Wednesday, October 28, 2009

ABC Wednesday: The Color of Autumn

For those of you wondering where I was last week for the letter N, I simply had No ideas and No time to post that day . . .

But I'm back for this week's ABC Wednesday with the letter O, which represents the color Orange . . .

. . . as in Orange and Blue, the colors of my alma mater, the University of Illinois.

What better way to spend a crisp autumn afternoon than watching a college football game in a stadium with thousands of cheering fans.

Especially when you're also in the company of family.

Three generations--Dad, Son, and Grandson all outfitted in their #7 Orange jerseys.

Clapping and singing along to "Hail to the Orange" and marvelling at the feats of the cheerleaders. Unfortunately, it has been a very disappointing season so far, leaving Illini fans more blue than orange.

Orange is also the trendy color of the season . . .

. . . It's what the best dressed trees are wearing at the moment.

From a dark reddish orange to a luminous hot shade,
orange predominates in the fall landscape.

Orange is also every kid's favorite color right now.
It is hard to pick just that right pumpkin when there are so many choices.

But Grandma's rule is that if it's too heavy to lift,
it is too big to take home, no matter the persuasive smiles.

Yes, it's the perfect color for this season, and I hope you all have . . .

a Happy Halloween!

For more ABC posts on the letter O, do stop by here.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

"Golden Girls" Gardening Assistance

In these tough economic times, everyone could use a little extra cash. I am managing all right, but with two daughters living across the country, it would be nice to have a little "play money" to be able to visit them more often.

I do substitute teach occasionally, but the pay is not that great. Besides, I can't substitute on Wednesdays because that is my Tai Chi day, and if it's sunny outside, of course I'd rather be in the garden. What I have been looking for instead is some kind of work that has more flexible hours and something totally different that wouldn't feel like work at all. Something related to gardening would be enjoyable, but I'm hardly qualified to be a landscape designer or a garden coach.

Then a few weeks ago, I had a brainstorm. I have been preparing a new flowerbed for next spring, and inspired by Tina's excellent post on "double digging," I decided to spade up a patch of lawn rather than using the tiller to break up the sod. This project may take me until spring to complete because I work only a short time each day that it isn't raining. Tina admitted that while she once was able to dig up a new flowerbed in a day, it now takes her a few days. I think we can all relate to this, but Tina has to be in much better shape than I am. After an hour of pushing the spade into the soil, lifting up a clump of turf, and throwing it over to the side, I need three hours of rest on the couch to recuperate. (Stock tip: the company making Ben Gay would be a good investment right now.) This doesn't even consider the strain on the knees later while spreading newspaper and additional soil or mulch over the freshly dug bed. (Note: add the makers of ibuprofen and acetaminophin to your stock portfolio.)

However, one day while waiting for Sophie to take care of her "business," I spaded a few more inches of the flowerbed-to-be and soon discovered I had an unknown source of gardening assistance. Finished with her necessary duties, Sophie ambled over and found my work intriguing. She quickly joined in and demonstrated an amazing ability to assist me, cutting my work time considerably. This inspired me to consider launching a new business helping others prepare new gardens. Considering the increasing number of baby boomers entering retirement and turning to gardening as a hobby, I think there is a real market for a new business of this type.

We're a long way from marketing our services just yet, but let me show you the potential here. Please be advised that these are very short amateur videos--I had to enlist the aid of my grandchildren to take them--but a more professional shooting would be used in future commercials or other advertising.

Notice how the gardening assistant carefully separates the turf from the soil, ensuring that the rich topsoil is not lost, but can be easily raked back into the garden area. After the initial spading by yours truly and the separation of sod and soil, the assistant continues with the next step.

This next step of "double digging," according to Master Gardener Tina, aerates the soil and produces a fluffy medium that provides an ideal growing environment for new plants. It also results in a raised bed for a more aesthetic appearance.

This new business is still in the drawing board stage, but I have finally come up with a name for our venture. After rejecting such names as "Doggie Digging" or "Sophie's Sodbusting," I have decided on "Golden Girls' Gardening Assistance." Just vague enough to pique curiosity, I hope. And just in case you are smirking, the name is an obvious reference to Sophie's pedigree and to the few strands in my hair that have retained their gold color, NOT to my age.

Of course, there are a few kinks still to be worked out. I spaded up a small area a month ago to plant the "Bloomerang Lilac" that had been languishing on my patio, and after digging up even more space, decided to finish this area off with a layer of newspapers and new garden soil so that I could also plant a lily and aster that had been purchased weeks ago. I returned home after some errands that afternoon to find pawprints all over the completed garden area and newspapers strewn all over the yard. Obviously, some employee training will need to be completed before we can open for business.

Since the formulation of the initial plan, I've also considered branching out into other areas. On Monday, we had a trial run of garden clean-up. I demonstrated to my assistant the ease of pulling out dead tomato plants and garden debris. Unfortunately, the grasshoppers jumping about all over the garden proved to be too much of a distraction. Again, additional employee seminars on productivity and learning to focus on the work at hand will be necessary before offering additional services.

I am not sure when I will be ready to open for business, but in this early stage I more than welcome any suggestions or constructive criticism you might offer me. And, if you are within easy driving distance, I might be able to arrange an experimental demonstration of our services. Since this would be strictly a trial run, the cost to you would be minimal--a few Snausages or a small cheeseburger should be sufficient.

Whenever we do launch our business, I do know that there will be this disclaimer on the contract:

"Not responsible for accidents if the gardening assistant is
allowed to enter a previously planted garden."

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Veggie Garden Wrap-Up

It is the 20th of the month, which means it's time for another veggie garden update, sponsored each month by Tina at In the Garden. I've been pretty good this year, participating for five months, but this will be my final vegetable post of the year. With frosty nights for the past week, it's time to put this garden to bed for the winter.

Everything that could be has been harvested, and only a few anemic leaves of swiss chard and this parsley are still growing in the garden.

The fennel is going to seed, and instead of the swallowtail caterpillars which once covered these tall plants, they are covered with Asian Lady Beetles, which are everywhere.

It's a good time to evaluate the successes and failures of this year's veggie crop and to think about some changes for next year:

1. Without a doubt, the award for best performing vegetable this year has to go to the green beans. I planted perhaps 3/4 of a package of seeds, intending to sow a small second planting a few weeks later. But I ran out of room for the second planting, and it wasn't necessary anyway. We had a consistent harvest of green beans up until two weeks ago, and several packages were frozen for the winter.

Recommendation for next year: Remember to check the beans every few days. With this year's abundant rain, I underestimated how quickly they would grow, resulting in some harvests of gigantic beans, not so tasty or tender.

2. The spinach and lettuce did not perform as well for some reason; perhaps they were planted too late.

Recommendation: Plant spinach as early as possible and plan to freeze some. Plant the mesclun mix again only if room allows. Pull both as soon as hot weather arrives and use the space for something else.

3. The tomatoes produced a bumper crop in spite of the blight.
The best performer of the four varieties planted was Better Boy, which seemed to be more disease-resistant than the others. I managed to keep one heirloom alive--sort of--from the seeds started indoors. I waited all summer for this Cherokee Purple to produce a ripe tomato so I could finally taste what everyone has raved about. As you can see to the right, it never happened. This poor plant was hit first with the blight, dropping all its leaves and producing two tiny fruit, which turned red only as the temperature dropped below freezing.

Recommendation for next year: Depending on how my supply of frozen tomato juice and sauce holds out through the winter, I may plant fewer tomatoes. I planted 20 plants, which produced more than enough for us this year and kept me busy for awhile preserving all the extras. "Better Boys" and Romas will be the main varieties planted; as for heirlooms, we'll see if I feel adventurous enough to try again.

4. A gardening segment on the news today featured a local Extension agent explaining how important it was to clean up the garden. He emphasized the need for pulling out tomato plants especially, because of their proclivity toward diseases. Other plant material can be left in the garden, according to him. I took advantage of the sunny weather today to do just that, pulling up the tomato cages to store for the winter and pulling all the dead tomato plants out and depositing them in the burn pile--not the compost pile. And, of course, I will rotate their location next year to help avoid a chance of leaf blight again.

Recommendation for next year: Check tomato plants carefully and often as the summer progresses. At the first sign of spotted and brown leaves, spray with a fungicide. The fungicide may not have worked this year, but since the blight hit while I was away, I never got the chance to try it.

4. Mulching the garden this year really helped control the weeds. I used wood mulch this year, only because I had some extra, but whatever I use next year, the key, I think, is to put down the newspapers first.

Recommendation for next year: Mulch again, but sooner!

5. An unexpected bumper crop came from the carrots. I never bothered to thin them out and didn't get around to digging them up until two weeks ago, thinking they needed more time to fill out. To give you some perspective on this photo, the small carrot in the center is a normal-sized carrot you would get in a bag purchased in the supermarket. The rest of these are monsters! Even Tarzan in the corner of the picture was afraid to touch these scary giants.

Recommendation: Pull up onions and carrots much earlier!

6. Other results from this year: the few beets planted did very well; I had forgotten how much I liked these vegetables. The gourds, on the other hand, were planted much too late and didn't do much of anything.

Recommendations: Plant more beets. Plant gourds earlier in the season. Other veggies I'd like to add: sugar snap peas, summer squash, and some winter squash. I've wanted to plant asparagus for years--if spring comes early enough to work the garden in March or early April, I might finally get around to planting that asparagus and the peas. Of course, that will mean digging up more space as well!

Overall, I was very satisfied with the veggie garden this year, and if that weren't enough, I found a couple extra vegetables elsewhere--when I pulled out the wilted sweet potato vines from my planter, I found these at the roots. So, tell me, are they edible??

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Wet October GBBD

It's the 15th of October, and you know what that means--time to celebrate another Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day, a time when garden bloggers across the world show off what is blooming in their gardens right now.

This will be a short tour today because it's pretty nippy out there--about 40 degrees. And I do hope you have brought your umbrella and some old gardening shoes for sloshing through the mud. We have had rain, rain, and more rain for the past few weeks, but I did hear we might have a change in the weather soon--a chance for snow this weekend! Looks like we'd better hurry . . .

Aside from the potted mums purchased already in bloom, there are still some spots of color in my garden. One of those mums purchased two years ago has happily established itself in my shade garden.

What has surprised me, though, are the annuals that are still blooming. After being gone for the weekend when we had a freeze here in central Illinois, I didn't expect to see anything still alive in my garden when I returned. But the "Victoria Blue" salvias and Homestead Verbena are still going strong, though the Victorias are beginning to lose some blooms and turn to their silvery winter coat.

In Roco's memory garden the Profusion White zinnias are full of blooms and show no sign of giving into the cold just yet.

Most of the blooms in the Butterfly & Friends garden have given up, but the nasturtiums are still looking good.

As is the Salvia "Black and Blue." This is one annual that will definitely be purchased again.

Not a great photo, but I have been so pleased with this begonia, its name buried somewhere in my archives. I don't think I have ever been able to keep a potted begonia alive all summer before, but this one has continually bloomed on my porch all summer.

And, of course, the old standbys geraniums/pelarogoniums are loving this cool weather. It will take a hard freeze to make them give up for the year.

The Butterfly & Friends garden was a new addition this year, and it took some time for some of the plants to achieve their full potential. This pineapple sage has really taken off and is finally in full bloom. I don't know much about this plant, including whether it is an annual or a perennial, but I need to do some research soon. If it's an annual, I need to see if I can collect some seeds for next year--this one is definitely a keeper.

This one I know will be back, though--a chocolate Joe Pye, a gift from Monica, seems unfazed by the cool weather and is setting out more blooms.

Of the few perennials still in bloom here, the Knockout Roses, are putting out the best display. I think they're just so happy that all those pesky insects that plagued them all season have finally left. They will bloom their heads off until a hard freeze.

The "Rozanne" geranium in Roco's garden also seems undaunted by the cold.

I wasn't surprised to see this "Becky" daisy nearby still in bloom, but I was amazed that we still had some bees in the garden. Apparently, these hoverflies
are hardier than most of the other species of bees.

It has been a strange fall with much cooler and wetter conditions than last year's ideal autumn. This hydrangea "Let's Dance in the Moonlight" still is hanging onto its faded blooms, but the foliage hasn't turned to the bronze color I liked so much when I bought it last fall. I think everything in the garden is a bit confused this year.

Nothing, though, is as confused as this clematis. You might remember last year when I showed two different blooms on this clematis, finally deciding that I must have gotten a "two-fer" in the pot I purchased. In the spring I had a mass of blooms from what I think is a "Nelly Moser," but last August I also had these lavender, unnamed blooms. I have been waiting since late summer to see if they would bloom again and had given up on them. To my surprise, this bloom just opened up. If there are going to be any more buds on this plant, they had better hurry up before the snow flies!

While my garden is definitely winding down for the winter, I know that many of you in warmer climates are still enjoying spending time in the garden. These lovely asters are not in my garden, but from the "mystery" garden I posted about on Tuesday. On our way home from Tennessee we made a slight detour to visit one of several gardens I've always longed to visit. Many of you recognized that peaceful scene of the chairs in the front garden . . .

Yes, I finally got to see in person Gail's Garden of Benign Neglect! As much as I love this name, though, it really doesn't fit this wonderful setting of native and native-friendly plants. Gail's friendly bumbles weren't sleeping on this morning; they were busy going from one bloom to another, enjoying their feast. Our visit was short, as Husband was anxious to get home before dark and, truth be told, I was anxious to see Sophie, but we managed to fit in a grand tour of Clay and Limestone before leaving. I wasn't sure we were going to be able to fit in a visit at all, so I arrived empty-handed--shame on me!--but left with a bounty of Tennessee plants. Next year on this Bloom Day, I hope I'll be able to show you a giant aster now blooming in my Illinois garden! Thanks, Gail, for being such a gracious hostess and the tour of such a beautiful garden.

For other blooms across the world, be sure to visit garden guru Carol of May Dreams Gardens.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

ABC Wednesday: Memorable M's

This week's ABC Wednesday is brought to you by the letter M . . .

. . . for Mountains, the Great Smoky Mountains, to be precise.

We spent the past weekend near Gatlinburg, Tennessee, which is why I have been incommunicado for the past several days. As you can see, the trees on the mountaintops are just beginning to turn; it will no doubt be another week or two before they are at their peak of color. But the intention of our trip was not to see the fall foliage.

Instead, our main purpose was to attend a family wedding, the Marriage ceremony of one of my husband's relatives. The couple rented a spacious, beautiful mountain cabin for their small ceremony attended by only closest friends and relatives. A steady downpour the night before made navigating the steep mountain roads quite an experience, especially at night, but the rain stopped just long enough on Saturday to allow the wedding to be held on the deck. Can you see the Mist rising above the trees? It was a magnificent backdrop for what will be a very memorable day for this young couple.

The weekend was all too short, and we didn't get to do much sightseeing. Instead, it was a time for visiting with family, including a stop at the home of Husband's elderly aunt, who was thrilled to have us visit. But I did persuade my husband to make a short detour on the way home . . .

Here's a bit of Mystery for you--do you know the fellow blogger whose garden I visited? Garden bloggers probably won't have any trouble recognizing this spot, but I will wait until my Bloom Day post to reveal the answer to any who don't. While I didn't actually sit in these chairs, my husband and I were greeted so graciously by our hostess on this misty Monday morning and given a grand tour of this beautiful native garden.

Our weekend will provide us with many wonderful Memories and was worth every Mile put on my car!

For a medley of other ABC posts this week, visit the ABC Blog, hosted by Mrs. Nesbitt.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

October Book Review: The Lost Symbol

Like millions of other fans of Dan Brown, I recently purchased his long-awaited sequel to The Da Vinci Code, The Lost Symbol. The question on everyone's mind was after six years, was Robert Langdon up for another nail-biting adventure? Finishing the novel in a few short days, I can answer with an unequivocal "Yes"! And I promise that this review will contain no spoilers for anyone who hasn't yet read the book.

Symbologist Robert Langdon has been summoned by longtime friend and mentor, Peter Solomon, to Washington, D.C. for an impromptu lecture. However, when he arrives at the Capitol building, he discovers that Solomon has been kidnapped, and his captor has left a grisly memento in the Rotunda to impress upon everyone that he is deadly serious in his intentions. In order to save his friend, Langdon is called upon to find a mysterious ancient underground portal somewhere in the city that will reveal "the Ancient Mysteries."

Like the albino in The Da Vinci Code, the villain--Solomon's kidnapper--here seems possessed in his single-minded quest to unlock the secrets of the ancients in order to achieve some mystical power. Unlike the albino, however, this villain, who calls himself Mal'akh, appears to act alone. He is introduced in the prologue and, as is customary with Brown's style for developing suspense, many of the chapters focus on his point of view. With a muscular body that is completely covered with tatoos, he is a truly frightening antagonist. His ulterior motives are vague, but are eventually revealed in the surprising climax.

The symbols that Langdon must decode in order to appease Mal'akh have to do with Freemasonry, and the book presents a very interesting look at the history of the Masons, particularly the role they played in the founding of our country. Along the way, Langdon meets up with Solomon's sister, Katherine Solomon, who is also in danger. Katherine is doing groundbreaking research in the field of Noetic Sciences and is a worthy match for Langdon's superior intellect. Together, they elude possible enemies, including the director of the CIA's Office of Security, and dash through the city of Washington in their search for clues.

The action of the book takes place over the course of one night, and to say it is fast-paced is a cliche, yet true. Just as one layer of the mystery is solved, another layer appears, and Langdon and Katherine are involved in a race against time as well as in a fight for survival. This is definitely a book to read on a cold, rainy weekend--as I did--when you don't have other demands on your time.

I've been a big fan of Dan Brown since reading The Da Vinci Code and have read all his other books, which are just as good, especially Angels and Demons. Unlike other popular authors who churn out one or more books every year, often with mixed results, Brown appears to take his time to research his material thoroughly before publishing another novel. The Da Vinci Code prompted a flurry of television programs about the Holy Grail, secret societies, and the theological theories presented in the novel. Whether this book will bring about the same kind of response remains to be seen, but I doubt it, since the topic of the Masons has been discussed at length in shows already. The only subject that may spur some interest is the area of Noetic Science, which turns out to be an actual field, the study of the power of human thought. And unlike The Da Vinci Code, which caused some outrage among theologians, The Lost Symbol is pretty tame--the Freemasons are presented in a favorable light, and no controversial religious theories are discussed here.

My son also read the book and enjoyed it, but was disappointed in the characters, saying they were inconsistent. I had hestitated to read any other reviews of this book before writing this post, but after hearing this, I thought I would check out what a few other reviewers had to say. All the ones I read praised the book, but found similar devices used in The Da Vinci Code and criticized Brown's "wooden dialogue" and clumsy sentence structure. I think Langdon may appear somewhat inconsistent, at times solving a puzzle with amazing speed and at other times being rather obtuse, but I believe this is just one of Brown's techniques in creating a cliffhanger at the end of chapters. Ultimately, Langdon solves all the riddles, of course, and this is a novel driven by plot, not characterization. True, there are some similarities to The Da Vinci Code, but The Lost Symbol is definitely not a clone of that book. And as for Brown's writing style, well, you don't buy his books expecting Shakespeare!

The Lost Symbol has a list price of $29.95, but can be easily found for much less at many bookstores and discount superstores. Take my advice--shell out the money for the hardback, and don't wait for the paperback to come out. By that time, the media will have revealed all the "lost symbols"!

For more ideas of great reads, check out other reviews at the meeting of the Book Review Club.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

ABC Wednesday: L

ABC Wednesday this week brings us the letter L, which is for . . .

The Lipizzaner Stallions

The world-famous Lipizzaner Stallions performed in a show at the Assembly Hall on the University of Illinois campus a few weeks ago. While I didn't get to attend the show, I was able to see a few of these magnificent horses later. A neighbor, who is an avid horsewoman, told me that some of the Lipizzaners were being boarded at her horse barn for a few days after the show and invited me over to see them. What she didn't realize is that I was bringing all the grandkids!

I explained to the grandkids some of the stallions' famous history, but they were more interested in just seeing the horses themselves. Two of the younger grandkids were more taken with the owner's friendly colt than any of the Lipizzaners. Much thanks to Kathy for inviting us to her tidy and comfortable horse barn--the grandkids loved it!

Turning to the garden . . .

L is also for Lilac

I love the smell of lilacs in the spring, and I've always wanted to add more to my garden besides the old-fashioned shrub that now is more like a small tree. A few weeks ago, a local garden center had these "Bloomerang Purple" Syringa x on sale, and I quickly snapped up two of them. This is not your typical spring-blooming lilac; it's a re-bloomer that is supposed to bloom from spring until frost. The sales assistant told me that they had had so many requests for this plant in the spring, but they hadn't been able to get them until now. As you can see, when I bought this in September, it still was in full bloom, and yes, it had that wonderful fragrance.

Some other facts about this plant from Proven Winners:

"Bloomerang Purple" Syringa x

Growing information:
Zones 3-7
Full Sun
Flowers: blue-lavender
Height: 48-60"
Spacing: 60-72"
Bloom time: Spring and summer, through frost (may rest during summer heat)
Good resistance to powdery mildew and root rot
Attracts butterflies
Deer resistant
Remove spent blooms promptly to encourage reblooming.

One of the lilacs is already planted in my yet-to-be completed new flowerbed, and the other found a home at my son's. If it lives up to its expectations, you'll be seeing a lot of this lovely lilac next summer!

And for early readers of this post, if you wonder if I know what day it is . . . yes, I do. I'm posting a little early because tomorrow is the monthly meeting of the Book Review Club, when I'll be posting another L . . . a review of Dan Brown's latest, The Lost Symbol.

For more ABC posts this week, do visit the ABC Blog, hosted by Mrs. Nesbitt.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Garden Muse Day: October

Autumn Diorama

Early morning
Crisp Air

Grey ridged bark
Green lawn, leaf clutter underfoot

Wisps of fog off the pond

Green trees
Orange trees

Splash of sunlight

Clouds pasted
For accent

Backdrop of blue
unblemished, unbroken

Screens, curtains, stage sets
Transparency overlays


Scene set

Raymond A. Foss

September has sung its swan song, and October has arrived with the unmistakable feeling of autumn. Cool and rainy today, it is sweater weather despite the hints of summer in the green grass and full green branches of trees. A few leaves have begun to put on their autumn finery in shades of orange and gold.

Ears of corn are ripening in the field, almost ready for harvest.
The once proud stalks bow in the midday sun,
their crepe-paper leaves now brown and brittle.

The gaudy colors of the summer garden are muted now in deference to the season. (Photo of the Master Gardeners' Idea Garden in Urbana, Illinois.)

Some flowers have waited all season to finally have their hour upon the stage.
(Hydrangea "Tardiva")

Instead of flats of brightly colored annuals,

garden centers sport tables of jewel-toned mums.

Or other sure signs of the season.

Bees take their last sips of nectar.

As do the late butterflies, though they may be feeling a bit tired and out of focus.

The Monarchs are migrating southward. We will have to wait until next summer for the perfect photo of this elusive beauty.

And we will have to wait many months, too, for that ideal photo opportunity of the camera-shy hummingbirds. (If you look very, very closely and/or enlarge this, you might just see this green fellow with the fluttering wings. I didn't even realize he was in this photo until I enlarged some files for this post yesterday.)

Autumn has arrived.

Autumn is a second spring, when every leaf is a flower. --Albert Camus

I want to congratulate all the winners of the 2009 Blotanical Awards. I was so excited to see so many of my favorites among the nominees and the winners. This was certainly an impressive group to choose among! And a heartfelt thank you to all of you who voted for me for Illinois blogger. I was honored to even be nominated, with all the wonderful bloggers in this state, and coming in at #2 in such great company was a complete surprise. Thank you--you are all winners to me!

For more Garden Muse Day posts, please visit fellow Illinois blogger and nominee, Carolyn Gail at Sweet Home and Garden Chicago.