Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Old Ladies and Gardening

My thoughts wandered to my aged aunts (long gone) and how I always thought they were incredibly old.  They were much older than my parents because dad was the youngest of seven children.

I remember how the women all looked like they had bowed legs and how all old ladies bent over in that unflattering way when gardening.  They all wore summer house dresses made of white muslin printed with lavender flowers and rolled down nylons around their ankles worn with their lace up black shoes.  They always had on an apron with pockets.  All my aunts had white hair (surprise) and it was either in a chignon or rolled tightly into a long curl thing.  I say curl thing because it was a single roll from ear to ear and held in place with hairpins and a hairnet. I realized this week; they were probably younger than I am today.  I pondered this and whether I should consider a chignon.  Heaven help me if I bend over my flowers and have bowed legs – JUST MAKE THE VISION STOP!

Speaking of old, there’s a flower catalog I particularly enjoy called “Old House Gardens – Heirloom Bulbs”.

1604 Heirloom
Call me sentimental but I like having plants in my gardens with a long history of survival.  They may not all be flashy in today’s sense of gardening but they are certainly hardy with a touch of pioneer gentility thrown in for good measure.

Accustomed to driving to our nearest nursery or big box outlet store, we grab bulbs and plants as if they were grown on the blacktop the day before.  Truth is many heirlooms were saved only because someone abandoned an old home site and no one had bulldozed the site.  There was a time when if it wasn’t new, it wasn’t valued.  Fortunately in recent years, plant and seed savers have rescued many of these plants and some are now plentiful enough for sales.

For the most part (but not entirely) these heirloom plants are extremely hardy and have proved this by enduring neglect, harsh conditions and almost extinction.  What this means is if you plant them in the right hardiness zone and according to needs, they will out live you and many future generations.

Because some of them are rare or as yet in short supply, some varieties may be expensive.  Another source is other gardeners.  If a fellow gardener says, “Do you want a start?” the answer should be a quick, ”Yes!”  But only “yes” if you actually do plan to plant and care for the gift.  I think we all know someone who seeks a start and then lets it languish in the garage until it’s beyond hope.

Gift certificates for all things heirloom gardening can be great Christmas presents for gardeners.  They can choose from long (almost eternal) lasting daffodils to “must be dug every fall” dahlias and gladiolas.   Or, a daylily breakthrough in the 1800s and a Thomas Jefferson’s hybridized plant.  Books such as “Flora Illustrata” or “Gerard’s Herbal” are full of beautiful illustrations and historical data.

Excuse me now as I seek a muslin housedress with lavender flowers to cover my bowed legs as I bend down and hope my chignon doesn’t fall out of my sunbonnet while pulling weeds.  

Visualization = not always a good thing. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Nature's Christmas

No, there's no deep meaning to this article - it's only about using natural (or nature's) supply of things for decorating your home for the holidays.

I've been a pinecone lover all my life.  First:  they smell good.  Second:  they are so wonderfully other world looking.  Third:  they can be used for decorating.  Yeah!  Add to pinecones, holly, twigs, leaves, nuts and feathers.  

If you're a gardener, you will have found loose feathers lightly laying on the ground.  I can never pass one of these beauties without picking it up and tucking it into a decoration.  I do suggest cleaning the feathers if you bring them inside because they can harbor insects and disease.  Gently wash in "Mr. Clean" and lay flat to dry on a paper towel.   

I made a giant pinecone wreath long ago and it lasted for years which is good because it took F.O.R.E.V.E.R to make.  I still use the glittered pinecones granddaughter, Katherine, gifted me one year.  

Market Alley Wines
I tucked holly and silvered hydrangea flowers into the table vases at my daughter's wine shop ( or see her Pinterest and Facebook pages) for Christmas decorations.  Holly will dry and still look lovely week after week.  The berries may drop so I never leave them on the branches for the sake of pets, children and staining.

Branches add depth and design to arrangements and if you're a glitter freak (admit it if you cannot leave a project alone until there's glitter somewhere) just coat in Elmer's glue and dip in the sparkly stuff for a winter wonderland.  

Nuts are a natural for decorating.  I made little winter people one year using nuts for the head.  Twenty years later I still have them - alas in a baggie and not on the tree because they are so past their prime but I'm too sentimental to throw them away.  I know:  the kids will not even be able to put them on the hayrack one day.

Soooo:  I thought I'd check out Pinterest in an effort to find a few pictures of pinecone crafts for this article and there were so many I finally decided I needed to get my pinecone mojo working with my crafting granddaughter, Grace.  Bring on the glue and glitter - grandma is on a binge!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Writers Paradise

Writers are a mixed bag of personalities, driving forces, history and outcomes.  Really good writers take us to places we can only visit in our minds.  They paint pictures so vivid and expressive we are transported into a situation as if we lived there.  John Sloan of Galva was a transporter and more.  He not only painted the pictures through his writing but in the process he made us better for having experienced his thoughts as our own.  Today John passed away after a long difficult battle with cancer.  He leaves behind a loving family, multitudes of friends, readers and fans.

In his much too short life, we can say his music soothed, his writing inspired, and his example helped make us better human beings.  But perhaps his mirror of God’s love is his most valued legacy.  When people say, “There’s a new angel in Heaven” in John’s case we know it’s true.  A musical, lyrical, compassionate angel – what more could we wish for John if we couldn’t keep him longer.

As with all our community, I’m sending love and prayers for John’s wife, Megan, sons Colin and Patrick and their families.  May God continue to comfort you with his presence; a God John served with valor. 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Dead Gardeners Society

 A local nursery had an advertisement offering to dig a hole and plant a tree for a certain price.  Not unusual except they offer to mix human cremated ashes into the hole first.   They call it “Tree Planting and Cremation Burial Service.”    It’s called a “green option” and as a marketing incentive to the bereaved, they state, “As the tree develops, the roots grow through and around the ashes.  The Nutrients from the ashes are absorbed into the branches and leaves of the tree and becomes a living reflection of the loved one.”  (Does anyone besides me hear organ music in the background as they read this?)

To qualify for this green burial, the body cannot have had formaldehyde-based or microbe-inhibiting chemicals prior to cremation.  FYI: actual cremains are more than ashes and include some larger pieces but I’ll use “ashes” alternately with “cremains”. 

For cemeteries allowing “natural” burial of cremains, there may be rules you want to investigate before making your pre-death tree planting burial decisions. Planting a tree and ashes on your private property may involve local regulations.  Although natural burial is gaining popularity, cemetery managers and regulators base their decisions on their knowledge of the process, their biases, imaginations, spiritual beliefs, the desire to consider new options and if they want to let go of the larger fees for traditional burials.

As the funeral industry is finding out, cremation is becoming more popular. It can be less expensive and take less space.  If there’s a new idea gaining popularity, then there’s a new buck to be made.  You can be as over-the-top environmentally friendly for cremains as you have the money to spend.

Burying or burning remains is many thousands of years old and was originally necessitated by disease and mass death.  Some religions have specifics for which method must be used.   The choices are not us vs. funeral home directors, regulators, and cemetery boards.  It’s finding out the facts and then working with these entities to find a solution for your choices.

No, you cannot infringe your ashes on others.  Sounds basic but you know there’s the one person who wants to throw ashes off the top of a skyscraper and let them float down over unsuspecting citizens.  Asking that your ashes be buried with the roots of a new tree on your own land, as a tree gift to a cemetery or park or as a part of a reforestation project are possibilities but only if it’s allowed in the way everyone agrees.

Once you come to the idea of wanting to have a natural burial in the roots of a tree, you need to do the following:

Find out where this could be accomplished.  Talking to your funeral director and/or cemetery manager of choice is a good first step.  Understanding the local regulations is another.

If your community doesn’t have a natural burial space, now is the time to work to make this happen. 

Get your family and friends on board - especially the executor of your estate.  They need to make the immediate decisions after your death to insure your burial meets your desires.  They also need to know the mechanics have already been considered and problems solved so you aren’t thrusting an impossible idea upon them during a time of bereavement.    

If you’re planted with a tree on your property, understand one day that property may belong to strangers making “visiting the site of grandma remains” impossible.  There’s the possibility the tree will die or be removed; will this be an emotional deal breaker? 

Natural burial of ashes under trees can be a gardener’s full circle of gardening tasks.  It can be the simple unselfish last task before putting away your trowel for the last time.  Is the time right for this kind of practice?  Only if you’ve investigated, solved the mechanics and made sure everyone knows of your wishes.  Go forth and fertilize!  (Did I really say that?  Sorry.)

Saturday, November 22, 2014

It's All About the Weather

Does anyone remember those days when you left home completely oblivious to what the weather had in store?  Not only didn't we have second-by-second reporting and predicting, we really didn't give a hoot - because we were invincible!  Thinking you're invincible tends to kick you in your not so invincible butt - but (or butt if you want) thinking you're invincible is such a grand ride unless you crash.  Most of us didn't crash to the point of elimination but most of us did crash enough to learn a few lessons along the way.  The weather lesson is one of them.  I do think you must be a geezer to really embrace the weather lesson fully.  And with that bit of pondering over, let's talk about today's weather:

We've had an early and very cold spell setting records here in Illinois.  Those poor folks in NY have frozen their off brand tomato sauce and shared some really awesome and frightening photos.  Today it's warmed up and we're getting some significant rain.  To this we will see a flood (pun intended) of complaints over it being gray and wet.  At that point I want to say, "REALLY do you not understand rain in the late fall is a good thing?"  Here's the deal from the weather geezer (and don't call me that to my face - thank you.)

Plants need - I mean really need - lots of rain in the fall to take them through the winter.  Especially in summers where we have edged towards drought conditions.  Trees are especially needy.  Occasionally they're temperamental but in the fall they are just plain needy.  To survive the cold blowing wind, they must take in enough water.  This is especially true of trees and bushes that don't loose their leaves in the winter.

If the ground is not deeply frozen, the rain will be beneficial to all your plants.  Rejoice you aren't out there watering or watching a treasured perennial die from lack of moisture.  Celebrate the gray of the day and be glad it's not in the form of snow or ice.  We'll see enough of that before winter's finished with us - trust the geezer weather forecaster on this one.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Pie in the Sky

From an old recipe book
I was raised in a farm family where we had homemade pie three times a day – sometimes more.  It was so commonplace; once I left home I figured I’d be all right without pie the rest of my life.  I then learned what I had taken for granted was actually, "My mom made the best pie I had ever tasted."  And she did this every week.  

Most of us are familiar with traditional fruit pies:  cherry, raspberry, apple, and the like.  What we don’t normally think of is the old pioneer pies.  They were pies made from what was available when you had to rely on locally grown food or starve.

Pioneer women were geniuses at turning everything this side of poison into foodstuff.  I sometimes wonder about the poor person who tried new things and realized too late “No, we shouldn’t make a salad from that funny three leafed green vine.”  But, back to pies: 

As our taste buds are manipulated by processed foods, we become ill at ease when diving into an unusual ingredient.  As generations move away from gathering and preserving and more into grab and go, these pioneer recipes get lost or are only a collector’s item. 

Some of the ingredients for pioneer pies may be hard to find in the grocery freezer section.   But as gardeners, we may be exposed to some delicious options right in our own back yards.  And our pioneer grandmothers were experts at unusual flavoring to enhance the most mundane of garden produce.

I thought of all this after reading an old version of the “Farm Journal’s Complete Pie Cookbook”.  Not only are there ingredients we should perhaps consider again, there’s history of how women had to cook.  When recipes call for lard, heavy cream and forty-five steps, you know providing meals for a family was more involved than the freezer section of the nearest quick stop.

Crab Apple flowers
Old recipes also tell much about where those pioneer families migrated.  Old house yards often tell the same.  Since my home was build by Bishop Hill Swede, Edwin Hedlin, I wasn’t surprised to find currents growing in the woods.

Most families (both farm and city) had their own fruit trees such as applies, cherries, peach, pear, apricots and plum.  Included were patches of grapes, strawberries, rhubarb, and berry bushes.  These ingredients were preserved for use all year.

This old cookbook has recipes for pies made with:  grapes, boysenberries, gooseberries, plums, crab apples, cranberries, burgundy berries, sweet potatoes, dates, elderberries, pears, black walnuts and mulberries.

In those few instances where imported ingredients were available, pies were made with oranges, pineapples, bananas, lemons, coconut, chocolate, limes and exotic seasonings.   These items are so easily accessed today we forget they weren’t typically part of pioneer cooking.

Walnuts holding tight
For the woman who knew how to make a perfect piecrust, it immediately became a receptacle for savory pie ingredients as well:  beef mincemeat, fish, rabbit, cheese, onion, tomatoes, foul (both domestic and wild), pork, and of course eggs.  Custards and meringues were essential to pioneer pie making.

Farmers had their own milk and city folk had delivery.  No one would have dreamed of not using the butter, cream, buttermilk, and cottage cheese from fresh milk. No hardy working family would have considered not topping their fruit pie with a wonderful ingredient such as cottage cheese, cheddar cheese, cream, ice cream, sweet custard meringue, or caramel.   

Current bush blooming
Because sugar might not be available all the time, Midwest housewives used molasses, sorghum and honey in many recipes including pie.  These sweeteners provided a deep richness.  All these are gleaned from the land.  Seasonings such as vinegar and mints were used when expensive imported seasonings were not available.

I won’t lie, pioneer pie recipes are not quick or easy to accomplish.  I won’t lie, they are perhaps the best bite of pure joy you will ever give yourself.  Rich, hardy, and decadent from an era when food, even pie, was meant to “stick to the ribs.”

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Summer 2014 Surprises

Aubrey stopping to smell the flowers while at the
Pumpkin Patch in Denver
I could start every season of every year with this little ditty:  “This has been an unusual season in the garden.”  It’s called living in the Midwest; every year is unusual to us.  It’s living in an area with four seasons at the mercy of changing weather patterns.

Most of us in the Midwest enjoy the changing seasons and the unpredictability of our weather.  It pits humans against the quirks of Mother Nature, it’s us against them; it’s survival of the fit; it’s intelligence against the unknown and we love the challenge (if not always the damage.)

The good surprises of summer 2014:

I had canna bulbs long buried come up in places I didn’t even remember planting. 

I had gladiola bulbs come up where I had been lazy and not dug up in the fall a couple of years ago.  They had multiplied and were lovely next to my Julia Child rose.  Careful planning could not have made their location more beautiful.

I planted a row of annual seeds willy-nilly in the front of my raised vegetable bed.  My granddaughter, Grace, and I pretty much mixed them and planted at any depth she might wish.  They came up with wild abandon.

Grace inspecting the garden
Last early winter I threw all my sad decomposing pumpkins and gourds into a flowerbed near the house and promptly forgot them.  The entire bed was full of vines this summer producing an abundance of beautiful orbs to supply any and all family this fall.  Bees loved the blossoms and the granddaughters loved painting the pumpkins.  Thank you to Nature’s Creations for all the original beauties who so generously seeded over winter.

Field crops have produced stellar this year in spite of some early hail and wind damage.   Watching pickin’ and combining is one of my favorite scenes of fall.  So glad it’s been good for our farmer neighbors.

Japanese Beetles really did take a big kill because of the cold winter.  I had some but nothing like the horrible swarms of years’ past.

I’ve had a large variety of butterflies this year, including Monarchs.   Included is the down side:  they were few in numbers. 

I had the most quantity and variety of bees I’ve ever seen here.  I feared they would be frozen out but it seems they survived and thrived.

Because daylily plants thought fall had arrived in August, I had several rebloom (something that seldom happens this far north.)

True northern zone hardy perennial bushes and flowers actually thrived from our cold winter last year.

My cherry and apple trees took a lickin’ and kept on tickin’. 

Self-seeders such as aster, cleome, dame’s rocket and phlox all did well

Grace and Kaydence busy helping Grandma.
Some not so good surprises of summer 2014:

 My pepper and cucumber plants pretty much look the same today as they did the day I planted them in May.  Complete failure.

My tomato plants produced but not with the usual early abundance and not enough to preserve quantities to take us through winter.

Local small vegetable farms have suffered along with other gardeners with less than ideal growing conditions. Remember to support our own Sarah and Nathan Hahn’s operation this fall – we want to make sure they can stay in business for many more years.

All the egg sacks of my Praying Mantis were destroyed due to the cold winter.  I didn’t have one Mantis survive.  

I’ve seen fewer wasps this year.  I know some people consider them a pest but they are one of our beneficial pollinators.

My peach trees didn’t produce this year.

Mildew was more prevalent than usual.  My Indiana farmer cousins said it was so bad, they had to spray their fields.

Lazy Crazy Days of Summer
What conditions surprised you this year?  Or, have you stopped being surprised and roll with the Midwest punches?



Friday, October 24, 2014

This and That

Granddaughter, Aubrey

As October stretches into cold, there’s a few “this and that” you may want to accomplish in the garden. 

I seldom do a big fall garden clean up because I’ve found leaves bunched around my perennials is nature’s mulch.  On the flip side (isn’t there always a flip side to nature), I recommend trimming all iris leaves to a couple of inches and burn the debris (do not compost.)  This will help eliminate iris borers that lay eggs on the leaves for over wintering.  Wait until we’ve had a hard freeze so the moths are killed.  Take all debris under and close to the iris.  You can then let tree leaves blow in naturally.

You still have time to plant spring flowering bulbs.  Most important: plant bulbs at the right depth.   Try some old fashioned heirloom spring flowering bulbs such as Alliums, anemones, Glory-of-the-Snow, Dutchman’s Breeches, Trout Lily, Fritillaria, snowdrops, Grape Hyacinth and one of my favorites:  Siberian Squill.  These bulbs can be found at nurseries and sometimes at a big box store.  Take a chance on a bag for a sweet surprise. 

Plant spring flowering bulbs where the leaves can be left to die naturally without mowing or cutting; It’s where they get their nutrients for next year’s flowers. 

Granddaughter, Katherine
I have never NEVER regretting one spring flowering bulb I planted.  Did I mention NEVER?  I always plant them where they are either visible from a window or beside a path where we walk in the spring.  Although tulips do not live forever, most other spring flowering bulbs spread with abandon and will be making your yard beautiful long after you’ve moved away.  A tree is planted for future generations.  Spring flowering bulbs are planted for all generations.

Some things need mulched.  If you want to use beautiful mulch or simply functional mulch – it’s your garden.  Cedar mulch works.  Straw or shredded newspaper works.  Leaves and evergreen trimmings work. Compost works.   If you use your own mixture, don’t use anything that had mildew or other diseases.   Keep the mulch out from bushes and tree stems at least an inch or two.  You’re protecting the roots not the stem.  Rodents living in mulch up against the stem may decide one cold night to use bark as their new best winter treat.   

Remove all leaves that have mildew and burn or destroy – don’t compost.   Mildew was out-of-control this year and you don’t want to overwinter. 

Granddaughters, Kaydence and Grace
At this time, do not cut back spring flowering bushes unless it’s for health and safety purposes.  You will be cutting off the buds needed for the flowers.

Leave seed heads for the birds.  Plus, clumps of dried ornamental grasses, dried leaves on bushes and vines and some unmowed grass are needed during those cold windy days and nights.

Wash out bird feeders with a mild solution of 1 gallon of water/1/4 cup of bleach – then rinse and let dry before filling.  Empty birdhouses of their nests and treat the same way. Most birds won’t seek the nesting houses in the winter.

As we’re enjoying the orange and black scary Halloween decorations, it isn’t too early to get up Christmas lights (you will thank yourself in November when it’s sleeting, the ground is frozen and your holiday spirit is somewhere south of Florida.)

Clean out the gutters when the last leaf has fluttered into a packed soggy mess because it will freeze and cause winter/spring water damage. 

If you take your screens off and wash them with dishwashing soap and water, rinse and store inside, they will last years longer.  This will also remove the allergens.  Hose out the window tracks of insects.  Ladybugs and Asian beetles love to pack into those tracks for the winter and slowly migrate inside on sunny days.

Scrape all mud from garden tools, wash with the above mentioned bleach solution, dry and cover with an oil.   

And about this time of the year, it’s time to put up your feet and realize we had a pretty darn mild summer, many successes and we can mark summer 2014 down as done.  Stay safe farm friends and see you in the spring.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

There's High Lines

Truly a park.
And then there’s high lines.  High lines in the utility industry are the lines carrying electricity across the nation.  It’s the big boys of the system.

The “High Line” in New York is an abandoned elevated freight rail line transformed into a free, public park on Manhattan’s West Side.  What’s the big deal for us in small town Illinois?   It’s an example of turning trash into treasures.  It’s taking a negative cityscape and making it the starting point to reinvigorate the town.

All towns, cities and villages have examples of some former building or development now rundown and a blight on the whole neighborhood.  What was different with this abandoned freight rail line is someone had an idea to take it from blight to brilliant.

A non-profit “Friends of the High Line” was formed and partnered with the NYC Dept. of Parks and Recreation.  Their mission:  “Through excellence in operations, stewardship, innovative programming, and world-class design, we seek to engage the vibrant and diverse community on and around the High Line, and to raise the essential private funding to help complete the High Line’s construction and create an endowment for its future operations.”

The big words:  Seek to engage.  No non-profit can function in and of itself.  It must have others engaged in wanting a project to succeed. 

What it didn’t do is sit around and blame others while doing nothing.  That’s pretty amazing considering social media is all about blaming, complaining and doing nothing.

The high line railroad trestle has elevated gardens, walkways, seating and beautiful views.  They use species of perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees hardy, sustainable, textural and with color variation.  Focus is on native species.   Many of the self-seeded plants on the old deserted tracks have been incorporated. 

Views, walkways, seating and air!
And the deal is not just this amazing reclaimed park, it has changed entire neighborhoods.  Because it’s brought locals out to walk and relax, tourists and professionals to photograph, and families enjoying their city, there’s been a need for business.  Restaurants, stores, apartments, and more followed.  As the movie says:  “If you build it, they will come.”

They didn’t wait for businesses to come in first; they created a destination and need brought businesses. They have garden talks and walks, yoga, Tai Chi, nature walks, fairs, concerts, walking tours, neighborhood narratives, stargazing, lunch series, kids specials and dance parties. 

This beautiful garden is the beginning of community revitalization.  It can be an inspiration for big and small revitalizations in your community.  Before destroying that unsightly old structure, could it become a blessing?  Destroy and remove hit a huge wave of popularity in towns and as a result we see many a town with little of its history and beauty left; all the while complaining no new business comes calling. 

School children classes
Sometimes a city and its residents must take a leap of faith and enhance its current spots around town such as Galva’s revitalization of Veterans’ Park a few years ago.  Also, allowing the Country Road festival this summer in our Park District was a leap of faith by the Park Board and that leap was especially smart.  This could not have happened had the Park District not kept that park so beautiful and updated.

Not all old buildings or lots can be used or preserved.  I urge you to not give up on these historic structures or lots without exhausting outside-the-box possibilities first.  One thing for certain, nothing like the High Lines project would be possible without a dedicated group of caring individuals. 

This town and your town have a wonderful history and vibrant futures if it’s citizens care to see what might be.  Stop thinking about what had died as if that’s the future. Don’t just complain about that building that’s an eye sore and can’t be fixed.  Make an effort to not let another building fall so far into disrepair it is a lost project.

As for gardens, Galva is an exceptional example of enhancing our public spaces.  All our parks:  33 cares at the Park District, Washington Park, Wiley Park and Veterans Park.  Included is the small garden venue’s around signposts and various small plots.  The street department waters these plots and volunteers plant and weed. 

Before renovation.
As your town experiences empty buildings, do we complain because no one is knocking at the door to utilize them?  OR do we make the town so attractive eventuality population will demand more businesses to serve their needs. 

And one final suggestion:  Utilize the businesses you have if you want them to continue.  Don’t expect someone else to support them and then complain because one Sunday you couldn’t drive five minutes to get a washer for your project, a banana for your desert, or a gallon of gas for your trip.  We each must carry this responsibility. 

All photos and Mission Statement are from "Friends of the High Lines" web page.