Thursday, February 10, 2011

There is not a sprig of grass that shoots uninteresting to me.

Thomas Jefferson

Woodbridge Greenhouses

"To forget how to dig the earth and

to tend the soil is to forget ourselves."

Mahatma Gandhi

Tiny Tunnels

As I shoveled my way to the bird feeder recently, I uncovered small tunnels (roughly the diameter of a quarter) leading directly to the seeds scattered at the base of our feeder. I suspected perhaps it was shrew, moles and voles, but honestly knew nothing about any of them.

Now curious about this extensive network of tunnels beneath the snow, I headed straight for the Internet. My initial Google search revealed a “Northern Mole Vole”, but it lives on a different continent (Northern Afghanistan, Ukraine, Mongolia, China) and is not my culprit. The highlights of my investigation follow:

The name of the region where snow cover meets soil is the subnivean zone. Insulated by a thick, snowy, thermal blanket, a variety of creatures take advantage of the snowy cover from predators to tunnel and breed freely during the winter. When the snow begins to melt this spring, watch for their mini mazes of inter-connecting trails, runways, tunnels and occasional nest of grasses.

Animals in Snow Artwork by Mary Lamb Greene

Adult Moles moles measure 5 to 8 inches long which is too large for these little tunnels. In addition to living and tunneling in the soil below the frost line, far below the snow, they prefer to eat insects and worms, not plant matter or seeds. Moles tunnel quickly. Unlike voles, they surface occasionally. When they surface it creates a mini-volcano-like dirt mound. Moles are not the creatures whose tunnels I uncovered.

Although the Northern Short-tailed Shrew prefers to tunnel in the subnivean zone, shrews are also too large. They measure almost 5” long, and also prefer insects over seeds and plants. A note of caution for you, shrews are venomous mammals with toxic saliva. Anyone who tries to handle a shrew, may receive a painful bite caused by their venom which can paralyze or kill small animals.

Pine Voles measure just 3-4 inches from their nose to their bottom (not including their short tail), and dig tunnels less than 2” in diameter. Their dining habits can be particularly upsetting to gardeners and homeowners since they really enjoy dining on plants. Pine Voles don't make my list of suspects either since their nests and tunnels are about a foot below ground in light, loamy soil.

Meadow Voles are the most likely candidate. They spend most of their time above the ground or in shallow tunnels in dirt or snow. Measuring 3.5 to 5 inches long from nose to bottom, they have tails about 2 inches long. Meadow Voles' eat plant matter, seeds and some insect parts. They seem to be a perfect match.

These are all fascinating creatures. Most of them eat more than their own weight each day. They can tunnel quickly. Voles breed prolifically throughout the year, bearing as many as 40 young per breeding female annually. Which is great for their predators, since they are an important food source for hawks, owls, coyotes, snakes and foxes. Due to their popularity among predators, their life expectancy is rarely more than a year.

With the deep snow cover we've had this winter, predators like owls, hawks, etc. will have trouble finding prey which will affect their populations. Meanwhile, under this deep cover, the populations of moles, voles and shrew will grow rapidly since they each have multiple litters each year with broods ranging from 3 to 10 young.

With this information, I might be tempted to trap them or use deterrents. But, as difficult as all this snow has been for me to deal with, my sympathies go out to all creatures trying to survive in this environment. So, they're safe for now. I'll just be sure to keep the feeders full so there is enough for the birds to share with these subnivean creatures.

I encourage you to visit my sources for more amazing facts:

Down to Earth, Specialists in Education, Leadership and Training.

URI Mole Fact Sheet:

URI Vole Fact Sheet:


The great illustration above is by Mary Lamb-Greene. I found it at KidoInfo's blog from a review of “Living Under the Snow”, a children's book written by local author Kristen Swanberg, who is the Senior Director of Conservation, Audubon Society of Rhode Island.

"When I go into the garden with a spade and dig a bed,
I feel such an exhilaration and health
that I discover that I have been defrauding myself all this time
in letting others do for me
what I should have done with my own hands."
Ralph Waldo Emerson

A Better Lilac?

Any mention of lilacs always reminds me of my Memere's tiny yard. As with previous generations, lilacs are a classic staple. Memere's yard was wrapped cozily with a mature, sturdy row of pale lilacs. Traditional lilacs can make a formidable screen, growing up to 15 feet tall.

At Woodbridge this spring, we are featuring a dwarf lilac that is compact, fragrant, and will bloom again until frost, other than a little rest period during the hottest part of summer. Cleverly named “Bloomerang”, it grows just 4-5 feet tall, making it just right to be planted in most gardens.

Bloomerang will give you abundant showy blooms in the spring that attract butterflies, are deer resistant and great for cutting. It grows in a bushy mound with small foliage. Later blooms are not as full, but still quite enjoyable. Bloomerang's deciduous foliage is mildew resistant.

Just give your Bloomerang well-drained soil, slow-release fertilizer in the spring, and plant it in a sunny spot. For best blooms, clip fading flowers to encourage additional flowers. New flowers will grow on every stem, both old and new growth. Bloomerang flowers nicely in container gardens, as a specimen, mixed in a perennial garden, and even makes a lovely low hedge.

Buried in snow? Treat yourself: imagine visiting Woodbridge Greenhouses this spring. Try this: close your eyes, take a slow, deep breath, and imagine yourself on a warm, sunny day in May, inhaling the timeless sweet scent of purple-pink lilacs. Mmmm. Visit Bloomerang's at Woodbridge Greenhouses, and take one of these compact, fragrant lilacs home to your garden.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

"Lilacs" a Poem by Amy Lowell

False blue,
Color of lilac,
Your great puffs of flowers
Are everywhere, in this, my New England.
Among your heart-shaped leaves
Orange orioles hop like music-box birds and sing
Their little weak soft songs;
In the crooks of your branches
The bright eyes of song sparrows sitting on spotted eggs
Peer restlessly through the light and shadow
Of all Springs.
Lilacs in dooryards
Holding quiet conversations with an early moon;
Lilacs watching a deserted house
Settling sideways into the grass of an old road;
Lilacs, wind-beaten, staggering under a lopsided shock of bloom
Above a cellar dug into a hill.
You are everywhere.
You were everywhere.
You tapped the window when the preacher preached his sermon,
And ran along the road beside the boy going to school.
You stood by the pasture-bars to give the cows good milking,
You persuaded the housewife that her dishpan was of silver.
And her husband an image of pure gold.
You flaunted the fragrance of your blossoms
Through the wide doors of Custom Houses—
You, and sandal-wood, and tea,
Charging the noses of quill-driving clerks
When a ship was in from China.
You called to them: “Goose-quill men, goose-quill men,
May is a month for flitting.”
Until they writhed on their high stools
And wrote poetry on their letter-sheets behind the propped-up ledgers.
Paradoxical New England clerks,
Writing inventories in ledgers, reading the “Song of Solomon” at night,
So many verses before bed-time,
Because it was the Bible.
The dead fed you
Amid the slant stones of graveyards.
Pale ghosts who planted you
Came in the nighttime
And let their thin hair blow through your clustered stems.
You are of the green sea,
And of the stone hills which reach a long distance.
You are of elm-shaded streets with little shops where they sell kites and marbles,
You are of great parks where every one walks and nobody is at home.
You cover the blind sides of greenhouses
And lean over the top to say a hurry-word through the glass
To your friends, the grapes, inside.

False blue,
Color of lilac,
You have forgotten your Eastern origin,
The veiled women with eyes like panthers,
The swollen, aggressive turbans of jeweled pashas.
Now you are a very decent flower,
A reticent flower,
A curiously clear-cut, candid flower,
Standing beside clean doorways,
Friendly to a house-cat and a pair of spectacles,
Making poetry out of a bit of moonlight
And a hundred or two sharp blossoms.
Maine knows you,
Has for years and years;
New Hampshire knows you,
And Massachusetts
And Vermont.
Cape Cod starts you along the beaches to Rhode Island;
Connecticut takes you from a river to the sea.
You are brighter than apples,
Sweeter than tulips,
You are the great flood of our souls
Bursting above the leaf-shapes of our hearts,
You are the smell of all Summers,
The love of wives and children,
The recollection of gardens of little children,
You are State Houses and Charters
And the familiar treading of the foot to and fro on a road it knows.
May is lilac here in New England,
May is a thrush singing “Sun up!” on a tip-top ash tree,
May is white clouds behind pine-trees
Puffed out and marching upon a blue sky.
May is a green as no other,
May is much sun through small leaves,
May is soft earth,
And apple-blossoms,
And windows open to a South Wind.
May is full light wind of lilac
From Canada to Narragansett Bay.

False blue,
Color of lilac.
Heart-leaves of lilac all over New England,
Roots of lilac under all the soil of New England,
Lilac in me because I am New England,
Because my roots are in it,
Because my leaves are of it,
Because my flowers are for it,
Because it is my country
And I speak to it of itself
And sing of it with my own voice
Since certainly it is mine.

Amy Lowell, “Lilacs” from The Complete Poetical Works of Amy Lowell. Copyright © 1955 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Copyright © renewed 1983 by Houghton Mifflin Company, Brinton P. Roberts, and G. D'Andelot, Esquire. Reprinted with the permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

Source: Selected Poems of Amy Lowell (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002)