Staghorn Sumac Trees

I always thought of Staghorn Sumac as a bush, not a tree – until we moved to our present house, where two gorgeous Staghorn Sumac trees grace our yard. They are particularly beautiful in autumn.

The house is about 23 years old, and I presume the sumacs are around the same age.

Sumacs generally sucker like crazy: shoots come up from their roots and will grow as big as competition allows. But apparently, if you mow around the tree, allowing only one sumac stem to grow, it will grow to the height of a small tree, about 18′ (5.5m) tall. These trees still grow suckers, but they tend to appear some distance from the tree. Presumably they don’t grow as readily on older roots.

The leaves form an umbrella to catch the light. We have to prune them regularly along the driveway on their southeast side where the branches have grown too low.  Branches on the inside of the umbrella die off and break off easily.

The root system must be fairly weak, as both trees lean away from the direction of the strongest winds. One of them (not the one in the picture) reportedly toppled over in Hurricane Juan. The previous owner pulled it upright with his ATV. It still stands, but since it is getting harder to mow under it on one side, it must be gradually leaning more and more, like the Tower of Pisa before they fixed it.

I have successfully removed two other sumacs on the property by sawing them down and removing any shoots that appeared for a couple of years. So they are not too persistent.

Our sumacs are great climbing trees for young children, as the branches are low. Birds are also drawn to them for the seeds that grow in attractive fuzzy red spikes. The spikes stay on the tree all winter, making the sumac a most attractive tree year-round.

Brush Walls at Windhorse Farm

Yesterday I went on a tour of Windhorse Farm, a sustainable farming and forestry operation located up the LaHave River from Bridgewater.

Brush wall at Windhorse Farm
Brush wall and fence at Windhorse Farm

I was most curious to see their brush walls. When I first heard about Windhorse’s brush walls last winter, a light went on in my head. Here was the answer to several of my problems, including the strong north wind chilling the garden, and large amounts of brush available.

Windhorse’s brush walls are piles held in place by stakes 6 feet apart, making a thick wall. As the brush gradually breaks down, more is piled on top. Vines such as squashes and grapes are encouraged to climb over the brush, and in summer, the brush walls can be completely hidden by vegetation.

My picture also shows a higher brush fence that has been woven around taller stakes. In fact, it’s about 7-8  feet high, high enough to keep out deer.

The brush walls contribute greatly to the success of Windhorse’s garden. They enclose and shelter it, holding in heat. The decomposing brush adds to the fertility of the soil. And very importantly, the brush walls provide habitat for all sorts of wildlife, including the friendly critters that help control garden pests.

Click here for a description and a rather old low-res video about Windhorse’s brush walls.

I started building a brush wall last spring and will continue to develop it.

Deer fence around the garden

Deer fence around garden
Lee Valley plastic mesh with ribbons of flagging tape woven in

It’s not the ribbons of flagging tape that are keeping the deer out.  It’s the almost invisible black plastic netting that the ribbons are hanging from.

It works – so far.  This is my second year using it.  (See previous post about the deer fence.)  I regretted taking it down last fall, as it had been getting entangled in the grass, and removing it damaged the netting.  But I’m gradually enlarging the vegetable garden and wanted to reset the netting.  I have yet to see how well it will survive the winter.

There are different kinds of netting you can buy. The most lightweight is sometimes referred to as bird netting, with 1/2″ openings.  It is easy to throw over strawberries or blueberry bushes, and it catches in the twigs easily, keeping it in place and making it hard to remove!  It is very hard to see.  One of us got it tangled in a lawnmower wheel and it took half an hour to cut it out.  You can get it at a garden centre. If you’re in the US you can order from Amazon. [Easy Gardener 6050 DeerBlock 7-by-100-Foot Netting]

The next level is what I bought at Lee Valley last year.  It is a slightly heavier mesh, 7 feet high, with 7/8″ openings and reinforced margins top and bottom. (My 100-ft length didn’t go round the expanded garden this year, so I filled it in with some of the lighter-weight bird netting.) I pegged it down to the ground with twigs and it keeps the rabbits out, too. (I had a strange surprise, though, before pegging it down this year.)

This deer fence is not invincible. There are some tears in it that I need to fix. But we’ve seen a deer come up to it, and touch it with her nose, and go no further. My neighbour, who has come out on her porch to scare the deer away, has suggested attaching noisemakers to the fence.

Here’s an Amazon link (US only; they won’t ship this stuff to Canada) to a similar product: Easy Gardener LG400171 7-by-100-Foot Deer Barrier Fencing

Finally, there’s a much heavier gauge netting that I saw in a local hardware store. It was more expensive, but looks like it would last longer. It has 2 1/4  inch openings. If and when my current fence isn’t doing the job anymore, this is what I will get. Amazon link: Industrial Netting CXC90x100 Deer Net – 2.25 Inch Openings

The lightweight netting does not require strong posts. This year the garden was expanding, but I had no more of the aluminum posts that I put in last year, so I bought 8′ steel T-posts ($9 each) at the local farmers’ co-op store. They have pointed ends, but I would never be able to drive an 8′ post into the ground, so I cut one in half with a hacksaw, and pounded it 2 feet into the ground with a sledgehammer. (Thank you to my gardener grandfather from whom I’ve inherited all these tools!) After pulling the short post out, there was a T-shaped hole into which the tall post went in with just a bit of persuasion delivered from a stepladder. The rocks deep in the ground caused the post to be slightly askew, but that doesn’t really matter.

I’d love to hear from other gardeners about your experiences with animals in the garden – or with keeping them out.

Snapping turtle street wise?

Snapping turtle laying eggs at roadside
Snapping turtle laying eggs by the side of the road, Upper Northfield, Lunenburg Co., June 24, 2010

This cannot be a good survival strategy.

Snapping turtles lay eggs in June and July uphill from a water source.  This snapper has found some gravel right by the side of the road, a foot or two from the pavement.  The water source, as you can see in the picture, is a human-excavated pond some distance away.

I wonder if  this snapping turtle has tuned into her ancestral memory.  Perhaps, before the road was developed, her mother laid her eggs in a sandy bank here, and when my friend emerged from the egg, she scampered and tumbled down the hill to the embracing water in a natural stream or that once flowed quietly just below this very spot.

Now she is laying her eggs in gravel that has been brought in to elevate and level out the road.  If the eggs don’t dry out in the gravel and hot sun, or get squashed by a truck parking on top of them, her hatchlings will have to reach the artificial pond in the distance in order to survive and thrive.

Trying circumstances, it seems to me, and not unsimilar to those facing many young members of a much more recent species on this planet, homo sapiens.

Gruesome Garden Mystery: The Deer Fence Let a Dead One In

So yesterday I put up the deer fence around the garden. I didn’t get around to pegging the bottom of the netting to the soil, but did bravely transplant my broccoli.

This morning when I went to check on my baby brassicas, I was very surprised to see the leg and hoof of a deer lying next to my tender greens!

Deer leg and broccoli
The leg of a deer in my garden, next to the broccoli.

There was no sign of damage, and no clear tracks that would help me identify who brought in this offering. It obviously wasn’t a vegetarian, as there had been no nibbling on the luscious leaves. And it couldn’t have been a very large animal.

What an ironic reminder that despite my efforts, I’m not totally in charge here, and the deer will get into my garden one way or another, dead or alive!

Update: I found a tear in the netting on the other side of the rhubarb that could have been from the stress of a raccoon, perhaps, pushing its bulk under the netting by the broccoli. There has also been a fox around, who may have wanted to bury the leg, and was attracted by the freshly-dug earth.  I should think that a raccoon would have done more damage.

Another morning wildlife guest

Photo taken in a hurry through the screened basement window.

Like the fox last week, this raccoon came up the road from Oak Island, saw the houses up ahead and decided the woods behind our house were a better bet.

In six years of living here, it’s the first raccoon I’ve seen.

A neighbour told me he saw a black bear just down the road about five years ago. He figures it was just passing through, as he hasn’t seen or heard tell of one around here since.

But over 1000 black bears were killed by registered hunters in Nova Scotia in 2009. So they are around.

The 2009 deer harvest in Lunenburg Co., which has been increasingly plagued by deer ticks in recent years, was the highest in the province:  3,104.  Many gardeners will be relieved to hear this news.  But it won’t stop me from putting a deer fence around the garden again. I recently saw 4 or 5 white-tailed deer in our backyard.

Department of Natural Resources personnel examine roadkill to see what shape the animals are in.  In the winter of 2008, they found that a high proportion of deer were experiencing malnutrition and starvation.  So the 10,280 deer bagged by hunters across the province was less than the previous year, according to the Truro Daily News, as fewer permits were issued to hunters for antler-less deer.

A foxy visitor

An unusual visitor

We get a lot of wildlife where we live, but this was our first sighting of a fox. It came down the road, crossed our front yard and disappeared into the woods. I was lucky to get a photo at all. My husband saw it later the same morning, going the other way.

Of right, privilege and freedom

I woke up this morning with my family aboard a sailboat at a peaceful anchorage in Mahone Bay just a couple of hours sail from home.  And shared my thoughts:  “We are so privileged to be doing this.  Not just having the boat, but to be able to sail where we want and drop the anchor where we deem best, want without paying a toll to anyone, and to enjoy this beautiful scenery so freely.”

Sunset at Covey Island, one of the islands protected by MICA.
Sunset at Covey Island, one of the islands protected by MICA.

The first settlers of Lunenburg must have been in awe at such freedom.  What we now call Germany was at the time an assortment of many principalities of various sizes.  Going down the “highway” of the river Rhine to Rotterdam, where they boarded the ship that would take them across the Atlantic, the emigrants would have been stopped at every border crossing and paid tolls.  Many of them had even needed to secure permission from their feudal lord to leave the land they were bonded to as peasants.  Once they reached Lunenburg in 1753, they must have been very appreciative of the freedom to profit from their own labour and build their future with their own hands.

Even some of the modern-day German immigrants to Nova Scotia that I know have expressed to me their appreciation of the freedom they have here in a society that is less regulated than the one they left behind.

The entire natural coastline of this island has been destroyed and replaced with a rock wall.
The entire natural coastline of this island has been destroyed and replaced with a rock wall.

The Mahone Islands Conservation Association (MICA) works to protect public access to the islands of Mahone Bay, as well as to preserve their natural environment.  The islands are increasingly under pressure by private owners and developers.  Natural shorelines and nesting habitats are disrupted (photo right).  Owners of some islands chase visitors off beaches that have long been used by the general public. (Some have been known to brandish guns in their efforts, something  that Canadians or at least Nova Scotians just don’t do.)

From what I understand, depending on the type of deed, the intertidal zone has legally remained public except in a few cases where water rights were transferred.  In a country where travel by boat was the norm, the right to land on a shore would have been an issue of public safety.  Nowadays, it seems that there is a trend for private property rights to be extended into the intertidal zone –  whether by deed, by custom, by complicity of the authorities or by ignorance by the public, I don’t know.  Enlighten me if you know anything more about this issue, please, by commenting below.

Meanwhile, I take pleasure in seeing the decendants of the original Lunenburg settlers, with names such as Meisner and Ernst,  involved in MICA, perserving public access to the islands of Mahone Bay for future generations of humans and seabirds.

Close encounter with a friendly Lepidoptera

Friendly Lepidoptera probes Dennis' hand with proboscis. Click to enlarge.
Friendly Lepidoptera probes Dennis' hand with probiscis. Click to enlarge.

Dennis Robinson writes:

This butterfly came to me yesterday.  He started out by alighting on my knee and ended up drinking generous quantities of cranberry juice, strawberry juice and Welches grape juice from concentrate.  I think he (or she) liked the grape juice best.

He sipped it off the end of my finger but later actually took some out of a teaspoon.  He was very tame and seemed to be well aware that I was trying to help him.  You can see that someone, possibly a bird, had taken a small chunk out of his back wings but he was in good spirits and very friendly.  This is the first time that that I’ve had such an encounter. I have other pictures of him on my knee curling up his proboscis but this will do for now…

(It’s probably a moth, due to its coloration, hairy body, and antennae which are smooth but not clubbed at the end.)