This past Monday night, the featured speaker at my Garden Club was Bet Zimmerman who gave a really great presentation on Helping Bluebirds Survive and Thrive. Many of us are aware that bluebirds are making a comeback after years of decline due to habitat loss and from predation and competition by highly aggressive invasive bird species especially English sparrows and European starlings.  Both of these pest birds, by the way, were intentionally introduced to this country.

Key factors to helping our Eastern Bluebirds nest successfully include putting up the right nest boxes, monitoring these nest boxes so that only desirable native wild bird species are allowed to populate them, being able to recognize nests and eggs of both native and invasive cavity nesting bird species, controlling predators including English sparrows, and supplying birds with fresh water and sometimes food. While many species of birds build nests in trees, shrubs, under eaves and in other more open situations, bluebirds are cavity dwellers. In undisturbed wild areas they would build nests in the holes of trees that resulted from decay or that were created by other species. As wild areas are developed, trees are cut, especially these wonderful old, often dead, snags that make up such a perfect habitat for cavity dwellers like bluebirds, nuthatches, swallows, woodpeckers, wrens, chickadees and tufted titmice.

Bluebird at UConn Soil Lab, Photo by Deborah Tyser

Before hearing Bet’s talk, I didn’t quite realize the toll that English sparrows take on bluebird populations. I thought they just competed for nest boxes but these nasty little birds will crack bluebird eggs, kill the young fledglings and even decapitate adults. I learned that it is better to not put up a nest box than to put one up and let English sparrows nest in it. At the Soil Testing Lab on the UConn Mansfield Depot campus there are a number of bluebirds and I had put up a bluebird box. The first year I was so delighted when a pair of bluebirds set up housekeeping, laid a clutch of eggs and I could hear the young birds peeping when the parents were bringing them food. Then I came back after the weekend and found baby bluebirds dead on the walkway. I didn’t know how this would happen but turns out deeds like this are characteristics of English sparrows. I will start monitoring more closely and also setting up sparrow deterrents. For all the information you need about attracting and helping bluebirds make it in your neck of the woods (fields actually) check out Bet’s website, www.sialis.org.

Pair of Bluebirds, Photo by Deborah Tyser

Not only has the Soil Testing Lab been getting a considerable increase in samples sent in for vegetable gardens but also for small fruits like blueberries, strawberries, brambles and grapes. Growing one’s own food is a great trend. Imagine fresh, quality produce from your own backyard! It also really makes one appreciate some of the trials and tribulations that farmers have to contend with when growing the food that many of us have come to expect to find on grocery store shelves.

American grape varieties prefer acidic soils

In general, any of the small fruits are fairly easy to grow. They each do have some specific cultural considerations that should be explored before purchasing the plants. One such item would be their soil pH requirements. Both blueberries and American grape varieties, like the Concord, need acidic soils. This would explain, in part, why they are found growing wild in New England where acidic soils prevail. Strawberries, brambles and European grape varieties are happy if the soil pH is somewhere in the mid 6’s. Changing the soil pH is not difficult with limestone being added to raise it up or make it less acidic and sulfur or aluminum sulfate used to lower the soil pH. The bottom line is that plants do best when grown under the right conditions. Whether you check the soil pH with a home testing kit or send it to our lab (www.soiltest.uconn.edu),  it is important for plant health and well worth your time.

Blue pulmonaria in my white garden

And now a question I have been asking myself for years – why did all the pulmonaria seedlings (lungwort) that came from the white flowering cultivar, ‘Sissinghurst White’ in my white garden end up having blue flowers and all the seedlings from the blue flowering ‘Mrs. Moon’ in my birdhouse garden bloom white?

 Enjoy the spring!

Dawn