I heard a bird sing in the dark of December
A magical thing and sweet to remember.
“We are nearer to Spring than we were in September,”


Week ending 18 December 2016

Short explanation: This venerable website has been the repository of random posts over the years, most of which have related to the garden. It has a small, but faithful following. Now we want to branch out and try something just a little different and so, from early January we shall be posting regular weekly updates to the journal about the garden, its plants and most importantly, its wildlife. This is as much for our interest and future reference as anything but we expect to reach a wider audience. The “official” launch is 1st January and this post is by way of a test edition to ensure the technicalities are running nice and smoothly before formally unleashing it on the world.

For those who have not visited the site or the garden yet, a quick illustrated overview of the garden in summer 2016 lies behind this link (apologetic note – it might take a bit longer than expected to open, but it’s really worth the wait) : https://spark.adobe.com/page/iDE3W/ 

So – it’s mid-December, it’s cool, the river down the road (no small river, it’s the St-Lawrence) froze over during a week which started and ended with a whole day of heavy snow and a couple of days of bone-breaking Arctic cold down to -23C. What this means is that there won’t be a whole lot of hands-on gardening with descriptions of greenery and flowers to talk about for at least the next three months. There will, though, be a good bit about garden wildlife, especially birds coming to our feeders. You will be hearing about them for a while together with outline plans for the spring and summer to come, reminiscences from the past (and some of its mistakes) plus anything else relevant to the theme of the week that occurs to us.

Everything in its season, though. Shakespeare (“Loves Labours Lost”) had it about right:
“At Christmas I no more desire a rose than wish a snow in May’s new-fangled mirth; But like of each thing that in season grows.”

Of course, there are some people who grow stuff in the cold months in Canada despite the inescapable fact of temperatures down to the minus thirties. But that involves heated glasshouses, framed beds, polytunnels and vast expenditure on fuel. We don’t do that, though we have raised the odd tray of seedlings under grow lights in the basement. There are those who do go out and do this sort of masochistic gardening – you’ll find them on Google easily enough – and once upon a time we may have counted ourselves up to it, but we are older and wiser now. Our garden is in zone 5b and it’s just too difficult to beat the weather gods – most people who tell you its not a problem probably live on Vancouver Island. Nevertheless, we have a bed of reliable garlic cloves already planted and sitting in the soil under a nice insulating layer of snow ready to sprout and get going in the spring. Garlic is always a success. Compost bins too – they are still active, even in December. We trust that compost interests you because it’s likely to be a recurring topic here. Compost is fascinating.

Guelder rose berries

Lets talk plants for a bit.  The plant star this week, and probably for some weeks to come, is in a bed on the north side containing a couple of large Vibernum bushes (variously known as Guelder rose or high-bush cranberry) that this winter are still bearing a heavy crop of beautiful bright red berries which are being ignored by most birds other than the Robins who seem to like them … as do squirrels. The bright colour they add to the monochrome of dark bark and white snow is most welcome. We leave dried seed heads standing through the winter as the birds benefit from the additional food – earlier on Sunday we “enjoyed” a period of freezing rain that left some milkweed seed pods standing above the snow looking wonderful.

Pileated Woodpecker

Right now our main activity is studying the birds that make use of the battery of feeders we view from our sunroom whence we watch them with binoculars, note-book and mugs of coffee to hand. You will read elsewhere on this site about the 111 species of birds we have observed here in the past 18 years but, of course, quite a few of those have more sense than we do and migrate south for the cold months. For all that a surprising number stick it out with us – our winter garden list currently stands at 48 species with maybe 15 being regulars and another 15 reliably coming to see us every winter. Pretty good, huh? At weekends in the winter we carefully count the birds for that great citizen science project known as Feederwatch … are you a Feederwatcher? Check it out at http://feederwatch.org

Bird star of the week – not a rare bird, but always impressive – was, we thought at first, probably going to be the Pileated Woodpecker. He visited two or three times for a snack on a suet block and then spent time hacking holes in the wood of a Catalpa tree  that is not in the first flush of youth but host to sub-bark grubs and beetles. Pileateds, for our non-North American readers, are woodpeckers that happen to have decided bigger is better and top out somewhere in size between a large Crow and a small Raven. Pretty impressive birds that remind us of Pterodactyls in flight and which are always welcome. He’s quite a regular visitor, well once a week maybe, but Tuesday lunchtime we were returning from a walk down to the Bay when we heard the PIWO raucously calling and were able to watch the big black dinosaurian creature fly arrow straight across from the cemetery and right into the garden where he settled on the tree and started hacking and snacking – he knew where he was going, where the best food it in winter. But …

Carolina Wren

… But. The real bird of the week arrived around midday on Thursday when our feeders were explored in depth by a Carolina Wren. These little brown birds have only been in the Montreal area for a a few years and are hanging on at the extreme northern limit of their range. In very cold winters we lose them and then they creep back in tiny numbers, helped by the gradual warming of the climate. The last record we have for the garden is from last March so this chap is a welcome returnee and we hope he sticks around. Certainly there will be plenty of food for him and there is ample shelter amongst the trees and shrubs. They have bred here a couple of times, some years ago there was a nest in a flower container above the front steps that contained ivy. We are pleased to report that he has been back each of the three days since.

Other birds have included American and House Finches, Dark-eyed Juncos, Cardinals (a mini flock of males at one point), a passing Coopers Hawk, smaller Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, White and Red Nuthatches, Crows, a Raven (heard nearby) and all the other usual suspects.

In just a few days time (21 December at 5:44am exactly in this part of the world, 10:44am in the UK and 6:44pm in western Australia) we will pass the Winter Solstice. A moment to be celebrated by all gardeners, as we can then start the climb back up to spring and summer and green things growing … and mosquitoes. Celebrate like we do with food and drink and a hot fire – the fire is important.

If you received an email notice of this trial edition that’s because you are one of the brave souls who subscribed in advance – and we thank you for your interest. If you have come across it by some other route, why not subscribe (see the home page or the footer below for how to do so). Subscribing is free, delivers these journal entries to your inbox each Sunday evening and comes with an unsubscribe button once you have had enough.  ** Please let us know if you have comments on content or layout or anything else relevant. We’d like to hear from  you … you can use the comments box below each journal entry or, if you prefer, there is a handy blue button on the home page of the website that will connect you to us via email. Be honest in what you say.

That’s it. Thank you all for getting to the end of our test edition. We will be back on New Year’s Day and then weekly thereafter. Look for us here on Sunday evenings to come.

Milkweed seed pods

With best wishes from :
The Wild Garden Gnomes