Shepard’s hooks are an easy and efficient way to display hanging containers throughout the garden, especially when tree limbs are too thin to hold the weight of a watered container, or not easily accessible. I grow flowering or brightly-colored foliage annuals in these containers and place them throughout the landscape to bring shots of color to a garden filled predominately with dwarf conifers and broad-leaf evergreens. They have successfully enlivened shady areas of the garden and offered me an outlet for that creative urge that occasionally strikes, most often when I don’t have the money to comply.
A favorite combination consists of Caladium (white and green), Sedum morganianum, Torenia (deep purple looks best), and Plectranthus. Other combinations, especially for the hottest, sunniest areas (of which I have many) consist of Coleus (usually ‘Giant Exhibition Marble’), surrounded by Lotus maculatus and Ipomoea pennata, Red Cypress vine. Contrary to what most sources recommend, I have had best results growing Coleus in full sun as long as I keep it well watered (leaf size is the only trade-off). Another favorite grouping of annuals consists of Scirpus cernua (aka Isolepis cernua), Fiber Optic Grass, surrounded by Rhodochiton atrosanguineum (from seed) and Ipomoea batatas, black Potato Vine. I grow this combination in morning sun and give it protection from afternoon (western) sun, although I place the Purple Bell Vine to receive the most sun.
I began using Shepard’s hooks for hanging bird feeders about 10 years ago. Eventually, I gave up on that method for many reasons, including the continued intrusion from Starlings. These aggressive birds will swoop down as one large mass to a food source and swarm the food to the extent that they crowd out all other birds, including crows and Steller’s Jays. That’s an accomplishment! I have only seen one other situation that brings crows and jays to a complete, silent stop, and that’s the Cooper’s Hawk who visits our property a few times each summer. Anyway, shortly before I stopped using hanging feeders, occasionally I would notice a squirrel or two trying to climb the Shepard’s Hooks. At that time, I discovered the limits of a squirrels’ jumping abilities. Pretty far, apparently. And, also, I discovered I was placing the feeders too close to a tree or tall shrub, although it looked far enough away to my eyes. One late fall afternoon I looked outside and saw a mass of squirrel parts (tails, feet, legs, etc.) hanging onto the feeder, swinging back and forth and round and round in slow motion. And this, after I thought I had moved the Shepard’s hooks far away from the Pieris and Arbutus unedo, which the rodents were using as launch pads. So, I decided to place the hooks and feeders in the middle of the yard – no plants close enough around the hooks for even the most athletic squirrel to jump from, or so I thought. But this did not discourage them. In fact, they seemed to interpret my actions as a personal challenge, and proceeded to climb the shafts of each hook with single-minded determination. Each day, multiple times in a day, we could see squirrels struggle up the shaft only to make the slow slide back down to the ground. Up and down they went. You would think that the sound of their claws scraping along the shaft as they slid down would be enough to deter them – the nails-on-a-chalkboard sound is not pleasant – but it didn’t put a dent in their unsuccessful attempts to reach the feeders. So with this success in mind, with the Starlings having moved on, and with winter fast approaching, I decided to hang seed blocks and suet cakes for the small birds who had resumed their visits. These rich food options created even more interest for the squirrels, but no more success in reaching them. Until one rainy afternoon. I had just arrived home from work and went into the kitchen to make a cup of tea when I looked out the window and saw a squirrel perched on the very end of the very longest horizontal branch of our apple tree. His entire body was pointing in the direction of the Shepard’s hook with the largest seed block. He would alternate between standing up on hind legs, quivering with tension, and laying down on the branch, still quivering with tension. Up and down he went, trying to determine the distance between him and the food and the effort it would take to get there. “Don’t do it”, I said to myself. “You’ll crash.” Up and down he bobbed. As I watched, it appeared that he was realizing he would have a terrible accident if he proceeded to jump. He settled down on the end of the branch and sat there. I turned away from the window to finish preparing my tea, stirred in a bit of sugar, and turned back to the window to determine if the rain was letting up. If so, I would get some work done in the garden. Just at that moment, the squirrel stretched straight up and took a flying leap in the direction of the seed block. It was an amazing leap for a little ground squirrel (maybe lubricated by the rain)! And he made it, but not without trauma. He bashed into the seed block with such force that he and the block soared off the hook, crashed to the ground, and tumbled down the side walk as one unit until bumping into a short retaining wall. “That had to hurt,” I thought. I watched him as he disengaged from the sticky block that had broken into large pieces. He took just one bite of one of the pieces and ran away, into a neighbor’s yard, leaving the block and its remnants behind.
I am always impressed by the lengths all creatures go to when reaching for something we truly want. Whether we succeed or land flat on our face, there is a moment within the effort where we realize that the attempt is more important than the result. It is that moment that fuels the desire to continue. I am not sure if that moment constitutes hope, or something more basic – something that evolved along with our will to survive. I do know that the little squirrel continued to climb the Shepard’s hooks deep into winter. And occasionally, I see him perched on the same limb of our apple tree . . . there is always hope.