Sunday, December 7, 2014

Lessons Learned in the Garden: Fall 2014

The winter solstice is a short time away, the official beginning of Winter and the day of the year when we can rejoice that the days will soon become longer again.  In the Midwest, though, Winter doesn't pay much attention to the calendar.  Although we haven't had the snowfall that some parts of the country had in November, we've had enough cold days to know that Autumn is long gone.  In my part of the country we have another season--"Winterum."  Winterum is that time of year when skies are gloomy and gray, and any warm afternoons are reserved for putting up outdoor Christmas decorations, not working in the garden. Winterum often begins in early November and sometimes lasts until January.  Frankly, if it weren't for the holiday rush that makes this time go by so quickly, I would say that Winterum is my least favorite season of the year.

Despite the fact that I can no longer work in the garden, dull Winterum is a good time to reflect upon the last season and to participate in Beth at Plant Postings' seasonal meme "Garden Lessons Learned."  Before my memories of  garden successes and failures fade away, here are a few of the lessons I learned this past season:

1. Fall is my second favorite season of the year!  Now that may not seem like much of a lesson one has to learn, but back in my days of working full-time, fall meant the beginning of a new school year with new lesson plans to create and adjusting to a busy schedule after a summer off.  One or more of my kids was usually involved in a fall sport as well, meaning evenings included games or meets or carpooling after practices.  That didn't leave much time for watching sunsets or leaf-peeping, unless noticing the changing color of leaves while whizzing down the highway counts.

Now that my time is my own--usually--I've come to enjoy the cooler, crisp days of Autumn and enjoy the changes around me. I even appreciate the fading foliage and blooms of the garden.

In fact, about the the only thing I don't like about Fall is that it is the shortest season of the year.  This year we had a little extra time to enjoy the season as the first frost and then a hard freeze came late; usually we are lucky if we have four or six weeks of true Autumn weather.  (For more fall color, you can click here.)

Other lessons I learned recently aren't specific to fall, but rather lessons I gradually learned over the past year:

Nothing like a trowel and a little patch of dirt to keep a three-year-old entertained for a long time!

2.  It's okay to ask for a little help in the garden.  Over the years I've occasionally enlisted the help of my grandkids when I had some big jobs I couldn't seem to get done.  The oldest two grandchildren aren't particularly interested in gardening, but they're always willing to help Grandma, and though they would do it for free, Grandma is more than happy to pay them for their efforts.  In the past they have pulled weeds, spread mulch, and planted tulips for me.  But mostly, the "help" I get from the younger ones is more play than work, a way of getting them to enjoy a little bit of nature.

Youngest grandson above discovered the vegetable garden this summer, and every time he came over, the first thing he would ask to do was to go "pick 'matoes."  When I cleaned up the vegetable garden this fall, he was fascinated by the green beans still on the vines I had pulled--which surprised me, too!--and had to pick off every one before I could toss the plants on the compost pile.

I even enlisted his help in planting a few crocuses one day--with Sophie's supervision, as you'll notice.  I'm pretty sure several of them were planted upside down, so we'll see if they come up, but at least he had fun.  And I hope when he sees them bloom next spring, he'll remember planting them.

His older sister, Granddaughter #2,  is the one who has always been most interested in the garden.  But her help has been limited by her attention span or the heat or "too many bees" in the garden.  Until this year, that is. Not only is she growing up way too fast at 11-going-on-sixteen,  she also had a special incentive this year to help me--saving up for horseback riding lessons.  Grandma was more than willing to oblige with a flexible part-time job.

Besides helping to plant bulbs and some garden clean-up in the fall, she also helped to shovel and tote load after load of mulch to more remote areas of the garden during the summer.  I discovered that not only is she almost as tall as Grandma, but she is pretty darned strong for an 11-year-old.  I just hope my neighbor's horses continue to entice her:)

I've always thought that it was almost like cheating if you had much outside help in the garden. When people ask me about my small garden, I take a kind of smug satisfaction in saying that yes, I've done it all myself from digging up grass, weeds, and even rocks for every flowerbed I have, besides planting every single plant.  Oh, don't get me wrong--if I suddenly won the lottery, I'd hire a landscape designer and a crew with a backhoe to dig up half the yard in a heartbeat!  But I would want to choose and plant everything myself as well as do the day-to-day maintenance.

I remember reading Sydney Eddison's Gardening for a Lifetime  several years ago in which she gives advice for gardeners as they age.  One of her tips is to enlist more help in the garden.  I'm afraid I've reached that age where even my small garden is becoming harder and harder to maintain without aching knees or the latest malady--painful tendonitis in my hand from too much weed-pulling.  Next year I plan to enlist help from my granddaughter on a more regular basis, or if she is too busy, I might recruit another budding young gardener from the community.

3.  I've learned so many lessons about gardening this year as a volunteer.  As a Master Gardener intern four years ago, I spent some time volunteering at the County Nursing Home Garden.  I was already volunteering at the Idea Garden which I thoroughly enjoyed, so I intended to just fulfill my community service hours requirement at the Nursing Home and then move on.  But I found the Nursing Home group was such an enjoyable group to work with, and the co-chairs had such a wealth of knowledge on gardening that I found myself picking their brains every chance I could.  So I continued volunteering in this garden for the next three seasons.

Last summer Phyllis, the co-chair who had been one of the original creators of this garden before it even became an MG community project, developed health problems and decided to step down.  The other co-chair, Carol, decided she would retire as well.  Two of my friends asked another friend and me if we would serve as co-chairs with them this year.  I hesitantly agreed--even the four of us couldn't fill the shoes of Phyllis and Carol!

One of our faithful volunteers ready to deadhead any faded blossom.
Being a co-chair of this garden this year has been a tremendous learning experience.  Instead of one of the minions who asked what needed to be done and then attended to that task only, whether deadheading or weeding, I was suddenly supposed to know what everyone else should do!  I'll be honest--in past years, I wasn't a regular volunteer.  I showed up when it was convenient for me--or if it wasn't going to be 90 degrees that morning:)  But this year, I was there every Monday workday, other than the week of the Portland Fling, whether it was spitting rain or steaming hot.

Big jobs are easily taken care of when you have great help--we spread both compost and mulch over the whole garden in one workday morning!
Maintaining a garden that someone else has designed and planted is certainly different than working in your own garden.  I view the garden as others see it, not the way I would like it to be--though I certainly wish my own garden was as well-maintained and weed-free as this garden is!  Thanks to a great group of faithful volunteers, keeping the garden looking beautiful is fairly easy.

I began to feel a sense of ownership and pride in this garden.  The four of us felt a responsibility, not only to the residents and staff who enjoy the therapeutic benefits of the garden, but to Phyllis and Carol who had lovingly created and maintained this garden for so long.  I noticed things in the garden I hadn't seen before, especially the careful planning that had gone into it, making sure the garden looked appealing every season of the year:



And  Fall

I can't begin to list all the lessons I learned from being one of those in charge of this garden this year--this post is already long enough! But they include everything from record-keeping and budgeting to recruiting volunteers.  When we weren't sure how to prune some of the shrubs, we divvied up our questions, and each of the four of us researched a specific shrub.  My research helped me in my own garden, too, in deciding how to prune my smokebush.  We learned how to compromise and make the best use of each other's strengths.  Most of all, we learned to put individual preferences aside and to remember always the mission of the garden.

Once again, as I look back at the past season, I am surprised by all that I have learned.  Thanks to Beth for hosting this meme--you can view lessons learned by others at Plant Postings.  I'm sure next season will bring  more new experiences to learn from--after all, gardeners grow, too.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

A Late November GBBD

I know I'm very late for this month's Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day, but I do have a good excuse.  We've been away, visiting Daughter and Son-in-law in Texas, and by the time we got back home, this is what was left of any blooms I might have had before:

 It was a very chilly 12 degrees when we arrived home late Tuesday night; not even the pansies like it this cold!

We had a beautiful fall that lasted longer than usual, with the first killing frost not arriving until October 30.  But winter has definitely arrived early this year.  Late last week the temperatures dipped well below the November normal, and the snow and wind blew.  Thankfully, though, we had only a dusting of snow, not the avalanche of snow that fell on the Northeast.

 It seems there were very few places in the U.S. that escaped the polar vortex this past week.  Even in Dallas--no sitting by the pool on this trip, and no excursions to the Dallas Arboretum this time.  But we had a good visit nonetheless, and since Daughter and Son-in-law are expecting their first child in early January, I know there will be many more trips to Texas coming up soon.

With the holidays coming up, I am actually glad that garden work is done for the year.  And once they are over, I know that I will be soon be spending cold winter nights planning once again for that elusive "perfect" garden.

Thanks to our hostess Carol for sponsoring Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day every month.  And since I know I won't be posting for at least another week, I want to wish you all . . .

A Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Book Review Club: V. I. is Back!

"Oh." The syllable is a soft cry of ecstasy.  She has never seen colors like those on the floor, red running into orange, yellow, green.  The purple is so rich, like grape juice, she wants to jump into it.  When she runs over to look, the colors disappear.  Her mouth rounds with bafflement: she thought Frau Herschel had painted the rainbow on the floor . . . In later years, Martina remembers none of [the rest of this experience].  She remembers only the rainbow on the floor, and the discovery that the cut glass in the nursery windows created it.

A little girl's discovery of prisms in 1913 Vienna seems like an odd way for the latest V. I. Warshawski novel to begin, since the tough-talking, persistent P.I. usually is embroiled in some kind of corruption in Chicago while solving a case.  But when she receives a call from her long-time friend Dr. Lotty Herschel to help a patient of hers in distress,  Vic soon finds herself in an investigation that involves almost as much research in the University library as in skirmishes with various bad guys.

Judy Binder, a hopeless drug addict, is not only Lotty's patient, but she is also the daughter of someone Lotty knew as a child refugee in London during WWII, so she feels especially duty-bound to help her.  Judy's desperate phone call that someone is trying to kill her leads Vic to a meth house downstate where she discovers a rotting corpse in a cornfield but no sign of Judy.

With few clues to help her, Vic goes to the home of Judy's mother, Kitty, a strange and paranoid woman, who like Lotty, escaped the Holocaust years ago.  There Vic discovers that Judy's son Martin is also missing, and Kitty hires her to find him.  Martin's mother and grandmother may have problems, but it turns out that he is also the great-grandson of Martina, a brilliant physicist forced to work on top-secret research on the atomic bomb by the Nazis.  Martin has inherited her gift for science.

What starts out as a hunt for two missing persons turns into a complex case for Vic, as she goes up against low-life drug dealers, the CEO of a major technology firm, and even Homeland Security. How a meth house, the Nazis' work on an atomic bomb, and research into cutting-edge technology today all relate to a single crime sounds implausible, but Paretsky ties all the subplots together in a logical and satisfying ending.

V.I. Warshawski has been around for 30 years, and I hope she's around for many, many more.  Unlike Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone--of whom I'm also a fan--who has been stuck in the 1980's for a whole series, V. I. has aged with time.  Now in her 50's, she may be a little slower and take longer to heal from the injuries she always seems to receive in her investigations, but she can still hold her own with anyone who tries to confront her.

I somehow managed to escape taking a single physics course during my school days, an omission I really don't care to remedy.  But despite my ignorance on this subject, the important role physics plays in Critical Mass didn't distract or confuse me in the least.  Paretsky has obviously done her research, but doesn't expect either Warshawski or the reader to understand complex scientific principles.  Rather, she presents Martina's and Martin's desire to understand the "harmonies" in nature and knowing how all the pieces fit together in a way that is makes us admire them.  I imagine that their fascination with natural laws isn't really that different from a gardener's or naturalist's fascination with a bee enjoying pollen.

I've read all the books in the Warshawski series, and I have to say that Sara Paretsky just gets better and better.  The plots have become more complex and deal with some timely issues.  V. I. may have mellowed a bit over the years, but she's still the best female P. I. in fiction today

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@Barrie Summy

Disclaimer:  I received no compensation of any kind for this review, and as always, I review only books I like.  I bought my own copy of Critical Mass, but being frugal I waited impatiently until it came out in paperback.

Note:  The photos here have nothing to do with this post; they are just a few pictures I like that I've taken recently.  For more photos of fall color in my area, see my previous post.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Farewell, October

Every year at this time I think of one of my favorite poems:
Nature’s first green is gold,  
Her hardest hue to hold. 
Her early leaf’s a flower; 
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
Robert Frost

Although it's true that "Nothing gold can stay," it certainly is beautiful while it lasts.  The month of October started out gloomy and rainy, but the last few weeks of the month made up for it with warm, sunny days that highlighted the colors of autumn.  Above, the old hackberry tree at the end of my yard doesn't look like much the rest of the year, but its golden leaves shine in the fall, especially backed by the orangey-gold maples of my neighbors.

The old oak tree's leaves gradually turn brown, but its grand stature makes up for any lack of color.

Warm autumn days are meant to be enjoyed, and so we found ourselves one sunny afternoon visiting the local forest preserve with youngest grandson and Sophie in tow.

A rare moment of stillness for Sophie, who preferred to pull me along while she tracked squirrel and other strange scents.  Taking photos with my phone while she tugged at the leash wasn't easy.

Meanwhile, Grandpa and Grandson looked for fish.

Except for this lone canoeist, we seemed to have the park to ourselves.

Driving through town the last few weeks, I often wished I had brought my camera.  Our small town really is a blaze of oranges, golds and reds this time of year.

The not-so-pretty side, though, is also revealed in fall.

Trees aren't the only plants providing splashes of color this fall.  Here, Japanese Blood Grass provides a vivid shade of red at the Nursing Home Garden where I volunteer.

Next to the Blood Grass, a variety of Muhly Grass hardy in our zone 5B adds some airy color.

Back at home, I am greeted by the brightest red of all as I drive into our lane, provided by three large burning bushes.

Viburnum 'Cardinal Candy' still hasn't provided any "candy" for the birds, but its leaves are beginning to make an impact.

The small Serviceberry shows promises of beautiful autumns to come.

'Little Henry' Itea has started its fall transformation.

There are still some colorful blooms as well--the 'Radsunny' Knockout rose appreciates the cooler temperatures.

A not-so-welcome plant even gets in on the color act (poison ivy!).

My favorite tree each fall has to be the maple in the center of our yard.  Like Cinderella donning her ballgown, it begins its transformation at the top, slowing adding color downward each day.  This was taken on October 14.

By October 23, leaves at the top had turned a blazing orange.

Full view, Oct. 23.

A week later, the change is complete.  Today, most of the leaves are still clinging to the branches, but strong winds yesterday blew off a few,  and conveniently for me, blew away almost all the leaves on the ground!

"So dawn goes down to day..." Thursday's dawn brought the first killing frost of the season.

Though the frost brought an end to all but a few hardy annuals, I will not "sink to grief"--this was one of the latest frosts in my memory.  

And despite the poem's theme, there is still some gold in my garden--Amsonia Hubrichtii is one of the prettiest perennials for fall.   

Farewell, October--you were beautiful!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Wildflower Wednesday: Mystery Aster

Why am I always late for Wildflower Wednesday?  I don't mean a couple days late: our hostess Gail of Clay and Limestone celebrates wildflowers all month long and isn't fussy about deadlines for her monthly meme.  No, I'm talking about being a whole month late.

Back in late September I had planned to show off the New England asters that have taken over were blooming in the small butterfly/native garden.

In September these purple and various pink blooms were covered with all kinds of bees filling up with nectar for the long winter ahead.

There were also butterflies a-plenty back in September in this little backyard garden, including the late-arriving Painted Ladies, sharing the goodness with the bees.

Most of the goldenrod was also blooming back in September, its bright yellow blooms covered with all kinds of little critters.

Oh, I could have done a nice little post just on the asters and goldenrod blooming in September.  But you see, I was waiting for something else.  Two tall plants had suddenly, or so it seemed, emerged at the very back of the butterfly garden.  Earlier, I had mistakenly thought they were Obedient Plant, because the stems and leaves looked somewhat similar.  But as they grew and grew, reaching five feet, and began to show small little buds on the top stems, I realized they were something entirely different.  But what were they?

This would make an interesting addition to my Wildflower Wednesday post, I thought, and so I waited as September turned into October.  The buds turned a pinkish cast, but still did not open.

While I waited, I tried to figure out what these two plants could be.  I didn't remember planting anything in this corner, and I searched my garden journal for native plant purchases in the last year or two, with nothing noted that would look anything like this.  I consulted my two favorite wildflower references without much luck either.  Perhaps it was an Aster tataricus,  a tall, late-blooming aster.  But the leaves are alternate, and one source said this aster's leaves were opposite.  Could it be a Vernonia, or Ironweed, which does have alternate leaves?  I began to hope it was Ironweed, a plant I've always wanted to add to this area.  Only time would tell .  . .

While one week turned into the next, another flower suddenly burst into bloom at the front of the butterfly garden.  This wildflower is no stranger here, usually appearing in the fall in various places around the outbuildings.  Some time ago  I identified this as a Aster pilosus or Frost aster, also called a Hairy Aster, though I'm not 100% positive that is correct.

This is definitely a weedy wildflower and not to everyone's taste.  I usually pull them when they appear throughout the garden, but I was too lazy didn't have time to pull this one before it bloomed, and I'm actually glad I left it alone.  The bees don't care whether it's some fancy type of aster or a weedy one.  Meanwhile, back to the mystery plant . . .

After weeks of waiting, the blooms on my tall mystery plant finally appeared.  Definitely not Ironweed!  The blooms are those of an aster, but what kind?

Perhaps it's an Aster tataricus, but it doesn't quite look like the images I've found.  I have trouble distinguishing one aster--or Symphyotrichum for botanical purists--from another.  Its tall, sturdy stem sways in the breeze, but doesn't bend; it's nice to have a tall plant at the back of the garden that doesn't need staking.

The asters in the early photos have long since faded to brown, but after two weeks, this maybe-aster is still blooming, and I am no closer to solving the mystery of its identity.  I also haven't solved the mystery of how it came to be in my garden.  Perhaps it's just another of the many gifts I receive each year from the birds sharing seeds with me.  Whatever this plant is, I'm enjoying its late blooms in my garden.

Wildflower Wednesday is hosted the fourth Wednesday of every month by Gail of Clay and Limestone.