My coffee is for the birds

I enjoy drinking coffee. For some, that is already an activity that is non-sustainable by definition (we don’t grow it in Cincinnati) and puts me on the wrong side of environmental correctness. However, I thought it would be interesting to see if I could change the way I enjoy coffee and increase the delight I take in my first cup in the morning with the knowledge I was reducing environmental damage and providing better habitat for birds.

The kernel of the idea for this action plan began when I read an article about shade-grown coffee in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology magazine All About Birds. While I was aware that the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center was promoting shade-grown coffee through its bird-friendly certification program, I was not aware of the many ramifications of the transition of most South American coffee producers from shade-grown to sun-grown coffee. There are multiple impacts from this transition on the land, the water, the forest, the migratory birds as well as the people in those communities. Without going into great detail about all of these impacts here, I will simply point you to this brief video: Bird research and shade grown coffee

If you are even more interested, here is a link to the original article I read: Shade-grown coffee sustains birds and people.

I also discovered a wonderful website/blog about coffee and conservation here: Coffee Habitat.

As part of this action plan, I changed the kind of coffee I drink and also the way in which I make it. I left the world of convenient single-cup automatic coffee delivered to my mug whenever I like and adopted a more manual, less wasteful approach. To do this required that I dispose of the coffee maker that produced a pile of discarded plastic each day with a kettle to make hot water, an aero press, a manual coffee grinder and a stainless compost bucket with a charcoal filter for my kitchen. In this way I save energy (and get exercise) hand grinding my coffee beans, hand-pressing the coffee and then placing the grounds directly into the compost bucket (see a photo of these items below). Recently, I’ve been using a pour-over method for making the coffee rather than using the aero press. Using a stainless filter with either method allows me to make coffee without creating any paper or plastic waste while providing plenty of coffee grounds for our garden.

My coffee making gear

While this may seem like a lot of work, it has actually become a rather soothing ritual that I like (and can do at 6:00 a.m. without thinking about it!). One other benefit (beyond those things mentioned in the video) that I did not think about prior to starting this routine is that I am supporting bird habitat both in their winter feeding grounds AND in their summer nesting grounds. I do this by taking the coffee grounds to my compost pile and eventually into my native plant garden that surrounds my house. Since the perennial plants and shrubs in our gardens have been selected to attract pollinators and birds of all kinds throughout the year, this shade-grown coffee once again supports an abundance and richness of bird species in a completely different environment. (Kind of a nice full circle of impact.)

While it was challenging to change my morning routine of coffee making, the good feeling I get from this new habit every morning (and the lack of guilt from not creating another pile of empty plastic containers) made this a rather easy transition — one that I will likely continue for the rest of my life.

This new routine also creates an interesting conversation anytime I have someone for whom I am making coffee in my home. It really is better than non-sustainably grown coffee and that alone makes an impression. The other good benefits that come along with it are a bonus conversation. You have to love creating a new practice that is good and does good at the same time.

My Yard Is for the Birds

When I was a young man, I listened as Joni Mitchell cried out that we “don’t know what we’ve got till it’s gone.” Her lament that “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot” resonated with many baby boomers. Perhaps you are more familiar with the Counting Crows cover of Big Yellow Taxi. No matter the version, the words of the song continue to speak to those of us who are concerned that we are losing the birds and the bees.

I am no longer that young man and I have come to realize that in modern suburbia, we haven’t paved paradise with concrete so much as with vast expanses of turfgrass. In fact, according to the U. S. Department of Agriculture, lawns have surpassed croplands as the most extensive managed landscape in this country. Though this approach to suburban landscape may be somewhat more visually appealing than concrete, it doesn’t provide much more welcome space for birds and other wildlife than a parking lot.

Many species of wildlife are experiencing decreasing populations because their “homes” are disappearing (both the places and the plants). What I haven’t always seen so clearly is that the home of wildlife is also my home. More often I have conceived of the proper habitat for wildlife to be ‘out there.’ Even when, in times past, I looked out over the broad expanse of lawn in front of my home and didn’t see much in the way of wildlife, I wasn’t concerned because I had assigned the need for conservation of birds and other wildlife to the professionals. That’s why we fund nature preserves and parks, I thought.

But I was living in a world not grounded in reality. The world is rapidly becoming more urban. It is becoming clear that if we are going to provide suitable habitat for birds and other wildlife, we need to incorporate it into our urban and suburban landscapes. How do we do that? Where will it happen? To begin with, it needs to happen in our yards. The fact is that individually owned private property (our yards) accounts for 25 to 35 percent of the landscape, and nearly half of the total green space in urban areas. Though our yards cover a relatively small amount of land compared to the total land area on earth, they can have a significant impact on the biodiversity of our cities and suburbs. The power to provide suitable habitat for birds is in our hands.

A little research into recent scientific publications showed me that the fragmented landscape of my suburban neighborhood did not need to be lifeless. It is possible to have rich and abundant bird life in my community. Even in my yard. Even without a feeder.

Growing suburbs reduce native vegetation and sever connections between natural areas. However, suburban growth can also have some benefits for birds and other wildlife by providing places to hide from predators, increasing available water,

supplementing food resources, providing new nest sites, and increasing diversity. There have been many studies of the impact of urbanization on bird populations. While it may seem reasonable to predict that the variety and number of birds will continually decrease as one moves from the relatively undisturbed forest through the exurbs and suburbs to the urban core, the evidence does not support this assumption. Suburbs can provide suitable habitat for birds because there are more ‘edges’ and more intermediate disturbance that works to increase the diversity of bird populations. There is also a greater diversity of food, some of which is the result of homeowners who provide bird feeders but much of which is created by the choices of home gardeners who plant gardens full of a variety of native plants to attract birds to their yards.

Native plants support significantly greater bird abundance, diversity, and species richness as compared to exotic plants or turf grass. They also have a positive influence on reproduction. Making the landscape more similar to native habitat by adding layers and increasing the diversity of plants while discouraging empty lawn are things we all can do to encourage a greater variety of wildlife in our communities—including birds.

As I slowly came to realize the contribution I could make toward providing a welcoming habitat for birds in my neighborhood, I began to replace most of the lawn surrounding my home with gardens. These are not just pretty, still life gardens; but gardens that support all kinds of life. I planted seed-bearing plants for the birdsechinacea and Rudbeckia maxima (giant coneflower) and other prairie plants such as prairie dock, cup plant, and ashy sunflowers. I planted viburnums and winterberry hollies as well as serviceberry trees to provide edible fruit for the birds. I also planted native plants that attract pollinators, which will also provide insects the birds will need to raise their young.

We can all have a yard that is for the birds; that will create a better habitat for them. If you are uncertain about how to start improving your own yard or which specific native plants will be most appropriate in your community, start with the Audubon Native Plants Database ( It will provide a list of plants native to your zip code so you can begin planting for the birds no matter where you live.

As concerned birdwatchers and homeowners, we have a tremendous opportunity (and responsibility) to provide welcoming habitats for birds and other wildlife. If we do so, and others follow our example, breaking with tradition and converting even just a little bit of lawn into native gardens, it will have a significant impact on our suburban environment. As this view of our yards spreads, we will no longer need to worry about the need to pay to see a ‘tree museum’ but will be able to do much of our birdwatching right outside the door of our homes.

2015 Monarch Update From Cincinnati 

Each year since 2007 we have watched patiently for the return of the monarch butterfly to our little half acre. That was the year Nan was walking along the fence on the south side of our yard and spotted a monarch caterpillar acting strangely. As she stopped to observe this behavior the caterpillar became a chrysalis right before her eyes. This set off a chain reaction of excited study and observation that led to the planting of various species of milkweed in our garden and the yearly collecting of monarch caterpillars to protect them from their predators and ultimately release them back into our garden. It’s our own little effort to counter some of the impacts of the eradication of milkweed from midwest agricultural land through the use of Roundup and the drive for efficiency that virtually eliminates fencerows and other ‘non-productive’ land where milkweed used to grow.

The monarch migration from Mexico that begins each spring and leap-frogs north by generation doesn’t generally bring many monarchs to our garden early in the season. Though we have seen our first monarch the past two years around Father’s Day, they don’t stay long as they move on across Lake Erie and up into Canada. In fact, we generally don’t see more than a few monarchs until August when they come, lay their eggs on our milkweed, and prepare to begin the great migration south. So, along with the milkweed, we plant asters and goldenrod that will be in bloom late in the summer and on into the early autumn to provide a nectar source for our little friends. And we wait for them to come.

Sometimes we will have quite a few, as in 2011 when we released almost 140 butterflies. Sometimes, as in 2013, we will see only a handful. But this year has been the best so far.

We took our first monarch caterpillar inside this year on August 1. Since then there have been monarchs mating and laying eggs on our milkweed every day. I look out the window beyond my computer as I work and see several monarchs drifting from plant to plant all day long. It has been a magnificent year! (Though a bit difficult to focus on my work!)

Since we brought our first little guy into the house less than three weeks ago, we have had to work hard to keep up with the feeding as this year’s brood has threatened to eat us out of house and home. As of today (August 18) we have brought in 158 I caterpillars and quite a few eggs that have not yet hatched. (We generally try not to bring in leaves with eggs on them as we haven’t had a good track record nursing them to become caterpillars, but this year they are so prevalent that it is hard to pick a leaf and not get an egg!)

It remains to be seen just how many we will have before they start south, but there are clearly dozens of eggs on the plants in our garden now that in the days to come will become caterpillars. Also, in the next several days we will release dozens of monarchs into our garden as we currently have several screens of chrysalises and many other caterpillars who are “J’d up” preparing to become a chrysalis in the next several hours. It is already a great year for the monarch in Cincinnati … at least in our garden. And if we don’t run out of milkweed, we will contribute a record number (for us) back to the great migration

Tim Bellamy

This week we lost a good man. It seems that heaven’s gain always comes as our loss.

Tim Bellamy (55) was a very bright man with a wry sense of humor. The world knew him was a software architect and a musician. Friends knew him as a loving father and a humble follower of Jesus. Tim had the ability to see through all kinds of pretension and make a quick comment that would cut to the heart of the matter in a way that would make those who listened realize that he wasn’t just a country boy from Mt. Sterling KY. And he was curious about all kinds of things … but mostly about things that mattered. He always had a book he thought you should read and appreciated it when you had one you thought he should read. I remember the Sunday we discovered we were both reading Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies. He could really get excited about a good read! He was also one of those rare people who spent more time listening to you than talking about himself. In fact, he seldom talked about himself.

Tim and I served together in the same worship team for almost 15 years. He was an excellent keyboard player and knew intuitively how to use his gifts to help the congregation to worship without getting in the way. And no one who was part of that congregation in those years will forget the Sunday’s when Tim came early and told me that he would like to give the communion meditation. When the time came, he would stand nonchalantly in his jeans and plaid shirt and begin telling a story that would have the congregation thinking to themselves “where in the world is this going?” But as barely believable as some of those stories were, they always led to Jesus. As did Tim. It’s how he lived. It’s what he did.

In the last few years, our paths went in different directions into different congregations and I didn’t really have much contact with Tim. Then just a couple of months ago I posted a book review of something I had read and Tim came right back with a positive affirmation that he appreciated the recommendation and had enjoyed the book. Tim was always paying more attention to you than you were to him. I miss him already.

Front Yard Makeover

In the last few years as we have thought about what kind of environment we would like to create on our own half acre, we have focused primarily on solving some problems (the silver mapel over the pool, for example); adding gardens and rearranging existing gardens in our backyard and along our driveway. We moved fences out, moved trees to new locations and worked with a landscape designer friend to tie it together so that it doesn’t just look like “a jungle of plants.” All the while we have been learning not only about what “looks good” but also about “what is good” and what “good” we would like to do with the time and place given to us.

Backyard in 2008
Backyard in 2008

Backyard in 2012
Backyard in 2012

During this time we have become master gardener volunteers for various organizations and learned a lot about what works, what doesn’t, and what is sustainable long term. We’ve been introduced to Doug Tallamy (Bringing Nature Home) and Sara Stein (Noah’s Garden: Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Backyards) and many others. We’ve become beekeepers and butterfly raisers. We’ve begun to get a vision of what our space could become and what we would like it to become; what matters to us and what doesn’t matter so much anymore. (Do I really care to spend the time and money to seal-coat the driveway every year so that it sheds water in great waves down the storm sewer or would I rather it become ‘naturally’ permeable?)

Having come this far (and we’re not sure how far this is yet), last summer we began giving serious thought to eliminating most of the monoculture we had for a front yard (grass) and slowly remaking it into mostly native, primarily perennial gardens.

Here are some pictures of how the remaking of our front yard began:


Wild Ones Photo Contest

Each year the national Wild Ones organization (Nan and I belong to the Cincinnati chapter) sponsors a photo contest. Since the purpose of this organization is to promote native plants and natural landscapes, the contest recognizes winners in seven categories: Children, Flora, Pollinators, Photos by Kids, Non-residential Landscaping, Residential Landscaping, and Scenery. Three photos are awarded prizes in each category.

I admit it was Nan’s idea to send a couple of my photos in to see how they might fare … and two of them were chosen! My photo a common buckeye was awarded second place and my photo of a honey bee earned third place … both in the pollinator category.
You can see the photos below.

The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

Monarch nectaring on tall verbena

Both of the last two years my wife, Nan, has written in the Hamilton County Master Gardener newsletter ComPOST about the experiences we have had in our little half acre working to attract and preserve the monarch butterfly population. This year it is my turn to reflect a bit on what kind of year 2012 was for our little friends.

Let’s start with the BAD. Why not? I don’t need to tell you that the summer was hot and dry – too hot and dry in many areas for good monarch reproduction. Chip Taylor of the Monarch Watch organization says, “It is now clear that fall population will be on the low side. We have received many comments on the poor quality of the milkweed available to monarchs for the last generation. The low number of nectar sources that will be available to monarchs moving through the lower Midwest in September is a concern. Some fall flowers have already bloomed, some have died and many of the others are stunted and just barely alive. There will be nectar but it will be harder for the monarchs to find.”

Actually, our personal experience was that we didn’t just have fewer monarch butterflies, we had virtually no monarchs in our yard this summer. We saw one or two early but word on the street seemed to be that it was so warm so early that they just went on north. Some areas in Canada reported record numbers early in the year. But, whatever the reason, despite growing several kinds of milkweed, we had no butterflies until a handful stopped in our yard on their way south in September. That is a far cry from the 150 or so monarchs we released as they eclosed from their crysalis’s in the summer of 2010. Others in the midwest had similar experiences. One garden blogger that I read recently wrote about the lack of butterflies this summer in his yard. You can find a link to that post here.

So, let’s move on to the GOOD. Even though we are very interested in helping the monarch population survive, we enjoy all kinds of butterflies and have planted the host plants for many of the native butterflies of our region. So, even though we have not had monarchs this summer, we have had a good variety of others and it has given us a new appreciation for the beauty and variety of these little creatures. As all gardeners know, creating diversity is a good thing!

But what about the UGLY?

One day at the end of August I realized that there were Giant Swallowtails laying eggs on our Wafer Ash in our backyard. And soon enough, we spotted first eggs, then tiny caterpillars; barely visible and looking like little smears of bird poop! We brought these little guys inside and fed them both Wafer Ash leaves as well as leaves from a Rue plant we have in our yard (also a host plant for the Giant Swallowtail). These caterpillars as they have grown have had the same effect on Nan and I as the first Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillars we ever saw in our yard … you just can’t help but break out into a big grin when you look at them. They are gloriously and wonderfully made! And they become the largest butterfly native to our area.

So, even though the summer seemed to be a bust early on. We have had a lot of GOOD along with a joyful bit of UGLY at the end.

Giant Swallowtail Caterpillar on Wafer Ash Leaf

Noah’s Garden

Sara Stein and her husband moved into a property that most realtors would describe as “having enormous potential for improvement” and proceeded to “improve” it, clearing brush, mowing, and doing the things that most of us do when we garden. After a few years, they noticed that the quail and pheasants were gone. So was most of the other wildlife. And in time they realized that they were the cause of these disappearances. They had taken away the homes and protective cover of the small creatures.

Noah’s Garden is the narrative of the author’s work to restore her 5-acre lot in upstate New York to something resembling native vegetation. It turns out that restoring a habitat involves a lot more than just planting some native species and calling it good. Habitats are interactive systems, and having the right native species for the area in the right numbers and the right combinations are all important.

In this small book, Sara Stein tells how to preserve enough of nature to keep some of its wonders alive. Noah’s Garden is not a scolding rebuke against “foreign” plants in the landscape, nor against any particular type of landscaping at all; though she does enlighten the reader with an insightful critique of why the typical suburban “blandscape” is so hostile to wildlife, pointing out that sprawling suburban landscapes have been enormously destructive to native habitats as they are displaced by the monocultures of lawn and easy-care shrubs and trees.

The good news in Stein’s book is that she believes that the suburbs and native habitats can co-exist, and lays out some plans for them to do so.

This book may well change the view from your patio. Stein writes convincingly of the necessity of good stewardship of the land stolen from prairies and forests to make our backyards. She documents her own journey from being a conventional American gardener to a naturalist, ecologist and native-habitat restorer. Along the way, there are lessons to learn. Here’s one of them:

“How much water does it take to quench a butterfly’s thirst? Give a dove a bath? Provide a laying place for toads? No more than a puddle.” But where are the puddles? Where are the dirt roads that you splashed in during your youth? Probably paved over with excellent drainage. The sad truth is that we’ve improved away our toads, doves and butterflies. (And when is the last time you worried about running barefoot in the backyard because of all the honey bees on the clover?)

Restoring natural habitat requires that we learn from nature. The value of this book is that the author provides some of that education with a good bit of humor and a bunch personal experience. Read the book and, when you are finished, dig into Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home for even more ideas on how to make your space on our planet a better place for all God’s creatures.