Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Camels and Sand - Part 2

The camels go marching one by one - hurrah! hurrah!  A little more about arid gardens:

Besides allowing house plants a place in your garden without taking them out of pots, setting water loving plants in specific pots or raised beds in this garden allows you to water only those needing water.  The Primrose might be a good example.

If you will notice, most arid gardens aren't packed full of fluffy and flowering plants.

To contrast with your other areas in the yard, you might consider a backdrop to your arid garden.  This could be in the form of large stones, rock fence or tall plants. 

Even though it might look good in the beginning, I never recommend bamboo or giant reed grass.  They can be too invasive and impossible to stop.  

Consider placing your new garden with one portion in part shade.  This expands the plant options.  Ferns for example.

Using raised beds as part of the overall look lets you have more options for different types of plants and their needs.  Wood sides wouldn't look very arid and I suggest stone that coordinates with your ground mulch.

This is a simple little drawing (with a misspelled sedum) that I did just to give you a visual idea.  It's certainly not "landscape design" quality I concede.  A few suggestions:

  1. These should be tall ornamental grasses to form a backdrop.  Examples:  Calamagrostis a. 'Karl Foerster' or Miscanthus s. 'Gracillimus'
  2. A little shorter to soften the line.  Examples:  Miscanthus s. 'Dixieland' or Misconthus s. "Strietus" aka Zebra Grass.  Plant the grasses far enough back from the stone wall so it won't drape over it.  Both types of backdrop plantings could also be tall thin conifers such as Pinus nigra 'Arnold Sentinel'  aka  Fastigate Austrian Pine. 
  3. Yucca should contrast against the backdrop grass.  Plant where there is no traffic or need to work around.  Examples:  Yucca "filamentosa"  aka  Adam's needle and Yucca "glauca"  aka  soapweed yucca, Yucca faxoniana.
  4. Creeping junipers "Juniperus horizontalis" are the most common and a native of our area.  Given the perfect conditions, they can spread very wide.  One plant might suffice.  I put it on the edge of the retaining wall to allow it to flow over the stone and around the statuary.
  5. There are many varieties of Sempervivum tectorum  aka hens and chickens.  Low growing and very slow to spread, they are ideal for designs or tapestry.  They look great when tucked amid larger stones.
  6. Cactus and agaves should be planted where there is no traffic.  There are several cold hardy:  Escobaria leei, Echinocactus texensis, Agave neomexicana, Agave utahensis v. kaibabensis
  7. Low spreading sedums are numerous.  There are also other ground covers that would work:  Arenaria tetraquetra  aka  Spanish Sandwort, Paronychia kapela ssp. serpyllifolia  aka  Silver Nailwort,
  8. Examples:  Sedum sieboldii October Daphne aka  Stonecrop,
  9. This could be a large flat stone for a table or candle.  It could also be a specimen plant such as Pinus ponderosa 'Mary Ann Haecock'  aka  Mary Ann Haecock Dwarf Ponderosa Pine.
  10. Low growing/spreading:  Thymus praecox ssp. arcticus 'Coccineus' - Pink Creeping Thyme, Sedum dasyphyllum 'Major', Blue Tears Sedum.
  11. Low growing:  Arenaria tetraquetra aka  Spanish Sandwort, Escobaria (Coryphantha) vivipara aka  Spiny Star.  I saw someone use decorative kale/cabbage - it fit right into the landscape.
  12. Sedums, spurge and others.  Examples:  Kniphofia caulescens  aka  Blue-leaf Red Hot Poker, Sedum 'Thundercloud' PPAF  aka  Thundercloud Dwarf Sedum,  Sedum 'Autumn Fire'  aka  Upright Stonecrop.
This web site has many photos of the above examples: 
 Two-humped, or Bactrian, Camelus bactrianus.
Experiment, follow your heart or that camel. 
Although this big boy might just be a tag too much...

Monday, December 27, 2010

Camels and Sand?

Donkeytail Spurge in bloom.

Unknown variety sedium in bloom.

Sedium Crazy Ruffles.
Unknown variety sedium in bloom.

I often hear gardeners wishing they could grow or copy plants from a different climate.  You often can do this with a little imagination, a little more work and knowledge of what's available for your growing zone.

I thought of this while reading an article about the Sherman Library and Gardens located in Corona del Mar, California.   Such a beautiful example of the plant life in arid regions and exotic vegetation of tropical climates.  They also incorporate potted plants in a way that looks natural and regional.

Here are a few suggestions if you'd like to incorporate a little dessert into your Midwest garden:

  • Probably the most obvious first step is to look at web sites of established gardens (like the Sherman).  Look at these gardens with an overview for texture, design, color and ideas.  NOT for specific plants.
  • You may want to borrow ideas from rock gardens and oriental designs.
  • Decide how big you want your xeriscaped area.  For beginners, my advice is go smaller than your beginning thoughts. 
  • Your new bed should be in full sun if possible.
  • Decide if you want an informal or structured bed.  Both have possible applications or you can use a combination.
  • Consider a good quality landscaping cloth.  NOT plastic sheets but the breathable, easily shaped and cut, water moves through kind.  Weeding in rock is not fun.
  1. Prepare a drawing of how you'd like your new bed to look.
  2. Prepare your new bed much like any other new growing area.  Kill all current ground cover.
  3. If your bed includes electrical needs, install those now.  
  4. If your bed includes water features, install those next (ponds and streams).  Dessert gardens often include a dry river bed (see my article #57 "Dry Creek Beds")  
  5. Install any new large hardscapes such as paths, edging, and accent rocks.
Here is a list of perennial plants that look like dessert plants and some varieties grow in Zone 5 (check out the zone to make sure the variety you choose is hardy in your locale):
  • Spurges
  • Sediums
  • Ferns
  • Yucca
  • Creeping evergreens
  • Bonsai pruned trees
  • Agave
  • Cactus - Prickly Pear is an example
  • Sempervivum
  • Stonecrop 
Annuals that could make fine accents because of the flowers or foliage:
  • Primrose aka Primulas
  • Moss Rose
  • Red Hot Poker
  • Elephant Ear
  • Small hot pepper plants
  • California poppy
Potted house plants:
  • Palms
  • Mother-in-law's tongue
  • Ginger
  • Camella
  • Begonia
  • Citrus trees
  • Cacti
  • Aloe
  • Jade
There are many more plants that would suffice - just think form and zone when shopping.

And finally, most gardens of this type are covered with a hard mulch, such as small stones, pea gravel, or landscaping glass.  Wood mulch typically holds in moisture - not something you need with these plants.  If planting annuals, leave a portion with no hard ground cover for planting since it can be VERY difficult to dig in rock.  I would not use sand as a cover as it packs very much like cement in our climate.

If you plan to set existing pots of house plants IN the ground for a natural look in the summer, set a larger plastic pot in the ground first - within about two inches of it's top.  You can set and remove your houseplants easily without lots of digging later.  Bring the mulch up to the outside lip of the plastic pot. 

My little pot is an example of a very small succulent garden.  I often use "Hens and Chickens" as a basis. 

Speaking of camels - statuary can sometimes re-emphasize your theme.  Maybe not a camel, but then garden preferences comes in as wide of a variety as gardeners themselves.   

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Whoop De Daylily Hoo

This is a photo of the "2010 Stout Silver Medal" winner:  J. T. Davis
From Larry Grace and introduced in 1999  (L. Grace Photo)

It has also won the American Hemerocallis Society's:  Junior Citation 1999, Honorable Mention 2004, and Award Of Merit 2007.   

I just received my winter 2010 A.H.S. "The Daylily Journal" and the Region 2 "Daylily Newsletter".  Whoop De Dayliliy Hoo!

The Journal has the A.H.S. winners for 2010 and it's like showing a starving man an ice cream cone.  A.H.S. award winners are seldom new varieties since the award program is primarily in steps.  One thing it guarantees, by the time a daylily is awarded the "Stout Silver Medal" it is deserving in many ways. 

It is often a guarantee of consistent performance, above all else.  A good thing if you are spending money!  Typically, the top award winners at this level are not cheap.  But expensive and cheap are relative to each of us and our pocketbooks.  They won't be expensive forever because there will be new winners to take their place.

"Red Volunteer" blooming in my garden this past summer. 

You may find some daylilies in your own garden have been past award winners.  Oakes Daylilies own "Red Volunteer" was a Lenington All-American Award winner and they currently offer it for $15.00 for very large double scapes. 

This year I noticed some of the new innovations have made their way into the awards:  larger watermarks, more unusual forms and patterns, and color combinations.  If you take a moment and look at an innovative daylily hybridizer's web site, their 2011 introductions will amaze at what is being developed.  They are certainly pushing the envelop and it's exciting.

Some of the new pushes:  Very tall scapes (some over six foot), larger flowers, tooth edges, the color blue, changing the genetic make-up for more diverse and expanded probabilities, color patterns and a whole lot more. 

I've said it before and I'll probably say it every year, daylilies are the perfect plant for Midwest gardens.  Perfect for the beginner and those that don't want to spend a fortune on landscaping.  Perfect for the gardener that doesn't want to spend a lot of time gardening.   Perfect for providing color most of the summer.  Perfect for it's disease and pest resistance.  AND perfect for the gardener with a case of the incurable "Daylily Madness".      Larry & Cindy Grace "Graceland Gardens"           Oakes Daylily                  Jamie Gossard "Heavenly Gardens"                       American Hemerocallis Society (A.H.S.)

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Snow is Snowing

It's been snowing for about twelve hours which has made for an unusual Christmas eve day.  It's been a long time since our traditional Christmas eve activities has been snowed out.  Today was one of those days.

We've probably had over seven inches and although it's light and fluffy, no wind, and not terribly cold - it's made family afraid to take out the kiddies on this winter's eve.  The meal went back in the refrigerator, the plates and all put away.  We've rescheduled this group to Sunday.  

The other group will be here tomorrow - "Lord willing and the creek don't rise" - or better still "Lord willing and the county commissioner gets the roads plowed".  

So we quietly ate on an array of snacks I had prepared, drank a little "Sugar Plum Dessert" coffee, listened to Christmas songs and then watched a movie.  And OH - watched it snow.
Remember the year my folks headed out on Christmas eve day from Indiana.  A trip of about six hours on a good day.  At some point on Route 24, they hit snow - LOTS of snow.  One of those snows where you are in it too deep to turn around.

Once in Illinois, a snow plow hit a bump, jumped sideways and knocked them into the ditch in a big way.  During this knock, the engine became packed with snow and the car refused to start - let alone move.  The snowplow driver loaded mom and dad into the plow and took them to the nearest farm house. 

As it happened this farm family was preparing their own Christmas AND they were extremely nice people.  The farmer got out his tractor, pulled their car into his heated shed/hanger (he had a plane) and let the snow melt.  Meanwhile, the wife hosted mom even though she was prepping for family.  Finally, my folks got on their way and many hours later, arrived not too worse for wear.

Not sure these farm folks ever realized how much their kindness meant to everyone of our family.  We did thank them - but still they went above and beyond to make another person's Christmas turn out great, too.    
Isn't it nice when someone can turn an unfortunate situation into a Blessing?  A Christmas Blessing!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Cardinal

This morning while I was contemplating what to write for my newspaper article, there was a Northern Cardinal outside my window. It brought the usual smile as I fondly remembered my Dad. I thought I’d share with you a short story I wrote after he had gone to be with his Lord. This Christmas I again reflect on another wonder of a garden filled with hope.

“As I was caring for my failing elderly father, I sometimes got up in the morning with sadness for what the day would bring. Each day seemed to bring a new decline to his physical and emotional conditions. It would be a day of continued and new trials and hardships for both of us.

As I got ready to go downstairs to start the day, I would look outside my back window toward the woods. Just when I thought I couldn’t go down those stairs to face the day, a beautiful red cardinal would land within sight. It was as if God was giving me a visual reminder that He is always with me. It was a statement, “I am here, I am faithful, I am beautiful, and I am always.”

It only came on days when I was so very low. I could feel my heart and my spirits being refreshed and encouraged. I could begin my day with the joy of knowing that God was with both my father and me. I could begin the day with praising.

My father passed away a few months ago. This morning I was sitting on my back porch. There in the trees was a cardinal singing his “birdie birdie” song. How like God to remind me that He is here for me in times of trails and remains with me in times of rest. He provides all I need. He stood by me every second of the time when Dad needed my care, patience and love. He is now providing me with the rest and reflection needed to heal both my body and my spirit.

God does send reminders to us in many ways. It can be from another person, from Bible study or from a red bird. It is important that we watch and listen for those reminders. Our spirit should not be too busy or pushed too far away to let us enjoy and feed upon his encouragements. We must be within His Word to help us meditate and be open to these signs of encouragement. The reflection needed to recognize His signs will only be obvious when we take the time.

When we do have these times of God speaking to us, we need to be thankful and praise Him. He has done something totally for us alone, as His child. How much more special can we ever be than to be the object of His effort to send a sign that He loves us and is caring for us. Praise the Lord for He has brought me joy.”

Joshua 23:17 - “For the Lord our God, he it is that brought us up and our fathers out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage, and which did those great signs in our sight, and preserved us in all the way wherein we went, and among all the people through whom we passed.”
This is a picture of Dad at his 95th birthday surprise party.  A year later, he was gone.    

Frosty The Snowman

This is a copy of the exact Golden Book I have from my childhood.  Gracie and I have read this book many MANY times this month.  Always followed by a loud rendition of the song.
  • Guinness World Records list the world’s largest snowflake measured at 15 ins. wide.
  • Graupel is ice-snow pellets.
  • Powdery snow is fluffy and is the kind that can drift.
  • Granular snow has gone through a freezing/thawing process once on the ground.
  • Snowfall's intensity is determined by visibility.
    • When the visibility is over 0.62 mile, snow is considered light.
    • Moderate snow describes snowfall with visibility restrictions between 0.5 and 1 km.
    • Heavy snowfall describes conditions when visibility is less than 0.5 km.
    • Steady snows of significant intensity are often referred to as "snowstorms".
    • When snow is of variable intensity and short duration, it is described as a "snow shower".
    • The term snow flurry is used to describe the lightest form of a snow shower.
    • In the United States, a blizzard is occurring when two conditions are met for a period of three hours or more:
      • A sustained wind or frequent gusts to 35 miles per hour and sufficient snow in the air to reduce visibility to less than 0.25 mile. While heavy snowfall often occurs during blizzard conditions, falling snow is not a requirement, as blowing snow can create a ground blizzard.
      • Fresh snow absorbs and diminishes sound.

  • For the true trivial buff:  Within motion pictures, the sound of walking through snow is simulated using cornstarch, salt, or cat litter.
  • The world record for the highest seasonal total snowfall of 1,140 inches, was measured at Mt. Baker WA during the 1998–1999 season. 
  • Fresh snow reflects 90% or more of ultraviolet radiation.  The brightest night will be a full moon with some cloud cover and snow covered ground.  Moon reflects off the snow which reflects off the clouds and the night is bright.
  • Agatha Christy's "Murder on the Orient Express" was played out on a train stranded in a snow bank.
  • Very light snow is known to occur at high latitudes on Mars.
  • Snow is used to build igloos because the air pockets trapped in it make it an insulator. On the outside, temperatures may be as low as −49 °F, but on the inside the temperature may range from 19 °F to 61 °F when warmed by body heat alone.
  • The white light from the sun hitting the snow will reflect back and still be white light. Therefore, snow on the ground appears white.
  • About 20% of the earth dry land is permanently covered by snow. In the winter about 40% of the northern hemisphere lands are covered by snow.
And finally: 
  • Frosty can only be made from Christmas snow.
  • The abominable snowman or yeti is associated with the perpetual snow region of the Himalayas. A somewhat similarly described creature of W North America is known as Bigfoot or Sasquatch.
  • The Biggest Snowman was created in Bethel, Maine, USA in 2008 and was 122 ft 1 inch tall.
  • "Frosty The Snowman" song was first recorded by Gene Autry.
  • Bob Eckstein wrote "The History of the Snowman".

What happened when the snow girl fell out with the snow boy ?  She gave him the cold shoulder!

What do snowmen wear on their heads ?
Ice caps!

Where do snowmen go to dance ?

What do you get if cross a snowman and a shark ?
Frost bite!

This should give you a firm advantage during that heated Trivia game with the relatives on Christmas afternoon!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Desserts from the Herb Garden

Herbs have long been used as a flavoring for desserts - both the sweet and savory varieties. 

I've found most herb infused cookies, bars and other desserts are more typically found in ethnic, religious and nationality based recipes.  In other words, they are typically recipes handed down from generation to generation.

Such family recipes show cooking practices of earlier centuries, often when the average household had only what they could grow in their gardens and reflect the "old country".  Herbal recipes are often a reflection of those very things.  They were also an effort to flavor food that was often bland because of lack of ingredients or cover the flavor of ingredients gone slightly bad due to lack of preservation methods. 

Because the herbs have distinctive flavors (why else would we use them), they may be literally foreign to the tastes of this generation of Americans.  They may take some "getting used to" because our taste buds are only used to sweet tastes in our desserts.  Many herb recipes also have fruits included.

Here are some examples of herb cookies:
Anise Hyssop & Almond Butter Cookies (as pictured at the top of this page), Calendula Drop Cookies, Cardamom Cookies, Mint Cookies, Clove Cookies, Gingered Cranberry Chews, Lemon Basil Snaps, Lemon Thyme Cookies, Gingerbread Men, Rosemary-Almond Biscotti, and Lavender Shortbread.
For those of you who grew and saved, (either dried or potted in the house) it's a great time to use these herbs in a different and delicious way.

Besides the above basically sweet-based recipes , there are numerous savory desserts.  These often have cheese and meat and are typically more dense.  They may combine both savory and sweet which is also an acquired taste.  My grandmother's Pennsylvania Dutch mince meat pie filling recipe actually has meat, suet, and an abundance of sweets and herbs.

Today, savory herb cookies are often served as horsdoeuvres rather than a dessert.  In the past, savory herb cookies, pies, and other desserts were used as a nutritious and filling part of a meal or snack.  They may reflect a time when sugar was not available, when everything you ate needed to nourish and keep you full for heavy manual labor.

Grandma Shenk's Mincemeat Pie    

3 Cups - Stew meat - cut in small pieces & cooked
3 Cups - Apples - Cored and ground
4 Cups - Cider (or more)
1 Cup - Suet - chopped or ground
1 3/4 teaspoon - Ground cloves
1 3/4 teaspoon - Ground/grated nutmeg
2 teaspoons - Ground cinnamon
1 Cup - Seedless raisins  (soak in water or rum/drain)
1 Tablespoon - Vinegar or rum
1 Cup - Sugar

Cook in a large pot (it will boil up and is very sticky) until all ingredients are tender.  This makes enough for three pies or it can be processed in a steam canner for later use.  The pies should have two crusts, sealed well around the edges to prevent leakage in the oven.  Refrigerate any left overs.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas Stockings

Most everyone in today's "grandparents' era" remembers what Christmas stockings held when we were little children.  We remember what they looked like, what they held and how excited we were to dump the contents on Christmas morning.

Our stockings (old farm family) were our own actual stockings.  They weren't made for Christmas, they were made for feet!  A wise child selected his or her largest sock in hopes of it being filled.  One year I thought I'd get more stuff if I hung my red cotton tights.  I found, to my chagrin, Santa had replaced them with my simple anklet. 

For those that had fireplaces, it was dutifully hung off the mantel.  For those of us with oil stoves or coal furnaces, it was usually on the back of a chair near the tree.

I don't recall ever having toys in my sock and never had the expectation of them.  It was filled with the biggest and most fresh fruit:  always an orange, a tangerine, a big shiny apple, and various nuts in the shell.  The highlight was one of those little cardboard book boxes filled with several kinds of Lifesavers rolls.

It was a delicacy to have fresh fruit in the northern winters and we just "knew" it was a very expensive gift - not to be wasted or taken for granted.  I still think Christmas whenever I peel a Clementine tangerine. 

Every home had a full set of nut cracking devices.  They came with the hand clamp/cracker and a set of nut picks.  Today, most antique shops have those simple sets quite cheap.  The reason it's in an antique shop  is nuts in the shell are seldom used.  Shelled nuts in bags are common in our grocery stores and there is no need to sit around making the effort and mess.  

Side note:  a nutcracker is not the little soldier looking Christmas ornament, it's as in this picture of my own 50 year old, inexpensive, and common set above.  These usually came boxed and were often kept laying on a side table in the living room beside a bowl of nuts.  

As my children came along, their stockings were beautifully knit by a family friend.  Those stockings have long gone to their own homes.  I still have the two above, made by my friend, Gert, an example of the personality of stockings lovingly homemade.

Stockings today are often "themed" with the current cartoon, hobby, or lavish design.  They are often filled with presents - small in size and some expensive.  With fruit and nuts available year round at the corner grocery, they are no longer a special treat.  It's simply another generation adapting to their own times.  And, each new generation making their own Christmas memories. 

Now, for me, off to peel a tangerine and relish the smell and taste of Christmas past. 

Monday, December 20, 2010

Pink Floyd

Tonight you will be able to see "Eclipse" from the album "The Dark Side Of The Moon" - kinda. 

During tonight's (December 20-21) lunar eclipse, the Earth will align between the full moon and the sun, covering the lunar surface in shadow. The eclipse is also falling on the same day as the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere – a rare occurrence that hasn't happened in 372 years. And to top it all off, the Ursids meteor shower is expected to create a few shooting stars tonight that should be especially visible given the dimmed moon.  (From the Christian Science Monitor.)

On the East Coast, it begins half an hour after midnight on Tuesday; on the West Coast, it begins around 9:30 p.m. PST Monday. In all cases, the whole eclipse will be observable before the moon sets in the west just as the sun is rising in the east.

OK, that was the fantastic news for anyone even slightly interested in all things sky.  The down side is most of us in this region will not be able to see any of it because of heavy cloud cover.  It's still worth checking in case there's a break in the clouds.  Check NASA lunar eclipse chart to see how visible the eclipse will be from different regions around the world. has lots of unusual and interesting facts about this and other eclipse.  This sight even tells how to take pictures of the eclipse.

Or, you can just put on your old Pink Floyd album and hum a little.

Another First

December 21, 2010 is the first day of winter.  It's seemed pretty much like winter in this part of Illinois for quite some time.  Probably because we've had so much snow - another 4 inches today.    
The first day of winter is "winter solstice" and isn't the same as the Meteorological Winter which is the three coldest months of the year (Dec-Jan-Feb) and starts on December 1st every year. 
Even our praying mantis sculpture is covered in frost this week and right now it is snowing heavily.  I've no doubt we will have our white Christmas in this part of the world.  Whether family and friends can get to their destinations is another matter.

From December 1 to December 31 the average temperature drops at least ten degrees. 
Average high for December 1st is 40 degrees
Average low is 24 degrees
Average high on December 30 is 30 degrees
Average low is 14 degrees
Monthly average snow for December is 8.4 inches
in 2000 we had 32.9 inches
1889 we had none

Keep those bird feeders filled, the pets protected, and drive safely.
We want a Merry Christmas for everyone.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Simple vs. Elaborate

 These photos show Christmas decorating at our neighboring Bishop Hill.  Most made from straw, greenery and ribbon, they are typical Swedish forms.

 Both of these are at Chicago's Macy's Department Store (formerly the State Street flagstaff Marshall Field's store).  Both formal and elaborate and so "Big City"!
The photos were taken by our Granddaughter, Ashley.  It was her first trip to Chicago and it was a return to Bishop Hill for a little shopping.  Both locations show decorating possibilities.  Most of us land somewhere in between. 

Although the little Bishop Hill decorations are rustic and made from simple supplies, these displays aren't small or easy to make.  The straw goats probably need a wire form to maintain their shape and to be stable.  Small straw ornaments are traditional in Swedish homes.

Whether you go huge and elaborate or rustic and simple, both are beautiful.

Side Note:  For those of you who remember and returned yearly to the wonderful Marshall Field's Christmas window displays, the sad effort by Macy's this year was a huge disappointment.  Very small, little animation, no music and no wow factor.  We used to stand ten to twenty deep just to view in awe the series of windows telling a story of Christmas each year.  You would see children and adults with eyes glittering and happy smiles.  You would see the wealthy, the homeless and all of us in between enjoying this free yuletide sidewalk event.  Most of us made it an annual part of holidays.   I'm sad this Chicago tradition has ended.   

Monday, December 13, 2010

Birdie Birdie Birdie

Two pictures of a female Northern Cardinal at the feeder.  The female is often neglected in photos because her coloring isn't the stunning colors of the male.  If you would enlarge (by double clicking) these photos, you will notice her colors are truly beautiful in their own way.

I had two pair (2 males & 2 females) at my squirrel feeder yesterday during the blizzard conditions.  All four were ground feeding on the crushed corn.

And then, there are the little guys that make the Christmas cards, calenders and photo opportunities.  

Northern Cardinals Cardinalis cardinalis are especially obvious during our snowy winter months.  They never fail to stop me in my tracks as a pass a window and catch that little spot of red.

Although the Cardinal is an attention getter, they are not all that big, measuring only about 8-9 inches long.  Although our visual perception is "RED", the male has a black face and the female is buff-brown.  Both have the red crest (top knot) and red beak.

They have a very distinctive song, one I characterize as "birdie birdie birdie".  Both the female and male are songsters and sing all year.  They have a "chink" call.     

To attract Cardinals, provide a woodland habitat, thickets, brushy swamps and/or full gardens. 

The female use thickets to build a deep cup nest of twigs, leaves and plant fibers.  She crushes twigs with her beak until they are pliable, then turns in the nest to bend the twigs around her body and push them into a cup shape with her feet. The cup has four layers: coarse twigs (and sometimes bits of trash) covered in a leafy mat, then lined with grapevine bark and finally grasses, stems, rootlets, and pine needles.  The nest typically takes 3 to 9 days to build; the finished product is 2-3 inches tall, 4 inches across, with an inner diameter of about 3 inches The female will lay 3 or 4 pale green eggs, spotted with red-brown.  They will raise two or three broods a year, feeding their young as late as September. 

Cardinals are aggressive and do not migrate.  Seeds are their main diet although during breeding they eat insects.  They frequent feeders in the winter.  Cardinals are skittish and prefer feeders farther from humans and animals but given no choice, they will feed closer.      

These beauties were seldom seen north of the Ohio River in the 1880s.  By the 1920s, cardinals were common only in southern Illinois.  In the years since, thanks largely to widespread bird feeding, our Illinois State bird has steadily expanded its range and is now found in southern Canada. 

  • This species was named after the red robes worn by Roman Catholic cardinals.
  • The Northern Cardinal is a member of the finch family.
  • The male behaves territorially, marking out & defending his territory with song. 
  • During courtship, the male feeds seed to the female beak-to-beak.
  • It was once prized as a pet, but its sale as cage birds is now banned in the United States by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.
  • Mated pairs often travel together.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Rockin' Robin

Since I'm apparently doing my "birding" series, I must tell you I saw a Robin at the cracked corn feeder this afternoon.  Was the big boy lost, migrating, or decided to tough out the winter up North?  Hope he's got a plan working since we have a "winter blizzard watch" going on for tomorrow.  

Although they do migrate down from the northern reaches of Canada, they are considered year-round residents of most of the US.  Typically, in the winter they are found in moist woodlands, swamps, suburbs and parks.  Numbers vary greatly from winter to winter, but, you will usually see them in large winter flocks.  

Their preferred diet is earthworms and insects, but, during the winter they may eat berries and apparently cracked corn.  They like eating off the ground and as messy as the other cracked corn lovers are (flinging seeds in every direction), it appears they will be quite happy this winter. 

Like many of our wintering birds, they nest in shrubs, trees, sheltered windowsills and eaves.  They don't like the confines of bird houses.  A ledge-like (or "L" shaped) shelf attached in a tree may be used - or - may not.  Their nests are usually 5-15 ft. about ground.    

I'd be hard-put to find anyone reading a garden article to be unfamiliar with our American Robin Turdus (meaning Thrush family) migratorius (meaning migrating).  Still - there are some facts that you might find interesting:

There song is a cheerily cheer-up cheerio and their call is tut tut tut.  (Who makes up this stuff?)

The female lays 3-5 blue-green eggs in a well-made cup of mud reinforced with grass and twigs and lined with softer grasses.  The nest is built by the female and only used once.  It is one of the earliest species to lay their eggs in the Spring.  American Robins usually have two broods a season.  Both the male and female protect and feed their brood.

Robins originally nested only in forests and these are much shyer than those we see in our yards.  If you have cedars in your yard, chances are that's where your winter Robin is nesting.  Because cedars are plentiful in this area, it's like a hotel sign saying "vacancy".

Even though we generally think of the sightings of Robins as the harbinger of spring, they may just be hiding in your trees during those cold spells and will be especially grateful if you scatter cracked corn, berries and fruit where they can see and eat.  They are visual hunters.   

The Robin is not considered endangered.  As a result of being used for the meat, it is now protected by the Migratory Bird Act.  The American Robin is a known reservoir (carrier) for West Nile virus.

  • Robin of the Batman fame, is said to have been born on the first day of Spring and his red shirt resembles the bird's red breast.
  • The color "Robin's Egg Blue" was named after the color of the bird's eggs.
  • In Quebec, it is thought the first person to see a Robin in the spring will have good luck.
  • The song "Rockin' Robin" was made famous by Bobby Day. 

Thursday, December 9, 2010


Koguba-leek is the song of the Common Grackle.  Seriously!  He also says a loud cluck when calling.  I'm just sure this is made for TV stuff.

The Common Grackle Quiscalus quiscula is long (over 12 inches) and has pale yellow eyes.  They appear all black at a distance but in good light, males show iridescent glossy purplish/blue/green head, neck and breast.  Females are smaller and have a duller color than the males.  That's the norm for the bird world.  They have a longer tail and beak than other blackbirds. 
Even though I seldom see more than one at a time at our feeders in the winter, they are considered abundant and gregarious (yep TV sitcom calling).  Typically they roam in mixed flocks in open fields, marshes, parks, suburban areas.   

The female lays 5 pale blue eggs, with black scrawls, in a bulky stick nest lined with grass.  It's placed anywhere from low in a bush to high in a tree.  Some nest in colonies.

They range from the southern states to upper Canada - never on the west coast.  This fellow may be passing through on his way south.  

Their diet is extremely varied, including insects, crayfish, frogs, mice, nestling birds, eggs, grains and wild fruits.  At feeders they are especially attracted to cracked corn.  And therein lies why he was feeding under the squirrel feeder.  

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Red Bellied

The native American "Red-bellied Woodpecker" (female) Melanerpes carolinus

Since this latest snow and single digit temperatures, we've had more birds at our feeders than ever before.  No new varieties, but, certainly a larger quantity. 

I'm feeding a different mixture this year and that might be the big draw - or the cold - or the ground cover - or I've no idea.  I do know I enjoy the entertainment. 

Usually, I feed shelled sunflower seeds and when it gets really nasty, I put out my homemade suet blocks.  I normally buy shelled corn for the squirrels.  We have a small population and don't attract from an area outside our woods.  The dogs keep them thinned to only the most wily.

I have a feeder just for squirrels and this year it had to be moved because the pole had rotted.  We moved it under the big walnut and closer to the house but still far enough away to encourage them to stay away from the bird feeders by my window.  (My vain hope only.)  This year I'm mixing ground corn and a small amount of sunflower seeds in hopes they are fooled into thinking they have the best place. 

I'd forgotten some of the larger birds like ground corn.  Blue jays, doves, cardinals plus a few of the smaller ones have frequented the corn.  Normally, these larger birds, including the woodpeckers, wait until all available insects are gone before hitting the feeders.  This year they have been steady at them for about three weeks.  I'm sure there's an old weatherman/farmer theory that goes with this event.

The birds are not yet used to me on the other side of the window and it's difficult to photograph them without the smallest sound or movement sending them to flight. 

The Red-bellied Woodpecker is a medium sized 9-10 inches.  Wingspan is 15-18 inches.  It's a year-round resident of this area along with the Red-headed Woodpecker, Northern Flicker "Woodpecker", Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker and perhaps the Pileated Woodpecker.

Although it doesn't show in the above photo, it has a small area near the bottom of it's breast that is brushed with red.  The female, above, doesn't have the red over the crown like the male.  Both are barred black and white above.

This woodpecker is common in open woodlands, suburbs, swamps and parks.  They will not stay in an area that doesn't have old large trees. 

They are very common in the South but have expanded their breeding range northward in recent decades.  The female lays 4 or 5 white eggs in a tree cavity, often at the edge of woodlands.  It takes about 7 days for both sexes to excavate the tree cavities used for nests.   The cavity is lined with wood chips and is about a foot deep. It is usually built in a dead or dying tree. Both the male and female incubate the eggs and care for the young. The male incubates at night. The chicks hatch in about three weeks and they fledge in about a month. The chicks usually stay with their parents until the fall.

Woodpeckers are important nest providers for many other species. The holes they excavate in dead trees, poles, and fence posts are used by bluebirds, wrens, chickadees, and titmice to name just a few. It is important for many bird and animal species that we leave dead trees whenever it's safe to do so!

They're very beneficial because they consume large numbers of wood-boring beetles, grasshoppers, ants, and other insect pests.  It also feeds on acorns, beechnuts, peanuts and wild fruits.  Look for Red-bellied Woodpeckers hitching along branches and trunks of medium to large trees, picking at the bark surface more often than drilling into it.  It habitually stores food.  

The Red-bellied Woodpecker is not considered endangered.  The species is protected under the U.S. Migratory Bird Act.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Rugelach Anyone?

This is a pan of Rugelach awaiting the oven.  Some recipes are labor intensive - this one isn't.  It is definitely time intensive.  The dough must be refrigerated twice and it has quite a few steps. I made this a two day Rugelach fest. 

The end product of my efforts is OUT-OF-THIS-WORLD yummy - thanks to a good recipe.  It's from Epicure Market in Miami Beach.  There was a request for the recipe in Gourmet magazine and I'm glad they were able to share.

If you've never tasted anything with cream cheese dough, let's just say "they melt in your mouth."  I used dried cranberries in my filling instead of raisins.  They are a perfect contrast for the rich sweetness of everything else.

Speaking of cranberries, did you know they adapt to our weather (to Zone 2) IF you have wet sunny areas?  Cranberries are a group of evergreen dwarf shrubs or trailing vines in the genus Vaccinium subgenus Oxycoccos.

They are perhaps the exact plant you need if you have bog areas and are prevented from draining.  Plus, they are pollinated by honey bees.  Cranberries are known for the nutrient content and antioxidant qualities.  Today, research is finding the many illness prevention benefits of cranberries - something our Native Americans already knew.

Our Native Americans were the first to use cranberries for food and as a medicine and die.  Cranberries, blueberries and Concord grapes are the only three native fruits from the U.S.A.  Today it is a large farm crop dominated by the Ocean Spray industries.  Unless you have the acres and large start up monies, farming cranberries can be daunting.  The North American cranberry is the fruit recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as the standard for fresh cranberries.

For my Swedish neighbors:  The European cranberry variety is known as Vaccinium oxycoccus. It has a different acid profile in terms of the percentages of quinic, malic and citric acid levels present in the U.S. variety. In Sweden, this fruit is commonly known as lingonberry.

Plant a few bushes in a suitable spot.  It might just be fun and provide some fruit for your own use.  They are a low spreading bush with interesting flowers (looking like a pink crane which is the original name "craneberries") and of course the berries.  

If you desire more information, check out the Cranberry Growers' Association.  The site from the Cape Cod growers has a wealth of information and recipes. 

Side Note:  Rugelach is Yiddish meaning something like little twists.  It is a Jewish pastry of Ashkenazic origin.   In Illinois, it means delicious!

Second Side Note:  Lingonberry products may be purchased at:

The Colony Store (Sally R. Smith, Manager), 101 West Main St. • PO Box 92 • Bishop Hill, IL 61419,

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Ice and Corn

Found this solution to slick sidewalks that might be just in time!

Instead of ice melt or other salt solutions, spread ground corn on ice and snow covered walkways to make the surfaces safe and easy to walk on without damaging the concrete or killing the surrounding foliage.

It's also less expensive, readily available, pet-friendly, and feeds the birds and squirrels when snow is on the ground.   (This was a suggestion by William Schweltzer of DePue, Illinois.)

Might just be the suggestion of the winter for managing slippery walks and just in time!  For those of you who do not produce your own corn, ground corn can be found at farm stores, ususally in the bird feed section.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Garden Allergens?

If you have allergies in the winter and wonder why you're still sniffling, here's some thoughts on the subject.  They're just this old girl's experience.

If you have:
  • Ever had your windows and doors open,
  • Have any carpet and drapes,
  • Use a sweeper,
  • Have indoor pets,
  • Wear your shoes in the house,
  • And are alive in 2010
Then folks you have allergens in your home during the winter.

Because I'm so often outside during the summer months, I am constantly in contact with some form of allergens and bring them into the house.  Pollen, mold, insect and animal residue and the list goes on. 
And then, there's my favorite little puff ball of allergens, Bitsey the cat. 

I'm not going to talk about the hows or whys of these allergens today.  Simply one measure to help.

Your sweeper has many places allergens can stick and then be recycled into the air of your home.  I've no experience with the super duper expensive sweepers which claim to filter all allergens but for us average sweeper owners, here's my tips:

  • DO NOT have your sweeper attached to an electrical outlet during the cleaning process!
  • The most obvious is to change the sweeper bags long before they are to the full line. 
  • Now comes the disassembly of your sweeper.  Not as hard as it sounds since most have simple locking parts.
  • If the sweeper has a cloth bag holder, remove and wash in a bucket of water.  I like to use "Green Works" as my soap because it doesn't add additional allergens and it smells good.  Line dry.
  • Some sweepers have filters.  Either wash the foam ones or replace the paper filters.  A filter with a tear needs replacing. 
  • Wash/rinse the inside of any tubes and attachments that are removable.
  • With a old damp cloth wipe any surfaces that can not be removed or submerged.  DO NOT submerge any electrical parts or attached parts. 
  • The brush devices comes off using a small screwdriver.  Check the belt for wear and if needed, replace.  Wash the brush device.  
  • Let all parts completely dry before reassembling.
And that, my friend, is one way to cut down on allergens in your home. 

Of course, the most obvious is to totally clean all surfaces in your home every half hour or so.  Yeah, me either. 

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Do You Use Plastic?

And I'm not talkin' charge cards or shopping bags!  I'm referring to artificial Christmas trees.  Actually, they come in a wide variety of materials, colors, sizes, and shapes.  As for smells, there's just one variety and it must be a real Christmas tree.

Side Note:  You may want to check out article #11 "Deck The Halls" where I tell a little about the history of Christmas trees.

I grew up with nothing but real Christmas trees.  They were large (or was I little) and usually long needle.  They always had a crooked trunk which caused more than one fall over and at times a hefty string tied off to a window frame.  They always had bare spots that we worked hard to hide either by turning this way and that or if that failed, put the largest ornament in the hole.  

Our decorations were an array of old and homemade.  I still have several of my mother's ornaments and cherish them simply for that fact.  Even at a young age, I was "into" decorating for Christmas.  Every year I made a series of paper chains, strung popcorn, and I'm sure colored and cut various oddities.  Believe me, Charlie Brown's Christmas tree wasn't something I laughed at - I sympathized!

Much ta do was made about getting the lights untangled, all working and hung on the tree.  This is something I still find tedious and pawn off on anyone near.  We had the variegated large bulbs and bubble lights.  They were so old they only bubbled if you flicked them with your finger.  

Another tradition was the star at the top.  Growing up in the Indiana "Bible Belt" required a star at the top, made of gold foil and one large yellow light.  Traditionally, the manger was placed under the tree.  It was my job (or perhaps I didn't let anyone else) to keep this arranged perfectly.  I still use the old manger and figures even though it's a little worse for wear.  It's the last thing I put out and I still pause when passing to reflect on Christ's birth and Christmas memories.

Shop for a natural/real tree:
  • Buy from a local source.  Even some of your local retailers are buying their trees from local farms.  Locally grown trees will be the most fresh. 
  • Bang the tree of your choice hard on the ground to see if the needles hold.  If they loose a bunch - look for another.
  • Cut a few inches off the bottom as soon as you get home and put in a bucket of warm water in a cool place overnight.  A fresh tree will take up lots of water every day.  Check every morning and night to see if it needs more.
  • At some point, it will stop taking up water.  This is the time to carefully watch how dry it becomes and dispose of it when it starts seriously dropping needles.
  • Keep it away from registers and heaters and open flames.  
  • Use LCD lights that produce no heat.
  • Dispose of all old lights.  If you must keep that old set of lights from you mom or grandma, don't use them plugged in.  A large clear glass vase with them inside, a bow and a note:  "For Mom" works and isn't a fire hazard.
I've done artificial for several years.  One is thin and elegant.  The other is large and often fools people because it looks like it is fresh from the forest. I thought they were easier - in reality they're not easy at all and just about as messy.  The plus is they don't dry out. 

But, my heart is calling for a real tree and I'm thinking next year for sure.  Now, I just have to find one that is crooked and has a few other obvious flaws. . .