Thursday, January 29, 2009

Book Picks: Try a Little Potato Peel Pie

Is it just me, or is this winter longer than normal? Ice, bitter cold, and snowstorms have caused me to turn into a hermit the last few months. While I have accomplished a few--very few--projects around the house, I find it hard to get motivated to shovel the snow off my car and the driveway to go anywhere, and find myself becoming more and more lethargic. Dreaming of spring and gardening is a great diversion, but you can pore over seed catalogs only so long. Instead, on a cold winter's day, the perfect escape is to pour myself a hot cup of coffee or tea, settle into the comfy armchair with a blanket, and lose myself in a good book.

You might think being a former English teacher that I would read only the classics or critically acclaimed new novels. Far from it! I spent so many years reading and re-reading books that I had to read for class, that when I read for relaxation I prefer something that doesn't make me think too much. Oh, I will go back and read some of the great books I never read one of these days, but for now I prefer a lighter fare of mysteries and legal/forensic thrillers.

Two of my favorite mystery authors are Martha Grimes and Elizabeth George. Ironically, they are both American writers, yet the settings of most of their novels are in the UK, complete with authentic British touches, including characters who wear "jumpers" and sometimes eat "beans on toast." (I now know what a jumper is, but I'm still curious if beans on toast really is what it sounds like.)

Lying on my book table, waiting to be read next, is George's latest novel, Careless in Red. I'm eager to read this one, since her last two novels can only be described as depressing. With No One as Witness ended with the shocking and completely unexpected murder of one of the secondary characters. Her next novel, What Came Before He Shot Her, was a complete departure for George, as she focused on a new character, the young boy responsible for the murder in the previous book. His life story read something like a Hardy novel, as he was a victim of fate, abuse, and a poor environment in the worst neighborhoods of London. The novel was a well-written character study, as all George's novels are, but it was depressing. I'm looking forward to Careless In Red, reading about Supt. Lynley and his assistant Sgt. Barbara Havers solving their latest mystery and hoping their lives have returned to a semblancy of normalcy.

While I love mysteries and tend to read every book written by a favorite author, I have tried in the last two years to expand my reading and get out of my comfort zone, so to speak, every so often. From nonfiction like Obama's Dreams from My Father or Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes to modern fiction like Jane Smiley's One Thousand Acres, I am often pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoy some of these different genre.

One of my more unusual choices that I finished reading two weeks ago was Stephenie Meyer's Twilight.

In case you have been living under a rock or have no interactions with teenagers, I'll tell you that this book and the three that follow it have developed a cult following, especially among teenage girls, that rivals J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. My thirteen-year-old granddaughter has read all four of the books, and earlier this summer was counting the days until the final one came out in August, then counting again until the movie "Twilight" was released in December. She owns all of the books, has read each one multiple times, and wears a t-shirt emblazoned with Edward's photo. Thousands--probably millions--of teens and young women are just as devoted. I decided to read the book just to find out what all the "fuss" was about. I knew some of the main characters were vampires, but I was surprised that the novel was a fairly innocuous love story between a human and a vampire. My granddaughter was disappointed when I told her my reaction--"It was okay"--but she was somewhat appeased when I explained that if I were a teenager once again I would probably love it. It's fast reading, but I wouldn't recommend it to adults unless you want to find out what your teenage daughter is reading.

However, a book I would recommend is the novel I just finished, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. When I saw the title in a list of recommended books, I was intrigued and checked it out of the library.

The novel is set in London in 1946, and Europe is still recovering from World War II. The protagonist, Juliet Ashton, is a 33-year-old author enjoying her first success as a writer, traveling around England on a book tour and trying to think of a subject for her next book.

One day Juliet receives a letter from Dawsey Adams who lives on Guernsey in the Channel Islands. He has found a copy of the essays of Charles Lamb that once belonged to her and asks her help in locating more writings by Lamb, since books are scarce on Guernsey. Juliet does more than just write a perfunctory reply: she sends a copy of another book of Lamb's essays and a book of Lamb's letters. She also shares some trivia about Lamb's life and encourages Dawsey in his reading:

"That's what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you onto another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It's geometrically progressive--all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment."

Juliet is also curious about the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society to which Dawsey mentions he belongs and asks about its meaning. Thus begins a correspondence between Juliet and Dawsey and eventually other residents of Guernsey.

As she exchanges letters with other members of the Literary Society, Juliet learns that the Literary Society was formed spontaneously one night as an alibi for a group of residents who were out after curfew. The Germans had taken over the island and enforced strict rules and rations on the residents; breaking the curfew could have resulted in a severe punishment. To keep up the ruse, the residents continued to meet and actually began reading books in case their Nazi captors checked in on them. The "potato peel pie" was added to the name later when Will Thisbee insisted on refreshments at the meetings and concocted a potato and beet pie--food was scarce--with potato peels as the crust. Eventually, Juliet realizes there is a story here and decides to visit Guernsey to meet her correspondents in person. At first her intention is to write about the Society for a series of newspaper articles, but after she arrives on the island, she is drawn into the lives of these people and realizes their story is worthy of a book, not a brief news story.

The novel is written as a series of letters, which I usually don't enjoy. The letters are included chronologically, so that letters from several different characters appear before a reply to any of them can be made. This could lead to some confusion, but it doesn't; rather, it makes the storyline more realistic as well as hooking the reader into wanting to continue to read. I quickly found myself changing my mind about the letter format; the letters were entertaining and full of detail that revealed the traits and thoughts of each character, making it easy to empathize with them. The characters are neither two-dimensional nor stereotypes. Not all the Nazis are evil, and not all the natives are honorable.

And it is the characters who make this story. Juliet is a bright, compassionate young woman who writes with humor and feeling. In the very first letter to her editor she describes her problems with coming up with a new idea for a book:

"English Foibles seemed so promising at first. After all, one should be able to write reams about the Society to Protest the Glorification of the English Bunny. I unearthed a photograph of the Vermin Exterminators' Trade union, marching down an Oxford street with placards screaming 'Down with Beatrix Potter!' But what is there to write about after a caption? Nothing, that's what."

There is humor, too, in the reading choices made by some of the other colorful characters. Limited to books available, a pig farmer chooses the essays of Charles Lamb; a rather eccentric herbalist decides to read Pride and Prejudice; and two laborers nearly break up an old friendship over the writings of Marcus Aurelius and Thomas Carlyle.

Mary Ann Shaffer worked as an editor and a librarian before writing this, her first novel, and her love of reading and books is one of the themes in the novel. But the novel is about much more than reading, and it is not always humorous. Guernsey was occupied by the Nazis for much of WWII, and the residents suffered deprivation and witnessed acts of inhumanity that have deeply affected them. All of them have lost at least one person dear to them. For some, the wounds will never heal completely. But they are survivors, and while they recall some of their horrific memories for Juliet, they also remember poignant stories of kindness and heroics. A Nazi doctor secretly brings medicine for a sick Guernsey child. A resident takes in a nearly dead Todt, one of the prisoners of war that the Nazis use as slaves until they collapse from starvation. And then there is Elizabeth McKenna, whose story develops over the course of the book. A determined woman of unbelievable courage, she does what is right regardless of the danger to her. This novel is a story of the strength of the human spirit and the bonds that connect people.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was one of those serendipitous finds for me--a novel I had never heard of before, but am so glad I found. It was a delightful read, and I highly recommend you check it out to while a few of these gloomy winter evenings. In fact, I'd like to find another surprise like this, so I would welcome any reading recommendations that you might have, too.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

ABC Wednesday: B

The ABC Wednesday theme is on round 4 already, and this week we have come to the letter B. Not a gardening theme here today, but rather one of my favorite possessions . . .

. . .Books!

In my last post I joined in a meme that asked "if you were stranded on a desert island, what 3 plants would you want to take with you?" When I first read this question, I thought it said deserted island, and my first thoughts were much more practical than planting flowers--a clean change of clothes and coffee(!) came to mind. But practicality aside, if I were stranded on a deserted island something I would much rather have with me than plants (no offense to my garden blogging friends, I hope) would be Books. I've been an avid reader since I was a child, and I can't imagine not reading something every day. Check back in another day or two, and I will tell you about some of the latest books I've read, including a recommendation for a very enjoyable novel.

"I cannot live without books."

--Thomas Jefferson

As much as I would like to be on a warm, tropical island right now, if I were, I would have missed the surprise delivery of this beautiful Bouquet. A good friend sent this to me for doing her a small favor. Although I didn't expect such a grand gesture of thanks, the sunny yellow lilies and red berries have been a cheery pick-me-up during these gray, cold days.

For more ABC posts, visit Mr. Linky on the link above. And I do hope you'll come back to read my first book review on Thursday.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

On a Desert Island...with my Signature Plant

Some time ago Tina at In the Garden wrote a post about her "signature plant." Several other bloggers took her suggestion, writing about their own signature plants, and I wanted to join in, albeit rather late as always. Just as I was about to finish a post on my signature plant, everybody was jumping on a boat with Shirl of Shirl's GardenWatch to set sail for a desert island. I missed the first boat while I was digging up my signature plant and trying to decide on two others to take. Fortunately, I found a slow dinghy headed the same way, so I hope there's still room for a few more plants on that island.

It's not easy, as everyone has found, to pick only three plants to take with you to a desert island. I am going to assume there are a few trees and some lush vegetation already on the island, so I'm going to stick with flowers. One of them is my signature plant--see if you can guess which one it might be.
One plant I couldn't live without would have to be a rose. Is there any other flower that can rival the beauty of a perfect rose? I think not. The rose would be my muse, because some of my time--assuming I had paper and pen--would be spent writing. A lovely tea rose with large blooms and a delicate fragrance would be wonderful, and it would probably grow in this fantasy world. In reality, though, I have no luck with hybrid roses, so a carefree Knockout Rose like this one from my real garden would be just fine, too.

For splashes of color all around, I would also take some zinnia seeds. These hardy annuals could grow anywhere and give me lots of color to cheer me up as autumn sets in. If I should happen to be stuck on the island for more than a year, I could always collect the seeds for another planting.

And finally, for my third choice I would have to take along some purple coneflowers. I'm drawn to pink flowers, and these tall beauties would definitely make me smile and help me forget my loneliness. Besides, they are bee and butterfly magnets, which would give me some company. Can you imagine the exotic butterflies these might attract on a desert island? Mary recently admitted that she talks to the birds in her backyard; well, I'm sure I would start talking to my winged visitors as well. After all, if Tom Hanks could talk to a ball named Wilson, I could surely talk to butterflies!

So which of these three is my signature plant? Can you guess? You might think it is the rose. After all, that is my name, and it is the avatar I've chosen on Blogger. But most roses are rather fussy about their surroundings and can be high maintenance. I don't consider myself either of those. Or you might think I would pick the zinnia, since I've raved about them since August. But this is the first year I've planted zinnias, so it remains to be seen if this will be a long-term relationship or just an infatuation.

No, the plant that symbolizes me, my signature plant, is the coneflower, Echinacea Purpurea. I extolled its virtues in a Bloom Day post last July, so I won't repeat all the details here, but just give you a recap of the main reasons I am so attached to this plant.

When I first began gardening in earnest, I decided I wanted to plant some of those pretty pink flowers I saw in so many gardens in the area. I didn't even know their name! I dug up my first perennial flowerbed and planted 9 or 10 coneflowers, and lo and behold, they bloomed that first year, thriving and coming back in even greater numbers the next year and the year after that. When we moved several years ago, I left most of the flowers for the next owners, but I did take a few coneflowers for a new garden; they now reside in three of my flowerbeds.

I am a loyal person who enjoys tradition, which is partly why I have a special bond with this faithful plant. Like me, it's native to this area, one species growing here long before any settler set foot upon the Prairie. My ancestors settled here over 130 years ago when the land was still a prairie, and for generations they have worked the soil and conserved it for posterity. Like the coneflower, I have deep roots to this land.

Don't let those pretty pink blooms fool you: this is no delicate beauty fussy about its environment. Because it's a native, it's a very sturdy plant that grows easily here and often reseeds itself, multiplying the number of blooms in my garden. I'm no fragile "shrinking violet" either, and I'm certainly not "high maintenance"! My parents have traced our family tree back to the 1600's without a hint of noble heritage; like the coneflower, I come from sturdy peasant stock:) As for the multiplying, hmm, well, I do have four children . . .

Analogies aside, there are many reasons to love this plant, a major one being its attraction to bees, butterflies, birds, and even the occasional grasshopper. All summer long my garden is alive with humming and fluttering insects, many of whom are so entranced by the large seed-bearing globes that they don't even notice a camera poised nearby. In the fall, once the petals have dropped and the plant dries up, the goldfinches take over, enjoying the seedheads left behind.

We gardeners often talk about "winter interest." What could be more interesting than these tall flowers still standing in the garden with their warm winter hats on?

Faithful and true, strong and sturdy, living in harmony with all nature, echinaceas are more than just another pretty face in the garden. Whether on a desert island or here in the heart of the Midwest, there will always be coneflowers in my garden.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

ABC Wednesday: A Proud Day

Today is the beginning of a new series of ABC Wednesday posts, sponsored by Mrs. Nesbitt, and I had planned a few suitable photos for the letter A.

First, I thought of the usual object used in children's books: A is for Apple. Apples were in abundance on my trees this year; we've hardly made a dent in all the applebutter, applesauce and frozen sliced apples that I preserved last fall.

And I thought of the weather, a constant topic of conversation the last few weeks. A word we often hear-- and sometimes cringe at--is Accumulation. Despite the ice and bitter cold we've had so far, we haven't had as much snow this year as the past two years. Of course, winter is far from over!

As miserable as this winter has been, I was going to end by saying I'd rather be in Arizona, where the weather is warm and the sun is shining.

But all these ideas seemed rather silly and trivial after spending much of the day watching television.

Today, I am proud to be an American.

"What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task."

It was a day when the joy and optimism were almost palpable. I hope that it inspires everyone to do their part in making this world a better place.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Annual Review II: Containers 2008

I've been complaining so much about the weather lately, that I should tell you that we are on our way to a mini-heatwave here in central Illinois. The temperature today is supposed to get up to 23, and 40 degrees by Thursday. Whoohoo! I'd better get out those T-shirts and shorts I've packed away for the winter.

Today's post has nothing to do with the weather, however, and is one I meant to do long ago. For the last two months I have wanted to post about my container plantings this past summer, but one thing or another kept me from getting around to it. I finally sorted through all my photos to find a few of the containers and through all my plant tags to remember what was planted where. I admit this post is really for me: every spring I try to think back to the previous year to remember what plants I used in each container and how many of each I bought. No I didn't write them down, and the gardening journal I started last spring is incredibly spotty. Not that there is anything wrong with my memory, mind you, but it seemed that recording my plantings here with photos was a good replacement for the journal entry.

I am disappointed that the photos I found are not that good. I kept waiting for the optimal time to photograph each container and spent more time taking close-ups of individual flowers. As a result, some containers here were photographed early in the season before they filled out, and some near the end of the season--as an afterthought--after a few of the flowers had died. Underneath each photo I've listed the plants in each container as best as I can remember and depending on the tags I found. Those marked with an asterisk* were new this year, and those marked in bold were exceptional performers. Not that the others didn't do well--although a few didn't--some plants are ones I would highly recommend and will definitely use again next year.

Near the back door an old wicker fern stand I bought years ago at an estate sale is filled every year with 3 zonal geraniums and two or three asparagus ferns. Not too original a combination, but to me it fits the vintage look of the container. Every year I try to overwinter this stand, and every year I neglect to water it enough. Although the geraniums had to be tossed out last spring, I did manage to keep the ferns. I usually also plant trailing vinca vines in this planter, but because the ferns were already so big I skipped the vinca this year. This photo was taken in late spring; by September the ferns were a mass of feathery fronds, engulfing the geraniums.

Two pots flanking the garage doors were planted with identical combinations:

1 Bourbon Street Acalypha*
4 Profusion orange zinnias
2 yellow lantana "Tiddley Winks"
3-4 yellow celosia*

By the time I took the previous photo the celosia had died for some reason, but I really liked them in this arrangement, and they gave a more vertical element to the planter. The Acalypha was definitely a disappointment. They never grew to the 20-30" they were supposed to, and will be replaced next year with something else--maybe some purple fountain grass?

A random post is situated next to the driveway and patio. I'm not sure what its purpose originally was, but a few years ago I placed an old, small, decorative birdhouse atop it and have planted it with various small trailing plants from wave petunias to verbena. Every year the flowers die within a month, it seems, no doubt from lack of water. I was so happy that this year the calibrachoa "Million Bells Cherry Pink" survived well into fall. Perhaps I got lucky in picking a healthy plant, but I think the potting medium made a difference this year. The birdhouse is small and dries out quickly, so this year I added a piece of coco mat as a liner, used good potting soil, and added some moisture crystals to the mix. Watering it every day--twice a day quite often--certainly helped as well.

Two pots flank the old buggy seat in the main garden and are usually planted with the same combination, which varies only slightly each year:

2 Pink Zonal geraniums
4 Profusion Cherry Pink zinnias
1 Strobilanthes dyerianus "Persian Shield"
2 Helichrysum (smaller variety)
1-2 purple Heliotrope

This photo was obviously taken soon after planting; both pots were much fuller by mid-summer.

This urn was given to me as a birthday present a few years ago and is definitely my favorite. It sits in a prominent place near the front porch where everyone can see it.

1 Persian Shield
3 Supertunias "Raspberry Blast"
2 Helichrysum "White Licorice"
4 Dianthus "Super Parfait Strawberry" (in the center--not really necessary)
Note: only 1 helichrysum was needed--it overshadowed the petunias this year.

I've used the same combination for the past two years with a great deal of success and have no intention of changing it next year. The dianthus were added for instant color, but if you can be patient the petunias soon fill in. I can't say enough about "Raspberry Blast"--it's a great performer!

You may remember this pink planter I purchased last spring. I loved the container, but the planting was a disappointment. This was probably the best it looked all summer, and that was before the salvia even grew up in the back. The verbena didn't last long for some reason; in fact, none of the verbena I had in containers did well this year, which was a mystery because I usually have good luck with them. The container is fiberglass, and I had trouble deciding if I was overwatering it or underwatering it. I think I may move it to a different, sunnier location next year.

1-2 Helichrysum
1 (or 2?) Supertunia "Royal Velvet"*
2 Superbena (Verbena) "Large Lilac Blue"
2 Euphorbia "Diamond Frost"*
4 Salvia "Victoria Blue"

Definitely not a good photo! Two green planters are placed in front of the porch planter, facing the front yard. This photo must have been taken early in the summer before the plants filled it in and definitely before either the zinnias or lantana bloomed. All the planters in the front of the house are in the shade most of the day; while the sweet potato vine and coleus did very well, the zinnias and lantana could have used more sun. As much as I like this combination, I might have to look for more shade-loving flowers to use next year.

1 "Kong" Coleus (other pot had a "regular" coleus "Glennis")
4 Profusion "Cherry" zinnias
2 Lantanas "Patriot Petite Rainbow" (needed sun!)*
1 Ipomoea "Tricolor"*

Two old crocks I've had for years also are placed in front of the house. I usually fill at least one of them with the typical impatiens, but I got a little more adventurous this year and was so pleased with the results. (Of course, using much better potting soil this year also helped!)

1 Ipomoea "Marguerite"
1 Heuchera "Dolce Creme Brulee" * (later planted in the shade garden)
1 "Fusion Glow" Impatiens*
1 Calibrachoa "Superbells Yellow Chiffon"*
1 Kong Coleus
The second crock--ignore that hose wrapped around it; it must have been mowing day:) The begonia was my favorite annual this year--what a beauty! I'm sad to say it hasn't survived the winter in my garage; I do hope I can find this same plant next year.

1 Spike (I don't remember botanical name)
1 Ipomoea "Marguerite"? or ""SweetHeart Light Green"?
1 Begonia "Illumination Apricot *

This Adirondack chair sits in front of the old oak tree near the road and holds a planter of bright blooms all summer and then a big basket of mums in the fall. There are two problems with its placement: 1.) It is in constant shade, which doesn't help the sun-loving annuals. 2.) It's a long walk from the house, so too often I neglect to water it. I don't remember exactly what I planted here last spring, because several plants died and were later replaced with others . . . which eventually died. The geraniums, helichrysum, and of course the spike were the hardiest of the bunch and did last all summer.

2-3 Red seed geraniums
1 Helichrysum
1 Calibrachoa "Superbells Saffron"
1 Torenia "Summer Wave Blue"* (shade-lover)
1 Spike

I usually also include a coleus or asparagus fern, but somehow forgot this year; one or both of these might be a good addition for this shady planter next spring. My goal this year is to keep this watered. I need to remind myself that carrying two half-filled watering cans down my 1/8 mile lane ought to count as a good weight-bearing exercise!

Every spring I get a little carried away with buying annuals, especially when Beckie and I go on one of our plant-shopping sprees. I seem to wind up with leftover plants that I can't resist but have no place planned to put them. I usually have one or two pots reserved for the "leftovers"where they are planted with no regard to design. This year was no exception--several beauties just insisted they had to come home with me--but the end results included two welcome surprises.

One pot, which I neglected to photograph, was placed in the shade garden, containing 1 helichyrsum, 1 caladium,* 1 lavendar-white verbena,* and 1 ipomoea "Bewitched." *A strange combination, but it worked; the "Bewitched" was a gorgeous, glossy dark sweet potato vine--I definitely want to find one of these again next year.

But my most successful "leftovers" were in this pot below:

2 Petunias "Double Wave Pink" *
2-3 Lantanas "Tropical Temptation Mimosa"*
3-4 Salvia "Victoria Blue"

The tag for the pink petunias didn't give a more specific name, but I do hope I can find these again next year. Next to the "Raspberry Blast," these petunias outperformed all the others with constant blooms until frost. The salvia--my favorite "Victoria Blue"--eventually did pretty well here, although I've discovered it doesn't like overcrowding and prefers being planted directly in the ground.

There were a few other pots I didn't include here--a basket of double pink impatiens, a small pot with volunteer dianthus, and another urn that contained flowers that changed through the season from pansies to verbena and "Diamond Frost" Euphorbia.

I enjoy planting containers and creating and coming up with new combinations of plants. The annuals provide instant gratification while waiting for the perennials to bloom and provide a constant supply of color throughout the season. And, of course, it gives me an excuse to visit all the garden centers in the spring and indulge in my favorite type of shopping. This summer there will probably be a few familiar displays in my garden; after all, if something works and I like it, I'm not going to change it. But I'm open to new ideas, and if a gorgeous annual calls out to me from the nursery displays, I'll find a place for it and some new companions in one of my containers.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

GBBD: Did I Mention It's COLD?

Today is the 15th of the month which means another Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day sponsored by that intrepid gardener and eternal optimist Carol of May Dreams Gardens. I am hoping when I visit Carol this morning that somebody, somewhere--anybody, please??--will have something actually blooming in their garden.

Here in the Midwest, though, we are stuck in a deep freeze. The temperature when I awoke this morning was -13 degrees (that's -25 C), but at least the winds have temporarily died down a little. The wind chill last night was predicted to be between -35 and -45 degrees (that's about a minus 1000 C, I think). Tomorrow is supposed to be even colder.

We had only a few inches of snow, but what we did have was whipped around by the high winds yesterday, drifting across roads, my long lane, and the driveway (twice--again after I had shoveled it). Even the faithful yarrow had nothing to show; any green there might be (I doubt it) is buried under the frozen tundra.

I took the photo above yesterday before the winds picked up and while it was a more "comfortable" 9 above zero. Actually, I wasn't outside sacrificing myself for this Bloom Day post; I was out to put more seed in the bird feeders before things got too bad. The birds did appreciate it; maybe one of these days I'll actually have a photo of one. Even Coconut, who normally loves to accompany me on any tours of the garden, decided it was too cold outside to play.

I call this composition "White on White."

I know Coconut isn't a "bloom," but he demanded equal time after seeing so many photos of Toby here, even though he's not very willing to pose for a photo.

OK, enough with the cold . . . let's move inside where (forget the power bills) it's cozy and warm. I'm not a houseplant person, though, and other than the agave I brought home from Arizona and the pots of tulip bulbs I'm trying to force, there isn't much in bloom inside either.

The Christmas poinsettia is still blooming, though. I've never had much luck with keeping poinsettias past one season, so this guy is staying on display until every last leaf falls off:)

An amaryllis bulb I picked up at Meijer's is slowly growing, but no signs of a bloom yet. I was late in potting up some tulips--my first attempt at forcing bulbs--so I hope they bloom before the tulips outside do.

Here are some real blooms to feast your eyes on! Last fall my local Curves was selling a promotional card for monthly flowers from a local florist. For $20 I could pick up a small bouquet every month for a year. That's less than $2 a bouquet, which is cheaper than a grocery store arrangement, plus they are much fresher. But the best part is that half of that cost went to a local charity that provides shelter for women, particularly for victims of domestic abuse. Not bad--some blooms to brighten my day each month and a way to help others at the same time!

Since these are the only real blooms I have, let's take a closer look, shall we?

There are bright-eyed pink daisies featured prominently here. Pink is one of my favorite colors in the garden.

Ooh, isn't this exquisite? A white carnation tipped in hot pink.

And for contrast, a burgundy carnation tinged in white. A few cheery yellow daisies warm up the whole arrangement.

Oh, I am feeling much better now.

Stay warm, my friends!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

ABC Wednesday: No Surprises Here

This week we have reached the end of the alphabet, and we should probably have a little razzle dazzle to celebrate. But long-time readers will not be surprised by my choice from the garden for the letter Z. What else, but that annual dazzler...

the Zinnia!

Did you guess my choice beforehand? Anyone who read my posts this past summer knows how thrilled I was with these old-fashioned annuals.
For anyone who doesn't remember, just a little background is in order. I expanded my roadside garden last spring and couldn't decide what kind of taller perennial to plant in the back. Then I remembered Lisa had posted some photos last winter of her summer garden with a wide row of zinnias she had sown from seed. I hadn't planted zinnias in years, but hers looked so beautiful I decided to try them. Besides, spending a few dollars on packets of seeds rather than spending 10 or 20 times that on perennials seemed like a great temporary solution. If I found a perennial that fit the spot, I could always plant it next year.

I purchased a mix of the tall variety of zinnias and sowed the seeds directly in the ground. Despite a flood immediately after, most germinated and bloomed by August. The stems grew straight and tall, never flopping over, and tolerated both wet and dry feet, not to mention neglect by the gardener. From August until late October they provided a nonstop show of bright blooms in nearly every color. They called out to passersby and brought a smile to my face every day as I came home. All summer long I wondered, why hadn't I planted these lovelies before? Instead of looking for a perennial as a backdrop, zinnias will again be planted in this spot this summer.

Besides these tall beauties, there are many other varieties of zinnias, including the ever-popular profusion series. While I usually use the Profusions in container plantings, they can also be planted for a mass of color like this bed on the U of I campus near the Idea Garden. If you would like to know more about zinnias, you can check an earlier post I did this summer on these faithful flowers.

These scenes from summer are only a memory now, and unfortunately, it will be many months before we see such displays of color again.

Instead of vibrant colors and sunny skies, the temperature tomorrow is supposed to dip below Zero. Rather than working in the garden, it's a good time to crawl under a blanket . . .

. . . and catch some Zzzz's. I think Toby and I might hibernate until spring!

For more ABC posts, please visit Mrs. Nesbitt's Place or the no-comment blog the ABC Anthology.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

DBG: And Now the Rest of the Story...

Freezing rain is falling as I write, covering the streets and sidewalks with a dangerous coating of ice. Snow is in the forecast the next few days, and then an "Arctic blast" is predicted to come in by the middle of the week, with temperatures plummeting into the subzero range. All this makes me long to get on a plane and head south to any place warm and sunny. But I can't, so a mini virtual vacation will have to do.

A week ago I wrote about the Chihuly art exhibit at the Desert Botanical Gardens which I visited in Phoenix in December. If you missed it, you can scroll down two posts and see this marvelous display "The Nature of Glass." Today I wanted to finish the tour by showing you a few of the varied plant specimens to be found every day at the Gardens. Click on any picture to enlarge it, and definitely enlarge any photos on the earlier post about Chihuly. I found that these photos on Blogger don't do justice to the art; enlarging them really brings out a clearer idea of their beauty.

"Float Boat"

When I made my first visit to DBG last January, I opted to take a guided tour of the garden. If you visit, I would highly recommend taking the tour first. I was told it would last 30 minutes, but mine lasted an hour and was worth every minute. Our guide was very knowledgeable about all the plant life in the garden despite being a transplanted Chicagoan and gave us so many fascinating little tidbits about each plant and about the whole ecosystem of the Sonoran Desert. This time I decided to go it alone to give myself enough time to see everything at the Garden.

I didn't need a guide or even the identifying sign to recognize this agave plant. I remembered some of the information from the guide on my previous visit, too, such as the fact that this plant can live for over a hundred years and that it blooms once--right before it dies. But I didn't know until I went to purchase one in the gift shop that there are over a hundred varieties of agaves.
This familiar-looking one is agave mapisaga.

My smugness at being a quasi-expert in Sonoran flora wore off very quickly, when I saw plants like this that I didn't remember seeing before. This tall cactus stood near the entrance to the Garden in one of the first displays of Chihuly art. When I began to organize my photos at home, I realized I hadn't even bothered to get the name of this plant. Its lower trunk looks very similar to the saguaro growing near it, but the top is unique. I have no idea what kind of cactus it is; looking at it from this angle, it reminds me of a sculpture of a Greek mythological monster.

Another type of cactus I didn't remember is this Teddy Bear Cholla Opuntia Bigelovii. It's a fairly common type of cactus seen in the area; this one does look look rather cute and cuddly like a teddy bear, doesn't it?

But on closer inspection, I don't think you'd better cuddle with it:) Those needles are pretty long!

Here's one you definitely wouldn't be tempted to cuddle--a Toothpick Cactus. If you enlarge this photo, you'll see the intimidating size of its needles.

This was a name I recognized--Euphorbia--but this Euphorbia Canariensus was nothing like any euphorbia I've ever seen! All the euphorbia I am familiar with, like my Euphorbia "Diamond Frost," have blooms and look nothing like a cactus. This succulent--I think--comes from the Canary Islands.

And this smaller variety, which looks like an aloe, is from Madagascar, Euphorbia kamponii.

Having posted a few times about the saguaro cactus, I thought taking this pop quiz posted near a planting would be a cinch. Wrong again! I failed miserably. I don't remember the answers to all of these now, but I did get one right--saguaros grow only in the Sonoran Desert, which is primarily located in Arizona. I missed the one about the deep roots: saguaro roots are not deep, but are wide, usually as wide as they are tall. I do remember the guide telling us on my previous visit that when developers must move a saguaro--as required by state law--it is a major undertaking.

I also misidentified this cactus--at first glance it looks like a saguaro with the same ribbed arms, complete with woodpecker holes. But this is actually a Cardon pachycereus pringlei. The most obvious difference between the two is that while a saguaro grows straight up, with arms developing after many years, the cardon grows a few feet, then branches out into many arms. My vague memory of high school Latin leads me to think the name comes from its resemblance to an elephant's tough hide.

Another specimen I don't think I saw on my first trip was this saguaro growing up through a palo verde tree. The palo verde with its green trunk and branches was a tree that I marvelled at on my first visit to Arizona. A nearby sign explained that a saguaro sometimes grows up through the tree's branches, which shelter it in its early years. When the saguaro reaches a certain size, the palo verde dies. That's not as sad as it sounds, because judging by the size and the arms of this saguaro it may be nearing 100 years old, so the tree has lived a long life. Another example of the marvels of nature.

There were some other sights I hadn't seen before as well as a few surprises. This large prickly pear, Opuntia martiniana, is a common sight in desert landscapes.

But I was surprised by another variety with blooms that look like berries. (This one's worth taking the time to enlarge.)

Most cacti don't bloom until March in Arizona. But this barrel cactus--I think--is also getting a head start.

The last time I visited the DBG, I was somewhat on a time constraint and didn't get to see all parts of the Garden. This time I was determined to visit every nook and cranny, including the Sonoran Desert Trail. This half-mile loop contains native plants of the Sonoran Desert with many display signs containing a wealth of information about this unique landscape.

The organ pipe cactus was a common sight on the trail. Notice the luminaries lining the path in this photo and the one above. For the holidays, the DBG held a special luminaria exhibit at night. I went in the morning, but I can only imagine how beautiful this scenery--and the Chihuly exhibit in particular--would have looked illuminated after dark.

The Desert Trail is on a slope and provides an excellent vantage for viewing the natural landscape beyond the gardens. The iconic saguaros are everywhere.

The DBG is located southeast of Phoenix, next to Papago Park and the Phoenix Zoo, and is quite easy to get to. It's within easy driving distance of Scottsdale and Tempe, in particular. The Sky Harbor Airport is not far either; if you look closely or enlarge this photo, you'll see a plane taking off above the cactus.

The Gardens aren't just about cacti, however. There is an herb garden where I found this huge basil plant flowering in December.

Another area I missed on my first visit was the Wildflower Garden. Unfortunately, December is probably not the best month to view wildflowers here, as few were blooming at this time. This is where I took the photo of the gaillardia, however, that I pictured on my earlier post about xeriscaping.

This yellow wildflower didn't seem to mind sharing space with a prickly pear cactus.

Just beyond the herb garden there were several areas planted in annuals and flowering perennials. I looked all over the place but could not find a sign to identify these striking red seed pods.

My favorite part of this section of the Gardens had to be the Wildlife Garden, where for a moment I could imagine it was summertime once again. Bees, butterflies, and birds were in abundance here.

Hummingbirds hovered happily over the blossoms. Don't bother to enlarge this photo--it will still be a blurry hummingbird:) They were as elusive for this photographer in Arizona as they were last summer in Illinois.

The bees were much easier to capture. They were especially drawn to the unusual red blooms of this Baja Fairy Duster.

The butterflies were drawn to more familiar plants. I wonder if any of you butterfly experts out there can tell if these are monarchs. They looked a darker brown than the Monarchs I'm used to. Perhaps they've just gotten a tan in the Arizona sun:)

Last fall I tried countless times to get one decent Monarch photo. Apparently, I had to travel 1700 miles to get one! Notice what plant it's feeding on--a milkweed, of course.

I spent several enjoyable hours touring the Botanical Gardens and admiring the Chihuly glass exhibit as well as all the different area of gardens. There was one area, though, that I was unable to visit.

Daughter really wants her Dad to come out for a visit and is trying to persuade the two of us to come in March to see some Cubs' spring training games. It won't take much convincing for me--as you can see, I wouldn't mind visiting the Desert Botanical Gardens once again.