

A little wren enjoys the suet.

A little wren enjoys the suet.

We also have several platform feeders for the ground feeding birds such as juncos, mourning doves, blue jays, and sparrows. The jays can be bullies at times and scare some of the smaller birds away but for the most part, they are pretty civil! The squirrels and opossums also like the platform feeders – well, the squirrels actually like all the feeders much to our chagrin. They try their best to empty every one as quickly as they can! The possums mostly nose around for bits of suet that have dropped and tasty morsels on the platform feeders. I guess they need food in the winter too and, well, I must admit that I have a soft spot in my heart for these bird feeder marauders having done field research on both possums and squirrels during my graduate and post-graduate studies! I’m such a softie!

This silly possum was nosing around for some stale bread that we put out for the birds.

This silly possum found some stale
bread we put out for the birds.

Trying to discourage squirrels from raiding your feeders can be quite a challenge. We’ve had mixed success by hanging candy canes off some of our feeders. The squirrels really don’t like the smell of the peppermint. Some people mix cayenne pepper in with their seed. There are also “squirrel proof” feeders but I’ve found that these guys are so clever and dexterous that they can often find a way to get into a lot of them! We have found one that works pretty well, though.

Gray squirrel drinks

A gray squirrel takes a drink

Another thing we have discovered is that providing a big tub of fresh water is really important. It’s often hard for birds to find a source of unfrozen water in the winter and this really helps them out! We keep ours free of ice with a simple bird bath de-icer. It is amazing how much the birds use it. We literally have flocks of bluebirds and cedar waxwings congregating around the water trough all through the winter. Even the squirrels and possums come up for a drink!

A flock of bluebirds enjoys a drink at the water trough!

A little red-breasted nuthatch pecks at a suet cake

A little red-breasted nuthatch
pecks at a suet cake

Once you begin feeding the birds, remember to keep your feeders full throughout the winter as the birds will come to depend on this source of food! Here are some simple recipes for some tasty treats for your birds this winter. You could also consider planting some seed, fruit, and berry producing trees, shrubs, and perennials throughout your landscape. These will not only provide a natural source of food for the birds, but will also give them some great “hiding places”.

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

   Enjoy this beautiful holiday season!

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Holly berries covered with a light hoar frost

It’s holiday decorating time! Such a fun time of the year to get the house and porches all spruced up for the season! Holly, mistletoe, and …

Wait! Where are my holly berries? This is a question we often get in the fall and early winter. Many people plant holly trees and bushes so that they can cut berry laden boughs for beautiful holiday arrangements both indoors and out. But sometimes they are disappointed when the colorful berries fail to appear.

We are having a problem with having any berries on our holly shrub. What are we missing?”

Ilex opaca 'Merry Christmas' is aptly named with its reliable profusion of red berries in fall and winter.

Ilex opaca ‘Merry Christmas’

The trouble is, hollies are dioecious plants, meaning the male and female flowers are produced on separate plants. The male holly produces pollen bearing staminate flowers and the female plant produces pistillate flowers which, if pollinated, will normally develop berries.

If you only have a female holly and there is no male in the area, you will never* get berries because there is no pollen to pollinate the female flowers. If you only have a male holly, you won’t get berries either – for obvious reasons. This is true of both the evergreen hollies and the deciduous hollies.

*There are a few hollies (parthenocarpic species) that can produce berries without pollination but this is not the norm. Ilex cornuta ‘Burfordii’ is one holly that does not require pollination for fruit set.

If your hollies aren’t producing berries, the first thing to do is to check to make sure that you have both a male and female holly plant. It is best if these hollies are of the same species so that they will flower at the same time. This helps ensure good pollination which should result in a reliable berry crop. If you have NEVER had berries on your hollies, this could be the reason.

Male flowers of Ilex verticillata showing bright yellow pollen

Male flowers of Ilex verticillata showing bright yellow pollen.

The plant label should identify whether the plant is a male or female. Male hollies often (but not always) have male-type names like ‘Southern Gentlemen’, ‘Jim Dandy’, ‘Jersey Knight’, ‘China Boy’ …

If you don’t have a label, examining the flowers is a good way to determine whether a holly is male or female. The small, inconspicuous holly flowers appear in the spring.

  • The flowers of male hollies have four (or more) stamens topped with bright yellow pollen. The male flowers are normally borne in clusters (cymes).
  • Female flowers of Ilex 'Blue Princess'.

    Female flowers of Ilex ‘Blue Princess’.

    Female hollies usually produce solitary flowers. These flowers have a green “berry-like” structure in the center. The stigma which receives the pollen is found at the top of this structure. Bees and other insect pollinators carry pollen from the male flowers to the stigma. If the flower is pollinated, a full-sized green berry quickly develops – if not, the flower dies and falls off without producing a berry.

One male holly can serve as a pollinator for multiple female plants. The male should be planted within a few hundred yards of the females. Bees are the main pollinators and will carry the pollen to the female flowers.

What if you have had holly berries in the past but not this year?

Since holly berries were produced in previous seasons, this would indicate that there are both male and female plants present in your landscape. The lack of berry production in one season could be the result of some environmental or weather related issue that affected the pollination of the flowers in the spring.

  • Late frosts or freezes can damage or kill the flowers and result in loss of the berry crop for that season.
  • Misty, rainy, or cold weather in the spring at the time of flowering can inhibit or limit pollination because bees are not as active in these conditions. If weather like this persists, it can affect pollination and result in a reduced berry crop.
  • Summer drought can cause berries to shrivel and drop off.
Bright red berries of Ilex verticillata in early fall before the leaves drop.

Bright red berries of Ilex verticillata in early fall before the leaves drop.

Healthy hollies will reward you with a beautiful crop of berries as long as the conditions above are met. Be sure to feed them with a quality organic fertilizer like Espoma Holly-tone in the spring and fall. Water them deeply during dry periods in the summer and even in winter if the ground isn’t frozen and it has been dry.

Until next time –

      Happy Gardening!


Ilex verticillata in the snow.  Beautiful!

Ilex verticillata ‘Sparkleberry’ in the snow. Beautiful!

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