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Saugus gardens in the winter

This birdhouse has an angled roof-2
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Here’s what’s blooming in town this week to make your walks more enjoyable

  With the last week bringing us more snow than we’ve seen most of this winter, a few people have made the best of it by making works of art to suit the season. Out on Elm Street a few houses away from the former Lynnhurst School, a snowman with a sunny disposition – made by Clara Rotger, Angie Gauthier and Matt Cadavid – waves to passersby. He wears a sunny yellow hat and bandanna, which seem guaranteed to brighten everyone’s day.

  Despite the blanket of white covering the ground, there are touches of gold to remind us that spring is on its way, or perhaps it means we are in the presence of leprechauns! Peeping through the snow in the garden of sculptor and handyman John Wilkinson and his wife artist Kelly Slater are the cheery yellow blossoms of winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) shining through the snow. One of the earliest members of the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae) to bloom in cold climates, this woodland perennial flowers and produces green leaves in cold weather. It goes dormant in summer when the forest canopy closes in with leaves that block the sunlight. Unlike tulips and many other spring flowers, the winter aconite prefers a shady location.

  With the arrival of March, migrating birds and those who stayed around will soon have thoughts of nesting. John has been busy making unique birdhouses to be ready for any birds who are house shopping. John and Kelly have both put their mark on the landscape to make it bird- and pollinator-friendly. John recently started a handyman business. Their house and gardens are very distinctive with unusual plants and artwork. In addition to the birdhouses presently hanging in trees at his home, John has given many away to others over the years.

  Bird experts advise that birds have good color vision and tend to prefer a natural brown or greenish nesting structure. If you do decide on a brightly colored birdhouse, it is important that the paint be environmentally friendly and nontoxic. Where you place the houses may help determine whether it is chosen by prospective residents. Shady locations are best, since in hot weather a birdhouse in the sun can heat up and become uncomfortable – even dangerous – to the baby birds. John incorporates ventilation into his houses but makes sure the roof keeps water out. It is also wise to hang it several feet above the ground.

  John Wilkinson says, “I have been making birdhouses of various size and design on and off for the past 25 years. From the start I have avoided purchasing new wood and strived to use discarded materials such as wood scraps, boxes, cutoffs, and various construction debris. Satisfaction comes from both the repurpose of these materials – saving them from a trip to the trash heap – and the opportunity to observe a multitude of bird activity season after season in my own backyard.

  “Many of my early houses lasted 12-15 years, eventually weathering away until the houses were no longer desirable for the birds. I now totally cover every house with a piece of asphalt shingle greatly extending the weathering ability of the entire structure. I also use wood such as pine or cedar at least 3/4 inch thick to allow for an insulating barrier against the cold. I also utilize metal hardware such as screws, eyebolts, and threaded rods for a secure method of attachment. I place much attention on this attachment as I never wanted to experience one of my houses falling to the ground full of nesting birds.”

  John recommends that people be somewhat patient when they have installed a new birdhouse. “I have made dozens of houses. Some were made for friends as gifts. It can take a few years before any activity is noted. Every installation/location is different. My houses have been occupied mainly by house sparrows – I currently have 5 houses up in our yard and have experienced seasons where every house had nesting birds at some point. At this point I can confidently state that hundreds of birds have started life in one of my houses. I can also state that I have never collected a penny in rent!”

  Editor’s Note: Laura Eisener is a landscape design consultant who helps homeowners with landscape design, plant selection and placement of trees and shrubs, as well as perennials. She is a member of the Saugus Garden Club and offered to write a series of articles about “what’s blooming in town” shortly after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. She was inspired after seeing so many people taking up walking.

A slightly different style-2
A slightly different style and varied wood tones ensure that no two birdhouses are completely alike. (Courtesy photo to The Saugus Advocate by Laura Eisener)
Winter aconite in Kelly-2
Winter aconite in Kelly and John’s garden bloomed up through the snow this week! (Courtesy photo to The Saugus Advocate by Laura Eisener)
This snowman wears sunny yellow-2
This snowman wears a sunny yellow as he looks out on Elm Street! (Courtesy photo to The Saugus Advocate by Laura Eisener)
This birdhouse has an angled roof-2
This birdhouse has an angled roof that seems especially appropriate for the fruit tree’s arching branches. (Courtesy photo to The Saugus Advocate by Laura Eisener)
John Wilkinson made this birdhouse-2
John Wilkinson made this birdhouse, which hangs in a hemlock in his Hurd Avenue garden. (Courtesy photo to The Saugus Advocate by Laura Eisener)

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