Sunday, March 22, 2015

Ready for Spring, But First a Few Lessons From Winter


Hooray! It's Spring!  My favorite season of the year.  The snow has melted, and a little garden clean-up has revealed some emerging bulbs and even some crocus blooming this week.  But those of us who have lived in the Midwest all our lives, like me, know that Mother Nature might still have some unwelcome surprises in store for us.  Before I get too excited and while I wait for the perennials to start showing some new growth, it's a good time to reflect on the past season and participate in Beth at Plant Postings' seasonal meme, Lessons Learned in the Garden.



I have to admit gardening was pushed to the back of my mind for the last few months, so I'm not sure how much I actually "learned" this past winter.  Still there were a few little lessons worth remembering next year:
  • I can grow orchids!  Well, actually time will tell if they survive through another season.
  • Don't bring succulents indoors to over-winter, only to forget about them and leave them in the garage.  (Enough said.)
  • You can kill air plants.  I guess I should have read the instructions on these little freebies I got last summer at the Portland Fling.  Apparently, they need air and some weekly water.
  • Plan ahead for forcing bulbs.  Waiting till mid-January to plant them means they probably won't bloom till the outdoor bulbs are blooming anyway.
Every winter is different.  This year we didn't have nearly as much snow as some years, and as a result, I've noticed some heaving of a few plants as I have been cleaning up the garden.  Most of the garden was covered with a thick layer of leaves as mulch over the winter, but most of the leaves on my shade garden expansion apparently blew off.  I won't know for a few weeks if I lost some plants there, but it's a good reminder to make sure I mulch this area better before next winter.


There is something so beautiful and pristine about the garden covered in a fresh blanket of snow.

This may surprise some of you, but I actually kind of like winter.  You probably wouldn't have heard me say that last year, but this winter wasn't nearly as bad as 2013-14.  Sure, we had some very cold days, but the really cold stretches didn't last too long.  And we certainly didn't have as much snow as last year, meaning I could get out most days I had to without facing treacherous roads. The most snow we had all season was on March 1, late enough in the season that I didn't really get tired of it. 

Tulip Display at this year's Chicago Flower and Garden Show.
 Of course, I had to order more tulips for this fall after seeing these:)

Winter gives me more time to relax and complete some indoor projects.  I mean, who wants to clean out the basement on a sunny June day??  It's also a good time to look through garden books and magazines and plan that elusive perfect garden for the coming season.  A great escape as winter draws to a close is the Chicago Flower and Garden Show held last week at Navy Pier.  My friend Beckie and I have attended for several years now and find it a perfect way to get our spring "fix" and find new ideas for our own gardens. (More on this in a later post.)


But the best part about winter is simply this:  it makes me appreciate Spring so much more!


I don't think I could live in a climate without the four seasons.  Unless you have suffered through endless days of cold and a garden either muddy brown or buried under snow, I'm not sure you could appreciate a scene like this.  As the snow melts, it's so exciting to find little surprises like this.  And I'm not just talking about the emerging daffodils--Sophie is so excited, too, to find some of her favorite toys that have been buried under the snow all winter:)



The winter has held other secrets, too.



After a dull landscape all winter, tiny blooms are so much more appreciated.  An update on my snowdrops, by the way--they have multiplied a little, after all.


Tiny crocuses that would get lost in the riot of colors in late spring and summer are objects of wonder and happiness as they herald the end of winter.


It doesn't take much to make me happy--and a sight like this is one of them.


Yes, the best part of winter is that it is followed by Spring!


I'm linking this post to Beth's Lessons Learned and also to  Donna's Seasonal Celebrations at Gardens Eye View.  I hope that Spring has arrived in your garden, too!

Sunday, March 15, 2015

March GBBD: Almost Spring!

On this March Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day, the few houseplants I have are enjoying the extra hours of daylight.


The Thanksgiving/Christmas cactus is re-blooming.  Apparently, it's an Irish cactus, 
because I notice from past years that it usually blooms again around St. Patrick's Day.


The Kalanchoe, though leggy, is also putting out a few tiny yellow blooms, the first of the year.

But why are we looking at plants indoors when it's such a beautiful day outside? The weather has warmed up considerably this past week, even reaching into the 60's, including today's bright sunny day.


When the piles of snow on the Lily Bed finally melted, I found these first harbingers of spring, the tiny Snowdrops.  I keep hoping they will muliply, but as of today there are just three blooms total.  I suppose all the digging I do in this area every fall to plant other bulbs hasn't helped, and I may have accidentally displaced a few.  Still, they are a welcome sight.


Nothing else is blooming yet, not even a crocus, but there are signs of life if you look closely enough.  I know it won't be long before the daffodils are blooming.



But first I need to uncover everything from the thick layer of matted leaves that blanketed the garden beds all winter.  It was such a beautiful day today that I spent a little time raking up the garden and cutting a few things back so that the emerging bulbs could finally see the sun.  One of the best investments I made last year was buying this little shrub rake.  It's perfect for raking around delicate spring bloomers--no more tulips beheaded by the garden rake!


It's so much fun to see what hidden treasures lie underneath all these leaves--
hellebore buds so happy to see the light of day!

I don't want to tempt fate by saying that spring is here yet--the temperatures are supposed to fall later this week again, and the weatherman even said that four-letter S--- word on TV.  But I'm hoping he's wrong.   Spring--it can't be long now!


To see what is blooming all over on this fine day in March, be sure to visit Carol at May Dreams Gardens and see how excited other gardeners are about the arrival of spring.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Winter Wildlife


Good news here in my little corner of the heart of the Midwest--the snow is quickly melting, and today it is supposed to be in the 60's!   I won't say that spring has arrived--that might be jinxing it--but I have high hopes that soon there might be a few signs of new life in the garden.  Before I put away the winter jacket and scarves, however, I wanted to share a few pictures of the friends who have kept me company this winter.


One of the things I've learned to enjoy during the winter is watching the birds.  The bird feeders have been placed within view of the living room window for better viewing and photo ops.  The suet feeder has been very popular the past few weeks, especially after a snowfall.  In past years, seeing a red-bellied woodpecker was an occasional treat.  This year I've been happy to see him (or her) on a regular basis.


A pair of Downy Woodpeckers have been regular visitors, too.  This one must be the female, since I don't see the red spot on her head.


The white-breasted nuthatch, which I also showed on my last post, is fun to watch, as it usually feeds upside down.


Other regular visitors at the feeders have been the finches (not sure what kind), sparrows, the occasional flock of starlings, and my personal favorite, the tufted titmouse.  Usually I also see dark-eyed juncos (pictured above) most of the winter, but it wasn't until last week's snowfall that they finally came as well.


I also haven't seen many cardinals at the feeders this year, though I do see them perching in the trees.  The snow finally brought a female to sample some seeds last weekend.


While the smaller birds are taking advantage of the feeders, these two scope the area for tastier treats.  Red-tailed hawks are a common sight around here, and one day I noticed one feeding on something in the middle of our yard.  As I drew closer, hoping to get a photo, it flew off, carrying a squirrel in its talons!  They are not easy to photograph, at least for me; by the time I moved closer to get a better photograph than the one above, they had already flown off in search of unsuspecting prey.


Not all the wildlife have feathers, however.  This opossum wandered onto our patio a few days ago, no doubt hungry and in search of food, too.  He even peeked inside, which drove the dogs crazy.  I'm not sure what would have happened if I had let them out and they had tangled with him, but I wasn't about to find out.


Speaking of the dogs, last week's 10 inches of snow made it difficult for the little ones.  Coconut followed Sophie or found tire tracks to make his way through the snow.


Frank, on the other hand, decided to blaze his own trails, but found it wasn't as easy as he first thought:) He's thrilled that the snow is finally melting away.


Sophie, however, is a true snow-lover--digging it out with her nose, making doggie snow angels, or even sampling a fresh bite of snow are some of her favorite winter activities.  But Sophie is pretty adaptable--I know that she is looking forward to digging in the dirt as much as I am.  Once the ground has dried out, she'll be the first one out the door--garden glove in mouth--ready to help me.  Oh, I hope it's soon, Sophie; I really do!

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

More Snow and A Book Review


There is a driveway there somewhere.

Looking back through my posts this winter, I noticed I never wrote my usual post on the first snowfall. There is a good reason for that: most of the winter the big snowstorms have passed either to the north or south of us, leaving us with only a few inches of snow at the most.  That is, until the past weekend.  Apparently, Old Man Winter decided we shouldn't feel left out and dumped at least 10 inches of snow here this weekend.  On March 1, for pete's sake, the beginning of meteorological spring!  Oh well, there's nothing I can do about it, and since I can't get in the garden, it's a good time to join in for another meeting of the Book Review Club.  This month's recommendation for an excellent book:  All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.


August, 1944:  As American bombers approach the city of Saint-Malo, France, "the last German strongpoint on the Breton coast," 16-year-old Marie-Laure LeBlanc waits on the sixth floor of the tall old house for her uncle to return.  She hears the air raid sirens and knows she should find her way to the cellar, but instead runs her fingers over the model city her father crafted for her and clutches the tiny replica of their house for comfort as she crawls to safety under her bed.  Five streets away, an eighteen-year-old German private, Werner Pfennig, finds himself in the dark cellar of the Hotel of Bees waiting for the bombing to begin.  He hears the anti-aircraft artillery booming above his head but can only think of home and childhood memories.




Flashback 10 years:  The LeBlanc family is cursed, neighbors say, when young Marie-Laure goes blind due to a congenital condition.  Her life becomes one of frustration as her bed with the quilt pulled up to her chin becomes her only refuge.
The despair doesn't last. Marie-Laure is too young and her father is too patient.  There are, he assures her, no such things as curses.  There is luck, maybe, bad or good.  A slight inclination of each day toward success or failure.  But no curses.

Her father helps her to learn Braille, and every evening he works on a miniature scale model of their neighborhood in Paris.  Days are spent at the National Museum of Natural History, where Marie-Laure's father is principal locksmith.  He takes her on his rounds, quizzing her on objects, and in the afternoon he leaves her in the laboratory of an old mollusk expert where Marie is allowed to touch thousands of seashells and learns to identify each by its weight, texture, and curves.

Marie-Laure is an inquisitive child, and her father is determined to help her achieve independence.  When the model of the neighborhood is finished, he asks her to memorize every home, shop, and intersection, then takes her on walks until she can navigate the streets by herself.  The bond between these two is strong, and they live a happy life until the German army approaches Paris, and they must flee to safety at the home of Monsieur LeBlanc's uncle in Saint-Malo.  There Marie learns to travel through a new neighborhood once again and wins the trust of strange Uncle Etienne.  As the war comes closer and closer, they find themselves playing a role in the French Resistance.

Coneflowers stand as sentinels in the garden.

Three hundred miles to the east, young Werner Pfennig grows up in Zollverein, a coal-mining complex outside of Essen, Germany, where the sky is permanently gray, and the landscape is covered with the fine black soot of coal.  He lives in an orphanage where food is hard to come by, and he and his sister Jutta often spend their days scavenging for scraps of food and small "treasures."  One day they find a discarded broken radio, and they take it home where Werner studies it and studies it until he figures out a way to fix it.  The sudden sound of music coming across the airwaves is a miracle, and soon evenings are spent listening to broadcasts from far-off places.




Werner's reputation as a genius with radios grows, and soon townspeople bring him their broken radios to be fixed.  Then a Nazi captain asks him to his home to fix the most magnificent radio Werner has ever seen, and when the radio is repaired, the captain recognizes that Werner is something special and recommends that he be selected to attend a school for exceptional boys where he will learn the latest in science.  Werner is apprehensive about leaving his home and his sister, but at the same time excited to escape his certain fate in the coal mines, the place that claimed the life of his father.  However, the school is actually a training ground where young boys are molded into future Nazi soldiers.  Young Werner sees the cruelty in the training methods of the instructors and tries to protect his sensitive friend Frederick.  But in the end he realizes that he has no choice but to follow directives if he is to survive.

Icy Clematis

How and when will these two very different characters meet?  The novel alternates between the stories of Marie-Laure and Werner and begins with the scenes in 1944 where they are both trapped in Saint-Malo, so you know that it is inevitable their paths will cross at some point.  Waiting for their stories to intersect kept me reading as I wondered what that meeting would be like.


Not little ghosts, but a line of shrubs blanketed in snow.

Over a year ago, I vowed I would not read another book set in Nazi Germany for a long time--the events and atrocities during this time period are just too depressing for me.  But my book club chose this book for our last meeting, so I didn't have much choice, but once I began reading Doerr's beautifully written prose, I was glad I had decided to participate.  The book certainly has some sad scenes and a one particularly cruel character, but does not include graphic violence, fortunately. Some reviewers have called it "surprisingly uplifting," and I agree that is the best way to describe its message.



It is the characters once again, however, who make this book so appealing.  One can't help but admire the curious and optimistic Marie-Laure who overcomes her handicap to "see" what others cannot.  Her enthusiasm for knowledge is infectious, and she changes others for the better.  Werner is also a likeable character, but mostly one feels sorry for him as he is forced into circumstances over which he has no control.  As his comrade Volkheimer says, "what you could be."  In another time and another place, Werner could have become a brilliant scientist. But he does find a way to defy authority and finally follow his morals as he remembers that long-ago voice on the radio:
" Open your eyes," the Frenchman on the radio used to say, "and see what you can with them before they close forever.'"



This is a story of survival and the resiliency of the human spirit and of unlikely heroes who remind us that even in the worst of times there is goodness to be found and people who will rise above to do what is right.



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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. After noticing how long the waiting list at my library was for this book,  I purchased my own copy of All The Light We Cannot See. 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Wildflower Wednesday: Pollinators Need Our Help



Today I am going to "preach to the choir. " I know that you know that many pollinators, especially honeybees and our native bumblebees, are in sharp decline.  I know you are concerned because so many of you post information on your own blogs on this subject. And if you have stopped by after visiting Gail's Wildflower Wednesday post, you already are concerned about helping the pollinators.  So I'm not going to bore you today with things you might already know, but I might have some encouraging news.

Several weeks ago I attended a panel discussion on  helping the pollinators sponsored by three area organizations and held in the County Extension auditorium.  I signed up to attend as soon as I found out about this forum, not only because of the topic, but because I really wanted to hear two of the speakers.

Echinacea Purpurea is a favorite attraction for all kinds of pollinators in my garden.

This was the first time I've had the chance to attend any kind of talk given by Dr. May Berenbaum, the head of the Entomology Department here at the University of Illinois.  Dr. Berenbaum is somewhat of a local celebrity, having started the Insect Fear Film Festival at the U of I over 30 years ago.  The film festival has received national publicity, and I just noticed the 2015 festival will be held this weekend, so stop in for some fun if you're in the area!  Dr. Berenbaum has also received a host of other more dignified academic awards, including the National Medal of Science, which she received in a White House ceremony in November.

If you read Dr. Berenbaum's history of the Insect Fear Film Festival (and it's worth reading), you can tell she is not some stuffy academician.  She is passionate about insects and sharing that passion with the public.  In the 20 minutes or so allotted to her, she gave the audience a wealth of information about the importance of pollinators, including the fact that they are worth about $20 billion to U.S. agriculture.  I learned that while the majority of pollinators are insects, 1 in 100 are vertebrates like birds, bats, and even a few lizards.

Tiny Syrphid flies, also called hoverflies, are important pollinators, too.

While the numbers of some pollinators like honeybees has declined dramatically all over the world in recent years, the interest in this topic is at an all-time high.  So the good news is that more and more people want to help!  Dr. Berenbaum ended her talk by offering some suggestions for all of us such as diversifying our landscapes, avoiding pesticides, and becoming a Bee Spotter.

Native Beebalm, also know as Monarda or Wild Bergamot

The next speaker was someone I was particularly interested in hearing, too, not because he is any kind of a celebrity, but because he is a friend of my family.  A local beekeeper continuing his family's tradition, Rev. Emil discussed the problems in managing beehives and reported that on his last inspection of his hives, there was only a 17% survival rate.  That is a pretty depressing outlook, and I was a little disappointed that he never explained the cause of losses in the hives in recent years.  Perhaps he doesn't know himself, and perhaps it is due to a combination of factors.  However, he did remark that “I haven’t learned yet how to herd bees—bees go where they want to go.”  That drew some chuckles from the audience, but it also highlighted a serious problem for managed bees as well as bees in the wild--nearby fields and lawns sprayed with pesticides.


A familiar sign to Portland Flingers--from Chickadee Gardens--an important reminder to helping the bees!

A representative from Pheasants Forever was also on the panel.  I have to be honest--I knew nothing about this organization beforehand and always assumed from the name that it was some kind of hunting group.  But quite the opposite is true--it's a group dedicated to conserving pheasants and other wildlife through habitat improvement.

A swath of yellow natives--and a wildflower corridor for bees--at a local prairie restoration area.

The speaker also happened to be a Farm Bill Biologist working in several area counties, and in that role he presented what I thought was one of the most encouraging bits of news of the afternoon.  The 2008 Farm Bill calls for more pollinator habitats and specifically is encouraging farmers to turn land not in production or unproductive land into corridors where bees and other pollinating insects can thrive.  Farmers who sign up to participate can receive wildflower seed and even some financial compensation.  This seems like such a great idea, and I hope it is successful.

The final speaker of the afternoon was our own Extension Horticulture Educator Sandy, who offered suggestions for home gardeners on how to create a pollinator-friendly landscape, including plant recommendations and allowing so-called "weeds" in the lawn like violets and white clover to grow because they are important food sources for many pollinators.

Some non-native plants are food sources for pollinators, too.  They prefer single-petaled flowers, like this cosmos, to double-petaled flowers.

 Most of Sandy's recommendations are well-known to those who garden for wildlife and pollinators, so I won't repeat them all here.  But for anyone in the audience who might not know where to start on creating a garden, she recommended a brochure from the Extension, "Plant a Pollinator Pocket."  The pamphlet includes sample designs for a small garden and makes it easy for anyone to get started--you can even download it from the Extension website here, if you wish.




Don't forget late-blooming plants like asters and goldenrods to provide nourishment in the fall.

Although the plight of many pollinators is still in peril, what was so encouraging about this whole forum was that so many people were interested in the topic. There was a standing-room-only crowd in the Extension Auditorium--more than 150 people on a chilly January afternoon.  And these were not necessarily gardeners:  I spotted some familiar Master Gardener faces and some Master Naturalists, but there were just as many farmers and other interested community members as well.  If each one of these takes some action to create a more pollinator-friendly environment on their own property, and then by their own example encourages others to do the same, think of the impact!  




For more ideas on helping the pollinators and different native plants to grow, check out other Wildflower Wednesday posts at Clay and Limestone.  A big thank-you to Gail for being one of the first to inspire me to create a more pollinator-friendly garden and a very Happy 5th WW Anniversary!

Sunday, February 15, 2015

GGBD and GBBC: Blooms and Birds

Welcome to a very cold Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day here in the heart of the Midwest.  The thermometer said 9 degrees when I woke up this morning, but the windchill was minus 2.  At least we don't have the 30-mph winds we had yesterday, or it would be even colder!  Yesterday I went to my grandson's basketball game--if you can call what second-graders play on the court basketball:)--and the wind swept right through my heavy coat and sent a chill through every bone in my body.


Needless to say, there is no gardening outdoors right now.  I took this photo of the arbor bed a week ago, but since that time most of the snow, other than a few patches here and there, has melted. Compared to last year, we haven't had much snow at all this year, which in some ways is good, but I worry what the fluctuating temperatures this winter might have done to many of the plants without the benefit of snow as insulation.  As you can see, there will be lots to do in the garden once warmer weather arrives.

Although nothing is blooming outside, I finally have a few indoor blooms to share:


Ta-da!  Two of the amaryllis I showed just barely growing last month have bloomed!




I don't remember the names of either of these, because I've had them for a few years.  But considering none of the them bloomed at all last year, I'm just as happy to have nameless blooms.  The third amaryllis has done next to nothing, but two out of three isn't bad.

There are also two new additions indoors:




After admiring orchids on so many blogs for several years, I finally broke down and bought this
Phalaenopsis a few weeks ago while spending the day in Indianapolis with friend Beckie.  I found it at a big box store there much cheaper than I have seen them anywhere around here.



In fact, I was so taken with it that when I found this miniature one, I had to have it, too.  Isn't it cute? We visited several garden centers that day; to my surprise, we weren't the only people crazy enough to be thinking about gardening in late January.


This weekend is also the Great Backyard Bird Count, and I was hoping for some snow cover to bring more of the birds to the feeders where I could spot them more easily.  Despite the lack of snow, we have had quite a few different birds visiting outside my window this past week.



The Red-bellied Woodpecker has been a much more frequent visitor than in past years.


The suet feeder has been attracting all kinds of birds, including throngs of sparrows and even, to my dismay, starlings. I am terrible about identifying the "brown" birds--I think these might be goldfinches in their drab winter plumage, but I'm not sure.  Whatever they are, the Downy-headed Woodpecker doesn't look too happy about sharing with them, does he?



The white-breasted nuthatch likes to hang around here, too, though a little out of focus.


A frequent visitor lately has been the Tufted Titmouse.


He enjoys the suet block, too.


But he also enjoys the window feeder and is one bird who is brave enough to ignore whatever lurks on the other side of the window.  Sasha finds him very appealing:)


Unfortunately, someone else is brave enough to use this feeder, too.  I've had trouble keeping this feeder attached to the window lately . . . I wonder why.


The Great Backyard Bird Count runs through tomorrow, Feb. 16, so you still have time to participate.

For more blooms across the country and world, stop by Carol's at May Dreams Gardens where GBBD is going on its ninth year!