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Ask the Gardener: This winter is for the birds and quarantining

Ask the Expert Gardening
Blue-Jay-Bird-Feeder
A blue jay visits a bird feeder at Quinnipiac Valley Audubon Society Riverbound Farm Sanctuary in Cheshire, Conn. Dave Zajac/Record-Journal via Associate Press

This will be my last garden column until March. I have enjoyed corresponding with many of you, especially as backyard gardening became more popular this year among beginners stuck at home quarantining. So how will we cheer ourselves on this winter? You can shop garden catalogs. (Order early, as much will be sold out.) But I’m putting my money (almost $100 a month) on feeding wild birds. They became more important to me during last March’s shutdown, when their birdsong was suddenly no longer drowned out by the racket of traffic and construction and I could listen while I worked. The garden always puts us in casual contact with birds. Now, while the plants are dormant, many birds stay active, and feeding them is a vicarious connection to the outdoors. Every morning and afternoon we feed suet, sunflower, and millet seed to a pair of large red-bellied woodpeckers, plus frequent red-winged blackbirds, doves, grackles, cardinals, nuthatches, chickadees, white-throated sparrows, house finches, bluejays, goldfinches, tufted titmouse, juncos, cowbirds, hoards of English sparrows, chipmunks, gray squirrels, and one golden female oriole who has yet to migrate and perches on a bowl of grape jelly. We had a rare visit by evening grosbeak last week, which was like a celebrity sighting. As with gardening, there’s a learning curve for getting good results. We try different food and feeders. A new heated bird bath plugged into the house current is drawing even more birds on frozen mornings. Observing the players through my kitchen window, where I keep binoculars and a bird book by the sink, combats bad weather claustrophobia. The birds are always there. I also hope it will help me identify the singers next spring when I rejoin them in our shared garden and become part of the outdoor picture again.

Q. Do you have a garden book to recommend for winter reading?

K.Z., West Pomfret, Vt.

A. Approximately a quarter of the bird population of North America has been lost to development, climate change, and a loss of native plants since I started my garden 40 years ago. Can we help by making our gardens more bird friendly? Yes. Groundbreaking scientist Douglas W. Tallamy shows how in his new book, “Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard.’’ Read it this winter while you are planning for spring.

Q. My leucojum bloomed beautifully last spring, and I am wondering whether they will bloom next spring now that they are popping up in November.

N.E., Milton

A. Bulbs often sprout too early during unseasonably warm weather. Don’t worry. Bulbs are tough. The exposed leaves will simply die back from the cold, and then the bulb will sprout again at the right time. It should not hurt the eventual flowers.

Q. We have two deep, flared pots on our front porch steps. …These pots usually freeze solid over the winter. Will this kill the tulip bulbs? Should we haul them into the garage?

M.M., Hudson

A. No. Tulips need 14 weeks of cold before they can bloom and are not hurt by frozen soil.

Q. It was mentioned that we should not leave vegetable soil bare in the garden, that we should cover the plots with leaves or grass clippings. Why’’?

L.H., Needham

A. Weather can erode or compact bare soil, which is also a magnet for weed seeds. You can cover beds over the winter with layers of newspaper, cardboard, or water-permeable black plastic fastened with outdoor staples or weighted with stones or mulch. Some people even use old carpeting.

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