Tuesday, December 30, 2008

ABC Wednesday: X is for Xeriscaping

This week we have come to the letter X, normally a difficult letter, since few words actually start with X. However, a gardening-related word much in vogue right now is Xeriscape.

Xeriscaping refers to landscaping and gardening in ways that take into account the natural water supply and do not require additional irrigation. The word Xeriscape was coined by a task force in Denver, Colorado in 1978 and is actually a registered trademark of the water department of Denver. The word comes from the Greek word for "dry," xeros.

In arid climates like that of Arizona and other parts of the Southwest, it is easy to see why such a concept is important. On my first visit to Phoenix last winter I noticed that many homes did not even have lawns, just gravel and rock often landscaped with cacti and succulents. Areas with lush green lawns require daily watering to maintain them, as I discovered one night while walking around my daughter's apartment complex--I returned inside with soaked clothes after being surprised by the automatic water sprinklers!

While you might assume that only cacti like the prickly pear cactus shown above would be appropriate to grow in such a dry environment, I discovered that is not the case. A website on Arizona xeriscaping recommended many plants besides cacti and succulents for gardeners, including two that I saw everywhere while visiting Phoenix.

Oleander, which I showed on a previous post, is actually one of the recommended plants on the Arizona list. It is described as a plant which grows quickly and adaptable to dry climates.

The same is true of the beautiful bougainvillea. These plants were part of the landscaping around a Blockbuster Video Store! Notice the oleander in the background, too. Both plants are also used as part of highway landscaping; I saw many of them in beds of rock while we drove along the freeways around Phoenix. And here I thought Arizona must spend a lot of money on watering its highway plantings!

I must admit to not knowing much about xeriscaping; in fact, I had never even heard of the word until fairly recently. But in doing a little research, I discovered that gardeners in dry climates like the Southwest or other areas of the country subject to drought are not the only ones concerned with conserving water. That, of course, is the main purpose of xeriscaping--conserving precious water--but another reason is to plant a garden that is lower maintenance and can withstand the occasional periods of drought.

Here in the Midwest we don't have a dry climate--this past summer was one of the wettest on record--but we have had some summers of severe drought and usually have at least one "dry spell" every summer. I discovered several websites related to Illinois xeriscaping, although we often use the term "drought-tolerant" instead. On most of these websites you will find tips on planning a garden to survive drought plus databases of recommended plants.

Interestingly, the Arizona xeriscape website recommended the blanket flower or gaillardia. This traditional flower is also a native plant in the Midwest where it is easily grown. I took the picture above at the Desert Botanical Gardens in Phoenix where it looked just as good as in any Illinois garden. One of the things I learned about xeriscaping from my little bit of reading is something I already knew--you can't go wrong planting native plants.

If you are interested in learning more about xeriscaping, just google the word with your state. For my garden blogging friends, you may not learn anything new, but it's nice to know when you are planning a low-maintenance garden that you are also helping to conserve one of the earth's precious resources.

To see more ABC post visit Mrs. Nesbitt's Place or the ABC Anthology.

Since it is almost New Year's Eve, I hope that however you observe the occasion, whether celebrating with friends or spending a quiet evening at home, that everyone has a happy and SAFE New Year's Eve!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

"Oh, the Weather Outside is Frightful..."

I hope that everyone had an enjoyable Christmas and time to relax from the often hectic pace of the season. We had both, although the weather was not very cooperative. In the past week we have run the gamut from frigid temperatures to a warm day in the 60's, from snow and ice to heavy thunderstorms with threats of tornadoes.

The forecast was for a white Christmas, and looking out across the lawn through my living room window last Tuesday, that seemed like a definite possibility.

However, what you can't tell from the photo is that while there is a light dusting of snow, most of the white you see is actually a sheet of ice! The day before saw wind chills below zero, then the next day it warmed up enough so that the predicted snow turned to freezing rain instead. Roads were covered with ice, making for very treacherous driving. Many holiday travellers found themselves stranded as flights were cancelled at O'Hare and other Midwest airports.

Yesterday temperatures soared into the sixties, and the ice melted, leaving flooded roads and fields in its wake. Heavy thunderstorms added to the mess. We did make it to my parents' house for a Christmas brunch and a nice afternoon with my brother and his family, although the constant warnings from the weather radio in the next room created some unease. I have to admit I was happy to get home safe and sound last night--to a thankfully dry basement.

The fluctuating temperatures and high winds at times left their mark. Our yard is littered with broken pine branches that will require some time to clean up as soon as the weather cooperates.

It's a colder, but more normal winter day today, but there is a strange yellow glow in the sky I haven't seen for awhile--oh, it's the sun shining! While we Illinoisans have been complaining about the weather all week, at least it's a nice change of pace from our usual topic of complaint these days--state politics:)

Despite the bad weather, we were able to have our Christmas celebrations as planned. Although several local churches had to cancel their Christmas Eve services, my children were able to get here for our family get-together on Christmas Eve, and everyone managed to navigate our ice-covered driveway without falling. Earlier in the day I was worried my husband would miss out on the fun of watching the children open their presents because he has been on call at nights this week for highway snowplowing duties. Fortunately, the roads were clear enough that he was able to spend Christmas Eve and Day with us.

Christmas presents were eagerly ripped open on Christmas Eve, and the grandchildren had a grand time playing with all their new toys until it was time for them to go home and get a little sleep before Santa came to their own houses the next day. My husband and I spent Christmas Day at home alone, which actually turned out to be very nice and peaceful. My husband appreciated the time to catch up on much-needed rest after spending several days of working twelve-hour shifts, and with a John Wayne film marathon on one TV channel and a James Bond marathon on another, he was perfectly content! I took advantage of his mid-afternoon nap to set up the new Wii Fit I received for Christmas. That's a good thing, since the holidays have been filled with too many tempting goodies.

My five-year-old granddaughter came over a few days before Christmas to help me bake Christmas cookies. We made several dozen cookies, although we would have had more if she hadn't eaten so much leftover cookie dough :0) Her favorite part is decorating, as you can see. I set out cans of decorator icing and all kinds of sprinkles and let her go at it.

Anyone need a sugar fix??

Although the festivities are over, the decorations and Christmas tree will stay up through New Year's Day, as is my usual custom. I like to savor the holiday spirit as long as I can and enjoy the familiar ornaments as well as a few new ones, including this one received just a few days before Christmas.

This lovely mitten ornament was made by Amy at Blossom, and I was the lucky winner of her giveaway! You might enlarge the photo to see the intricate embroidery and detail. Even though she is recovering from recent knee surgery, Amy managed to send these all the way from British Columbia just in time for Christmas. Thank you so much, Amy! I will treasure these mittens, and they will be hanging on my tree every year.

Again, I hope that you all had a very Merry Christmas, and I wish you a happy and prosperous New Year!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Christmas Blessings

The letter for this week's ABC Wednesday is W, and I could have posted a photo to illustrate . . .

. . . Winter, or I could wish you all a Frohliche Weihnachten!

But since this Wednesday is also Christmas Eve, I assume that most of you, like me, will be busy with family activities or last-minute preparations for Christmas Day. So I wanted to post a few days early to wish you all a Merry Christmas.

The "hustle and bustle" of Christmas is nearly over for me with most preparations completed. I have time to sit back and reflect, counting my blessings this Christmas.

Everyone has their own Christmas traditions. As a child, our family would attend Christmas Eve services, and when we returned home Santa had come! It was not until I was older that I realized that Santa made an early appearance at our house so that we would have time as a family, since Christmas Day was spent at two different grandparents' homes. When I married, my husband and I made this our own Christmas tradition, again so that we had our own family time.

Today, the grandchildren know that it's not Santa who comes to our house. But as they open presents from Grandpa and Grandma and their aunts and uncles, their eyes still shine with delight. We re-live the magic of Christmas through their eyes.

In recent years more stockings have been added as new grandchildren were born or new "significant others" are introduced to the family.

No one is forgotten on Christmas:)

Some traditions change, though: this year for the first time my husband and I will spend Christmas Day alone. My children will be spending the day with their in-laws, and that is as it should be. Although we usually spend Christmas Day at my mother's, she always regrets the fact that most of the grandchildren cannot make it, so I persuaded her to postpone the family gathering this year until the weekend when more of the grandchildren will be able to attend. I am older--and wiser, I hope--and can appreciate the peacefulness of a quiet day at home.

I look at the angels on my tree, crocheted by my mother and think how blessed I am to be able to spend Christmas with both of my parents.

Older Daughter will not be here for Christmas, but Boyfriend's family will be spending the holidays with them in Arizona. I am happy that the two of them will still have a family Christmas.

And I think of a local family whose only daughter was killed this past week in a tragic car accident. I will say a prayer for them and remember how blessed I am.

Angels are in abundance here at Christmas, and some of them have taken on special meanings. I think of those who are no longer with us, including my dear goddaughter Andrea. I am blessed to have good friends, especially my life-long friends Beckie and her husband. I share their joys and sorrows.

I think of those who have lost their jobs in the past few months, and then look at all the presents under our tree. We are not financially rich, by any means, but we are blessed to be able to provide for our family and to help in a small way those less fortunate.

And we are blessed to live in a country where everyone may worship as they choose and celebrate the holiday in their own ways.

My wish this Christmas is the one first uttered over 2,000 years ago:

"Peace on Earth
Goodwill to Men."

To all of you, my dear blogging friends, I wish you a very blessed Christmas.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

ABC Wednesday: "How I Spent My Winter Vacation"

I hadn't planned on participating in ABC Wednesday today, but I couldn't resist--V is the perfect letter for telling you about . . .

. . .My Vacation!
As most of you know, I returned last week from spending a little over a week with my daughter in Phoenix, Arizona. On one of my last days there, Daughter took the day off from work so we could do a little sight-seeing. We travelled east of Phoenix to the Superstition Mountains in Tonto National Forest, where the photo above and the one below were taken.

On my first visit to Arizona last January, Daughter and her boyfriend took me to Sedona, about a two-hour drive north of Phoenix, which is a very scenic area full of the red-rocked mountains that could easily have been the backdrop for many an old Western. The Superstition Mountains near Phoenix are not nearly as colorful, but they are picturesque nonetheless. To a girl from the flat lands of Central Illinois, I was awed by the mountains, but our drive followed a sometimes steep road with winding curves and sheer drop-offs that had me clinging tensely to the armrests--and sometimes Daughter's arm (which she didn't appreciate).

Along the way there were some interesting spots, including a restored ghost town where gold was purportedly discovered in the 1800's. Daughter also stopped at a famous spot, unmarked by signs, where the old TV western "The Rifleman" was shot; I took photos of the barn and small jail for Husband to entice him to accompany me on my next trip. After several miles of me clenching my teeth, we finally stopped for lunch at an authentic-looking restaurant called Tortilla Flats, complete with saddles for seats at the bar. (We opted for a booth.)

What sensible person takes a vacation in December? You probably think a very well-organized one with all her Christmas presents purchased and placed in their wrappings under the tree and with all her Christmas cards sent and holiday baking finished. Hardly. Most of those tasks are still waiting to be done as I write this post. But Daughter is not coming home for Christmas, and since this will be the first year I haven't had all four children here for the holidays, I couldn't wait until January to visit her. It was a wonderful week with lots of quality time with Daughter, her boyfriend, and the granddogs; hopefully, now I won't get too misty-eyed on Christmas Eve.

It was a little difficult to get in the Christmas spirit while there despite the holiday decorations everywhere. Somehow garlands and red bows just don't look the same without a little snow beside them.

Instead of a full moon rising over a blanket of snow, a cloudless sky provided the perfect, if not wintery, backdrop for the moon above a palm tree.

Daughter and I took several shopping excursions, including my introduction to Nordstrom's Rack (!!) and some Christmas shopping. But she also had to work several days while I was there, so I had plenty of time to explore on my own and just relax. Of course, the plant life was something that fascinated me. Besides the cacti and the palm trees, there were many other plants I was unaccustomed to seeing. I spied several orange and lemon trees in the grassy area behind her apartment building.

Even walking around the apartment complex, which was well-landscaped, gave me the opportunity to indulge in my gardener's curiosity. These fuschia flowers were blooming on a rather large tree, but I have no idea what they are. Any ideas?

And everywhere I looked were these flowering shrubs. They looked so familiar to me, but I couldn't think of their name, and non-gardening Daughter wasn't any help.

Finally, thanks to Chandramouli, who pictured one of these just recently on his blog, and to Gail, I realized these were oleander!

Another lovely flower in bloom everywhere--and I do mean everywhere--were these bright red shrubs/vines. Again, no one could identify them for me until I finally asked at a nursery where I purchased some agaves. Those of you from the South probably recognize these immediately--they're bougainvillea! They were simply stunning, but if I were to add to last Wednesday's post about ubiquitous plants, I would definitely have to add the bougainvillea and the oleander to that list for Arizona.

While the arid conditions of this part of Arizona make it difficult to grow many plants, even grass, without irrigation, that doesn't stop gardeners from trying. This apartment resident had a balcony full of blooming lantana.

It was easy to get back into the routine of walking when the skies were clear and the weather warm. Walking behind the apartment complex, I found a bike path that led to a small lake inhabited by ducks and occasionally other waterfowl.

The ducks were obviously used to human visits and seemed disappointed when I didn't have any bread crumbs for them.

Still on Central time, I often awoke before anyone else in the household and found myself drawn to the lake and the ducks most mornings. It certainly was a peaceful way to start the day.

When I wasn't relaxing with the ducks or checking out the local landscape, I did manage to fit in several shopping trips and some sightseeing on my own.

Old Town Scottsdale is an interesting place to visit for a few hours. Shops with old Western shopfronts run along Fifth Avenue for several blocks, selling everything from authentic-looking Southwestern jewelry to Native Indian artifacts to typical tacky tourist souvenirs. Daughter and I also went to nearby Tempe one afternoon where they were celebrating their annual Arts Festival. Unfortunately, none of my pictures of it turned out that well, but no matter. Block after block had lines of booths selling all kinds of wares. I bought only a few items, although I was very tempted by some garden sculptures until I realized the impossibility of taking them home on the plane!

But my favorite place during the trip was the Desert Botanical Gardens in Phoenix. I had visited the Gardens in January, but this time I was lucky to be here for the beginning of an exhibit by glass artist Chihuly.
This sculpture entitled "Float Boat" was just one of so many placed strategically about the gardens. The exhibit runs through May 2009, so if you are in the Phoenix area during the next several months, definitely take the time to visit the Gardens. I took so many pictures that I'm going to wait to do a separate post just on the Gardens, probably in January when green plants and vibrant colors will be a welcome relief from the snow.

On the plane ride over, I struck up a conversation with a woman seated next to me who was from Phoenix. She recommended several places I might like to visit, and when we discovered a mutual interest in mysteries, she suggested I visit a little book store called "The Poisoned Pen." As it turned out, it was only a few blocks from Daughter's office, so she took me there one evening after I picked her up from work.

What a treat for any mystery lover! This is not your typical "big box" bookstore. Only mysteries and related genre can be found here, and hanging from the walls are photos of all the authors who have visited the store for book signings. The salesperson was a young man who was more than willing to help and recognized the names of every author I mentioned. All my favorites--Martha Grimes, Elizabeth George, Patricia Cornwell, and Sara Paretsky, just to name a few--have been here at one time or another, and the store has many copies of signed novels, including first editions. Although I passed on buying any books for myself, I did buy a signed copy of a fantasy novel for my granddaughter and couldn't resist a tote bag for myself. I also signed up for their e-mail newsletter, which means I can order a signed, personalized edition of a book in the future. I can't wait to see who might be appearing there next! For any mystery fans, this store is a real gem.

Finally, my stay came to an end. Before I left, I said goodbye to my feathered friends . . .

. . . and watched one last Arizona sunset.

The next morning, presents were left under the tree, and I exchanged big hugs with Daughter, Boyfriend, and the "boys" Odie and Bear. I think I needed this vacation, but most of all I needed to share a little Christmas with Daughter and her family.

For more ABC Wednesday posts, visit Mrs. Nesbitt or the ABC Anthology.

Monday, December 15, 2008

GBBD: Frigid December Blooms

Brrr! It is darned cold here in central Illinois today--10 degrees F. at the present (-13 C), and I was told the wind chill was below 0 this morning. It's so cold that this Bloom Day post almost didn't get done.

Braving the biting wind and frozen tundra this morning I looked in vain for a decent photo. I knew nothing would be blooming outside, but I had hoped for a nice covering of snow or even a coating of ice to create a pleasing picture, but no such luck. Even the yarrow, which has been the one plant blooming (sort of) from my first Bloom Day post in March to the last one in November was a huddled mass of frozen green. I am thankful, though, that we did not get the ice storm that was originally forecast for today.

Quickly retreating from the cold into the garage, the Euphorbia "Diamond Frost" is still producing a few blooms, though it is fading fast. I did bring in a few pots of annuals this fall to see if I could over-winter them. Two weeks ago I had geraniums and impatiens blooming in the basement, but their blooms are all gone today. I hope they didn't suffer permanent damage from neglect the last two weeks.

Not much is to be found blooming in my house either. I gave up growing houseplants several years ago after one after another succumbed to my neglectful care. I have decided, though, after visiting Arizona that cacti and succulents might be the perfect choices for someone like me. I purchased this Agave "Angustifolia" last week in Phoenix at a local nursery. Did you know there are hundreds of varieties of Agaves? I certainly didn't. I felt rather foolish asking the salesperson for an agave and being asked "which kind?" After getting a mini-lesson on some of the types, I settled on this one because it should grow rather large, and I bought another variety (name forgotten already) without any prickly spines for Daughter with the dogs.

But here is the best bloom of all--just perfect for the season! I purchased this poinsettia from the high school's Art Club and was a little disappointed in its size, but oh well, the money goes to a good cause. Now if I could only get the rest of the house decorated soon and the Christmas cards signed and addressed and the rest of the Christmas shopping done . . .

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day is brought to you this December, as it is every month on the 15th by Carol at May Dreams Gardens. Visit her and check out other posts--I know flowers are blooming somewhere!

Friday, December 12, 2008

A "Beary" Nice Visit

This morning I woke--rather late, I say sheepishly--to gray overcast Illinois skies. Quite a change from yesterday when I woke before dawn to this view:

What the photos don't tell you is that in the first scene there were snow flurries swirling about on this chilly day, and in the second scene once the sun rose completely, it warmed the day up to a pleasant--though chilly day by Arizona standards--64 degrees. Needless to say, I'm suffering a little culture/weather shock today.

Click here to see more Skywatch Friday photos. I didn't add my name to the posts there, however, because this post isn't really about my photos of the sky. I returned home early yesterday evening after spending a week in Arizona, visiting my daughter and her boyfriend, who, I am sad to say, will not be coming home for Christmas this year. My trip gave me the opportunity to also meet my new granddog for the first time.

This is Bear, a lovable 6-month-old puppy. Yes, I did say puppy--you may recall my posting a few pictures of him earlier this year and explaining that he is a Mastiff, which is one of the largest breeds of dogs there is. Bear weighs almost 90 pounds now, but his Daddy weighs 200 pounds, so one can only imagine how big he will be the next time I get to see him!

Bear seemed to take to me right away, although I noticed that there really isn't anyone he doesn't like. He is still definitely a puppy with some puppy "issues" that my Daughter is working on, including trying to eat forbidden things like the garbage and paper when they are out. One day when she and I were out shopping, Bear grabbed the People magazine I had brought along to read on the plane and ate several pages. Apparently he didn't agree with some of their choices for "Sexiest Man Alive." (Neither did I, to be truthful.) And on the morning of my departure I found him in my bedroom pulling out a paper from my carryon--my plane ticket! I like to think he didn't want "Grandma" to leave:)

The week gave me plenty of quality time with my new grandson, including attending puppy school with him and my daughter. This evening's lesson included learning the commands "Bed" (funny, I don't have a problem with that one), "Heel," and "Stay." Bear seemed to understand these commands fairly well, although he had a problem with attention, often being distracted by his girlfriend in the class, Macie. In the photo above, Daughter was practicing a few of the commands in the aisles of Pet Smart when she decided to check out a new bed for him. Although Grandma was eager for gift ideas, we both decided this, the largest bed they had, would soon be outgrown in a few months.

On Saturday we took both dogs to the local dog park. This was a new experience for me! I like dogs, but I'm used to one or two or three at a time, not a whole area full of all breeds of dogs running free and playing rather boisterously with each other. Bear loved it, while Odie the pug preferred to sit on the sidelines after awhile.

Afterwards, we were all ready for a nap.

While Daughter and I were busy with several activities, time had to be taken each day for walking the boys, of course. Odie, the pug, used to live with us, so we renewed our acquaintance during my visit, and occasionally I would walk him while Daughter or Boyfriend walked Bear, who is still learning to be polite for inexperienced--and weaker--leaders like myself.

I learned that not only are birds difficult to photograph, but so are dogs. Daughter wanted a nice "family" portrait in front of her newly decorated Christmas tree, but as you can see, Bear and Odie didn't quite understand the concept of "Sit" and "Stay" at the same time. I think she might have to hire a professional photographer for a good Christmas card photo:)

Of course, Bear will pose for treats!

Or sit still by himself if "Grandma" snaps the camera very quickly. I did get a few nice photos of the family--Daughter, Boyfriend, and the "boys"--outside their apartment, but without her permission to use them here.

Grandma still has the touch, though, of keeping the kids in line for a moment at least.

I had a wonderful week with my daughter and her family; since all the rest of my family lives close by, it is hard to have her so far away, but it does give me an excuse to travel more often. We did a lot of shopping and visited some interesting places. Once I've sorted out all my photos, I'll have much to show you in later posts--a good thing, since there certainly isn't anything blooming in my garden!