Sunday, November 27, 2011

No Doom & Gloom

Typically, "doom and gloom" grabs the headlines.  Incidents of things gone bad triggers predictions that all is going to hell in a hand basket and then the blame game begins.  Nary (love a good "nary") a day goes by without predictions, backed by some one's irrefutable data: the globe is warming, species are becoming extinct, and "the man" is responsible.  Hysteria is whipped and in the end it makes mostly good news print and not so good facts.

Top scholars try to figure out why things are happening.  Often lacking any real reasons, they fall back on "scare tactics".  Then nature, in it's slow and continuous cycle, proves it can't be predicted quite as surely as man would like to pretend.

As species appear to disappear from the earth, new ones are discovered. I especially love blaming global warming on every storm or weather event.  Although I don't especially discount some theories of global warming, I do think it has become the reason given for everything we simply can't explain.  Our scientific ego doesn't allow us to simply say, "We don't know why."  Well that and the whole "if there isn't any news, the media must now make something into news."

And what got me going on this little editorial tidbit?  Monarch butterflies are returning to Southern California in record high numbers this year.  After several weather events where many (some estimate 80-90 percent) froze while wintering in the south, the Monarch had hit the doom and gloom media stories. 

Theories for the decrease:  Perhaps loss of milkweed (the only plant on which monarchs lay their eggs), development, agriculture and drought.  Then speculation:  Loss of winter sites and use of pesticides in gardens and farms. 

Speculation for the increase is perhaps more rain which caused more milkweed.  Temperatures might also be a factor.  Laurie Davies Adams, executive director of the Pollinator Partnership of San Francisco say, "But all these things are as speculative as the stock market."   

This huge explosion of butterflies is happening all over California, reported Scott Black, executive director of the Xerces Society.  They monitor California's Western Monarch winter sights. 

Monarch butterflies are one of only two insects in the world that make a true annual migration.  The population east of the Rockies migrates to Mexico.  So far, that population is not seeing this large increase. 

What we do know is every gardener can improve the chances by planting varieties of milkweed, allowing flowering native plants to stay in your garden, don't clean off your gardens until after a hard frost, have a quantity of seasonal flowers and plants and avoid pesticides.            

Side Note:  For more information, see my article "Waves of Monarchs" #98.

Butterfly Photos:  First:  on fall asters.  Second:  on summer "Black" lily.  Third:  on late summer hosta blooms.     Last:  on all-summer blooming zinnia.

For the photographer, large butterflies are seldom spooked by your presence.  They float and land on your flowers with a single purpose:  FOOD!  

Friday, November 25, 2011


All gardens take a lot of care, but, that's not what I'm talking about today.  I'm referring to those folks who step up to being the primary caregiver of a sick family member or friend.

Care giving is one of those things that can not be imagined unless you've been a caregiver.  The little things that happen which you simply take care of and move on to the next thing.  The huge things can not be described adequately. 

I've done primary care giving first when my father was failing during the last year of his life.  Second, when my husband had the kind of cancer where I was told if the disease didn't kill him - the treatments would.  Fortunately, neither did.

I've written before about some of the things involved in care giving (Cardinal Story #61) and was reminded again Friday when a friend was talking about caring for a spouse with Alzheimer's.

And what, you might ask, does this have to do with gardening?  Nature, when presented in a serene way, has a soothing effect on both caregivers and patients.  It's why hospitals, extended care facilities and clinics have areas with natural settings.

Even though many care givers can't "get away" from their responsibilities for very long, having a setting where they can unwind, relax and mentally get away is important for their own well-being.

You may not be in the middle of care giving; I wasn't when I developed my own gardens.  But, they were certainly one of the helps during the process.  Having a peaceful yard allowed me to stay close and yet emotionally "get away" for brief periods.

In truth, even with unlimited money and willing friends and family, the bulk of care giving is provided by a close family member.  Even when you can get away for brief periods, you are mentally tied to the situation.  Plus, most of us do not want to impose the trails we know will happen on others. 

My father and I would often sit on the porch swing and spend time gazing at the farm lands surrounding our home.  We'd talk some, think some, and let the peace cover us with comfort.  

It's often the very peace of nature that can calm a person suffering with forms of dementia and those facing life threatening diseases.  It's that very nature that can help shore up the caregiver. 

“The grass withereth, the flower fadeth, but the word of our God shall stand forever.”
Bible, Isaiah 40:8

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Day Between

I hope your Thanksgiving was filled with love and delicious food. 

Thanksgiving, mentally and emotionally, seems to be the day between fall and winter.  For most of us, it's travel without the threat of really bad weather.  It's the time when we put aside the gold, orange and green of autumn and think about the blue of snow, glitter of decorations and twinkle of tiny lights.  We put away our lightweight coats and haul out our survival gear.

As you transition into winter weather, clothing, celebrations and holidays, I hope you carry the thanksgiving of today into your daily routine. 
(Both photos are from old illustrations - authors unknown)

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Rue the Day

Rue, the herb, is planted in my garden for one reason:  It is the butterfly host or larval food plant for the Giant Swallowtail and Eastern Black Swallowtail.  Since planting this one little herb, I’ve had an abundance of these beauties every year.  

Ruta graveolens or Common Rue is called “Herb of Grace” by all historical accounts.  William Shakespeare wrote in “Richard II” a gardener plants rue to mark the spot where the Queen wept upon hearing news of Richard’s capture:  “Here did she fall a tear, here in this place - I’ll set a bank of rue, sour herb of grace.” He included the herb in several other poems. 

It’s mentioned in the Bible in Luke 7:42 saying rue should be tithed.  In Jesus’ time it was cultivated and taxed.  It’s in the national song of Lithuania, in mythology and is used in concoctions in many novels.  It is found in witchcraft as a preventative against magic.  It was at one time used by the Catholic Church in their holy water ceremony.

It’s not that rue isn’t a pretty little plant; its blue-green foliage is very pretty as a small bush.  My plant seldom gets more than a foot high and wide.  Others may reach 3 ft.  It has fringed little yellow flowers. 

The foliage has a small downside.  It has a strong unpleasant scent when crushed.  For this reason, it is considered deer and rabbit resistant and has been used as a dog, cat and insect repellant.  It is said it’s the model for the suit of clubs in playing cards.

The herbaceous evergreen is rated for Zone 4, likes sun and is pretty drought resistant once established.  It prefers poor soil and may rot in soggy soil. It prefers to have some winter shelter such as a wind block of higher bushes or plants.

Its bitter leaves were used in ancient Rome and in Middle Eastern cuisine.  Caution should be used when handling as some people are so sensitive they get blisters from the leaf oil.  It is still used in the Italian wine “Grappa”.

It has been used for medicinal and homeopathy cures for thousands of years.  Caution should be used since ingesting could cause violent stomach pain, vomiting and convulsions.  It’s still a very popular plant with Herbalists and used for a wide range of cures.  Pregnant women should NEVER ingest any part of the plant.  It was used in so many cures; I don’t have room to mention them all.  If you enjoy that sort of thing, read “Gerard’s Herbal.”

Our Saxon friends might be interested in knowing the Saxony Rue has given its name to an order:  A chaplet of Rue.

If you plant rue to attract butterflies, don’t use insecticides in your garden.  Don’t plant if you have a child who may pick leaves and flowers.  Otherwise, plant one – plant several.  Rue your day – in a nice way!  (Photos are from open web access pages) 

Side note:  Have a peaceful and loving Thanksgiving. 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Black Friday

Advertising and marketing always push shoppers to get the latest and greatest come the day after Thanksgiving.  It's traditionally been the busiest shopping day of the year since 2005.

(Seriously, is this the best back yard sale sign you've ever seen!!)

Black Friday's name has been said to originate in Philadelphia because it caused heavy traffic.  Later, it referred to the day when retailers would turn a profit - or - their books would be in the "black".
I'm just certain it could also refer to what we in the Midwest consider our black gold:  our soil.  It's black and full of nutrients enabling us to grow so many plants to perfection.  It mostly allows us to have healthy productive crops without as much watering and fertilizing as some other areas of the country/world.

Tie Black Friday to Black Soil and what do you have?  A perfect time to pick up gardening supplies for Christmas presents!  Many stores move gardening supplies to the side in an effort to bring shoppers' focus to what they wish to sell during the holidays.  Last year's item might just be this year's gift at a lower price.

Some items to look for when thinking of the perfect gift for gardening friends and family:

Garden gloves  (forget the thin cotton blends - invest in leather or rubber)
Ergonomic tools (ratchet pruners, bent rake or cushion-handled trowels)
Sun hat
Stepping stone
Amaryllis bulbs
Gift certificate at a garden center or hardware store
Solar lights
Hand lotion
Wine and an insulated cup
Botanical print
Garden books
Bird house
Fruit of the Month Club (blood oranges in January - yum!)
And, my all time favorite garden tool:  Chocolate

It's easy to make a garden gift basket.  Containers might include any of the above inside:
Tool box
Picnic basket
Hose holder
Large fabric purse
Wheeled kneeling bench

Little extras to add to a garden gift basket:
Ball of all-natural twine
Small box of chocolates (seriously)
Garden themed ornament
Pine cones
Bandanna (they come in all colors and prints)
Plant identification tags
Bird suet

Have fun shopping on Black Friday and think "garden"!  Around the corner from that huge array of Christmas decorations and sales may be the perfect gift for your garden friends - and you!  

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Soup of the Evening

“Beautiful soup
So rich
 So green,
Waiting in a hot tureen
Who for such dainties would not stoop.

Soup of the evening
Beautiful Soup,
Soup of the evening,
Beautiful Soup”
          -Lewis Carroll -- "Alice in Wonderland"
Realizing I've lamented numerous times on the abundance of Butternut Squash both last year and the volunteer vines this year, I still enjoy it immensely.
Butternut Squash has a beautiful color and taste.  It's a perfect thickening agent for soups.  It's a perfect substitute for pumpkin and sweet potatoes.  And it's rich in vitamins.  My problem it's almost too perfect a rich unique taste. 
I search for uses and recipes and I've had two in the last week.  One was my contribution to our church potluck - my mother-in-law's rich and sweet sweet potato souffle' - simply substitued squash and no one knew the difference. 
The second was another squash soup.  Granted it's not Louis Carroll's green soup, but pretty darn good.  The recipe was a take off from Olivia's Cookie Jar and Restaurant, Monmouth IL.  She serves this lovely squash apple soup.  Here's my take:
4 slices bacon, chopped fine and fried crisp (keep oil in pan and drain bacon bits on paper towel)
1 cup finely chopped celery and saute in bacon fat until tender
1 large clove garlic, chopped & mashed and lightly sauted in bacon fat, add:
4 cups cooked and pureed butternut squash, gently heat until hot (do not boil this soup) add:
1 pt. chunky applesauce, gently heat until hot and take off heat, add:
1/2 cup heavy cream, add:
1 cup buttermilk and stir to combine, add:
1/2 cup brown sugar  (this is used to balance out the sour of the buttermilk-adjust as needed), add:
1 tsp Cayanne pepper (adjust for your own taste but it's essential to the end result), add:
1 tsp. Kosher salt (takes quite a bit but adjust to taste), stir and reheat (DO NOT boil)
Add a dollop of sour cream to the top, sprinkle with a little brown sugar and broil until sugar bubbles.  (Can use hand torch)  If  you're not going to heat sugar, don't use as a garnish since it will be grainy tasting without being toasted.  Top with bacon bits and serve. 
Good served with large soft sourdough bread slices.
Oh yes, "Soup of the evening.  Beautiful soup."

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Speaking of Dreys

A "drey" is the year-round home of the largest group of living mammals:  The Rodentia.   In that order lives the squirrel whose home I feature today.

As the leaves have fallen from our hardwood trees, it's obvious we have many large squirrel nests in the woods.  They seem more abundant and built larger than normal - could this be a sign of nature sensing an especially brutal winter?  We'll see...

Several of our nests have brightly colored fall leaves entwined indicating they are either new or newly refurbished.  Since we have multitudes of walnut trees and this was a very productive nut year, we have an ideal environment for squirrels.

Plus, they seem to enjoy the many leaf "whips" from the walnuts and the long ends off our willow tree.  Both are woven into the nest and stick out randomly all over the outside.

This is an especially active time for squirrels.  In addition to making sure their nests are winter worthy, it is leading up to breeding which takes place from December through February.  

Although our gray squirrels do not hibernate, during winter storms and severe cold they may not leave the drey for days.  An adult squirrel normally lives alone. But will, in severe cold, share its nest with other squirrels to conserve body heat. Once the temperature rises, the guests will be on their way.

They need to eat about one pound of food a week to survive.  They prefer nuts, seeds, and fruit.  Reportedly they wipe seed shells on their faces to impart their scent, bury and can smell their own buried food even under a foot of snow.  Others report it's all a lucky guess.

Another interesting fact:  squirrels feet sweat.  The sweat (and urination) marks their territory.

A word of caution:  "Rodentia" is the formal name for "rodent".  They can harbor fleas, ants, and parasites.  They may also be infected with rabies.  They bite - it's what they do and they have powerful jaws and teeth.  DO NOT hand feed squirrels, pet or play with them.  DO NOT take them in as a pet (against the law in some areas).  They can not be house trained. 

Watch, take pictures, and use an outdoor feeder if you want, but DO NOT try to make them your next favorite pet.  Do I need to say "rodent" again?  If you are wanting to "help" an injured squirrel, contact your local Wildlife Rehabilitation" expert and let them do the handling.

Back to nests:  They may live in the leafy tree nests or in tree cavity dens.  Oaks, beeches, elms and red maples are favored by squirrels for dens or leaf nests. Ground holes may be used as emergency shelters by tree squirrels.

Squirrel tree nests are almost always at least 20 foot off the ground.  If grapes, bittersweet or other tall climbers are in your woods, they are often used as more support. 

Construction begins with a platform of twigs roughly woven together, upon which damp leaves and moss are compacted to form a solid base. A spherical skeleton of interwoven twigs and vines is erected around the base. The outer shell is then completed with the addition of leaves, moss, twigs, and even paper.

According to Art Shamo of the "West Virginia Wildlife Magazine", "The inner nest cavity is six to eight inches in diameter and is lined with shredded bark, grass, and leaves. This soft lining is especially important to cradle the delicate infants which weigh about half an ounce at birth and whose skin is almost transparent.

Nests of gray and fox squirrels may measure up to two feet wide and a foot high. Red squirrel nests are proportionately smaller. Opposite the main entrance, the wary bushy tail builds a leaf-concealed escape hatch.  Second and third homes are popular."

In researching, some folks with household pets empty their sweeper bags under trees.  The pet hair is used to line the squirrel nests, especially the room used for the babies.  There are also many diagrams/instructions on how to build squirrel nest houses. 

Another good source for adult squirrel watchers or for school papers:

The last little tidbit:  Washington DC is called the "Squirrel Capital of the World" because there are more squirrels there than anyplace else.  There has to be a joke in there someplace!

Thursday, November 10, 2011


Have you attended or hosted a tour of homes during the Christmas holidays?  I saw my first one advertised today.  

Just exactly what does a Christmas tour of homes do for me?  It's a nippy little afternoon running from car to homes; made all the better if it's snowing.  It's inspiration to get out my Christmas boxes and over-decorate every nook and corner.  It's a chance to see beautiful homes dressed to their best.  It's always made better if accompanied by good friends.

What exactly does it do for the hosts?  It forces a major cleaning and repair frenzy.  It allows sharing the collection of holiday decorations amassed over a lifetime.  It's a time for heightening holiday cheer. 

I enjoy the modernistic, the traditional, the over-the-top, the natural, the artificial, the real and the "what were they thinking?" approach to decorating.   

I enjoy wondering the meaning of one-hundred and forty-five little snowmen, a tree in the bathroom, an orange and purple theme, an old snow globe,  and how they're going to clean up that artificial powdered snow.

I like the smell of fresh pine trees and decorations, the smell of pumpkin pie (every tour home has some good smell going) and how the approach to the home if often bountifully decorated.
A couple of things I've seen from the gardens:  

Evergreen and holly used in abundance in window boxes, planters, over windows, on mantels, tables and on doors.

Get your amaryllis, cactus, poinsettias, and other live flowers just before the tour to prevent missing prime bloom dates.  Don't position them near the doors where visitors are coming and going.  Don't set beside head sources.  They will get freeze or heat burns and wilt/die. 

Live trees are wonderful for tours, but, they will definitely not make it through to Christmas.  Plan on replacing with another tree within the month.  Same with live greens inside the house.  They will all be highly flammable when they dry.

Decorations on a fireplace mantel should be well away from the fire and heat.  Not only for preserving the beauty but it's a fire hazard.  No tour of homes should be interrupted by a visit from the fire department.

Have plenty of family and friends on hand to help manage the crowd and make sure there are no items stolen or damaged.
If you're a gardener, it's fun to incorporate herbs and spices, dried leaves and flower heads into arrangements.  And then, there's the all important pine cones!  Put the pine cones in a plastic bag and in the freezer for a couple of days.  This will kill all insects hiding in the little crevices.  Then, lay them on a newspaper for a few days to let them open and the sap to run out without staining your home surfaces later.

It's alright to have some rooms "off limits" and that can be accomplished by hanging a pretty red bow on the door handle and thumb tacking the end to the door frame.  I've seldom seen a teenager's room open for a tour - there are just some things that would be impossible - cleaning, decorating and their need for privacy.

The most important thing for Christmas home tour guests and hosts is to have a good merry time.
“The perfect Christmas tree? All Christmas trees are perfect!" ~ Charles N. Barnard, American author, travel writer
(The same might be said for holiday tour of homes!)

A Tree Is A Tree

On our drive to Colorado, it occurred to me we leave very little behind of enduring value.  Our belongings are either a necessity or vanity driven and through the ages disappear or significantly change.  To plant a tree is the mark of optimism; a legacy to people we will never meet.  As Warren Buffet said, “Someone's sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.”

As near as Tree City USA, local woods and to the many parks, we see evidence of mankind’s love of trees.

On our trip, we drove on Route 34 West.  The farmland and hills of Iowa were lined with oaks, maples and various other trees.  Certainly, the beautiful Red Oak, Iowa was a tribute to the native Swedish ancestors who settled that town. 

Iowans appear to have kept their large cattle herds and many were enjoying the shade and protection from fence row trees.

In the first hundred miles, I saw an eagle, owl and many hawks using the trees as a perch.

Although I have a vague notion all those hundreds of summer birds must have nests, it’s pretty awesome to see so many in the bare tops of deciduous trees.  The loose structures belonging to squirrels are amazing to survive the high winds and storms.

Many little insects (both harmful and beneficial) have nestled in the cracks and grooves of tree bark to wait out the winter.

The tight knit evergreens will be the protected roost for many a little songbird this winter.

And although the leaves weren’t the predicted perfect fall colors, they are still as colorful as an Amish quilt.  For the compulsive photographer, the red maples, deep rust oaks and the gold of all the others is just the perfect opportunity – again!

Trees purify the air and return oxygen.  Their roots hold the soil and protect from erosion.  They redirect the wind.  They improve the nutrients in the soil and provide mulch.

 For mankind, trees have been life savers by providing building material, food and heat.

Where man has disseminated trees, disaster has followed.  Where trees have been planted, all have benefited.  That windswept state of Nebraska has been a dust bowl and a howling winter for its residents.  I noticed many a farmstead and highway with relatively new windbreaks - No doubt a difficult endeavor due to the prolonged droughts.  These individuals must be commended for understanding their toil today brings relief tomorrow.

Not all trees are right for every situation.  Plant the right tree in the right place and it will be right for the ages. 

“For in the true nature of things, if we rightly consider,
every green tree is far more glorious than if it were made of gold and silver.”
  Martin Luther.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Cornu Who?

Classic Cornucopia Flowers(this cornucopia photo from Telefloral)
Cornucopia!  How many people under the age of 50 know what a cornucopia is? 

We never had a Thanksgiving where we (actually it was me) didn't put a Lincoln Log built log cabin and a cornucopia filled with corn, nuts and various produce in the middle of the dining table.  I know - I was a kid and it never occurred to me they didn't match perfectly.

Cornucopia (to those who've been deprived of my childhood centerpieces) is a horn containing food, drink, etc. in endless supply said to have been from the horn of the goat Amalthaea.  Representation of this horn was a symbol of abundance or overflowing supply.  Most current models are made of some woven wicker type material.
Thanksgiving Gourd Cornucopia(this photo from The Orchid Boutique)
I would take pretty fall leaves, press them in the phone book for a week and include in the display. Yes, we were simple farm folks and we held our traditions dear.

I'd scout the yard for the "fixins" of our cornucopia - often called a horn-of- plenty.  Field corn was a must.  In those days (did I really say that?) corn wasn't shelled and sold.  It was shucked and stored in corn cribs for livestock feed - easy pickings.

Pine cones guaranteed sticky stain on the "best" white table cloth.   Dried grass heads and flowers would be stuck between fruit.  Everything had to look like it was naturally tumbling out of the horn.  There were usually apples and some root vegetables available from the orchard and garden. 
(This photo is from Better Homes and Gardens)

I bought an old vintage cornucopia the other day simply for the pleasant memory of it all.   Although most of these photos show very beautiful professional examples, the simple homemade "kid-constructed" ones are often the ones memories are made from. 

I know all the elite food and home network hosts have many elaborate ideas for decorating the Thanksgiving table, sometimes the ones made around simple serve the best and are remembered the longest.  Whether you go big or homespun, loved ones make the best Thanksgiving available.
Bicentennial Lincoln Logs EditionNow - where did I put those Lincoln Logs??? 

(Photo from the Lincoln Log web site) 

Friday, November 4, 2011

Then There's People

We just got back home from Denver CO visiting family.  A great time, no problems, and good to be home. 

We choose to drive almost no interstate roads for many reasons.  It's usually less stressful driving, it's filled with beautiful country side, small regional towns, local mom and pop eateries, and a better snapshot of the region.  This time Route 34 was the main choice on the way out and I highly recommend.

We arrived after Denver's big snow had melted off the roads and scooted home right ahead of the next big weather system.
I enjoy the farm land and harvest time is always interesting.  The size of the farms increased the farther west we drove - some fields stretching as far as one could see.  The crops faded from corn and soybeans to corn, alfalfa and wheat.  Huge cattle operations (both beef and dairy) had large square bales of both hay and straw stacked in the open.  Silos and grain elevators took up a full block or filled a field. 
Since we used a more southern route both ways, the Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado areas were hilly at the least and mountainous at the highest.  It never became boring especially with the many colored fall leaves.
I'm always interested in what's planted in yards and how things are landscaped in different regions.  The hillside mansions, desolate backwoods shacks, ranches, farm hand homes, and towns that still reflect the tough life of when the west was settled. 
Sadly, many little mountain towns almost exclusively rely on tourists dollars.  Many buildings were vacant.  The economy has had a negative effect on those small businesses.  Overheard several merchants talking about how the streets used to be filled with visitors and now they're having days without anyone at all coming to their stores.
While riding or in a motel, I'll often read a local newspaper and it certainly shows one thing for certain:  No matter where you live in the U.S., people are the same.  It reports on the local kids' doings, the soldier who didn't make it home from war, town politics, the regional celebrations and it's reported as if it's the best place to live in the entire world.  Something refreshing about that.  

And then there's the local food. . .  ate at a fun "Diners-Drive-Ins-and Dives" featured place with the kids.  On the way home, had the best Eggs Benedict made from scratch to perfection in Breckenridge at the "Blue Moose".  The eggs were poached in water to just runny and the hollandaise sauce was light and just hinting the lemon.   It was a vegetarian version so instead of Canadian bacon it substituted a slice of tomato and slices of avocado.  Someone hold my head - I'm gonna swoon!

This longhorn is downtown Dodge City but we saw many field longhorns, Angus, shorthorns, Holsteins and a few of the newer white grays that I'm not able to identify.  When farmers in the Midwest stopped raising cattle and hogs, they started taking down their fences.  Out west there was miles upon hundreds of miles of old fashioned barbed wire interspersed with electric.

I was quite surprised that we didn't see more windmill farms.  We've got almost 260 coming to our neighborhood.  You would think with the windswept plains, it would be perfect.  Either too windy or perhaps not appealing to the land owners.

And as we drove home through Kansas we commiserated with Dorothy:  "There's no place like home!"