The Cranky Gardener

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Water in Your Garden

You're familiar with the old saying that the only things that are certain are death and taxes. Well, there is something else that is almost as certain in the area where I live - July and August will be very hot and very dry. Mother Nature has apparently decided that we should have too much rain in the spring and not enough in the summer. Year after year, we have drought conditions in the summer.

To native wildlife, already stressed due to shrinking natural habitats, drought conditions can be fatal. You can help by providing water in your garden. All wildlife species require water for drinking. Birds also need water for bathing. Dirty feathers make flight difficult. Other wildlife species require water in order to reproduce and to shelter their young. And some species feed on aquatic prey.

The most common water features in residential gardens are birdbaths. But they certainly aren't the only option available to you. If you have the space and the means to create a water garden or a pond, then you can provide for a wide variety of wildlife species. But if not, something as simple as a mud puddle can provide needed water during dry spells.

The first thing you will need to determine is what kind of wildlife you are hoping to attract. Keep in mind that water is found in nature in a variety of forms. Wildlife has adapted to take advantage of what is available in their habitats. So it is important to understand how the rabbits or squirrels or turtles in your area find and use water before you can create an environment suitable for them. There are two reasons for this. First, because wildlife need a familiar source of water in order to use it successfully and second, because providing water in an unnatural way might encourage invasive exotic species that will out compete the native species.

The easiest way to provide water in your garden is to add a birdbath or seven. Birdbaths come in all shapes and sizes, but the most successful ones are shallow (one to three inches) with gently sloping sides. A birdbath that is too deep or one that has steep sides will not be as attractive to birds.

One thing that I have discovered is that often the most expensive products sold for wildlife are the poorest choices. This is true for birdbaths, feeders, birdhouses, even doghouses. There is a shop that sells concrete birdbaths and lawn ornaments not far from my house. I was in need of another birdbath last summer and decided to stop and take a look. They had the most adorable, small concrete birdbath that I'd ever seen. It had a mother bird and two chicks on one side, an intricately carved pedestal and sides, and was only 18 inches tall and 12 inches in diameter - perfect for me since I'm not very large and have trouble with the weight of regular sized concrete birdbaths. I couldn't really afford it, but I had to have it.

The same day, my husband was browsing in the lawn and garden shop at our local Wal-Mart and found a white plastic birdbath, three feet tall and 26 inches in diameter that weighs about a pound. It is so lightweight that you have to put sand in the base to weight it down enough to use it. It cost $5.00. My concrete birdbath cost $90.00. Guess what? The birds love the cheap one and absolutely refuse to use the expensive one. I started out by putting it on top of a stump to raise it off the ground more. They ignored it. So I decided that it was too deep and put a stone in the center for the small birds to use to land on. Nothing. Then I added another stone. No dice. So I bought a shepherds hook and hung a feeder from it right next to the birdbath thinking that the birds would come for the seed and have a quick splash. Wrong. The seed disappeared quick as lightening, and the birds flew over to the cheap birdbath instead of using the one near by.

This year I have put it on the ground near the squirrel feeder and it is being used by my squirrels and my cats. But to this day, I don't think a bird has ever used it. The crows won't even use it. Moral of the story - when you select items for your garden, do so with an understanding of what the birds or other wildlife will like.

Choosing a good location for your birdbath is important as well. I like to locate mine near trees or tall shrubbery. This not only provides shade in the summer, but it also provides cover for the birds. Since I have cats, this is a necessary consideration. Just make sure that the cover isn't close enough to the birdbath for the cats or other predators to use it for ambush purposes.

Some of you may live in areas where the West Nile virus is present. It is important, during mosquito season, to empty and refill your birdbaths at least every other day. Every day is better. It takes three to five days for mosquito larvae to develop into adults. So, as long as the water is changed frequently the mosquitoes will not have the chance to mature. Besides, the birds will appreciate a cool, clean basin. Then every other week you should clean out your bowls with a stiff brush and mild detergent.

You can also use the bowls from birdbaths on the ground to provide water for animals that can't fly or climb like rabbits and turtles. If you don't have one, you can substitute a flat, shallow pan like a broiler pan, clay saucers that are used under flower pots or even turn a trash can lid upside down and fill it with water.

One of my favourite water features was created for less than $10.00. I took some black plastic edging - the kind that comes in 20 foot rolls - and created a pear shaped area about six feet long and five feet wide. To hold water, I placed the lid from a plastic, 33 gallon trash can upside down near the centre, buried it slightly so it would be stable and added a large flat rock to it near the centre. Then I moved several large rocks into the area and created a grouping with them. (This is a mining area and mine rubble can still be found free for the taking.) Then I divided some perennials (iris, daylilies and a clump of zebra grass) planted them near the trash can lid. Finally, I bought two bags of river pebbles to use for mulch around the plants. I have seen several varieties of lizards, grass snakes, rabbits, tortoises, opossums and raccoons all use this water source.

You can heat your birdbaths in the winter if you choose, but it isn't necessary. Unfrozen water makes it easier for birds, but it isn't necessary for them to survive. It is also important to note that no, their feathers and feet will not freeze if they get wet in the winter.

Next time we will continue the discussion about water features and talk about installing ponds and water gardens in your habitat garden.


Strawberry Dessert

Strawberry season has arrived in the Ozarks. This week's recipe is for a form of strawberry dessert that my grandmother and my mother used to make. It is amazingly simple and sooooooooo good.

You'll need about a quart of strawberries, sliced thin and whipped cream or whipped topping and pie crust.

Clean and slice your strawberries just like you would for shortcake, sweeten and set aside to macerate. Make your favourite piecrust recipe - enough for a double crust pie. Divide it into thirds, roll into 9 inch circles, place onto baking sheets, prick with a fork and bake until light brown. Cool.

Using a 9 inch springform pan, start with a pie crust and create layers of crust and strawberries. Top with whipped cream. Place in the refrigerator for a few minutes to set up. Before serving, remove the pan from around the dessert. It will hold together. Honest. It's delicious.

The Cranky Gardener


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