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A winter garden that’s for the birds

Leaving plant stalks and seed heads in backyard gardens will help birds and other wildlife survive in winter. Leaving plant stalks and seed heads in backyard gardens will help birds and other wildlife survive in winter. (Mark Wilson/Globe Staff/File 2002)
By Martha Stewart
September 29, 2011

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Q. In my garden, what should I cut back and what should I leave for the birds over the winter?

A. Many gardeners leave the stalks and seed heads of perennial plants in their gardens through winter to provide visual interest, as well as food and shelter for wildlife - especially birds. Sedums, coneflowers, black-eyed Susans, ornamental grasses, and liatris, which are all sturdy and produce plenty of seeds, provide cover and nourishment well into the season. In fact, most perennials can be left standing in the garden for winter. Doing so can benefit the plant - the foliage and stems protect the crown and roots.

There are a few plants that should always be cut back: Diseased or infested plants, herbaceous perennials such as peonies and daylilies (they turn black or mushy when a strong frost hits), and any plants that spread seeds too enthusiastically (plume poppy and garden phlox are two examples) should be cut back after the first killing frost. A sharp pair of hand pruners does the job well. To dispose of the resulting debris, compost flora that spreads by runners (underground shoots), and throw away trimmings from seed-borne vegetation.

Save the spinach Q. My spanakopita keeps coming out soggy. What is the best way to remove water from cooked spinach?

A. Spinach can become watery when cooked, turning the flaky phyllo of a carefully crafted spinach pie into mush or creating a puddle on your plate.

When using the spinach as a filling, let it cool before squeezing out the moisture: Spread out the just-cooked leaves in a colander or sieve over a bowl or in the sink. When they stop steaming, roll small batches in a clean, lint-free kitchen towel. Twist the ends to wring out as much water as possible.

If you’re serving spinach as a side dish, use a slotted spoon to press the leaves into the pot’s side after cooking them. This should expel most of the liquid.

Soggy pancakes Q. How can I keep pancakes from getting soggy while I make more? I don’t like serving them in shifts.

A. The key is how the pancakes are arranged while they’re kept warm in the oven. A batch of just-cooked flapjacks piled high will become soggy, because the stack prevents the steam from evaporating. Instead it’s absorbed by the pancakes. You can solve this problem by warming them in a single layer on baking sheets. To avoid drying out the pancakes, warm them for no more than half an hour.

You could also use a two-burner griddle, which will shorten your overall cooking - and warming - time. Or prepare a dish that doesn’t require you to stand at the stove, such as baked French toast.

Adapted from Martha Stewart Living.