Last week I stepped off the never-ending Mobius strip I call garden seasons to give a gaggle of neighborhood kids a little nature perspective.
You know what a Mobius strip is — pop artist M.C. Escher’s twisted drawing of large ants crawling forever around what at first glance looks like a simple figure eight. It’s also used to reduce the wear on belts in car engines.
Anyway, I see my garden like that, as it advances from its current paperwhites and camellias through forsythia, dogwoods and azaleas to summer roses and gardenias, and then mums, fiery maple leaves and sasanquas back to paperwhites. Throw in weather extremes, and it’s a rollicking ride I can’t seem to fall off, in spite of it going around and around seemingly nonstop.
Truth is, gardens can be more like Oscar Wilde’s sinister “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” in which a portrait ages while its hedonistic subject does not. My garden drifts and matures through the seasons, growing ever-weedier and tumultuous, wallowing in entropy, while I cavort in perpetually pristine new growth of botanic gardens always kept in their prime.
Anyway, one of my favorite ways to break out of the routine, both to enjoy the here and now while moving things forward, is by sharing little observations and activities with kids. I have a ton of easy garden-related activities for kids ranging from barely able to focus to sullen teenagers, and have put together a free illustrated PDF for anyone who emails for it.
This time of year, easiest way to pry kids for a minute or two from their hand-held devices is to get them into feeding and identifying wild birds, and making them stick with it responsibly as a daily chore.
My go-to bird feeder for young children is disposable, a shoebox top lined with aluminum foil and filled with sunflower seed. Just put it on the ground and watch the wild birds come flocking. We’ve also made flat platform feeders with raised edges to keep seed from blowing off and have nailed big plastic pot saucers on posts, with drilled rainwater drainage holes. Stick bare branches here and there for perches, and the birds will come flocking, especially with a shallow sky-reflective bird bath nearby.
That’s about all it takes to attract and enjoy the color, motion and drama of wild birds. That, and a big window, and some way to keep the neighborhood cats from turning a serene scene into a feeding frenzy. Oh, and an appreciation of squirrels, which are wildlife, too, especially to kids who don’t have to shoulder the cost of feeding expensive bird seed to “tree rats.”
I’ve heard and read all about this and that kind of bird feed, from interesting mixes and specialty blends, to kinds that squirrels reportedly won’t touch (FYI, red pepper powder only deter them for a minute or two). But for a couple of decades now I’ve just used “black oil” sunflower seed bought by the 50-pound sack.
The cheap stuff may have a few broken pieces, sometimes even a few grain weevils, but it’s OK for big birds, from blue jays to redbirds and lumbering doves. And there’s also plenty of action from smaller sparrows, titmice, finches and chickadees. I’ve even seen towhees and woodpeckers, which normally don’t come to feeders, come calling.
My now-grown children were raised out in the yard, which got me out there, too. My new granddaughter will undoubtedly grow up there as well. Meanwhile, with parental permission, I’m snagging neighborhood kids to bring into the nature fold.
That’s what old guys in the neighborhood are for.
• Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to email@example.com.