Help! Small birds are eating us out of house and home!

bird feeder with lesser goldfinches

So–we thought it would be a nice idea to get a bird feeder.

We had resisted up ’til now because we figured any bird feeder we got would end up a squirrel feeder. Then we discovered this particular type of feeder, which is enclosed in a fine mesh, and meant to hold tiny seeds, like thistle seeds. This sort of feeder attracts small, seed-eating song birds, like finches, but doesn’t feed the mice and rats and squirrels.*

What could possibly go wrong?

We installed the feeder about a month ago, and were delighted to see house finches and tiny lesser goldfinches come to visit. (So were our indoor kitties, I might add!)

And then more lesser goldfinches came, and more, and more… and still more.

Apparently, lesser goldfinches are “gregarious.”

At this point we are hosting a continuous goldfinch convention from dawn to dusk. They’re cute as the dickens, but they are beginning to cost some serious money, because there’s so many of them as of this week that they are now plowing through a full feeder every day. As I type this, I can hear the squabbling outside the window which starts when the seed levels are low.

Now we have guilt–as well as pocketbook pangs. Have we created a monster? Are the goldfinches now dependent on our feed? Was it wrong to feed them like this in the first place? Are impressionable young goldfinches learning to live on handouts? Are we sparking a goldfinch obesity crisis?

Our yard does have more natural food sources, like native sunflowers and white sage gone to seed. Perhaps we should have left it at that? ( I suspect we’re not going to win any permaculture awards for our feeder.)

Bird people, help!

What are your thoughts on feeders?

Is it okay to leave the feeder empty sometimes? Does that encourage foraging, or is it just not very nice to be random about the filling?

Is there a cheaper alternative to Nyjer ™ seed that finches like? Perhaps something that doesn’t come from Africa? (argh!)

cat watching birds

Buck watching finches, thinking unkind thoughts.

*Seed drops, which could feed rats and mice, but sparrows are on clean-up crew

Gardening Mistakes: Six Ways We’ve Killed Plants


In the years we’ve gardened we’ve killed our share of plants. I’d like to think we’ve learned from our errors. To that end, I thought I’d run down some of the big mistakes we’ve made.

1. The right plant in the right place Our front yard is a hillside. Our backyard has two tall trees that cast shade towards the north. The soil varies in color, texture and quality largely due to almost a hundred years of construction projects (decks, foundation work terracing, etc.). The same plant that might thrive in one spot will wither in another. This is where trial and error comes in. Sometimes the only way to find out if what will grow is to plant stuff and see what takes off.

2. Soil compaction This is a big problem in urban areas and our yard is no exception. The parkway, which gets a lot of foot traffic, is very compacted. Very few plants do well with compacted soil, including natives. The best way to break up compacted soil is with a broadfork, a spendy item. We use a garden fork instead.

3. Soil fertility When it comes to growing vegetables, in particular, you need rich soil. Get a soil test first. But soil fertility is a lot more than chemistry–it’s about life. Healthy soils have a rich and diverse microbial and fungal ecosystem. You can jump start that fertility with compost. But somehow we never have enough compost.

4. Bad nursery stock. I’ve bought my share of root bound plants and plants that came with diseases. The worst example I’ve seen is a nursery selling grape vines that all had incurable Pierce’s disease. That’s a guaranteed failure. Thankfully we’ve found a few good sources when we need seedlings: Annie’s Annuals and Perennials and Theodore Payne.

5. The great mystery of watering. I’m still working on this one. I discovered last year that I’ve been under-watering our fruit trees.  To figure out watering needs for fruit trees the pros use expensive soil augurs to take samples. I may break down and get one but in the meantime I’ve got a high quality moisture sensor I’m experimenting with on the suggestion of fruit tree guru Steve Hofvendahl (thanks Steve!). More on this topic in another post. I’ve also been known to neglect and/or over-water our vegetables as well.

6. Timing. It took us a few seasons to realize that our Mediterranean climate is very different from what the back of seed packages were telling us in terms of when to plant. I’m sure climates that have hard freezes have a whole other level of surprises and heartbreak.

You’re going to kill plants. Just as you have to break an egg to make an omelette, the only way you’re going to learn about your garden, its soil, microrclimates and quirks is by killing plants.

I’m sure I’ve left some things out.  Let us know in the comments how you have killed plants.

Easter Lessons


So, facing an overabundance of eggs, and having hard boiled a dozed out of desperation and having espied a charming post on naturally dyed Easter eggs, I decided to have a go at dyeing eggs on Saturday night.  The eggs our ladies deliver are all shades of beige to brown, so I worried that they’d not take dye as well as white eggs, but the post promised good results with brown eggs, and the dyes were deep and earthy enough that it seemed it would not matter.

The technique was simple–a one to one ratio of organic matter to water, boiled 15 minutes or more, cooled, and then spiked with vinegar. The eggs soak in this mix for as long as you like, perhaps overnight, refrigerated. I tried out onion skin (russet dye), red cabbage (bluish dye) and hibiscus flowers(purplish). All looked well. I went to bed imagining the rich, solid colors I’d find the next day, the arty pictures from the original post dancing in my head.

This morning I pulled my eggs from the fridge, all excited, only to find something had gone wrong. The onion skin eggs looked all right at first, a nice rusty shade, but when I touched them the color came off, a thin layer of colored slime peeling aside to reveal a much paler egg below–an egg perhaps still of its natural color. Same for the cabbage. The hibiscus was a total nightmare–for some reason its slime was thick and bubbly and black and utterly disgusting. I mean, like Black Plague-level disgusting. Easter buboes! Zombie eggs!

Here’s my theory: chickens coat their eggs with a protective coating before the eggs leave the “factory.” Just like auto manufacturers! This protective coating is called the bloom. The bloom is washed off in industrial egg production facilities because the eggs have to be washed and sometimes bleached to get the filth off them before they go to market. So bloom is never an issue when dyeing store-bought eggs. I’ve never tried dyeing our own eggs before, and I believe the bloom was interfering with the dye’s adhesion. If I try this again, I will give the eggs a thorough washing first.

What do you think of this theory? Any similar experiences?

Anyway, all was not lost. When I washed all the slime off the eggs, I found that some color did get through, and it came through it truly random and marvelous ways. My eggs don’t look so much like Easter eggs, but more like rocks, or dinosaur eggs. I didn’t get what I was expecting at all, but instead I got something kind of wonderful. That’s DIY in a nutshell for you.



How to Deal with Extremely Root Bound Plants


First off, don’t buy root bound plants. It’s just a bad business, trouble and tears. In general, you should always try to buy the youngest plants you can find. They are healthier than plants which have spent more time in a pot, and will quickly grow to match the size of older, more expensive–and more likely than not–root bound plants.

How do you know if the plant is root bound? Look at the bottom of the pot and see if roots are poking out the bottom. This is a bad sign. Don’t be afraid to gently ease the plant out of the pot to check its condition. If you see more roots than soil, this is a bad thing. If you’re buying fruiting or flowering seedlings, look for the ones which have not yet flowered, even though the ones which have flowered are cuter and may look like they have more promise. They’d don’t. They’re flowering or fruiting out of desperation to spread their seed before they expire in their pot prisons.

But sometimes we end up with a root bound plant. This week, in a fit of madness which doesn’t make a lot of sense in retrospect, Erik and I broke our own rules, doing two things we never do: We 1) bought a couple of plants at The Home Despot and 2) we bought these plants in gallon-sized pots. The plants had already put up flowers. And yes, of course they were root bound. Extraordinarily so. They were living in dense pots made of their own roots.

As I tried to resuscitate and plant these babies, I realized that I should post this technique on the blog, in case it might be helpful to others.  Forgive the photos. Erik wasn’t around to help me take them, and the battery on the camera was flashing red, but I needed to get those plants in the ground as quickly as possible. I only had time for a couple of bad shots.

How to Save Root Bound Plants

First off, I’ve found that root bound plants are often dehydrated plants, because the pots are mostly full of roots, making the soil hard and water repellant. If this is so, it helps to give the plants a good soaking before you un-pot them by placing them in a bucket of water for a few minutes.

Method A) Mildly root bound plants can be helped along by gently massaging the root ball with your hands just before planting to loosen the roots and open the ball if it has become hard-packed. If there are any big, long roots circling the root ball, trim those short.  You can do a similar thing with a hose to open up the soil and loosen the root ball.


Method B) If your plant is extremely root bound, as mine were today, you’ll find you can’t simply work the roots apart with your fingers because they’ve formed a sort of impervious mat or pseudo-pot of themselves.  In this case, you have to be ruthless. Get yourself a sharp knife and make long vertical cuts down the sides of the root ball–how many depends on the size of plant, and what you think is best, but I find I usually make 3 to 5 cuts.  These cuts do violence to the roots, but will allow new root growth at the cut sites, giving the plant a chance to spread its roots out in your garden’s soil, instead of trying to live within its own, self-made prison.

In these extremes cases, there is also usually  a thick mat of tangled roots at the bottom of the root ball, pressed into the exact shape of the pot bottom. I tear this layer off.  Then I put my thumbs up the middle of the root ball and stretch it open just a little if necessary, gently,  to make sure the center is soft and not rock hard or densely tangled.

Get your plants in the ground as soon as you can after these operations. If possible, work in the shade, or in the early morning or evening, so the plants don’t spend much time with their tortured root balls exposed to the midday sun. Water well, and maybe top dress the new plantings with a handful of worm castings, or water with worm casting tea, or some other kind of plant pick-me up, to apologize to them for all of the rough handling.

It is very important to watch your plants closely after transplanting. They are like critical care patients until they begin to grow new roots. Until that time, you’ll likely have to water them more frequently than a normal plant, because their root structure is all messed up.  If the sun is strong, provide them with some shade. Also consider mulching to slow down water loss. Baby them as much as you can.

[ETA: One of our readers reminds me that another way to up your chances of success is to trim back the foliage of the plant. Fewer leaves means it will need less water, and can spend more energy growing new roots.]

No plant wants to be handled this way but with luck and care, the plant might do well afterward. The only alternative is planting it root bound, and no root bound plant can thrive. As in its pot, it will be hard to water, and it will live a short, sad life, always sickly and constrained, if it makes it at all.

As a caveat, I know of a few types of plant which can’t abide any fooling with their roots at all, like bougainvillea, for one, but if you buy a root bound plant, or allow one of your own seedlings to get that way, you really don’t have much of choice, or much to lose, so give it a try.

Food Preservation Disasters


It’s ain’t 24/7 kittens and rainbows at the Root Simple compound. We do have our homesteading disasters. I was reminded of this after I emptied a box full of failed home preservation projects and contemplated a stinky trash can filled with a slurry of bad pickles and too-loose jams.

Of course you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet and, in the interest of learning from mistakes, I thought I’d review two lessons learned.

Not Using Tested Recipes
I vow to use tested recipes from trusted sources. Both for food safety reasons and culinary reasons, it’s a good idea to use trusted sources for home preservation projects. Some of the recipes I tried were from unfamiliar books and dubious websites. Some sources I’ve come to trust:

Between those two sources I’ve got just about all the recipes I need.


One Ring to rule them all
When you’re done processing jars and they’ve cooled down, remove the screw bands. Why?

  • So you can clean underneath the band to prevent spoilage and bugs.
  • The screw band can create a false seal.
  • Leaving the screw bands on can cause corrosion.

That’s advice from our own blog and yet I failed, for some reason, to remove the bands on many of the jars I emptied. I found all three of the above problems as a result.

Have you had any epic food preservation disasters?