Monday, January 30, 2012

A little bird taught me about the benefits of being a lazy gardener

An adult male goldfinch in the process of becoming more brightly plumed (image:

Simply Living
January 30, 2012

There's an upside to having a neglected landscape. A weedy garden or overgrown field is a boon to some wintertime visitors.

The American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) is a seasonal fixture in the Sunshine State. This half-ounce bundle of bones and feathers likes nothing more than discovering safe foraging grounds dotted with dandelions, ragweed, milkweed, evening primrose or — most especially — those prickly, pesky thistle plants.

Like any true lover of warm weather, the state bird of Iowa, New Jersey and Washington leaves Northern abodes in early autumn when cold winds carrying a hint of snow start ruffling feathers. Traveling south in large colonies that often include other migratory birds, goldfinches settle in areas where a temperate climate extends the growing season.

Lately when taking a walk, I've noticed flocks of "wild canaries," as they are nicknamed, flittering across our fields and open spaces. These 4-1/2-inch-long fliers with an 8-inch wingspan consider food finding a group effort. When not after the above-mentioned seeds, they munch on sunflower, cosmos, aster and grass seeds, occasionally snacking on tree sap, buds and berries with an incidental insect for protein.

Because goldfinches come to Florida for respite rather than procreation, we miss seeing their finest displays of color. During a Northern spring, the male boasts a golden body with a bright white rump. His wings are black with white stripes and a jaunty black cap covers his head. This jazzy get-up is all about attracting the gals — actually, one girl in particular. Goldfinches are monogamous and mate for life. After mating, the female proceeds to build a tightly woven, cup-shaped nest in the forked branches of a tree and lays four to six light blue eggs.

Adult male goldfinch fully feathered with colorful plumage and ready to mate. (image:

The reproduction period takes place mid-to-late summer when weed seeds are plentiful. The eggs incubate for 10 to 12 days before hatching and 12 to 17 days later, the young birds leave the nest to spend several weeks stuffing themselves with seeds. Shortly afterward, the hatchlings join up with other goldfinches migrating south to warmer weather.

By the time the birds arrive in Florida in early autumn, the male's yellow plumage has faded to a dull olive. However, as the months go by and anticipation of returning north to mate mounts, the males' cheery coloration begins to return. When mid-February rolls around, a lemony sheen appears on the male bird's underside, growing more brilliant as the weeks go by.

The female, with more need for protection than ostentatious presentation, doesn't go through a similar molt. She has no black cap and only a hint of yellow on her underside. Her slightly striped olive tones enable her to blend well with foliage year round.

Goldfinches gravitate toward natural sources of food but when weed seed supplies dwindle, they frequent backyard feeders. People wishing to attract goldfinches can do so during winter by putting out fresh nyjer (thistle) and sunflower seeds. Nyjer is a high-energy food rich in oil. While nyjer seed will draw these pretty little birds to the feeder, its high oil content goes rancid quickly. To ensure a fresh supply, clean feeders at least once a month and store surplus seed in an airtight container.

Goldfinch gather around a thistle (nyjer) feeder (image:

Although I haven't filled feeders with nyjer or sunflower seeds, the goldfinches in our yard are not going hungry. Untended fields and weedy gardens provide plenty of natural foraging fare. To an uninformed eye, my garden might look ugly but the birds and I know there is beauty in sustenance. It's also reassuring to discover a beneficial side to laziness.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

In snake v frog there's only one winner

Hungry snake...doomed frog

Simply Living
January 23, 2012

People have it easy. If we're hungry, we go to the store, select food, go home and prepare a meal. If we're pressed for time, feeling lazy or indulgent, we eat at a restaurant.

That's not how it works for wild animals.

My husband called me away from the dinner I was preparing on a recent evening to come out to the porch.

"You've got to hear this sound," he said. "Some animal is screaming but I can't figure out what kind of animal or where it is."

We sat on the porch for about 15 minutes but didn't hear a thing.

"I guess it stopped," I said standing up, anxious to go back inside to check the vegetables roasting in the oven.

Just as I was about to leave, Ralph opened the porch door for one last look. That's when we heard it. Outside the door, a tiny young black racer snake had its mouth clenched around a green treefrog that was about 4 inches long. The snake, thinner than a pencil and less than a foot long, had a firm grasp on the frog's rear end. Despite the fact that all four of the frog's feet were free, its stance on life was fragile. Aware of the mortal danger it was in, the frog let out a mournful cry.

I had never before heard a frog screech. I didn't even know they could. Apparently, the situation triggered a primordial instinct. The clutch of a reptilian mouth caused the frog to emit a high-pitched scream. Black runner snakes overpower their victims by pressing their prey against the ground while holding them tightly within their jaws. It was a terrifying, life-threatening predicament for the frog.

For the snake, it meant dinner. No store-bought snack for this reptile. No drive-through dining or oven-roasted meal. Black racers eat rodents, lizards, frogs, birds and other snakes. They eat what they catch or they don't eat at all. For a snake — for any wild animal — dinner is not about preparation, presentation, mood or hour. It's all about survival, a do-or-die effort. It's not a pretty picture.

The snake, intent and patient, bit down on the frog, absorbing the amphibian's vital fluids.

Throughout it all, the frog was aware. Its eyes bulged, its legs twitched in frantic but fruitless attempts to flee. But the snake's hold was steadfast. I watched with horrified fascination, my camera tracking the frog's increasingly futile efforts to disengage and escape.

Tiny snake....big meal

In less than an hour, the snake had devoured the entire frog.

"Unbelievable," Ralph said as we watched the snake's muscles push the swallowed treefrog — now reduced to a large lump — down the narrow channel of its body.

"I never would have thought such a large frog could fit inside such a small snake," I responded as I pondered the frog's demise.

The snake remained on the concrete walkway silently digesting its meal. I returned to the kitchen, my own culinary efforts to check.

Digesting dinner

The snake and I had both spent about the same amount of time readying a meal that would provide us with sustenance. I cut up vegetables. The snake captured prey.

"People sure have it easy," I said to myself as I opened the oven door, the vegetables roasted to perfection.

I called to Ralph, "Dinner's ready!"

Monday, January 16, 2012

On my weekend agenda...go to the farmers market!

People shop and stroll along Montrose Street at the Clermont farmers market.

Simply Living
January 16, 2012

A Sunday morning spent perusing the farmers market in downtown Clermont can be a thrifty as well as fun experience.

My purchases on a recent excursion included three sweet red peppers ($1 each), two yellow squash ($1 a pound), a large head of broccoli ($2 a bunch), three butternut squash ($1 a pound), seven bananas (50 cents per pound), an 8-ounce package of baby portabella mushrooms ($2) and one eggplant ($1). For less than $15, I returned home with enough produce to satisfy most of our needs for the week at about half of what I would have spent for comparable purchases at the supermarket.

A colorful selection of vegetables fill my basket after a visit to the farmers market in Clermont
I'm a fan of farmers markets. Part of my weekly routine includes going to either the Saturday morning market in Winter Garden, where I meet up with my daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren, or the Sunday market in Clermont, closer to home and therefore more convenient. Every now and then, I go to both.

Although purchasing produce is my main objective, people go to farmers markets for a variety of reasons.

Farmers markets are a great place to find unusual gift items, locate a source of farm-raised beef or purchase plants for the landscape. Some use the markets to seek out handmade crafts, custom artwork or locally produced food. Food-truck purveyors are on hand to provide an assortment of snacks while vendors set up booths to sell everything from organic peanut butter to handcrafted jewelry to gourmet dog biscuits. You can get knives sharpened in Clermont, take home a loaf of freshly baked bread or a bag of loose-leaf tea. One Winter Garden purveyor offers samples of unusual cheeses while another encourages browsers to taste the flavorful crackers his wife makes out of dried tomatoes, herbs and flax seeds.

Free entertainment is another reason people frequent farmers markets.

Usually, a musician — often a guitarist — provides passersby with a medley of melodious tunes. In Winter Garden, visitors can rest their feet in one of the many chairs lined up in front of the performance area, which happens to be located next to a female vendor who stays busy demonstrating a type of hula-hoop exercise equipment she sells. Customers can munch on homemade pastry and sip a cup of java while they listen to music, check out the hula-hoopers and watch the crowd go by.

A guitarist entertains passersby while canine visitors exchange nose-to-nose greetings at a downtown market
People watching is a popular occupation. With such a diverse group frequenting the markets, watching the crowd stroll by is a pleasant diversion from the workaday world.

Most farmers markets are located in downtown areas. A main street is often closed to cars for several blocks allowing pedestrians to walk without worry about vehicle interactions. This makes the venue popular with families, especially those with toddlers and babies in infant carriers or strollers. That also makes it well attended by bicyclists and pet owners.

Sometimes I think there are more dog owners proudly parading along behind their pets at the local outdoor market than any other category of shoppers. Something about a farmers market attracts a canine-loving crowd. Perhaps it's the opportunity to show off their well-behaved pets or simply to enjoy an outing amidst an admiring audience of children and adults. Kids certainly seem to appreciate the dogs' presence, often stopping mid-street to stoop down to pat the friendly animals.

The open-air ambiance of a farmers market is as appealing as its randomness. I never know from week to week who will show up. Although there are definite regulars, the inexpensive rent makes it affordable for small businesses to test the market without having to make a long-term commitment.

In addition to the farmers market itself, local shop owners in both Clermont and Winter Garden often extend store hours to take advantage of the crowd. This is particularly relevant at the Sunday market in Clermont, a day when most stores are normally closed.

One business that opted to be open on Sunday is the South Lake Animal League Thrift Shop. After browsing the booths set up along Montrose Street and stowing my produce purchases in the car, I make a point of popping into the thrift store to look for bargains. Meeting up with my daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren is the draw that gets me to Winter Garden, but having a chance to peruse the racks of gently used clothing, most available for the bargain price of a dollar per item, attracts me to Clermont.

There are many reasons to explore farmers markets. Whether doing it to save money, buy local or simply as a way to enjoy some free outdoor entertainment, check out the offerings near you. In addition to Clermont's Sunday market and Winter Garden's Saturday venue, the farmers market in Tavares is on Friday and in Leesburg on Saturday. All are located in the downtown areas and open from morning to early afternoon.

For a complete listing of farmers markets throughout the state visit

Monday, January 9, 2012

Celebrating a year of walking while working

A 1x10 board laid across the arms of the treadmill provides support for a laptop.

Simply Living
January 9, 2012

A year ago this week, I replaced the desk and chair in my office with a treadmill. For the past 365 days, whenever I've wanted to check email, write a column, do online research or see what's new on Facebook, I've done so in an upright position. My fingers tap the keyboard while my feet pad along on a band of movable floor.

My husband, a disciplined exerciser whose daily three-mile loop around the lake has been an integral part of his routine for years, has watched my indoor rambles with mystified indulgence.

"I don't know how you do it," he says, referring to my ability to punch computer keys while maintaining a steady pace. But what he's really wondering is: Why? Why would I opt to walk inside when I could be outside enjoying the fresh air and scenery?

I do it because I like it. I do it because I can. I do it to burn calories. I do it for my health.

Computers have the uncanny ability to alter time. A few minutes checking email can easily turn into two hours of browsing the web.

If I hadn't replaced my desk and chair with a treadmill, my derriere and the cushioned seat would be wedged together for a good part of the day. Sure, I'd get up for breaks, and I might even go outside to join my husband for a walk around the lake, but I'd spend the majority of my daytime hours sitting down fixated on a LCD screen.

With such a proliferation of technological gadgets vying for our attention these days, it has become common to spend more time exercising our fingers than our feet. That doesn't make it right. Or healthy.

A number of studies support the position that sitting down is causing rising health problems.

"Prolonged time spent sitting, independent of physical activity, has been shown to have important metabolic consequences," said Dr. Alpa V. Patel, senior epidemiologist at the American Cancer Society and lead researcher of a 2010 study on how sitting affects mortality.

Patel's research, which spanned 14 years and included 123,000 subjects, showed that women who sit for more than six hours a day were about 40 percent more likely to die during the course of the study than those who sat fewer than three hours a day. Men were about 20 percent more likely to die.

I have no desire to die early, but neither do I want to sweat my way to good health. That's why working at a treadmill desk is ideal. It is nothing like a ruthless gym workout. When walking-while-working on my treadmill, I do so at the leisurely pace of 1 mph.

At such a slow speed, integrating thoughts with actions is seamless. I'm able to do everything I ordinarily would do on the computer, but I do it while burning more than 100 calories an hour. Multiply that by the four to five hours I normally spend in my office and the numbers become significant.

One mph is the speed recommended by Dr. James Levine, an obesity expert at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and the person responsible for popularizing the concept of a treadmill desk.

"It's amenable to regular people," said Levine in a 2010 interview with The Plain Dealer in Cleveland. "You don't need to have a gym membership. You don't need to be physically trim to use it. And you don't need to sacrifice productivity or access to the workplace in order to improve your health."

That certainly has been true for me. I love my treadmill workstation, a homemade desk made out of a length of wood laid across the treadmill arms upon which my laptop sits. I love knowing that every time I log on to the Internet I'm strengthening muscles, building bone and improving my overall health.

Sometimes getting on a road to self-improvement doesn't necessitate a road at all. An inexpensive, easy-to-construct treadmill workstation has the power to transform a sluggish, tired workaholic into an energetic, happy and much healthier walk-a-holic. That's one feat my two feet can really take a stand on.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Mother of thousands

An umbrella of red blooms sits atop a leggy stalk on a Mother-of-thousands plant

Simply Living
January 2, 2012

There’s a plant growing in my yard that I can’t seem to get rid of.  Some people call it Mexican hat plant, Devil’s backbone or Alligator plant.  Others know it as ‘Mother-of-thousands’ but from my experience, ‘Mother-of-millions’ might be a more appropriate moniker. 

The botanical name of this prolifically reproducing succulent is Kalanchoe daigremontianac.  Native to southwestern Madagascar, Mother-of-thousands is a perennial in Florida and other warm-weather regions of the country.  In colder climates, it is cultivated as a houseplant and perhaps that’s where it belongs – some place where carpet, tile and hardwood flooring will limit its uncanny ability to self-propagate prodigiously. 

Mother-of-thousands looks a bit like aloe.  This potentially 3-foot-tall plant has a center stalk out of which grow a series of fleshy, 4 to 6-inch long serrated leaf-like stems that are green with a hint of purple on the undersides.  During winter months, the stalk can produce an umbrella shaped terminal from which dozens of bell-like red flowers dangle.   

Hummingbirds favor this attractive bit of botanical finery, which should make this easy-to-care-for perennial a welcome addition to the wildlife garden.  Unfortunately, its invasive nature counterbalances its more positive features.

The key to Mother-of-thousands’s reproductive magic is visible on the edge of each of its leaf-like stems where small, round dark-colored plantlets form.  One ‘leaf’ can contain 20 to 50 of these babies-in-waiting and every Mother-of-thousands plant boasts at least a dozen leaf-like stems.  Do the math and the potential problem becomes obvious.

When the plantlets fall off, sometimes with white thread-like roots already in place, they settle on the ground and proceed to grow.  Not fussy about soil needs, Mother-of-thousands seedlings have successfully rooted on our property in moist spots as well as in areas where water supply is limited.  Much to my vexation, these tenacious succulents even manage to flourish where soil is seemingly nonexistent.  I’ve seen plantlets achieve purchase in the cracks of concrete walkways as well as in the narrow spaces between our paved patio and stucco walls.   

Who needs dirt?  Mother-of-thousands can sprout and grow in the tiniest crack in concrete

On the positive side, Mother-of-thousands is easy to uproot.  One yank with a gloved hand (to protect against the serrated edges) can pull these shallow-rooted perennials from their roost.  On the negative side, each yank has the potential to dislodge several of the small, round dark-colored plantlets, making the entire let’s-just-yank-them-out-to-get-rid-of-these-pests plan redundant.

Considering the difficulty of total eradication, I’ve opted for the same approach with Mother-of-thousands as I’ve taken for Mexican petunia (Ruellia brittoniana) and wedelia (Wedelia trilobata), two other overly active reproducers that I made the mistake of introducing to the property.  I stop treating them like garden plants.  I dig up and relocate the offending perennials to wooded areas where they receive no irrigation or soil enrichment.  I’ve found that when I stop treating invasives like pampered garden plants, they stop acting like unruly, out-of-control pests.       

Mother-of-thousands isn’t a bad plant.  It just isn’t the right plant to put in certain places.

Learning as much as possible about a plant’s behavior before installing it in your yard goes a long way toward avoiding future problems but don’t fool yourself into thinking education will put an end to errors.  A cultivar’s beauty, color, fragrance or special characteristics can sway the mindset of even the best-intentioned gardener. 

To prevent plants like Mother-of-thousands from becoming Mother-of-millions, exercise a gardener’s form of tough love: “You can stay on the property but I won’t spoil you.”

When miscalculations occur, make the best of them.  Sometimes an effective compromise is the right answer when total eradication is too daunting.