The Perfectly Imperfect Gardener
Sometimes I garden with my girls and sometimes I garden in spite of them, but the memories and garden spaces we create always provide shared joy and beauty. This blog is largely about a professional horticulturist gardening with limited time and two little ones in tow while struggling to cultivate an unreasonably large garden towards the untenable goal of perfection. It spins together the science and art of gardening along with travel and culinary excerpts. Short cuts are essential, weeds par for the course, and mud a given (on face, hands and floors).

Feeding Favorite Winter Birds

A flurry of wings. A shower of seeds. Bird feeders are lively places in the winter months, and their presence is important. Though many bird species can handle the hardships of winter, natural food sources are fewer because fields and forest have been replaced by buildings and lawns, so feeders help fill a food void. Feeding winter birds is also fun and educational for children; they can learn about the different species while also learning about their diets and winter survival tools.

Favorite Winter Birds

There are lots of common birds in North America that stick around for winter. Many of these are colorful favorites that evoke a winter feeling. Each has a unique lifestyle and story to tell. Ten of the best for small children to easily recognize are:

1. The Northern Cardinal

Probably the most well-known and beloved of all American winter birds, the northern cardinal inhabits much of North America, from Quebec, Canada all the way down to Central America. The male birds have bright red plumage, black faces and orange beaks as well as a cheery red crest on their heads. The brownish red females are less colorful, which camouflages them when they are protecting their spring nests. These birds favor shrubby, forested areas, and they eat seeds and fruits in winter, with a supplement of insects in the summer months. Their call is a clear or trilled whistle.

All bird images by Ken Thomas

2. Blue Jay

Distinctive blue, white and black markings and a blue head crest decorates this relatively large bird. Blue jays naturally exist in forest edges and wooded city areas across eastern North America. They are adaptable, somewhat aggressive birds with varied sharp, crow-like calls. (Sometimes they mimic the calls of hawks to frighten other birds!) The ground foraging birds have a varied diet, eating everything from small mice to grains, seeds and insects, but in the winter they rely mostly on a diet of seeds. (You might even see them snatching pieces of pet food from the bowl!)

3. Cedar Waxwing

The beautiful cedar waxwing is a master flyer capable of aeronautic turns in the sky. Its plumage is tawny brown on the top and blue-gray on the bottom. The crested birds have red markings on the wing tips and yellow markings on the tail tips. The woodland natives also like wooded neighborhoods and can be found from northernmost South America all the way up to Canada. Cedar waxwings don’t visit feeders but primarily eat fruit and enjoy overripe berries on winter shrubs. Their call is a high-pitched trilling whistle.

4. American Goldfinch

Brilliant gold plumage with black markings makes these birds nearly impossible to misidentify. Finches of all types are small, seed-eating birds that always frequent feeders. The American goldfinch exists across much of North America and northern Mexico where it favors open  fields, parks and lowlands--anywhere where thistles, asters and sunflowers are common. Their chirpy, melodic song patterns are variable but distinctive. Females have lighter yellow bellies but otherwise look like males.


5. Tufted Titmouse

A small, silvery gray bird, the tufted titmouse has a smart little tufted head crest, a whitish belly and tawny or rusty patches flanking the wings. It can be found only in the eastern United States and adjacent Canada where it exists in lower elevation forests and wooded neighborhoods. Its varied diet consists of insects, nuts, seeds and small fruits. This species nests in tree holes and feeds in tree canopies and along tall plants for winter food. Sometimes they use their fast, repetitive whistling calls to rally in groups and attack threatening predators, like a hawks!


6. Downy Woodpecker

One of the most common and adaptable of the woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers are relatively small birds easily distinguished by their black and white checkered wings, white backs and black striped heads patched with red in the back. The reside across the whole of North America from Alaska to Florida where they live in open woodlands, scrubby areas and wooded neighborhoods. The insect eaters rely on suet at the winter feeder. They make a loud, percussive “rat-a-tat-tat” when pecking trees and have a shrill, whinnying call.

7. Nuthatch

Long beaks, attractive gray, black and white markings and white bellies are the key identifiers of the white-bellied nuthatch. Native to much of North America, these forest dwelling birds survive on a diet of insects, nuts and seeds. Their long, strong silvery beaks can easily wedge open nuts. The loud call of the nuthatch hammer on with a rapid “wha-wha-wha”.

8. Mourning Dove

Ground-foraging mourning doves are smooth tawny gray with flecks of black on their wings. The common North American birds mate for life and are often seen in pairs. They are very prevalent in open wooded areas, fields and yards where they can be seen scouring the ground and low-lying plants for seeds and berries. They emit mournful coos and nest in trees.

9. Carolina Wren

In fall you can hear the “tea party, tea party, tea party” songs of defensive Carolina wrens staking out their winter territories. Existing across the eastern United States down into adjacent Mexico, these small birds have cinnamon brown plumage and perky tails that stick upwards. They like spots with dense vines and bushes where they can forage on insects and small vertebrates. In the winter they switch to a diet of fruits and seeds.

10. Black-capped Chickadee

A common bird across northern North America, the black-capped chickadee is a small bird with a distinctive black cap and chin, gray and white wings, buffy tan body and little beak. It is habits shrubby forests and wooded neighborhoods where it forages for insects, seeds and nuts. Spiders are also a favorite treat! The males do most of the singing with a high-pitched, two to three note “fee-bee” whistle.


Winter Bird Foods

Lots of specialty bird food stores carry birdseed mixes and suet packs for many bird species. Still, it pays to know what different birds like to eat, so you know exactly what birds you can expect to visit the feeder. Most ardent bird feeding folk like to supply a diversity of food types to attract various different bird species.


Table 1: Favorite winter bird foods



Cracked Corn

Sunflower Seed

Wild Fruits

Thistle Seed


American Goldfinch





Blue Jay








Carolina Wren



Cedar Waxwing






Downy Woodpecker


Mourning Dove










Tufted Titmouse





Cold Survival

Birds have all kinds of tricks up their wings when it comes to handling the cold. Dense down feathers line their bodies to store heat, they put on fat reserves, eat a lot  and seek all kinds of protective shelter. Plant cover is the most common shelter but some winter birds nest in tree holes and others may even seek refuge under the warm eaves of buildings. Dedicated winter birders may even put up protective roosting boxes to give their birds shelter in winter.


A Winter Bird Garden

Lots of fruits and nuts found on ornamental and landscape garden flower, trees and shrubs will feed birds through winter. In fact, planting for birds has become more and more popular. Winterberries, juniper berries, bayberries, hawthorn berries, sunflowers, purple coneflowers and asters are just a few of the easy landscape and garden plants birds love. One way to create a garden for birds all season long is through the Audubon Society. They offer great plant lists to teach gardeners how to turn their yards into bird havens.

Invest in your birds this winter for education, enjoyment and the gratification of nurturing wildlife. Take a backyard bird walk with a bird book (The Sibley Guide is best), so you can learn even more bird species. In winter, window feeders are a great way to see your favorite birds close up. And next summer be sure to supplement your garden with plants that will feed your birds naturally.

To learn more about birds in your yard visit Cornell University’s All About Birds page.

Fall Milkweed

Asclepias tuberosa seedpods shattering in the wind.

Shattering milkweed pods release floating seeds that turn and fly like aerial gossamer ladies in petticoats. In my milkweed-laden garden, these airborne seeds are the surest sign of late fall.

All milkweeds produce the large, plump pods, from the profuse Mexican native Asclepias curassavica, to the pumpkin-orange-flowered Asclepias tuberosa and white-flowered Asclepias incarnata 'Ice Ballet'. The delicate seedpod show is subtle but pretty. And I know that many of the seeds will find a home and eventually bloom where they are planted. This is especially encouraged with Asclepias tuberosa, a personal favorite and regional native. Each year I take a few of the seeds and place them strategically where I want them to grow.

Once the pods are empty, they continue to provide winter interest, particularly if standing among winter grasses that don't lost their verve after one or two snows. So I leave mine up until they begin to look winter worn.

Dried milkweed pods also bring back Christmas memories. My grandmother used to make milkweed ornaments by gluing cotton clouds along the interiors, adding golden angel figurines then dusting each decorated pod with glitter and spray snow. She must have added the hooks for hanging first. She used the bumpy pods of the common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), which are quite large and woody when dried.

One easy way to invite native milkweeds into your garden is to go into old-fields in fall, find some erupting milkweed pods and collect the seeds for garden sprinkling. Shorter statured plants collected from upland fields are will likely be Asclepias tuberosa, the orange butterflyweed.

The bright, long-blooming summer flowers of Asclepias tuberosa keep me spreading the seeds for more.

Government Shutdown = USDA Website Shutdown

The USDA Plants Database is one of my favorite web tools for basic North American plant info. In fact, I use it almost everyday. So I was really surprised that it was taken offline due to the October 1, 2013 Federal Government shutdown. Really? Government websites must be taken offline? Well, cut us off completely why don't you. What a pain in the ass.

Either way, it served as an additional eye-opening piece to this ridiculously risky and annoying shutdown. The most interesting part of the USDA's "we are not online" message is the POTUS letter to Government Employees.

800,000 plus federal workers out and furloughed...let's hope this shutdown ends soon.

In the Weeds with No Time to Blog

Let's see if I can write this blog in the 20 minutes I have to write it. The summer has flown by, and with tomorrow being the first day of fall, I realize how little blogging I've managed to squeeze in this season. My new job at has been fun but time consuming. Writing about gardening, rather than actually doing it, has put me in the weeds. Still, I have been afforded enough time to binge weed on occasion, so my veg and flower gardeners have remained productive. Here are a few successes worth mentioning:

The critters, good and bad, have been plentiful (milkweed tussock caterpillar (Euchaetes egle) on a blood flower (Asclepias curassavica)).

The lilies were lovely.

The squash and pepper harvests have been exceptional.

The garden flowers have been bright!

The Seasonal Bouquet Project LIVE:

Lovers of flowers and local, creative and artful flower design shouldn't miss this floral design event. “Two Designers, Two Farms, Two Coasts + One Double Dog Dare” with Jennie Love of Love N' Fresh Flowers (Philadelphia, PA) , and Erin Benzakein of Floret (Skagit Valley, WA).

Eat Your Weeds: Sautéed Purslane

A post I made on the Black Gold Facebook page about the edible nature of purslane (Portulaca oleracea) inspired this recipe. The post read:

In response, a Georgeanna Muniz commented: "Wash, parboil, and drain the purslane. Add to a pan 2 teaspoons of oil; heat to a sizzle and fry with chopped onion, salt and a sprinkle of crushed chile, like the kind you sprinkle on pizza. Fry till the onion is cooked. It helps to cover with a lid."

I had eaten plenty of raw purslane but had never tried it cooked, so I gave the recipe a try, while making a few changes to suit my tastes. The tasty result reminded me of lightly tangy Swiss chard. I will certainly cook it again.

Five large purslane plants, washed, dried and coarsely chopped
8 cups of water
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 slice bacon chopped
1 small yellow onion, chopped
2 cloves fresh minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon chile flakes
salt and pepper to taste

Simultaneously prepare two pans for cooking: a large saucepan containing the water and a large frying pan containing the olive oil and bacon. Bring the pan containing the water to a boil to blanch the purslane. At the same time, heat the oil and bacon in a large frying pan on medium heat until the bacon begins to crisp, then add the onion and garlic. As soon as the onion and garlic have been added to the frying pan, begin  blanching the purslane. Add the purslane to the water and allow it to boil for one to two minutes, until bright green. Remove the blanched purslane with tongs, or a hand strainer, draining it over the pot, and add it directly to the onion mixture in the frying pan. Once all the blanched purslane has been added to the pan, add the chile flakes, salt and pepper and cover, opening only to occasionally stir. After 5 to 10 minutes, the purslane stems will be lightly soft and ready to serve.

This is not a very pretty cooked vegetable, so it might by nice to sprinkle with sliced fresh basil or parsley.

I generally wash greens in a clean sink and dry them in a salad spinner.

Clean, dry purslane ready to cook.

Here the blanched stems have been added to the frying pan and have been cooked (with cover) for seven minutes.

Here's the not-so-pretty final product served with cous cous. Chopping the purslane improves the look as does cooking it for a little less time. This was cooked for 10 minutes, but greens cooked for 5 have prettier color. (I just wanted to be true to my first purslane cooking attempt by showing the original images.)

Sliced heirloom tomatoes also make a nice accompaniment.

A Bonnie Success!

Heavy rains kept the vegetable garden moist while we were away on vacation. And boy did we return to some giant veggies (and weeds)! The prize was the Bonnie Mega-Cabbage my girls received at school and planted two months ago. It is a monster, and they are proud to have grown it themselves. Let there be slaw for many a barbeque!

A Tribute to Plant Guru Dr. Jon T. Lindstrom

Image of Jon T. Lindstrom care of UARK

A few days ago I learned that my friend and former woody plants instructor Dr. Jon T. Lindstrom had passed away. He had a fast and virulent cancer. Jon's death is a great loss to the plant world and the students in The University of Arkansas Horticulture Department, where he taught for 14 years. He was a wonderfully accomplished instructor, plant breeder and plants person.

In fact, it's safe to say that Jon was the most brilliant plant person I ever met. He could name any plant from any place on the globe--family, species and common name. Those of us who also loved plants emulated him. One year he taught woody plants at Purdue University, and it was one of the best college courses I ever took. He made learning the 225 trees and shrubs so fun that I left the class with 119% (he offered lots of extra credit). His enthusiasm for plants was contagious.

At that time, I also helped maintain the Purdue Horticulture Gardens and propagated all of their teaching garden ornamentals. Jon was always there to donate something new and wonderful to the garden or provide plant propagation tips. He also came by our office regularly to show us a new Stylidium, Pinguicula, some odd gesneriad or simply talk plants while we hammered out new plant labels on hot summer days.

Jon's plant brilliance was most apparent in his plant breeding program. Many of his best creations are sold at Plant Delights Nursery, such as the fantastic hardy Sinningia 'Lovely' and Sinningia 'Arkansas Bells.' Jon also created garden gems with more widespread popularity through his hybrid Buddleja program.  His popular, seed-free Buddleja 'Asian Moon' is a non-invasive form of this common but ecologically invasive shrub. It's a big seller offered nationwide through Monrovia Nursery.

Image of Sinningia 'Lovely' care of Plant Delights Nursery

Before leaving Purdue for UARK, Jon shared many perennials and woody plants with me that still thrive in my parent's garden, such as Arum italicum and Cephalotaxus harringtonia 'Prostrata.' If only the Davidia involucrata had survived their heavy Southern Indiana soils...

You will be greatly missed, Jon. May many beautiful and interesting flowers decorate your grave and great beyond. I will plant a Disanthus cercidifolius or Davidia involucrata somewhere pretty and lasting in your honor.

(Please send memorial contributions to 'The Jon Lindstrom Scholarship' in care of the Department of Horticulture, Plant Sciences 316, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, AR 72701.)

Davidia involucrata was a tree that Jon really liked.

Book Review: Grow It Heal It

Herbal remedies are just a step away from the garden. The new medicinal herbal Grow It Heal It by Christopher Hobbs and Leslie Gardener (Rodale Books, 240 pages, May 2013, 21.99) offers a wealth of accessible, simple herbal remedies for 35 conditions in an easy-to-use guide with four beefy chapters: Know It (covers 50 herbs), Grow It (covers cultivation), Make it (recipes for curative teas, tinctures and salves) and Heal It (covers curatives for specific ailments). The heavyweight paperback also has pages of illustrative color photos of the herbs and their medicinal products.  

I like this book because I plan to use it. That may sound odd, but quite honestly there are lots of books sent my way that are pretty but not necessarily useful; at least for me. The authors clearly sought to create a user-friendly medicinal herbal using lots of common garden herbs and flowers in addition to a few prolific field weeds, like burdock, red clover and nettle. In fact, the only plant in the book that was completely new to me was ashwaganhha or Indian ginseng (Withania somnifera), a tender subshrub from India.

Each plant listed includes information on healing properties as well as safety, which was the first thing I looked for when picking up the book. And on a personal note, I was joyously happy that they excluded pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) a medicinal herb that makes me break out in welts just thinking about it.

Plentiful tea and homemade salve recipes are given in lots of flavors, and I plan to make a few for my family this season. On the top of my list is the Ginger-Cayenne Heat Treatment Cream, which I will be sure to keep away from the kids. The Deep Sleep Tea with chamomile, stevia, lemon balm and other herbs might be better suited to their needs.

Columbine-leaved Meadow Rue (Thalictrum aquilegifolium)

Wildflower garden areas exist in my yard here and there. Most contain regional natives, but occasionally I throw a well-behaved non-native into the mix. One of the prettiest this time of year is the frothy-mauve-flowered columbine-leaved meadow rue.

Dark stems contrast nicely with the puffy mauve flowers of this meadow rue.

The Eurasian native is a wonder in shade and gently self-sows, lightly dotting itself across a bed over time. The divided blue-green leaves line the tall, thin flower stems that often have a purplish red hue. Bees and butterflies visit the clusters of puffy lavender-pink flowers. By midsummer, the plants offer little to look at and will go dormant when weather becomes hot and dry. Stems that are not cut back produce tan seedheads.

A native to open woodlands and forest edges, this sweet wildflower grows best in partial sun and  moist, fertile soil with good drainage. It looks pretty planted among columbines, as they flower at the same time and have similar statures but different flowers. It is also a nice complement alongside colorful sedges and heucheras. 

Recent Posts

  1. Feeding Favorite Winter Birds
    Friday, December 06, 2013
  2. Fall Milkweed
    Saturday, November 09, 2013
  3. Government Shutdown = USDA Website Shutdown
    Thursday, October 03, 2013
  4. In the Weeds with No Time to Blog
    Saturday, September 21, 2013
  5. The Seasonal Bouquet Project LIVE:
    Sunday, August 04, 2013
  6. Eat Your Weeds: Sautéed Purslane
    Saturday, August 03, 2013
  7. A Bonnie Success!
    Monday, July 15, 2013
  8. A Tribute to Plant Guru Dr. Jon T. Lindstrom
    Friday, June 07, 2013
  9. Book Review: Grow It Heal It
    Friday, May 31, 2013
  10. Columbine-leaved Meadow Rue (Thalictrum aquilegifolium)
    Wednesday, May 22, 2013


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