Friday, November 04, 2011

Unsettling Questions This Fall

I'm feeling unsettled and on edge these days. The horrible, blast furnace heat of the summer is gone, but the drought remains. I don't know how best to handle putting my gardens to bed for the winter...or what dreams for next spring and summer are rational to indulge in.

Do I mulch over bare, dry ground? Or do I wait until we get a decent rain before mulching, so I lock in moisture, not dry soil? But if I wait, when will we finally get a good rain?

Maybe I should water well, then mulch? But my experience is that you can NEVER water enough to equal even a moderate rain. And our water is very hard, well water.

On the other hand, bare soil gets even drier, exposing the plant roots to more extremes of temperature, too.... What to do? And when to do it?

Then there's one of our cats, Ranger, a neutered black male. The first winter we had him (and after we finally let him become an indoor/outdoor cat, succumbing to his powerful need to be outside, hunting), I wrote posts about his attempts to hunt birds. He was so patently unequal to the task that it was comical.

Ranger is 2 1/2 years older now, and he has become a hunter extraordinaire, definitely living up to his namesake from Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series. I put out my winter feeders about 2 weeks ago, in preparation for participating in the Cornell FeederWatch program this winter. In that 2 weeks time, he has caught, killed and mostly eaten at least 6 birds - all of them "good" birds. No house sparrows or starlings for this guy. On the worst day, he killed 2 in one day, a male cardinal and a Harris sparrow.

This photo shows Ranger, on the right, and Bella guarding the hummingbird feeder earlier this summer. Bella goes out, but she's not the one bringing the dead or almost dead birds back to the kitchen door on an almost daily basis.

Should I take my feeders down and consider my FeederWatch fee a donation to Cornell Lab of Ornithology? Or should I take a more Darwinian attitude: the fittest will survive? The feeders are all out in the open, so the birds have a fighting chance to see Ranger coming. By providing seed to augment the natural feed around, am I strengthening them...or just luring them in to become cat food?

(I've even put out the word that he would be available to someone who needs a barn cat - he's great at catching rodents, too - but there have been no takers.)

It's a tough autumn for me. I read others' garden posts about how much better their gardens are doing after the summer heat is gone and I'm glad for them, but the drought is still crippling us here. There have been no fall roses, no fall catmint, my hostas are gone....

Then I shake myself. The aromatic asters are lush and have lasted for weeks, despite the heat and drought. The Wichita Mountains goldenrod was spectacular. The gaillardia is vivid. The roses may not be blooming, but they look reasonably healthy. This weather is, after all, why I concentrate on prairie natives.

No matter what this winter and next spring bring, this past year has shaped my gardens significantly. That, however, is the challenge of gardening. This, too, shall pass. I hope.

Meanwhile.... Any suggestions about my mulching dilemma? Or the ongoing case of Ranger vs. the birds? I would greatly appreciate any words of wisdom!


Gardener on Sherlock Street said...

I don't know about Ranger. We have feeders and the neighborhood cats like to stalk the birds. I think they get a few but they aren't bringing them to my door so I don't have a count.
I watered well and mulched everywhere it was thin. Last fall, I did not deep soak in the fall thinking the rain and snow would come. It didn't and plants suffered. Hopefully, I have given them a boost to make it through winter a little better. If I don't mulch, it dries out worse. I don't know if it's better to water then mulch or mulch then water. Hmmmm.

Melanie said...

Oh, I feel your cat pain! Last winter I actually witnessed one of our cats leap up and catch a finch from the feeder. Amazing. .if I hadn't been so mad about it! The life span of a bird is short. .judging by the glance at the trees you have. .you'll have birds whether you feed them or not. .and they are still fair game for the cat. My sis-in-law is having the same problem. .he catches cardinals, woodpeckers and bluebirds. .My cats eat what they kill and don't bother dragging them up for my approval. .you poor thing!! As for the mulching. .We put in the cedar post fence. .and I slapped cardboard and wheat straw over the top. .I did water it several times. .and though the puny little rains don't soak through. .I was thoroughly amazed last week when I dug in bulbs how soft the soil actually was. The soil was poor soil. .with nothing but weeds coming up. .and bone hard when I started! We had to use an automated fence post hole digger AND soak the ground to get the holes dug when we started!! My vote is to mulch and water several times on nice days! We barely got any moisture last week, but more chances to come this week! Praying for another 1 1/2 inches like we had last month!

Gaia Gardener: said...

We have a good chance of rain on Monday and Tuesday, according to the weather gurus. Wednesday I'm mulching. Decision made. If we haven't had rain after all, I'll just water as deeply as possible before covering it all up.

I have dug under mulch after a rain and found the soil dry too often to risk mulching without there being soil moisture to start with.

As far as the cat, I still have no good answer. I haven't actually seen Ranger catch one of the birds, so I don't know if he's getting them on the feeders or in the bushes. I suspect the latter. No more trophies in the last 2 days, so hopefully the birds are getting a little warier.

scottweberpdx said...

We have a similar situation here, a neighbor's cat who has mostly adopted us, is just about the most lethal killin machine I've ever seen. He's so very sweet to people, but there were stretches of time this fall when we'd wake up to a freshly-killed squirrel every morning. Luckily, he hasn't killed many birds (that we know of) and it's mostly limited to squirrels. He has, however, brought us a hummingbird once...which kind of broke my heart. I had the same guilty feeling...all the plants I had that were attracting the birds was also, unfortunately, bringing them closer to the cat's clutches. Ultimately, I sort of feel like even if a few get caught, there are probably many more than are benefitting from my (and your) generosity :-)