"Nature is what shapes and changes a person into someone better."

— Evita Benevides

Winter solstice

As December progresses, everything outdoors is shutting down. While focused indoors on holiday bustle, we often miss nature’s annual closure. It is easy to forget that we share our suburban world with wildlife.

At Creek House, deer rutting season has ended; no doubt we will see fawns in a few months. The foxes now have their extra thick fur coats; the groundhogs are in deep hibernation. Adventurous chipmunks, snug in underground dens, emerge occasionally to sample seeds fallen from the birdfeeders. The busy beaver is now quiet in his den. Migrating birds have all headed south by now, leaving behind our regular feeder customers and some Canada geese that prefer to hang out here all winter. Our frogs, turtles and snakes have taken refuge from frost in muddy soil below the frost line or in abandoned mammal burrows. The trees, their foliage fallen, stand guard over the quiet wetland, patiently waiting for the return of longer days of daylight to come.

Holiday greens

The season for decorating with live boughs of evergreen plants is upon us.

Lightly prune your evergreen woody plants now for a supply of holiday greens. There are few conifers at Creek House, and I prefer to use greens from my own property, so I use alternatives to fir, spruce, pine and arborvitae, the traditional needled evergreens.

Attractive broadleaf evergreen foliage looks lovely in wreaths, swags, table decorations and outdoor containers or window boxes. Some possibilities are Aucuba, bamboo, boxwood, cherrylaurel, English ivy, Japanese holly, mountain laurel, osmanthus, rhododendron and southern magnolia.

Container plants outdoors

When winter closes in, we scramble to protect plants in the yard by spreading a 2- to 3-inch layer of wood chips, pine needles or chopped leaves on the soil beneath them.

Shrubs and small trees that are in pots outdoors need special attention. Typically they are too large and heavy to bring indoors, although, if you have a dolly, you might be able to get them into an unheated garage. Even if they are winter hardy, if you leave them outdoors, they will need protection because their roots are above ground. There are a couple of ways to insulate them from damaging freeze-thaw cycles. You can dig a hole and sink each pot into the ground so it is protected by soil. You can leave them in place and surround the pots with bales of straw. Or you can ring the pots with chicken wire, then stuff the space between it and the pot with chopped leaves, pine needles, or wood chips. Some folks use plastic bubble wrap, but make sure it is around just the pot, not the plant itself.

Bird lore

• To handle the cold, Goldfinches generate more than 1,000 more feathers in winter.

• Some birds stuff themselves prior to migrating, many nearly doubling their weight.

• Famous for his musical bird calls, the aptly named song sparrow begins many of his songs with the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

• Early morning and late afternoon are the times when backyard birds most need food for energy.

• Migrating birds like to fly ahead of a cold front to enjoy tailwinds, which explains why there are more birds at your feeders just before cold arrives.

• Because woodpeckers have special sacs in their skulls to protect their brains by absorbing the impact of their drilling, researchers in human head impact injury have studied them.

• Yes, birds of a feather do flock together, but nuthatches, tufted titmice and chickadees often form mixed flocks to increase their probability of finding food and decrease their probability of predation.

• It is not uncommon for migrating birds to fly at 3,000 to 6,000 feet altitude.

For more than 20 years, local garden writer and lecturer Liz Ball has offered helpful information and advice to homeowners on enjoying and caring for their yards and the plants that grow there in her Yardening column. Direct your Yardening questions to her at lizball@aol.com.

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