Book Review: The Wildlife-Friendly Vegetable Gardener

wildlife friendlyI will never develop the equanimity that Tammi Hartung has towards rodents, rabbits and raccoons, but I admire her dedication to working with nature, respecting natural cycles and accommodating creatures that will pretty much take what they want anyway. And, her new book on vegetable and wildlife gardening has me thinking about new strategies for keeping the critters — and the gardener — happy. If you enjoy wildlife and you enjoy the fruits of your vegetable garden, it’s well worth reading.

The Wildlife-Friendly Vegetable Gardener: How to Grow Food in Harmony with Nature (Storey Publishing, 2014) offers gardeners a philosophy toward wildlife and a variety of methods for giving creatures what they want while still growing enough food for yourself. Hartung, a medical herbalist and organic grower from Colorado, encourages gardeners to begin with careful observation of wildlife and their interaction with your garden. Sit with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine some day and watch what’s happening in your yard. That squirrel you see running about may be burying an acorn, not attacking your green beans, she says. Knowing which creatures frequent your yard, how they interact with each other and what their needs are will help gardeners determine whether action is really needed to curtail their activities.

She gives the example of the tomato hornworm — a creature I’m very familiar with. Large, green and spiky, they look nasty. And, tomato hornworms can indeed defoliate a tomato plant in short order, Hartung says. But their lifecycle is short — 20 days for the caterpillar stage — and the sphinx moths that they morph into are masterful pollinators, as well as stunning garden visitors. Tomato hornworms also are food for parasitic wasps, which may handle hornworm removal for you. So, your better approach might be to tolerate and appreciate rather than destroy. Or, do as one gardener does and plant one tomato just for the hornworms. When hornworms are present, move them over to the designated plant and they will leave the rest of your plants alone, she says.

Hartung’s suggestions of decoy plants to keep critters at bay are particularly useful. Rabbits are my main garden “helpers.” Last year, I added fencing around a vegetable area to get them to back off, but this year I will supplement that with ample plantings of parsley outside of the fence (which they sometimes managed to get into) as well as calendulas to lure aphids from plants I enjoy. Sunflowers will be added to my wild area to bring even more birds into the garden.

If you want to attract wildlife to your garden, this book offers plenty of concrete suggestions, including ways to create habitat for birds, frogs and other creatures, add water features, use hedgerows to provide nesting sites and perennial food sources. Some of her suggestions will be familiar to those already practicing wildlife-friendly gardening, but Hartung fleshes out many suggestions with details on plants and placement. The book also includes plant lists and garden designs for bee-friendly landscapes among others.

One of the highlights of the book are the illustrations by Holly Ward Bimba, which are whimsical and as friendly as the gardens Hartung advocates.



This Holiday Decoration is for the Birds

Covered with bird seed
finished project
Not perfect, but fun.

twig ballsSince the summer, when I went on a garden tour in Hudson, Wis. (a highly recommended tour) and saw these twig balls, I’ve been interested in making some kind of twig decor. You can buy them in many nurseries and garden centers, but I wanted to try my hand at making them. First I checked youtube, where I found one decent video, but when I tried to replicate the instructions, it was a complete fail. My twig circles kept boinging open.

orb with greeneryI gave up until I went to the Rice County Master Gardener holiday party, where one of the gardeners (Karen) showed me how she did the circles. Using large branches (willow or red twig dogwood work well), she lashed two branches together at the thick end using 18 gauge wire. The branches should be facing the opposite direction, so you have one very long branch, which is tied in the middle.  Then, bend the branches around so that they form a circle. You can twist them around each other and then lash the ends together, using wire. Make four circles using this method. The circles need to be very close in size. Then, fit the circles together to make an orb. You may need to use a bit more wire to keep everything together. My orb was not nearly as neat and shapely as Karen’s but it was an something close to an orb.

grapefruit ornamentI decided it might make an interesting outdoor ornament, if I dolled it up into a bird feeder. I started by adding greenery, which was pretty easy to wind into the twigs. Earlier this week, I watched a video from the Daily Connoisseur on making ornaments using dried citrus. This was very easy to do and cute. I took my dried grapefruit ornaments, added dental floss, so they could be hung from the orb, spread them with peanut butter (make sure the citrus slices are not too thin — one of mine broke during the peanut butter speading), then dipped them in bird seed. I also used a margarine tub top in the center of the feeder/orb. The top is also spread with peanut butter and covered with bird seed, and I used duck tape to attach the tub top to the branches in the center of the orb.

Covered with bird seedI added a thick holiday ribbon at the top of the orb so it could be hung from our maple tree out front. I’m not sure how long this will last and I plan to monitor it today because the wind is supposed to pick up. What fun projects have you done this holiday season?


A Nestful of Reasons to Plant Shrubby Things

The baby robins are getting big.

I was putting some mulch under our white pine Sunday when I noticed that the robin who had been around our yard lately seemed to be hanging quite close to me. Soon, I discovered the reason why — a nestful of almost ready to fly baby robins. The parent robins built the nest in the crotch of the pine, which would provide some protection from predators and the considerable wind we have in the spring.

If you like birds, planting “shrubby” trees and bushes almost guarantees you will get nests. In the past, we’ve had nests in highbush cranberry, pagoda dogwood, ash trees and (unfortunately!) an air exchange pipe coming out of our house. (We had to evict those birds, I’m afraid.)

My most recent column in the St. Cloud Times describes the four things birds need, with a few tips on how gardeners can supply those needs.  One of those needs is places to nest, such as a shrubby tree.