During the last month I caught myself thinking “Why do I live here?” The ice dam over the deck was beyond my control. I had to get garbage cans over the snow drifts to the road. In town I was tiptoeing to avoid slipping on ice. Windstorms were threatening old trees, and I was tired of bundling up just to go to the car.
Then the darkness was creeping in long before dinner time … it just seemed too much. And friends and family snow birds were sighing about how warm they are in Florida.
Today I remembered why I still want to live here. The comfort of sandy beaches and easier living in other places just can’t compete with the exhilaration of a muddy late winter walk in the country and all that it promises about what’s coming.
Bluebirds of happiness
At noon when I looked out the window, the sun was shining and there on the red bluebird house was a familiar looking shape. (Bluebirds have a distinctly rounded chest that makes their silhouette distinguishable even before you see blue.)
With binoculars I saw it: a male bluebird. These birds scout houses in late winter ‑ quite like real estate shopping. The males are calculating which choices will impress and lure the females of their dreams. When I crept out there he was sitting on it warbling some self-satisfied sounding phrases.
Clue to me: It’s time to clean the bluebird houses. That got me going.
On went the mud boots ‑ my favorites. (I’m possibly my happiest when I’m wearing my old Wellies). I took gloves and a hammer. I cleaned five bird houses, finding two empty, one with a tree swallow nest (I think), one messy house sparrow nest, and one bluebird nest.
It was good to be outside and to do something useful, so I thanked the little bluebird. I fully understand why this bird in particular has so much poetry, folklore, and imagery associated with it.
Background checks reveal bluebirds connected with joy and good fortune in ancient Chinese history, Russian folk tales, and Native American lore. Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck’s famous play was called “The Blue Bird” (1908), a fairy tale about the search for happiness. Many of our parents or grandparents can probably hum the 1930s tune “Blue Bird of Happiness.”
Today, in any case, it worked for me.
Plants with promise
It isn’t all happy bluebirds that cheered me. It’s signs of plant life everywhere.
Snowdrops (Galanthus) are flowering now, and would be doing so even through snow. (As of this writing in late February the Western New York snow has melted, although we typically expect more in coming weeks.) It’s a great little bulb to plant in fall for a cheerful February appearance.
I recommend a mass planting because they are so small. Spread them where you will see them, close to the house perhaps, in an area where you can leave them without disturbance during spring gardening activity.
Spring-flowering bulbs ‑ daffodils, Camassia, hyacinths ‑ may be seen poking through the soil now. I spotted some peeking out ever so slightly, and other gardeners have reported some bolder examples.
“It’s too soon!” we want to tell them. Actually we shouldn’t worry unless there is an extended warm period, followed by a sudden, extreme freeze. These plants have a kind of anti-freeze built into their cellular structure, so they will simply stay in a holding pattern when cold weather resumes.
The most damage I’ve witnessed is blackened tips on some leaves later in spring, after a late freeze. If you’d like to slow the emergence of your bulb plants, even if slightly, you could spread a few inches of mulch over them.
Helleborus (Hellebore cultivars) are flowering in some warmer micro-climates around here, according to some gardeners I’ve seen recently. Some hellebores are called the Lenten Rose just because they actually flower outside at this time. They are tough, deer-proof, shade-accepting, long-living perennials that everyone should have, and newer cultivars have upward-facing, more colorful and showier blossoms than older plants.
You will see hellebores in full bloom at Plantasia, the garden and landscape show coming March 22-25 to the Fairgrounds Event Center and Artisan Hall in Hamburg.
Trees in winter
Some of us don’t hike nearly often enough in winter, and today reminded me to do that more. So many trees and shrubs offer beauty that isn’t so apparent once they’re covered with leaves. The red-twigged dogwoods (or coral or yellow ones) are shimmering in the late-afternoon sun.
My Heptacodium (Seven-Son Flower or Seven Sons Tree) is one of my all-time favorites partly because of the exfoliating bark and bright creamy-yellow trunk color. My river birch (Betula nigra) has even more gorgeous cinnamon-colored bark. I hope some of you are lucky or wise enough to have a native Acer pensylvanicum (Striped Maple or Snakebark Maple) or an Acer griseum with rich wine-colored exfoliating bark on your property. Tree silhouettes alone are reason to get out there to look.
It is not spring yet. There will be snow, wind storms, and gray days ahead. But all that can’t diminish the joy of red twigs, green buds, and bluebirds. Get outside this week ‑ you’ll see.
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.
Wondering what kinds of nests bluebirds, chickadees and other birds prefer? Read on ...
Who made this nest?
When you check or clean bluebird houses it’s helpful to know what kinds of birds have used them. Here are clues:
Bluebird: Neat nests made of fine grass or pine needles.
Chickadee or tufted titmouse: Soft nest made from moss, fur, or fuzzy plant parts.
Tree swallow: Grass nest lined with feathers.
House wren: Messy nest made mostly of twigs and plant fibers, mostly filling the box.
House sparrow: Very messy nest crowded with anything the bird could find: grass, string, feathers, sticks, or shredded paper.
Mouse: Soft, fluffy nest, mostly of grass ‑ with no nest cup.
Many birds may occupy bluebird houses. The reason you’ll see the boxes “paired” ‑ placed 20 or 30 feet apart ‑ is to take advantage of the competitive nature of another bird species. Tree swallows especially will claim a box for nesting and vigorously drive away other swallows while allowing bluebirds to use the nearby box.
- Sally Cunningham