Winter is the best time to spot dens and nests. Usually, we think of bird nests, and we see abandoned ones topped with mounds of snow along roadsides and in shrubs. When we look up, we also spot large clusters of leaves and sticks – squirrel nests.
Squirrels make two types of nests: dens and dreys. Dens are cavities in trees and dreys are the large balls of leaves and sticks that squirrels fashion. From the ground, these dreys look small, but they are really good sized.
Taking in the view from the safety of a tree den.
When squirrel families mature in late summer, the young venture forth to find new lodgings. If the population of squirrels is low and the availability of hollows in trees is high, then squirrels take the dens. These are hollow spaces inside the trunk that squirrels line with leaves and bits of fur and bark. Squirrels do not create these hollows but use them. Wood rot and woodpeckers create the spaces and squirrels make the most of them. Dens offer great protection from the elements and predators and they are warmer. So, squirrels conserve their energy when they must “hole up” during winter storms. When the worst of the harsh weather passes, squirrels begin to stir, digging for nuts and raiding bird feeders.
Squirrels make their dreys near sturdy forks in branches or close to the tree trunk. They will be high up for protection from predators. Usually, a tree might support one or two squirrel nests, but occasionally, we see half a dozen scattered throughout a wide-branching deciduous tree. Squirrel condominiums. These might be secondary homes or extensions of families. Secondary homes tend to be more loosely constructed and are scattered near the main home tree and serve as shelter in case a squirrel gets caught out in the elements or is being chased by a predator.
Each nest begins with a study base of twigs. Scientists have discovered that sometimes squirrels weave grapevines into the structure along with leaves, bark, moss, and twigs for added support. After all, the nest sways in the branches and get buffeted by winds, rain, and snow, so it needs to be strong. Inside, the nest is dry and warm.
When you are driving or walking look up and spot the nests of one of our most industrious small mammals. Squirrels mate in January and soon the young will be born – in the bleak mid-winter maybe in a squirrel condominium near you!
This fall we’ve noticed Osage Orange fruits for sale in grocery stores and roadside stands. They are fascinating and have a delightful fresh citrus scent.
These are often called Hedge Apples, and many people call the tree they grow on Hedge. More properly the tree is called an Osage Orange and the fruits are Osage Oranges. To add confusion some people, call the tree Bodark because its springy tough wood was once used to make bows.
The Osage Orange once lived in a relatively small area of Texas and Oklahoma but because it is tough, drought resistant, and thorny it was commonly planted in places outside its native range. The tree’s branches twist in many directions with thorn-studded twigs. When planted in a row, the trees created a living fence that cattle wouldn’t cross. In the days before barbed wire was invented millions of Osage Oranges were planted for fences.
The wood is hard and heavy and is outstanding for firewood, but cutting it is challenging because of all the thorns.
Does a Hedge Apple in the basement keep insects away? Many people think so and annually buy or collect a few. We think it’s an ineffective way to keep out insects and find caulking entry points better for excluding bugs from our home.
In recent years an oil extracted from hedge apples has been used in shampoo and hair conditioners, and many people love the product. It is marketed as POMIFERA in honor of the tree’s Latin name Maclura pomifera. Todd Johnson, a native Bloomfield, Iowan, has cashed in on the Hedge Apple industry.
Hungry squirrels sometimes eat the seeds hidden inside hedge apples and livestock sometimes dine on them but they are inedible to humans.
There’s no harm in putting a few hedge apples in the basement but don’t count on them to keep away bugs.
We love the cozy heat of wood burning in the woodstove.
Much of our heat at Winding Pathways comes from our two woodstoves. We love the cozy warmth given by our stoves but there’s more to it than just heat.
The wood we burn comes from trees that snatched carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in the past 100 years. Photosynthesis transformed carbon and water into wood, so we’re not contributing to global warming as much as if we burned coal, oil, or natural gas. And we get our wood free, thus helping the family budget.
Wood heat isn’t completely without cost. Each year we hire a company to clean and inspect our chimney and stove. So, we lay out some cash but far less than for conventional fuel. Wood heat also requires sweat equity to cut, stack and move firewood. At this point, it’s worth it. An added benefit is the security we feel when gazing at our six cords of stored wood. When storms shut down utilities we’ll stay warm.
Summer is an ideal time to prepare for autumn’s crisp nights.
This is a tale of free trees. Our friend, Marilynn Keller, learned how to plant the best tree species in her yard at no cost and with little work.
She simply didn’t mow a tiny area of lawn where she wanted a tree to grow. As if by magic, a White Oak, Sugar Maple, and Shagbark Hickory sprouted there this spring. Although the spot is too small for three trees Marilynn can simply decide which one she wants and mow the others off.
Likely a squirrel buried a nut that has sprouted.
Last fall an industrious squirrel gathered acorns and hickory nuts and buried them in her yard. The squirrel might have forgotten his hidden cache or perhaps died. Either way the unrecovered nuts sprouted.
Although squirrels often eat maple seeds, it’s most likely that Marilynn’s baby maple sprouted because a gust of wind pulled the ripe seed off a nearby tree and it helicoptered to her yard.
While Maples are usually easy to transplant, and are widely sold by nurseries, not so Hickories. Although any of the many Hickory species make outstanding shade trees, as soon as a nut sprouts it sends an enormous taproot deep into the ground. Moving a hickory is difficult and often unsuccessful. Commercial nurseries avoid them.
The same goes for white oaks, one of our favorite trees. It’s difficult to buy one to plant in the yard. Because they are slow growing and challenging to transplant, few nurseries bother with them. Fortunately, they readily sprout on their own.
In autumn Maples glow with color.
Anyone living where there are mature Hickory, Oak, or Maple trees nearby can use Marilynn’s tree planting method. Simply don’t mow a patch of lawn where a tree is desired. Odds are one will appear on its own next spring. If more sprout than the spot can support just mow the others off and put wire screening around the new tree to protect it from hungry cottontails and deer.
If a tree sprouts in the wrong place it can be easily transplanted with just one shovel of dirt. Move it before the tiny tree has grown a long taproot.
We never spray our lawn at Winding Pathways. Occasionally, that yields an exciting discovery like what happened in early May.
Rich shows the tiny oak seeding.
We wanted to plant a tree, preferably an oak, on the south side of our garage. But, we got busy and never found time to buy or plant one. One morning Rich, while walking across the lawn to fetch the morning newspaper, spotted a baby white oak tree that sprouted exactly where we wanted to plant one. It was serendipity.
Plant ecologists talk about the “seed bank.” In land that hasn’t been greatly disturbed by plowing, spraying or compacting of soil, seeds of desirable native plants often remain dormant in the soil for years or decades. Then, when conditions are right they’ll sprout like magic. Other desirable plants spread their seed through the wind or enlist the help of a hungry squirrel to carry and bury a nut or acorn. That’s probably how our new oak got planted.
Before mowing walk across your unsprayed lawn. You may discover a plant you want that is starting to grow. Just mow around it to let it thrive. Mark it with a stake or fence it off from rabbits and deer. If the plant is not quite in the right place, remember that tiny plants are usually easy to move with just a shovel full of dirt.
We protect volunteer trees that grow where we want them.
About seven years ago we found another baby oak in our lawn. We protected it from mowing and ran a screen around it to keep hungry deer away. It’s now about seven feet tall and growing rapidly.
That black oak didn’t cost a penny and will grace our yard long after we’re gone.
Another way to go about natural or plant and wildlife friendly yards is to deliberately plant certain forbs and grasses to attract a variety of beneficial insects and interesting birds and other wildlife.
We invited readers of Winding Pathways blogs to submit a photo and short description of a favorite spring scene. The response spanned from the Pacific Northwest to Canada and from the Desert Southwest to New England. Enjoy readers’ reflections on our emerging spring. The essays appear as they came in to Winding Pathways. Thank you all for your charming observations. Happy Spring! And soon, welcome summer.
“Every year I wait for our Sargentina crab apple trees to bloom.”
As much as I love our native prairie plants and various garden inhabitants, every year I wait for our Sargentina crab apple trees to bloom. Not too long ago, in the company of one of our barn cats, I sat out on the patio and watched the full moon rise with the sweet smell of the flowers drifting over. Bees lay full claim to the blossoms during the day, from the little sweat bees to the bumbles, so I try to give them some space and wait until evening before diving nose-first into the branches myself.
Emily Groom Hemmerling, Kansas
Here in NH, spring is slowly unfolding. The barred owls are getting amorous and I’ve heard, although not seen, “our” hawks. There’s a barn swallow that’s building a nest under the eaves, and the bear visited the other night. The weather seems to be lacking any nuance. We are alternating between two or three days of cold, windy, rainy (tell the truth–nasty) days and occasional beautiful sunny days in the ’70s.
Waiting is hard after a long winter, but change should accelerate very soon. The hummingbirds return on average on May 11th, and by then many flowers should be in bloom and the trees that are barely budding today will be fully green. This time of year Carly Simon is often on my mind–“Anticipation”. Sue Fehsinger, New Hampshire
Unwinding slowly, fiddle head ferns appear mysteriously.
Deer In Garden
A New Hampshire springtime brook graced with Skunk Cabbage.
A splash of color!
Dazzling white petal surround deep yellow centers.
These Bloodroots are found at the western end of our road. We have now lived on this road for 17 years and have watched the progression of growth and expansion each year of more and more desirable plants. The area has become a huge carpet of white under all the trees. The blossoms on the north side of the road show their faces first and a few days later the blossoms on the south side of the road appear. Since we have been here, each year it has been the same blooming schedule. We also have Bloodroots in our yard which don’t appear until the ones on the road seem to be in full bloom. They are only 1/4 mile apart.
I photographed this forsythia at the edge of our neighbor’s property. I do not have any on our property. It was a beautiful sunny day and the yellow of the blossoms was brilliant. I was also trying to get a different angle on the blossoms, rather than the whole bush.
My purple hyacinths are still producing blooms in my small north facing garden. This year they seemed to have a deeper purple color and more blossoms on the stock.
The Virginia bluebells are now blossoming. I counted 16 clumps of them in a small area at the top of our dry kettle. I am even finding small self-seeded plants.
We are privileged to see wood ducks in our channel in the early spring. They are very skittish and it is difficult to sneak up on them to get a photo. We see them for a short time and then they disappear until next year. Sue Hrobar, Wisconsin
Like gold the flowers shine.
Beautiful Purple Blossoms
Searching for the right home.
The ancient tree sprouted leaves and flowers all over.
I walked this Chestnut Hill neighborhood in Boston often while living and working in the area. My first fall a few heavily gnarled trunks of a handful of trees planted in the boulevard strips particularly captivated me. These trunks reminded me of Italian grandmothers; stout, sturdy, not particularly tall, deeply wrinkled and absolutely beautiful. When spring arrived I was amazed to see how blossoms not only appeared in their canopies but also sprang from their very bark. I loved these elderly trees all the more and saw them as clothed from head to toe in spring attire. May all of us exhibit such beauty and grace as we mature. Adria J, Illinois and Maine
The desert Southwest alive with color.
Here is my first cactus bloom of the season! Soon my yard will be bursting with color, from all of the different cacti!
Coming from the Midwest, this is such a different sort of pretty. Most of the year it is dry and barren up here in the high desert. These little bursts of color that pop up in the spring are such a delight! I love to walk in my neighborhood and see all of the different blooms. We have a very mild winter and sometimes it’s hard to tell that spring is here, at least for this Midwestern gal. The flowers alert me that spring has indeed arrived! Such a contrast to these prickly little fellows. Add to that the brilliant green of the trees, looking almost iridescent, and the scent of the roses that pop up everywhere, I would say that spring is my
favorite season here. Deb Karpek, Arizona
A close up of a western Rhododendron.
After the daffodils and the flowering trees fade is time in the Pacific Northwest for our native rhododendron to flower. They grow wild on the coast, but also are prized in yards because their large leaves are green all winter. Found growing wild near Port Discovery on the Washington coast in 1792 by Archibald Menzies who was with George Vancouver, it has been a favorite ever since. Officially it has been the Washington state flower since 1995, but women in 1893 designated it as such for a Worlds Fair that year. The rhododendron pictured is the Washington Centennial rhododendron from 1989. I love the way the blooms start out bright pink and fade to a pale pink as they open.
Jocelyn Berriochoa, Washington state
Raindrops on lilacs.
I opened the door this morning and looked out to see our lilacs blooming; pretty as could be. I thought, “Thank you, Grandma, for planting them over seventy plus years ago.” What a special way to start the day and welcome some of the beauty of spring. Claire Patterson, New Jersey
Spring came early to Bedford, Virginia, this year by about three weeks which means farmers, orchardists and gardeners began planting and hoping for early crops. Then to their surprise, we had two serious freezes back-to-back in March. The orchardists were especially chagrined because peaches, pears and apples took a hit. Watch for rising fruit prices.
As a gardener, it was thrilling to clean out the flowers and raised vegetable beds early on. As I began checking the asparagus patch, I noticed two silvery milkweed spears poking their heads through the soil next to the asparagus. They had begun their quiet vigil for the returning Monarch butterflies. I know the Monarchs have reached their most northern breeding grounds. However, I’ve not seen one returning Monarch here at the Ridge House.
Milkweed is an important plant for Monarchs and other pollinators.
How did the milkweed come to be in my asparagus bed? There are a number of possibilities. Perhaps the birds deposited the seeds long ago. Or, the wind may have blown these wispy silky pinwheels into the patch. Another thought occurred to me that the seeds may have been tangled in the straw I scattered in the patch to help hold moisture through the dry summer months. However the seeds arrived, they are a God send as unthinking highway department mowers clear the roadsides, or a farmer applies toxic weed killer, or a home owner wanting a pristine lawn shears them off. The end result is far fewer pollinators like Monarchs and other butterflies, bees, and even birds. Where am I going with this you ask? This sage says, “All my weeds are wildflowers.” Peace. Jackie Hull, Virginia
Spring in NYC
New York City is awash with soft color in the spring.
Spring in New York City. Dan Patterson, New York
Snow is melting gradually this spring. And, despite the string of rainy days lately, at the end of April we still had mounds of it around the house and in the woods.
The slow melt has meant that I’ve kept up with yard cleanup and, while trimming around the edge of the yard, I have come across early gems, like the bright purple crocuses with their eye-popping yellow-orange stamen, nestled among moss covered rocks near the path into the woods.
Elsewhere, along the edge of the woods, the early Spring ground cover, known as ‘William & Mary’, is starting to show its pink and blue blossoms. (I think of my patch as ‘Will & Kate’.)
And, I uncovered the little pile of beach stones that granddaughter Cadence assembled one summer.
Every Spring is different and every day brings different discoveries and possibilities in the garden.
Now, I’m headed out and about to see what new stuff is uncovered before the heavy rains come. I’m thankful we live outside the flood zone, but Fredericton will see another 100 year flood this weekend I fear. Lucy Fellows, New Brunswick, Canada
Poking through the leaves is a burst of color.
A stack of pebbles.
Early spring arrival