Episode 15 – Birds, Berries, and Meteorologist Ellen Bacca

Ground Breaking Banter

Berry Christmas – ’tis the season for birds and berries!  Stacey and Rick talk about the importance of berries and fruit in the landscape to help birds survive the winter season when food is scarce. We often think of birds like robins, bluebirds, or woodpeckers as insect eaters but they are omnivores that also eat seeds, nuts, fruits, and berries. Just look at all the suet cake blends in stores that incorporate berries and fruit! Even though the iconic spring image of robins hopping along the lawn hunting worms endures for many of us, berries play an important role in their diets as well. Fruits are very important for overwintering birds, many insectivorous birds change their diets when winter comes along. Stacey will share a tree in today’s Plants on Trial that holds its fruit in winter well as an example. 

Like people who prefer sweet dessert, birds will flock to the tastiest berries in early winter. When the coldest days of winter set in and food sources are exhausted they will feast on less desirable long lasting berries which can be a life saver.

We plant shrubs and trees like crabapple, viburnum, aronia,  juniper, holly, hackberry beautyberry, dogwood, serviceberry and more in our landscapes to attract and feed birds. Stacey describes how woody plants like trees and shrubs offer birds benefits that herbaceous plants don’t – by providing shelter, perching, and of course, food in the form of tiny insects overwintering on the branches as well as any fruits they may produce. Rick shares the joy of watching Cedar Waxwings flocking to a tree with berries, perched on a branch passing a berry back and forth from bill to bill until one swallows it. 

Because berries and fruit are so important to wild birds, they will also eat – and spread – less desirable plants like poison ivy, pokeweed, wild grapes and Virginia creeper, to name a few. The seeds are then spread through the avian digestive process on our cars, decks, patios, sidewalks and garden areas. Rain may wash away the droppings, but the seeds left behind will sprout in places not wanted next spring! This prompts Stacey to share her favorite mind-blowing (though only tangentially related) fact: fish eggs can also pass through the digestive systems of ducks intact and viable, and that’s how fish can suddenly appear in new bodies of water. 

Why: If you want to encourage more birds in your yard, one of the best things you can do is plant a woody plant. Woody plants, which includes trees and shrubs, are different than herbaceous plants in that they persist above ground all year long in the forms of stems, trunks, and branches. This means that they provide crucial places in winter for birds to rest, warm up, hide from predators, or perch to scan for potential danger; they also provide food sources, as they can host small insects hunkered down for winter, or in the case of plants like Sweet Sugar Tyme crabapple, an abundance of juicy fruits.

Sweet Sugar Tyme crabapple is like other crabapples in that it is a beautiful, landscape-friendly small tree that’s covered in fabulous flowers in mid-late spring. In the case of Sweet Sugar Tyme, those flowers starts as pink buds and open to reveal classic white flowers with a delightful fragrance. As the season progresses, the flowers develop into classic crabapple fruits, looking a bit like a cherry with that long stalk and small fruit at the end. However, here’s where things get a bit different than your average crabapple, and what makes Sweet Sugar Tyme worthy of the Proven Winners ColorChoice brand: instead of withering and turning flat and leathery like other crabapple fruits, these stay bright red and juicy into the following spring. That means the plant continues looking much more attractive and colorful for you and all the passers-by your yard, as well as providing a better source of nutrients for birds. While it’s possible that birds will discover them early in the season and make short work of them, it’s more common that they persist into late winter/early spring, all the better to enjoy them in your yard.

Who: Sweet Sugar Tyme crabapple is a member of the inaugural class of Proven Winners ColorChoice Trees. And because it takes a lot longer to produce trees than it does for shrubs, even though it has been around a while, it’s only now starting to become more widely available in the marketplace. It joined the line as a selection from the late Jim Zampini, who was a great lover of crabapples and selected dozens of them at Lake County Nursery, his family business in northeastern Ohio. It was clear to Jim that its fruit really made it distinctive, and it’s one of the best choices for gardeners who prioritize inviting birds to their yard.

How to grow: Like other crabapples, Sweet Sugar Tyme should be planted in full sun – at least six hours a day of bright sunshine – and will grow in any average, well-drained soil. It’s hardy to USDA zone 4 and heat tolerant through USDA zone 8, so a nice wide range of geographic regions where it will grow successfully. It should not need any pruning, making it a very easy-care plant. In addition to being great for birds, it’s also an excellent plant for pollinators.

It’s far from planting time now that it’s December, but it’s a good time to put Sweet Sugar Tyme crabapple on your spring planting list, and start looking forward to more colorful winters to come!

Gardening Mail Bag

Do you have a garden question for us? We’d be glad to help! E-mail us, or click the “contact” tab above. 

The Audubon Christmas Bird Count is happening December 14-January 5 – click the link to find an event near you to participate in this important citizen science opportunity. And, Stacey was mistaken – she confused the Christmas Bird Count with the Great Backyard Bird Count, which happens in February. Whether you participate in one or both, you’ll be doing birds, and scientists, a huge favor!

Jeffrey writes us with a question that I’m guessing is on more than one listener’s mind right now:
We bought a new house and moved in July, and I had just purchased some bulbs for planting. In the move I lost track of them. I just found them this week while unpacking some garage totes. Is it too late to plant the bulbs? If it is, can I plant them in the spring? What should I do with the bulbs?

Yes, you can absolutely still plant the bulbs! There’s no set deadline on when it’s too late, at least in terms of early winter – the goal is just to give the bulbs a chance to grow some roots before spring’s sunshine starts to coax the shoots to grow. In short, as long as you can get through the soil, it’s okay to still plant them, even if you have to use a pick axe to do it. If the ground is frozen solid, there’s still another option – pot the bulbs up into plastic containers (nursery pots are fine) and potting soil (reused is fine) and leave them outdoors to get exposed to the cold, just like they would have been in the ground. By the end of February, you can begin bringing pots into the warmth of your home which will bring them into bloom in 4-6 weeks, or place them in decorative containers and fill out with pansies and other spring annuals. Lots of options so they don’t need to go to waste – though Rick shares that it’s estimated that 30-40% of bulbs end up forgotten and unplanted each year. 

Bruce writes us about a recent plant on trial, Temple of Bloom heptacodium: I planted a 5 ft., B&B, ‘multi trunk’ Heptacodium miconioides, Temple of Bloom®, March 4, 2022, in my 6b, suburban landscape (that’s a photo Bruce sent us of his tree below). The tree has acclimated / grown / bloomed well since planting (full sun, well draining). The specific ‘multi trunk’ was selected with intent to establish a less common, single trunk specimen. The main trunk is 1-1/2″ caliper. The single, minor trunk is 3/4″ caliper ….truncated pictured attached for you Rick. Questions:
   – How long should I wait before lopping the single minor trunk?
   – Will delayed pruning of ancillary trunk(s) help accelerate growth of a main trunk? ….assuming roots are established.

In this case, we think that the secondary trunk is acquiring an undesirable growth habit and should be removed, as it could also potentially cause weak growth that could be catastrophic if damaged in a storm or wind event down the line. And we recommend doing it sooner than later: when pruning, you should always aim to make the smallest possible wound, which will take the least amount of the tree’s energy to heal from. So, with this in mind, we recommend pruning sooner than later – now should be perfectly fine, in fact, and if you wish, you can rub a bit of soil over the cut to help it blend in more. Cutting off that second trunk will absolutely help the tree put more energy into its remaining portions and lead to quicker, more robust growth. 

A bare tree in a winter landscape.

Branching News

In today’s segment, we interviewed WOOD-TV 8’s chief meteorologist Ellen Bacca about the difference between astronomical and meteorological seasons. In short, if you mark the seasons by the solstices or equinoxes, which happen anywhere from the 20th-22nd of December, March, June, and September, you are observing astronomical seasons. If, however, you mark the seasons in groups of three months each – December, January, and February for winter, as an example, you’re observering meteorological seasons. Ellen explains that the reason for these two different approaches is simple: with astronomical seasons, it’s difficult to compare year over year conditions, a key part of meteorology, because the start and end of each season varies from year to year. Meteorological seasons are always the exact same length (with the exception of leap years for winter), so it’s easy for scientists to make comparative observations about the weather and climate. 

Ellen also goes on to talk about how there’s a lag time in day length which accounts for why February is our coldest month, despite the shortest day being in December, and why July is our hottest month, despite the longest day being in June. It’s fascinating listening – skip to the last ten minutes of our video below if you want to get right to it.