How Are Your Seeds Cared For Before You Get Them?

What to look for when buying seeds.

Do you know where your packet of seeds has been? Do you know how they have been treated before you buy them? Are you sure they were treated well so that they will be as viable as they possibly can be when you plant them? If you can’t answer these questions then perhaps it’s not your fault that your seeds did not germinate. It could well be that your seeds were dead when you got them.

I am sure that at one time or another you have bought a packet of seeds, planted them, waited and nothing has happened. For many, they consider that they did something wrong, sometimes you do. Some seeds are finicky about their growing conditions. If they need light to germinate and you covered them, then they wont grow. Its always important to follow the growing instructions for seeds to have success. Some seeds are also very particular about temperature, light, moisture and other factors, but a great many for the most part will grow if you stick them in the ground and water them correctly. That is if you have viable seed to begin with. If your seeds were not treated well before you buy them then they most likely wont grow.
Most seeds are fairly tough. They have a protective coating that helps to keep them moist inside and guard them from the rigors of the world. Most have to endure winters outside and hope they have fallen a an area that is favorable for them to grow the following year. However tough does not mean invulnerable. Treating seeds with care and storing them in the best way to keep them viable for the greatest length of time will help ensure that they will grow into healthy plants. Indeed that they will grow at all.

First lets look at the life of a seed in the wild.
It grows on the mother plant, it ripens and then gets dispersed in some manner. It then falls to the ground and waits. In most cases this means waiting though the cold winter months for spring and moisture to arrive so it can hopefully sprout. The seed lays dormant while it is cold. Therefore storing seeds in a cool to cold environment will keep them in that dormant stage for long periods of time. Indeed this is how all seeds are stored in seed banks the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is located high above the arctic circle. Scientists have long known that keeping seeds cold, dark and low humidity will keep them viable for long periods of time. So obviously keeping them under other conditions is not going to be good for their viability.

So where has your seed packet been?
Now let us consider that packet of seeds you might buy in the store. This could be a big box store, hardware store or garden center.
First where is it when you see it? On a rack with lots of other seed packets in a nice warm heated store. It’s stuck up in the air with lots of warm air circulating around it. Is this a good environment for seeds? NO.

Seed rack in store. In bright light, next to card racks and backed by plants. Humidity will be high near the plants and bright light and heat is not ideal for seed viability.
Seed rack in store. In bright light, next to card racks and backed by plants. Humidity will be high near the plants and bright light and heat is not ideal for seed viability.

How long has it been on that rack?
If you are fast you might be able to get to the seeds when they first arrive on the rack. Then they won’t have been out in the warm store for that long. However most people come to get their seeds long after they have been sitting on that rack. How long have they been there, weeks months? All that time in a warm store.

Where is the rack located?
Good stores will put them far inside the store where the temperatures are fairly even, but I have seen many stores put them in windows where the sun beats down on them during the day heating up the seeds, or in the greenhouse section of the garden center.  Is that seed going to be viable when you do plant it? Unless it’s very tough, probably not.

How did your seed packet get to the rack in the first place?
Most likely it came in a truck. Packed in a box. That might be fine but it depends on where that truck has been. Has it been moving through sunny hot climates before it got to your store? It’s possible that box could have been left on the loading dock in the sun for hours, maybe longer getting hotter and hotter. Seeds don’t like that.

This rack is outdoors in bright sunshine! This is just death to seeds!
This rack is outdoors in bright sunshine! This is just death to seeds!

How far has it travelled to get to your local store. Or even your online store?
Don’t assume that the seeds you buy are grown here. Most are not. Most seed companies won’t tell you where their seeds come from and their websites often talk about their garden centers or such like but their seeds are not grown here. A large proportion of seeds come from Holland, Germany, Poland and China. Yes, I was surprised too. Often the seeds are travelling very long distances across oceans before they reach the wholesaler, who may then repackage them into those colorful packets that you buy in the stores. In some instances it’s not even clear what year the seeds were grown in before they reach you.

How was the seed processed and stored to begin with?
A large proportion of seed companies don’t store their seeds in cold conditions. Having been to many different seed conferences and talked to other seed growers I am always shocked to find how they store their seeds. Many small companies just keep them in boxes in their house, others have a commerical building but because they are using it all the time it’s heated. A lot of times these are metal buildings and they get darn hot in the summer months. This might be fine if you can sell your seed on very fast to your buyers but it’s never a good place to keep seed for even a few days.

Is your seed dated?
Surprisingly most seed packets don’t have any kind of date on them.  They don’t even tell you what year the seed you bought was grown in. This means that you could be buying packets that are years old. Just where has that seed packet been stored and for how long? One of the reasons that some seed companies do this is because the seed may be several years old if it has traveled the world before it got to your seed packet. Another is so they can sell on last years stock and not take a loss on seeds that were not so popular. That might be OK to do IF the seeds were stored in the right conditions in the meantime, but most of the time they are not, just stuck in some warehouse somewhere that is usually not climate controlled to keep it cool in the summer.

What Floral Encounters does.
We grow all our own seeds. Yes, we do buy seed to grow, it’s the only way we can get new and different plants to grow. Mostly these won’t be organic when we get them so we need to grow them on at least two years before they are producing organic seeds for us. We have to buy seed from overseas because mostly they are not produced here. Even those times I bought from a ‘local’ dealer I found that the seeds were actually coming from overseas and being sold on by those companies. Surprisingly a large number of seed companies do this.

Once our plants are established we then collect our seed from the field and store it in a cool seed storage barn. Ours is located under dense tree cover so it stays as cool as possible throughout the year. Once the seeds material arrives it may be laid out on racks to fully dry or if already dry stored in bins until we have the time to process it. We then do as much bulk processing as possible. This removes as much large material as we can, then we store the remaining material in a cooler atmosphere.
As soon as we have time the seed will then be sifted to remove as much material as possible from the seed. As we state in are FAQ it takes an enormous amount of effort to remove all the material from the seeds unless many thousands of dollars are spent on seed cleaning machines which we cant yet afford on our little farm.
We remove all the material we can then our seed is stored in bulk in refrigeration units that are designed to keep a constant humidity and temperature. All our seeds remain there until they are sold directly to you.

We package our seeds for each order. This ensures that all the seeds you buy have been stored at the best possible temperature for the longest possible time thus keeping the seeds in the best possible condition before they are sent to you.
We also date our seeds with the year that they were harvested so you know how old the seed you are getting is. In almost all cases we use seed grown in year before so 2016 seed would be used in 2017. Occasionally we use older seed if we did not grow that seed in a particular year or if the harvest failed, which does happen on occasion but its very rare with such a diverse farm. Dating seed ensures that you know exactly how fresh the seed you are getting is and when it was grown.

When shipping our seeds we take all our orders directly to the post office and post them inside the building. This ensures that they stay as cool as possible for as long as we can manage. We don’t place them in hot mail boxes or give them to open air mail carriers. This is especially important during hotter summer months. In this way the seeds we offer are as fresh and viable as they can possibly be.

So our seeds are shipped directly to you from our cooled storage giving them the least possible time in less than idea conditions. So if you buy our seeds you know exactly where they have been and how they were treated until they were sent to you.

We always recommend that you place your seeds in the refrigerator as soon as they arrive and that you keep them their until planting. If you don’t use the whole packet then put the rest back. Use them again next year, they should be fine.

12 Reasons to buy seed to start your plants this year.

Don’t leave it too late to buy your seeds.

1. You get a jump on winter. Instead of waiting until the weather is warm enough to sow our seeds outside we start them during the winter months inside so they are large and hopefully health by time its warm enough to plant them out. So we get larger plants sooner, our gardens have flowers faster and our vegetables are available much earlier.

2. Growing inside in trays gives you complete control over the conditions in which the seeds germinate. Sown outside the seeds have to take their chances that the conditions are right. Inside you have a much higher rate of success and thus more plants than hoping nature will give you what you want. So you get more plants for your money.

3. Many seedlings are small and grow slowly at first. This is far more common with perennial plants than annuals so starting early and giving the plants a good start nursing them to a reasonable size before putting them into the ground gives them a much better chance at survival, it also ensures that they don’t have to complete with a lot of weeds in that first important stage of their lives.

4. You get so much more for your money. A packet of seeds is not expensive it may seem like a lot when you look at those little seeds in the packet, but each one of those little seeds is a potential plant. That ends up as a LOT of plants! A packet of seeds may cost perhaps $2.00 – $4.00 which will give you anywhere from 30 to 200 seeds. A pack of plants in the garden center could cost the same amount of money but you only get 2-6 plants at the most.

two species of seedlings growing in cell trays
two species of seedlings growing in cell trays

5. Beats out the weeds in one of two ways. If you sow seeds early inside then the plants you grow don’t have to compete with weeds as they would if they were direct sown. This gives them a wonderful advantage. Annual flower plants can be planted closer together to form a solid mass of plant cover for the summer months. This ensures that there is much less weeding since the weed seeds don’t have enough light to germinate. It’s a win win.

6. You have a lot more plants to work with. You can make huge displays of color or grow larger amounts of vegetables and make your garden the showpiece of the neighborhood. While your neighbours are buying a six pack or a flat of small flowering plants, for a fraction of that cost you have several dozen flats. This means you have a lot more plants to make a wonderful display of flowers, vegetables or whatever your choice all for a fraction of the cost. Creating mass plantings of flowers is easy an inexpensive.

Mass plantings give great impact and can be inexpensively achieved by growing many plants from on packet of seeds.
Mass plantings give great impact and can be inexpensively achieved by growing many plants from on packet of seeds.

7. You have back-up plants. If you buy a six pack at the garden center, come home, plant them and two or more die. Now you have to go back to the garden center to get more to fill in the spaces. If you grow seeds you can plant group of plants, see how well they do, and if some fail you have more on the sidelines waiting to fill in the spaces. A fail safe backup. Almost any commercial farm works this way. A few plants always die so backups are inserted in their place.

8. Get a lot more choice than your local garden center will offer you. They only have so much space so they can’t offer as wide a range of plants as you can grow from seed. They will sell what is popular and easy. Growing them yourself means you don’t have to have the same plants everyone else does you can have something new and different. You can stand out.

9. You can grow a lot of different plants and produce a much more diverse garden. Instead of just having a couple of flats of the usual plants from the garden center you can have a dozen or more different kinds of plants. You can choose ones that flower at different times or are different colors.

10. Growing plants from seed is a wonderful experience. Watching the little green shoots poke up through the soil and turn into large flowering or fruiting plants is amazing. It’s a great thing to do with children or all ages. It helps to link people to their origins and roots in the soil.

Larger seeds germinating
Larger seeds germinating

11. You can bring spring into the house early. While its still cold and wintery outside the little seedlings inside are coming up and promising an new beginning to the year. Fresh green shoots helps to take away the winter blues.

12. Its fun!

So when its cold outside and the winter snows are falling and the wind blowing. This is the time to hunker down with the seed catalogs or check out the online sites to decide what plants you want to grow this year. Then buy them and start the seeds. If you want to get your jump on winter then you need to start looking at the seed options now. For best results seeds need to be started soon. For us here in the northeast mid to late February is the ideal time to start seeds. Therefore now is the time you need to buy them.

Winter aconites are the first plants to flower in the garden.

Spring is on it’s way!

The snow melted yesterday and there under the snow were the bright yellow buds of the winter aconites (Eranthus hyemalis) Two days later the sun came out and the flowers opened and turned their little yellow faces to the adoring sun and laughed at winter.

Winter aconites are really tough little guys and even though everyone says that snowdrops are the first sign of spring mine have yet to even show a leaf. If you want early spring color in the garden to cheer your spirits then winter aconites are the way to go. These lovely little yellow flowers grow low to the ground they produce a starburst of flat green leaves with one yellow flower in the center. Aconites grow from tiny bulbs about the size of a pencil eraser but they will self seed nicely once they are established. Collecting seeds is tough though, we tried it, it’s extremely time consuming and not at all cost effective. This is why the plants are usually sold as bulbs, which at present we don’t sell.

Aconites thrive in areas where there is summer shade. So planting them under deciduous trees where they get lots of winter sunshine but are shaded during the summer is ideal. The lovely rosette leaves last into the early summer providing a nice ground cover in the first part of the year. After that the bulbs go dormant during the summer months.
Don’t plant under bird feeders since they come up at the time feeders are most active they just get pecked to death. Birds don’t care about plants they care about the seeds around them.

Winter aconite flowers  (Eranthus hyemalis)
Winter aconite flowers (Eranthus hyemalis)

Aconites are a cold loving species they are hardy from zones 3 -7 so they won’t grow in the warmer areas, but heck you don’t need spring indicators in the south! They will tolerate some moisture all year around but do like well drained soil. They thrive in sunshine or semi shade but not under pine or fir species. They like a rich humus soil which is found under deciduous trees. Left alone they will self seed and form a carpet of yellow flowers in early spring, then a ground cover which can be mown back by early to mid summer so they are ideal in a grassy area under trees or mixed with later growing perennials.

Winter aconite flowers open and close with the sun. when the sun is shining their petals open and they bath in the bright rays, when it goes down or on cloudy days the petals stay closed. The flowers can last for several weeks. More if there are a lot of cloudy days and less if there is lots of sunshine and warm temperatures.

I started my winter aconites with a dozen bulbs about 25 years ago, planted them outside my living room window they grew and proliferated. It was wonderful looking out the window every spring at the constantly increase carpet of early yellow flowers.
When I moved this farm twelve years ago I dug up as many as I could which turned out to be a several hundred. Not all of them survived the journey but a lot did. I planted these under trees and in flower beds that I can see from my dining room and living room windows. I think its important that you can see them from the house windows, it’s the first sign of spring in cold weather when most people are not working outside. Being able to appreciate them from the house lifts the spirits and see proof that spring is just around the corner. Back at my old house there is still a carpet of aconites every spring so I obviously only got a few of them.

Winter aconite flowers  (Eranthus hyemalis)  under deciduous trees on our berm
Winter aconite flowers (Eranthus hyemalis) under deciduous trees on our berm

Now I have a large clump on the berm under some of my Kousa Dogwood trees. These are always the first to flower as they get the most winter sunshine. The ones outside my living room window are located in a sheltered northern exposure and come up about the same time but don’t open as quickly. The ones in less sheltered northern exposures still have not shown themselves yet. This is fine by me. It means that my enjoyment of the yellow flowers is extended. The ones of the berm get mown over during the summer as they are in shade loving grass. The ones in the flower beds are mixed with Hostas which come up later in the year, about the time that the aconites are going down. So I get a carpet of yellow flowers followed by bright green ground cover with new Hosta leaves growing through them. By time the Hosta leaves are growing large the aconites are going dormant. It’s perfect.

Very early flowers are also important to pollinators especially honey bees. On warm late winter days they can come out of the hive for a fly around and a bathroom break. (bees don’t ‘go’ in the hive so these gals have been holding it all winter!) Finding some flowers while they are out is always a great bonus for them and an extra energy boost.

I love my aconites and always suggest that any gardener plant some. Brighten those winter blues with yellow flowers!



How do I know what zone I live in?

Plant zones are also called Hardiness zones. Basically it’s the temperature at while a plant will survive the cold. Decades of observation and experimentation have shown what temperatures each plant will live, thrive or die in. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) first developed this method but it has since been adopted by many other countries.
What they did was divide the country up into bands of average temperatures so for example zone 7 would be from 0°F (17.8°C) to 10°F (12.2°C). These are the average low temperatures for that area. Of course then it got more complicated and they decided to have 7a and 7b which breaks the zone down a little more finely.
Every plant grows within a certain temperature range is assigned to a the lowest zone in which it will survive. That does not mean that it will flourish wonderfully there but it will survive. When you look at buying a plant most growers and seed companies will list what zone the plant is hardy to. Using this information along with which zone your home is located in you can determine if a specific plant will grow in your area.

The USDA has an excellent website with country wide maps and state maps. You can even put in your zip code and it will tell you what zone you are in.
The climate zones were updated in 2012 to take into account the warmer temperatures that the world has been experiencing in the last two decades. So if you thought you knew what your zone was it’s a good idea to check it again as it might have changed now. Our zone went from 6a to 6b and then on the latest update to 7a with the ever changing maps its looks as if we are creeping closer to 7b!

Other countries have also adopted the USDA idea and have produced zone maps for their own countries. If you search for hardiness zone and your country you should be able to find it.

Higher Or Lower Zone Which Is It?
This can be very confusing. Higher zones refers to a higher number so its hotter. Zone 10 is higher than zone 6. It does not refer to the location on the map so although Maine is ‘higher’ up in the United States it has a low zone number.

Cold Is Not The Only Thing That Determines Plant Growth .
More recently it has been recognized that cold hardiness is not the only factor that should be taken into account when growing plants. Some plant can’t tolerate heat. Examples would be Maral root which is a Siberian native and wont grow in warm climates. Rowan trees are another example they cant tolerate high heat. I have seen magnificent rowan trees in Nova Scotia and Maine but I cant grow them here its too hot.

To that end the American Horticultural Society have created a heat zone map and thousands of plants have been coded to it. Unfortunately since this was created by a non-government body the map is only located on their site and its quite small. If you want more detailed information they ask you to purchase one of their maps. The small map they show is fairly valuable at determining your zone and their site does explain its use in detail. The only drawback is that most nurseries do not code their plant labels to use the heat zone map so you need to look the plant up on the AHS site or a few other sites that do reference this map.

Other Factors.
Zones are not everything. There are many other factors for growing plants. You may live in a very sunny area with a south facing wall that is sheltered from the wind so while you may be in zone 6 you can grow plant there that are listed to zone 7b. Its also possible to create sheltered pockets and grow warmer plants

Plants covered by snow in our field
Plants covered by snow are insulated from the cold air temperatures above. Less borderline plants will die if covered with snow all winter.
Snow cover is also a factor. Snow is a great insulator. If plants are covered in a thick blanket of snow from early winter until the spring they will often survive in lower zones than it is listed for because it was kept warm by the snow all winter. In areas where the snow falls then melts then falls again the plants are subjected to a far more extremes of temperature and need to be much more hardy than in areas where snow persists all winter long. We certainly tend to loose more plants in winters that are very cold when the snow falls and melts than when we have a blanket of snow all winter long.

For the most part perennial plants are always listed with a hardiness zone on the label. Annuals are not since they are expected to die at the end of the season anyway. However many plants that are treated as annuals are not really. A good example is Impatiens which are grown in a large portions of the country since they can tolerate some shade. These plants are treated as annuals and left to die at the end of winter, however they are in fact perennials but they don’t tolerate low temperatures. Brought into the house they will live happily as perennial house plants.

Always check the label for the plants zone.
All the perennials that we sell at Floral encounters have a zone listing with them. Make sure to check the zone listing on any plants that you purchase at your local garden center. Just because they are selling it there and its outside in the summer months does not mean that it will survive the winter months there. Its quite common for garden centers to sell plants that will not survive the winter but neglect to tell the buyer this when they purchase the plant. Always check the label, if it does not say on the label, but cautious it often means it won’t survive winter in your zone.

Feeding wild birds in the winter months.

It gives them much needed food and it gives us entertainment.

Cold winter days are not popular with many people. Yes there are those who claim they love the cold weather, I personally think they are nuts but heck it takes all sorts.
The snow descends, just like here today, it covers the local world in a blanket of white. Normal things suddenly become beautiful there is a tranquility about it. I can be magical, if of course you don’t have to go out to work in it or clean it up. Just looking at it through the window is a pretty wonderful thing to do.

It’s not so much fun for the birds. When the snow comes down it covers up all the possible food sources that they have. It’s at this time that bird feeders are essential for birds, especially little ones who need a lot of energy just to keep from freezing to death. At this time having a bird feeder and feeding the birds can be a very good thing to do. You can save a lot of little lives and have hours of free entertainment as well.

Watching pretty birds at bird feeders can be a surprisingly enjoyable pastime. Even some birds that at first glance may look boring can reveal themselves as quite beautiful when the feathers are seen more closely.

What to feed the birds.
This is going to depend on where you live. Here in North Eastern United States birds will only eat ‘native’ kinds of food. Mostly seeds and suet cakes which are packed with energy they need to keep warm. Wild bird food is available in large sacks from all big box stores, most hardware stores and many other sources. In other areas where it is warmer some birds will also be attracted to fruit and other foods so choosing will depend on the type of birds you want to attract and if they are in your vicinity. Putting out fruit to attract fruit eaters when its snowing is not going to work.

If you live in a city, or parts of Europe birds tend to eat lots of other stuff. Growing up in England my parents fed the birds all the scraps from our table, bread, fat scraps all kinds of things except vegetables. We learnt very fast not to put out fish scraps or the garden was inundated with seagulls very fast (we lived near the sea). We also learned to cut the bread up into small pieces or the rooks would come along and stab a whole bunch of pieces like a barbeque skewer and make off with all the food. My mother loved to feed them mashed potato since they could not scoop up a lot of that in one go. She thought that was delightfully funny. Watching the birds gave them hours of entertainment (remember there was no cable or Netflix in those days).

Large crow picking up as many bread cubes as it can
Large crow picking up as many bread cubes as it can

Here in the Northeast US the birds wont eat any of that, they don’t even eat bread. They will in very cold winters eat lard but they have to be desperate with snow on the ground for several weeks before they even consider it.
If you are just starting out with bird feeding ask others what they find the birds eat. Its no fun putting out table scraps and finding they are still there weeks later. You could end up with rats. Experiment with new materials in small amounts and see if they like them. Even if you are buying specific bird foods is a good idea to try only in small amounts just in case your birds don’t like you offerings.

Platform bird feeder
Platform bird feeder

How to feed the birds.
For the most part its good to use bird feeders. Basically they come in two major forms. Long tall cylinders with individual perches for birds and wider squatter feeders with ledges. Both are equally good. Having one of each is even better as different kinds of birds use each kind of feeder. Our hanging bird feeder is used by nuthatches, tufted titmouse, goldfinches, chickadees and other finches. These birds never use the flatter feeder with the ledge, that is frequented by cardinals, bluejays, grackles, starlings, woodpeckers, and many other birds. Dark eyed junko and mourning doves never use either feeder but prefer to feed on the ground and scratch around for scraps that other birds of dropped. Therefore it’s a good idea to have one of both if you have places to put them. Also scatter some food on the ground to allow those birds that don’t like to get up on the bird feeders to have food too. If there is a lot of snow, scrape some down to a solid layer and put the seed there or it just drops into the snow and the birds cant find it.

Experiment with feeders to find the best ones for you. We started with a fairly small square feeder but soon migrated to a much larger one. At our old even smaller farm we were the only house that fed birds so they came from a great distance and we fed a lot of birds. We got fed up with constantly going outside to fill up our small feeder it got to the point where they would eat it out once a day so a larger feeder that we only had to fill weekly was much better.

Some hanging feeders are specialists for thistle seed. This is fine IF you have thistle feeding birds. We tried one in our old location and never got one bird. If they are not in your area then they cant come to feed. Same thing applies to humming bird feeders, if they don’t live in your area then you wont get visitors.

Downy woodpecker on suet feeder
Downy woodpecker on suet feeder

Suet feeders are good if you live in a location where it stays cold for long periods. However if the temperatures fluctuate quite a lot which they are tending to do now the suet can melt and create nasty grease spots on the ground which can be very unpleasant. This can also attract unwanted ground creates like voles and mice to the ground area. We stopped using suet feeders for this reason.

Placement of feeders.
The ideal place is near a window where you can sit comfortably and watch the birds. Having the feeder away from the house where you cant see it defeats the object of entertainment. Lets face it we want to get something out of the deal not just feed them. The joy of watching them is the best bit.
Long cylinders can be hung from hooks under the soffit of the house close to the window. It will take the birds a while to get used to the movement in the house and not fly away every time you move but after a while they ignore it and you can get a really close up view of the birds. It is also more difficult for squirrels to reach feeders in this position. Not impossible just more difficult.

For larger feeders you can either use a pole with a feeder mounted on the top or hang it from a tree. Be aware that feeders full of seed can get heavy so choose a strong branch to do this. Wrap something around wide around the tree branch before you put the rope or chain up to stop the bark from abrading as this can eventually kill the branch. We use an old piece of clothing to pad the branch first. Also be aware that if you put the feeder in a tree many birds will visit the feeder then fly to a nearby branch with their seed and eat it there. Some use their feet and peck the hull off the seed that way. IF they are sitting on a branch the bark of the branch gets pecked too. Over time if they use the same branch it can damage the bark there and you may have problems with the branches dying back.

Where ever you choose also consider other animals that will be attracted to your seed. Mainly squirrels. Squirrels love bird seed as much as birds do and it can be very entertaining watching them try to figure out how to get to the them. I really did not mind the squirrels using our feeder, to start with, but they do tend to eat a whole feeder full of seed at one time and what they don’t eat they throw on the ground so you end up with a pound or so of seed on the ground and nothing in the feeder. It then gets annoying having to keep filling it up. Keeping the squirrels off the feeders and putting other food out just for them (if you want to fee them) is the best option. However squirrels are very clever and will try all kinds of methods to get to the feeders, don’t underestimate them. They will leap for long distances to get to a feeder. Cones on poles to stop them climbing up works very well provided there are not any trees our house walls close by that they can climb and jump from. A friend put a cone on his feeder and his two squirrels spent a week climbing up a nearby tree and jumping on the cone time after time until the broke it.

Squirrel on our hanging bird feeder.  He leapt from a nearby building (fell a lot before he got it right), to the top of the pole, then slid down to get to the food.
Squirrel on our hanging bird feeder. He leapt from a nearby building (fell a lot before he got it right), to the top of the pole, then slid down to get to the food.

Squirrels will also hang down from branches by their feet to get to feeders. It took ours several months of trying before he figured out how to edge down the roof reach under the eve and down onto the hanging feeder there so he could reach the seed. In the new position on a pole with a cone below it they climb the side of the house and leap out to grab it before they fall.

Thus take care where you put a feeder, anything in a tree will get squirrels. Even if you think it’s a good spot consider that the squirrel is out to beat you. Its always a running battle.

One useful trick is to add cayenne pepper to the bird seed. The birds cant taste it and they don’t care, but most squirrels hate the hot taste and will leave the seed alone. Occasionally you get one that loves the taste of spicy food and will ignore it but its not that common.

Seed debris.
Whatever you put in the feeder you are going to get shells and hulls left on the ground under the feeder. The grass there is going to be scratched up more as the birds scratch for the seeds. The best option is to place it in an area where you are not bothered if you have the best grass then plant a few tough species underneath it, or place it in a flower bed where there are perennials that come up later in the spring. This way the hulls work as mulch and the seed hulls bother no one.

Nuthatch on sunflower feeder in our garden
Nuthatch on sunflower feeder in our garden

Types of seed.
We use unhulled sunflower seeds in our hanging tube feeder. You can get hulled seeds but the speed at which those disappear is amazing and we spent too much time filling the feeder up again. Using unhulled ones slows down the speed at which they can eat them. Many people don’t like them because you get a pile of seed hulls under the feeder. We just planted hostas under the feeders. They don’t come up until after the feeders have been removed in the spring and they hulls act as a great mulch. The hostas do well and we get far fewer weeds.

We use mixed seed in the larger feeder. This allows for the birds to get a variety of seeds. However some birds like only one kind. This tends to be things like blue jays who go after the sunflower seeds and will toss out all the other seed to get to them. If you have a lot of blue jays they will empty your feeder fast to get the sunflowers so you might want to mix in extra ones to keep more food in the feeder rather than on the ground.

How long should you feed the birds.
That depends on how much you enjoy watching them and what other wildlife you have around you. If you love that part of it then you can feed them all year. If you just want winter entertainment and to help feed them in the lean times then take the feeders in during the spring.
If you live in an area where there is other wildlife taking feeders in when spring comes is recommended. Don’t leave feeders out if there are bears in your area they will be attracted. Putting feeders up very high to keep the bears off can often help but like squirrels bears are very clever and will figure out ways to get to your bird seed. For the most part its best to take them down. If you have bears make sure any spare sacks of bird food are kept well away from doors and walls in the garage. If you feed seed they can smell the sacks and may try to get into the garage or shed where you are keeping it. Bears are very strong and can be very destructive.
Also be aware that during warmer months many other animals are active so bird feeders may attract other visitors. Mice and voles will come and eat the seeds under the feeders as will raccoons although they tend to come at night they can often be easily seed especially during a full moon. If your feeders are close to the house you may not want to attract such animals so taking them down in the summer is again recommended.

If you have bears don’t use humming bird feeders either unless you can get them above the height a bear cant reach it. A bear will completely destroy a feeder when trying to get at the sugar syrup.

Grow other food sources during the year.
While birds will eat seeds during the winter months virtually no bird feeds seeds to their young chicks. They use caterpillars, insects and such like. So having a diverse garden with many different plants that attract insects will increase your bird population and give them other things to eat. Growing plants that pollinators and other insects like to use is helpful. Growing plants that produce seeds that birds love to eat will also attract them to your garden. An example is Anise Hyssop, the goldfinches love the seed and often our rows are so festooned with the bright yellow birds that it looks as if the plants are covered in yellow flowers. Providing seed in the garden is a much better way to feed the birds naturally than at a feeder during the year and since they are spread out it does not attract other pest such as mice to the feeders which can happen in summer months.
We had a nest of tent caterpillars in a tree near our patio one year which I intended to remove but never got to it. Once the caterpillars broke from the nest they infested our patio plants, not to eat them but to pupate. However a pair of blue jays spent days picking every single pupa from all the plants on our patio, there were dozens of them but the happy birds found it easy to locate them. Thus they had lots of food for their nestlings and we had a pest free patio.

Join the world Counting birds this February

Be a citizen scientist for up to four days and have fun doing it.

The Great Backyard Bird Count is coming up soon February 17-20 2017.  It’s your  opportunity to join with people from around the world to look at the bird populations everywhere.

You can count those at your own bird feeder or for the more ambitious you can travel around and count birds in may areas.  Many people get a group together and make a day of it.  You can even have a competition between local groups and see how many different sightings you can achieve in one day or over the four days of the event.

Launched in 1998 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, the Great Backyard Bird Count was the first online citizen-science project to collect data on wild birds and to display results in near real-time.  It was later joined by Bird Studies Canada when bird enthusiasts from Canada started reporting their own sightings.  Every year the number of reports has been growing and in 2013 it went global with countries all over the world now reporting on bird sightings.

The Great Backyard Bird Count website. gives detailed instructions on how to count birds and how to enter the data into the citizen science database.  It’s a great activity to people of all ages and an wonderful family event that everyone can enjoy.

It’s traditionally held in February because the three science groups wanted to create a snapshot of the distribution of birds just before spring migrations ramped up in March.  After the event went global in 2013 it gave them a much richer and detailed snapshot of birds wherever they are in February, regardless of seasons across the hemispheres.

Check out their website if you are interested.  Plug in your area and they will even give you a checklist of all the birds that you are likely to see in your area.  All you need to do is count how many and add it to the checklist.  Then when you are all done enter it into the database.  It’s fun to watch their real time map light up with little dots as people all over the globe enter their data and it gets pinned on the map.  They also have a bird photography competition for the more ambitious, so don’t forget to take your camera along when you are bird watching.

Giant flock of grackles at our farm
Giant flock of grackles at our farm

So start thinking about it now and plan out what you want to do.  If your climate is mild making a day of it can be really fun.  Pick several different locations to visit and see how many different birds you can find.  In colder locations a little more enthusiasm may often be needed but it can still be a rewarding and different family or group event to participate in.  Some organizations offer group trips or location suggestions where you can go and view birds.

Our own Master Gardener group organizes such a get together at our local park where birds can be spotted.  I don’t go because I can see more birds on my farm than they have in the park.  I do the backyard bird count every year in honor of my cousin Peter Ryder.  He was a great bird enthusiast and would have loved to participate in this venture but sadly he died of lung cancer before this event went global (he lived in England).  However I like to keep his memory alive with this event.

More and more scientists are beginning to realize the power of the citizen scientist and realize that everyone has something that they can contribute that can be very valuable.  After all you don’t need a degree to count birds people have been doing it since the stone age.  So whatever you choose counting through the window from your living room armchair  or out for a day trekking join in the fun and become a scientist at least for one day.