Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Spider Plant Reaching

What busy days are holidays! Everyone seems occupied with the special things that make holidays so festive. With so much happening there is little time to notice when the ordinary things around us take on their own exceptional characteristics. And so my Spider plant grew and grew until I couldn’t ignore it any longer. When I finally gave it my attention I was surprised at how far it had reached despite my neglect or perhaps because of it.

Spider plants are easy to grow, beginner plants if you will, and almost foolproof for anyone to grow. They need little water and actually prefer dry soil. They also would rather not be in direct sunlight as their leaves are disposed to turn brown. As they mature they send out “babies” that can be clipped and repotted to make new plants. Spider plants do tend elongate so they need space to hang down. Hanging baskets are good places to grow them.

I appreciate houseplants that have a sense of self, that can thrive through their own strength and joie de vivre to what might be considered challenging conditions. My aloe plants, and there are several, have that same defining ability. They seem to laugh when I forget to water them and then put out new growth. The spider plant spreads its leaves and stretches further, calling for me to check its soil and give it what it needs.

Plants teach me stuff. I hope that I can be as resilient, as adaptable, should life require it of me.

Try growing a spider plant for yourself:

http://www.plant-care.com/spider-plant.html

Monday, December 12, 2011

Woodpecker Pecking Away


Look who we found on the bird feeder! Quite a big guest compared to the usual denizens. And what a treat to see - a Red-bellied Woodpecker. That would explain the different kinds of bird voices I have been hearing lately. I think I saw both a male and female chowing down. Woodpeckers are common in Eastern woodlands but as more woodland is being used for human habitats, I guess my slightly wooded backyard may have drawn them in.

As the weather cools down the crowd on the feeders heats up. Often the feeders are packed with finches and sparrows but there are others that find a meal here, too. Cardinals are regular visitors and now that the leaves have fallen, the brilliant red of the male cardinal is like a beacon on the bare branches. We see goldfinches (New Jersey’s state bird), chickadees, and nuthatches on a regular basis. There are wrens and cowbirds and the occasional hawk. And I mustn’t forget to acknowledge the blue jays – there are currently several of them visiting the feeders. Right now I am listening to a finch symphony from the forsythia bush on the side of my house.

I love seeing the variety of colors and personalities on the feeders. I think it is important for people to be sensitive to other life forms. Birds are usually a pleasing connection for most of us (though a raid by grackles on the black oil seed can prove costly). I think being aware of others helps us to be more expansive within ourselves. So peck away, woodpecker, and thank you for dropping by.

For info, sounds, and photos, this site by Cornell University is terrific:

http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/browse_tax.aspx?family=45

Monday, December 5, 2011

Plum Tree Epiphany

During the spring our flowering plum tree puts out beautiful leaves and buds, always a joy to see. In the summer the branches fill out and spread giving our front lawn shade and elegance. It is truly lovely to look at though its unbridled growth was beginning to cause problems. I have always had trouble pruning plants; it somehow seemed to be an assault on the plant’s natural development. But this tree was getting out of hand, reaching out over the lower roof and heading toward our neighbor’s house. We all had to duck to walk toward our backyards. So as autumn approached, we trimmed the tree hoping to keep the next spring’s growth away from both houses. I had to admit that it looked neater when the trimming was done.

Only now that winter is just about here, we discovered some other consequences of unbridled growth. The tree had created so much shade that the Japanese cutleaf maple growing several feet away was affected. It was hard to tell in the summer as both plants put out reddish leaves but in the bareness of fall it was startling. The maple was full and bushy on the right and sparse and pathetic on the left, nearest the plum tree. The growth of one inhibited the life expression of the other.

Oh, how I wish I had trimmed the plum years ago. It obviously had not hurt the tree and it would have prevented the asymmetrical growth of the maple, which was doing its best to survive. An example of unintended consequences. But even more than that, here is a reminder of how everything we do has an extended effect. If it is so dramatic with plum and maple trees, how much more so with people? I know it isn’t possible to be aware of the full impact we have through our actions but it gives me pause to realize that each of us has the power to change the world we live in one thought, one action, one child, one plant at a time.

Here is some info on Japanese cutleaf maple trees, truly a lovely garden feature:

http://www.qscaping.com/NetPS-Engine.asp?CCID=20000011&page=pdp&PID=5838

Monday, November 28, 2011

A Drive to Nowhere


I like to take what my five-year-old grandson calls a drive to nowhere, to get in the car and discover what is out there. Recently my husband and I drove to Mt. Holly, NJ, an historic town that has a revolutionary war history. The old stone houses recall its glory days, though the town has seen some hard times since. As we drove around we found a wooded area tucked behind its busy Main Street. We got out to explore. There was a leafy, trodden path that led up a hill. It was a lovely day so we took our time to climb. Along the way a jogger appeared. “Quite a hill,” he said as he continued past us. Yes, it was, and quite a view from the top.

Was this a virgin forest? How come it hadn’t been developed? Hills usually are no impediment to a bulldozer. But I was glad it had been left alone. There were a few survey markers along the path but otherwise we had the world to ourselves. It was an exhilarating feeling, primal and beautiful. We finally wended our way back toward the road, skirting the houses on the edge of the woods. Our drive to nowhere led us to a grand place.

I can understand an explorer’s impetus to go beyond the accepted knowledge. The familiar often fades into the background. A drive or walk to nowhere brings out qualities of nature, not that they are hidden but rather they are overlooked. Busy lives leave little room for slow observation. Every now and then it is worth setting aside the known for the new. Something fresh, seen with open eyes and an inquisitive mind, expands the spirit. And that, to me, really makes it a drive to somewhere worthwhile.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Nature – The Painterly Way


There are many ways to view the wonders of nature. I like to be plant myself in the middle of things – the woods, a garden, a bird sanctuary, an arboretum, my backyard. It is how I feel the energy of what I am observing. But there are other ways to appreciate what nature has to offer. One grand way is through the artist’s vision. This weekend I went to the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, PA for an exhibit called The Painterly Voice: Bucks County's Fertile Ground. What a treat.

Brian H. Peterson, the Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest Chief Curator, provides commentary about the work, the artists and Bucks County’s artistic progression. He takes the viewer behind the scenes with descriptions that allow us to feel the mystery of each artist’s voice. And the exhibit itself adds to the mystery with little doors that open to the comments about both the works and the artists.

The Painterly Voice is very people accessible. Other than the occasional DO NOT TOUCH sign, there are no ropes or barriers to getting up close to the paintings. I like to get near enough to see the individual brush strokes, to be able to see each color as it is applied, and to feel embraced by the minutia of the artist’s vision. Then I step back and let the fullness of the scene envelop and expand me. Here are hills and fields and water and flowers, long expanses and up close details.

And then there is Bucks County itself. A lovely ride through those same hills and fields. A nice way to spend a day.

The exhibit runs through April 1, 2012 but if you can’t get to see it in person, you can see some of it out here: http://www.michenermuseum.org/catalogue/painterly-voice/

Sunday, November 13, 2011

An Autumn Invitation


I was in Virginia last week. It was a treat walking through the different neighborhoods and seeing the trees in their autumn beauty. I wondered if the trees back home in my more northern state would have lost their color by time I returned. I imagined their brown remaining leaves clinging momentarily to the branches before, with a windblown sigh, they released them all to the claim of the season. So I was happily surprised to see the vivid red and gold lining the streets of my own neighborhood when I went home.

Even with the pending barrenness of the trees and the nip of the fall air, I appreciate autumn. It lifts my spirits in a way no other season does. There is drama all around. I can’t imagine anyone not being affected by the brilliance of the trees. I agree with Albert Camus: Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower. I am also cheered by the tufts of mums adding bursts of yellow, purple, orange, and red to the crisp days.

But there is also a sense of wistfulness, a look back at the summer just past where the sun stayed high longer and invited us outdoors well into the night, when the sometimes baking heat would give way to the refreshing relief of a day at the shore or the embrace of the cooling indoors.

I think the change of seasons is the perfect time for rethinking. I know it shifts my awareness out of the usual and promotes a different state of mind. Autumn does this with an intensity that’s hard to ignore. It offers a door into imagination and each burst of beauty beckons, an invitation to enter.

The US Forest Service tells all about autumn:

http://www.na.fs.fed.us/fhp/pubs/leaves/leaves.shtm

Some quotes about autumn: http://www.quotegarden.com/autumn.html

Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy (early) Halloween


Mother Nature got an early start on Halloween this year. She didn’t wait for treats and went right to the tricks. An October snowstorm hit the northeast leaving millions without power and, ironically, forcing the cancellation of lots of Halloween festivities. It wasn’t so much of a surprise as the weather people predicted the storm but it still had a quality of the unbelievable about it. We talked about putting away our patio chairs for the season but felt no rush to do it. I was startled to hear the sleet tapping against the window and stayed glued to the spot as I watched the hard pellets of ice slowly turn into the quiet softness of snowflakes. It didn’t stop us from doing morning chores but we did postpone our afternoon activities in preference for sipping cocktails before our first cozy fire.

I can’t say that I blame Mother Nature for playing tricks. In fact, she seems to have been doing it a lot this year with heat waves that stayed around, rain during what is traditionally a dry part of the year, and lack of rain when the crops were begging for moisture. She certainly gets our attention this way. But then we have been playing tricks on her for decades. We pollute her air and much of her water. We continue to cut down the trees in her virgin forests and decrease the supply of oxygen to our planet. We play around with her crops, altering their genetics and changing our definition of food. Is she trying to tell us something in the only way she can? Will we listen?

And yet, Mother Nature still has a heart. Today, on Halloween proper, she sent a glorious, sunny day. It is just the right weather for little ones to come knocking on doors asking for treats. And when night arrives and the older goblins come around, there will only be a slight chill in the air, appropriate for October 31st.

Check out the Oct.29th storm: http://www.timesunion.com/photos/slideshow/October-East-Coast-snowstorm-31779.php

Monday, October 24, 2011

Turtle Crossroads


Why did the chicken cross the road? Remember that old riddle? There should have been a chicken crossing sign to help it across. I pay attention to those signs. I have seen deer crossing, geese crossing, duck crossing though no chicken crossing signs along my local roads. It makes me aware of where I am, which I guess is the purpose of the signs, and since those on the sign cannot be counted on to watch out for me, I had better be responsible and watch out for them.

This sign was posted at the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey. I did not see any turtles crossing that day though there were turtles lounging in the mud of the marshes. I have seen a number of turtles crossing the road over the years in a variety of places. The first one was when I lived in Queens, New York. I was driving and slowed down because a large rock was in the middle of the street – only this rock was moving! I got out of my car and saw a box turtle lumbering along. I picked it up before the next car came whizzing by and took it to my apartment. I soon learned that box turtles are protected and I could not harbor it. I couldn’t put it back where I found it so I released it on an expanse of wooded land near a water source, a few miles out of harm’s way. I worried, though, that perhaps I was separating it from its family. Would it be lost? Would it be able to forge a satisfactory life in its new surroundings? I wished it well and hoped for the best.

As people take over more land space, the creatures that call those spaces home will find themselves crossing man-made roads, pathways that cut through their natural environments. The chickens/geese/ducks/turtles just want to get to the other side. They are taking their chances with us. Have we forgotten that these crossroads used to be their crossroads? Surely we can suspend our need to rush about to let them get safely across. I expect there will be more crossing signs as our population grows and our need for land expands. I will be looking for them to remind me that we share this earth with many others and to be careful of all life.

The Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge is a beautiful place to visit. It has a variety of birds, expansive marshes, and opportunities to stop and connect with nature.

http://www.fws.gov/northeast/forsythe/

Monday, October 17, 2011

My Very Own Watermelon


I was showing my city-girl roots this week when I found a watermelon had actually grown in my tiny garden. I got so excited I couldn’t stand myself. How could I have grown such a thing? Yes, we had planted it and watched the vine creep steadily out into the lawn. Small flowers blossomed along the vine and then a few gourd-like fruits started to develop. It was fun to watch but I never really expected a full, fat watermelon to form. Yet it did and I was thrilled to pieces.

This was a big event. I tested the melon for ripeness the way I do in the supermarket where I usually buy watermelon; I thumped it. It had a solid sound and felt heavy for its size, nine beautiful inches. It had a slight flat spot where it had been resting (garden-bed head?) that was yellowish. All the right signs for a ripe melon. I carried it into the house as if I had the queen’s crown in my hands.

My husband was just as excited. I cut it and I served it fresh and juicy. Our first taste was savored. A sweet offering from Mother Nature and a healthy one, too. It’s an amazing food with an abundance of nutrients: a great source of Vitamin C, has beta carotene, calcium, and more: http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=31

Watermelon has always been one of my favorite fruits and now I have had the privilege to grow one. My little foray into gardening was a treat; it allowed me to produce my very own watermelon! I will never be a farmer but I am grateful for the farmer’s gifts. All I can say is, with appreciation, Thank you.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Hosta Happy


I am hosta happy. At last, a surviving, flowering hosta. This is not a criticism of the popular perrenial; this is a celebration. Of all the hostas we have planted, this is the only one that has made it to the flowering stage. How can that be? you might well ask. These are hardy plants. They tolerate shade, which we have a lot of in our backyard, though a little sun is welcome. Their leaves are their main attraction but they also flower with lily-like blossoms (appropriate as hostas are in the lily family). I see them all over the place. It seems that everyone can grow hostas.

We can, too, which is a fact not lost on the rabbits. They have been munching on our hostas for a few years, now. Each season the hostas send up leaves and as soon as the plants are full the rabbits take over. We see them bounding up to the hostas and suddenly the leaves are gone, whittled down to short, denuded stalks. I heard that fabric softener sheets keep mosquitoes away so I surrounded a couple of the plants with white, flapping sheets – a cocoon of sorts. It seemed to work, for a short while at least, and then it didn’t. I suspect the rabbits were just taking the measure of the sheets and, finding them non-threatening, continued on their hosta fiesta.

I rescued one tiny plant that was left lying on its side, abandoned for some unknowable reason, and stuck it on the back patio in a flowerpot that had lost its previous occupant. Frankly, I did not expect it to live. But then it did. And it flowered! The rabbits did no nibbling. The squirrels left it alone. The chipmunks bypassed it on their urgent scamperings. Good. Let them all ignore it. I pay attention to it because I so appreciate its survival. I may also buy a companion plant next spring and see if I can grow another undisturbed hosta. I love the wildlife in my backyard but I like my garden, too. Surely we can all find a way to co-exist.

Everything you ever wanted to know about hostas from the University of Minnesota Extension Service:http://www.extension.umn.edu/distribution/horticulture/m1241.html

Monday, October 3, 2011

Wildflowers!


It has been several weeks since I last posted on my blog. Some of my readers and friends have asked if everything is okay. Thank you all for your concern. All is well though life got a little wild for a couple of months. And that leads me to…

Wildflowers! They appeared on the medians of some busy sections of one of my township’s major roads. At first the usually grassy strips looked neglected because they weren’t being mowed; there were actually signs telling workers not to mow the wildflowers though there weren’t any yet to be seen. Then they looked weedy because the plants were growing leafy and helter-skelter. But now they are glorious! Pink, yellow, orange, red, bursts of purple brighten up an ordinary functional road. Each time I pass I have to smile. There is a sense of freedom here that tickles me. It is unexpected beauty that can’t be ignored. It takes me from my runaway thoughts and helps me focus on the present, at least momentarily. What joy I feel in their wildness. It’s a feeling that remains with me as I continue through my day.

Flowers that grow on their own without cultivation are called wildflowers. Flowers that are natural to the environment where they are growing are called native, those brought in from other countries or environments are referred to as naturalized. They tend to be hardy, needing no help from gardeners. Sometimes they can be invasive and need to be controlled. Kudzu, anyone? But when they are contained and wanted, wildflowers can add something special to their surroundings. Like these do. I hope they last well into the fall when the leaves change color and add their own beauty to life.

So much to learn, so many plants to appreciate. This site has info and photos:

http://www.wildflowerinformation.org/

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Heirlooms












At the beginning of the season I bought some heirloom tomato plants. I watched the tomatoes as they went from green to less green to a soft yellow and got larger and plumper, full of the sun’s heat. On the day a large yellow beauty was just about ready for picking, I went outside but couldn’t find it. I couldn’t find two others, either, that were on the verge of ripeness. What could have happened to them?

My initial thought was those wascally wabbits or perhaps the ubiquitous squirrels were at it again (I didn’t have any peaches this year again!) but I didn’t see any evidence that they might leave – no half eaten tomatoes, no splotchy seeds on the ground, no broken stems. Besides, the tomatoes were growing fairly high off the ground. It would take a good jumper to get at them. Could a person have taken them? I recently read in the NY Times that urban gardens are the target of veggie thefts. But this is not a city garden. It is also pretty insignificant and in a secluded place. Who would have discovered it? Besides, if someone had asked I would have been happy to share.

There is something delightful about eating something picked moments before and I felt annoyed that I was deprived of this. My husband’s parents were wonderful gardeners. I remember how we all picked corn at the moment they were ready and ran to the kitchen to toss them into the pot of water that was already boiling and waiting. No corn ever tasted better.
I looked at the tomatoes I had picked yesterday and today. There were three sizes - a Papa tomato, a Mama tomato and a wee baby tomato, like the three bears. I put them on a silver tray that was handed down in the family; heirloom tomatoes on an heirloom tray. Ah. Perspective kicked in. How lucky I have been. I smiled. At last I could put aside my annoyance. I hoped that whoever/whatever took the heirlooms at least enjoyed them. And perhaps those tomatoes were shared with the family, whether animal or human.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Rose of Sharon



I lived in the city when I was growing up. There wasn’t much room for growing things in the summer. My backyard consisted mainly of a paved driveway and a small slab of concrete, room enough for a couple of chairs that were never sat on. The tiny plot of grass was home to an outdoor clothes dryer. By contrast, the front of my house seemed almost lush. There were rows of white, purple and red portulacas on either side of the walkway leading to my house, a few hedges, and an exuberant Rose of Sharon shrub. Each time I left the house, the flowers would surprise me. They were so out there, bursts of pink that greeted the day and lasted until they closed and fell at night. They didn’t seem to mind that they were growing in a limited space or that they were far from their tropical roots. Each day was new and they made the most of it.

Now I have my own Rose of Sharon. It was a gift from my daughter’s in-laws who have a yardful at their home. They warned us, though, that it can take over. They were right. We remove any outcroppings we see around the bush but somehow the seeds made their way to the rear of our yard and they are now challenging the privets we have back there. It doesn’t seem to matter that they supposedly prefer full sun (they are in full shade) or that they like well-drained soil (we have marl that can be quite swampy). Sometimes they need reining in but I can’t help admiring them for their joie de vivre.

It is a boost to my spirit whenever I see them. There are so many reasons in our world to focus on the negative, to allow joy to withdraw or wither. These bushes thrive no matter what and express themselves in beauty and persistence. They are a vibrant life-force, as enticing as I remember. Seems like a good example to follow.

Being a member of the hibiscus family, Rose of Sharon is easy to grow. Take a look:
http://treesandshrubs.about.com/od/commonshrubs/p/RoseofSharon.htm

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Heat’s On



Last week we had a tiny bit of rain. It was so welcome but it didn’t add up to much and the garden was still panting with the heat. I took a photo of the leaves on the Flowering Plum tree just to document that we had some rain, little though it was. And then there was yesterday. Out of the blue, literally as the sky had been cloudless and the sun brilliant, gray clouds started to gather. Low rumbles could be heard. And then – BOOM – a flash of lightening, a loud bang of thunder, and the sky became a waterfall. The rain overwhelmed the gutters and cascaded down along the perimeter of the house. The water slooshed over driveways, flooded the sidewalks, pounded hard on unsuspecting plants. Then it started to ping against the siding. The raindrops now alternated with hail, small, hard ice balls, which grew larger as the storm continued. Crack. Ping. Splat. The percussion section in a weather symphony.

We were standing by our front door watching the concert and noticed the neighbors across the street and some down the block were doing the same. One of our neighbors pulled up in his pickup and made a mad dash for his porch. When things started to calm down, he took an umbrella and splashed his way across the lawn to check on his plants. I wondered how our tomatoes had fared. Had they been squashed? One was almost ripe – I wished I had picked it and let it finish ripening on my kitchen counter.

All-in-all the rain, even with the unexpected hail, was welcome. The rain gauge registered 1 ½ inches. Yay. Today the grass that had not succumbed to during the various heat waves was smiling green. And the temperature went from the low nineties to the mid seventies and way less humid. Breathing weather.

Nature has been so different this year, all around the globe. Extreme. So has the world of humans. Revolutions, disagreements, political disputes, economic challenges pretty much everywhere. Is this a chicken and egg issue or coincidence? (I can here the shouts of those who believe there is no such thing as a coincidence.) Things certainly have heated up on a grand scale. I wonder how we can all find some breathing weather for life in general.

Trenton, NJ, set a record with 108 degrees, Alaska with 97 degrees. Wow.http://www.ouramazingplanet.com/50-states-set-july-hot-weather-records-1812/

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

I Kissed the Hibiscus



It’s hibiscus season again. The plants in my backyard (and side yard as shown) are in full, incredible bloom! I have seen various flowering plants – I understand there are over 200 varieties – but each year these come up with blossoms that knock my socks off. It’s quite a display for a plant whose name means “delicate beauty.” Perhaps that refers less to the physical characteristics of the hibiscus than to its essence. Lots of benefits have been ascribed to the hibiscus.

Have you ever had hibiscus tea? I must have. It’s pretty hard not to have tasted it. Hibiscus is in lots of herbal teas and comes available with blueberry, coconut, vanilla, pineapple, even sangria flavors among others. Yogi Tea, Tazo, Republic of Tea, Stash, even Lipton all have hibiscus varieties.

Have you shampooed with the flower? I haven’t but it is tempting. It supposedly nourishes hair and slows premature graying (a little late for me, there). I wonder if it colors the hair. This might be something to experiment with.

Have you eaten hibiscus? No, not yet, though I have eaten nasturtiums. I’ve been reading that the flowers can be added to salads, is available as hibiscus honey and syrup, and can be made into tea at home.

Have you used hibiscus medicinally? Can’t say I have. This needs looking into. The plant has a long history of medical use. Claims have been made for its use as an antioxident, as a help in keeping the digestive tract functioning regularly, can help in weight loss, etc. There’s quite a long list of healthy possibilities.

Have you kissed a hibiscus flower? I did yesterday, in appreciation. What a pleasure to have this dazzling plant growing in my yard. I kissed the hibiscus not because of its useful values, which seem to be extensive, but because of its nature. It is what it is and can be appreciated on many levels. Even on the most obvious one – its delicate beauty.

What does hibiscus mean? http://www.flower-meaning.info/hibiscus.php

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Garden State



Around this time of year I am really happy to be a resident of New Jersey. We have such incredible produce. New Jersey tomatoes, corn, and blueberries are abundant. Of course there are early asparagus and strawberries, and then lettuce, broccoli, garlic, eggplants, cucumbers, spinach, peaches, apples, cherries, pears, plums, and more. Later come the cranberries and pumpkins. There are lots of pick-your-own farms, some organic, for the freshest produce possible and even more farm markets for the next best thing. And more supermarkets are carrying local produce from farms around the state.

This year we planted tomatoes, three different Jersey varieties, in my side yard. Yesterday I harvested the first one! It was warm in my hand as I gently tugged it off its stem. It felt as if I was holding sunshine. The watermelon vine we planted at the same time is slowly snaking its way around the plot which already seems way too small for it; if it produces viable fruit, next year we will offer its successor more space. We are learning, going back to our roots, so to speak. After all, our house sits on what was once a potato field.

One of the state nicknames is The Garden State, well earned I believe. There are others to reflect different times in the state’s history and development, not always flattering. But then everything is flexible, even states. People change, society shifts, culture moves along. I seem to have as well, from former city girl to harvester of Jersey tomatoes, in my New Jersey garden. Nice.

More historic nicknames for New Jersey: http://www.netstate.com/states/intro/nj_intro.htm

Monday, July 11, 2011

Mama Mallard



Meet Mama Mallard with two of her four beautiful ducklings. They live on a pond in the midst of a townhouse development, across from a shopping mall. They were strolling near a backyard patio oblivious to me and the others sitting there. Or rather unconcerned with us; I guess they are used to having people around. I spoke softly to her, complimenting her on her lovely family. She waddled over and looked at me. Then the ducklings came, too, and scrambled around the tile and pulled at the grasses on the edge. They settled in for a little nap on a tuft of grass about five feet away. Mama Mallard was vigilent while the babies slept. And then it was time to move on. Mama started walking and quietly quacked. The babies roused and followed her in single file. Papa Mallard joined them, his green head glistening with iridescence and his body language showed pride.

“Congratulations,” I called out. I got a “Quack” in response. “You’re the Duck Whisperer,” said one of my patio companions. “They were responding to you!”

It wasn’t the first time other beings have responded to soft talk: a llama in Machu Pichu, seagulls on the beach, a rabbit in my backyard. Why shouldn’t they? We talk to our pets and expect them to respond. I think all creatures respond to gentle intention. Babies certainly do, why not ducklings? The language may be foreign but the way something is said, the tone and spirit, we all can understand. Gentleness and respect work wonders. Wouldn’t it be great if we remember that when we speak to each other?

Fun notes about Mallards - for the kid in all of us:
http://www.ducksters.com/animals/mallardduck.php

Monday, July 4, 2011

Sunflowers - I Hope



I guess it was inevitable that we have sunflowers in our backyard. We buy black oil sunflower seeds for our visiting birds. Their table manners are questionable and there is a carpet of shells and some discarded seeds underneath the feeders, which is where this little one is growing.

There is irony here. We have planted seeds in the past in various parts of the garden with all expectations of exuberant, large, enticing flower but they were always decimated by our local critters before we got one full blossom. So we stopped trying. Now, of its own accord, a sunflower is growing. It must like the soil better than that in our garden though it seems that sunflowers are not all that difficult to grow. And there are many varieties from giant to mini.

Perhaps it is better this way. We appreciate the flower all the more for its survival. The flower, with petals so cheery it’s hard not to smile when I see it, is a treat in itself. And then there are the seeds - who hasn’t crunched a seed or two or more (lots more)? I hope this one makes it to full, seed expression. But even if it doesn’t I know that it is helping to the backyard community. It has my good wishes for a healthy, seedful life.

Have any recipes to share?

All about sunflowers:
http://www.gardenersnet.com/vegetable/sunflowr.htmSome nutrition facts about the seeds: http://vegetarian.lovetoknow.com/Sunflower_Seeds_Nutrition

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Blueberry Surprise



We went to pick blueberries this weekend. New Jersey is known for its blueberries (also cranberries, corn, and tomatoes). The bushes were spread out in long rows and every row had its devotees. It’s easy for families to bring their children blueberry picking. The bushes are low enough for small hands to contribute to the gathering. And there were children galore, happily pointing out the best bushes. In truth, all the bushes were best.

We picked lots of fat, ripe berries, almost eight pounds, but not nearly as much as the family before us in line. They picked about thirty pounds. With two extra pairs of hands the picking really picked up. It reminded me of taking our own children blueberry picking; it was an adventure as much as a functional trip. You never could tell what would happen. My very first published article was about a local blueberry field we visited as a family. It was a surprise that jump-started my writing career. And this day, too, brought a surprise, though not as dramatic.

Take a close look through the leaves of the photo. There is a mommy sparrow nestled in the blueberry bush. She’s hard to see but there she is, sitting on her eggs. Even though people kept pointing to her and talking close by, she didn’t move. No one, not even the young children who were entranced by the nest, did anything to frighten her.

The farmer knew about the sparrow and said she was used to people. This was an organic farm so he wasn’t worried about the health of the birds. He also told us that he has no trouble with critters stealing his crop. Because he doesn’t use artificial chemicals the red tailed hawks found their way to the farm and established a nest. It didn’t take long for the squirrels and rabbits to size up the situation, being a hawk’s food source, and hightail it to safer places.

I like that no pesticides were used; I try to buy organic as much as possible. To me organic tastes better. And these berries were no different. So far they have been 1) cooked in a blueberry cobbler, 2) sprinkled on top of homemade granola, and 3) eaten by the handful all by themselves. They are terrific!

Are you interested in organic blueberries? If you live in New Jersey, here is the farm we picked at: http://www.emerysfarm.com/index.html There are many pick-your-own farms across the country. This site directs you (Organic PYOs are indicated in green) state-by-state http://www.pickyourown.org/

Monday, June 20, 2011

Sweer Basil, Delicious Herb



Sweet Basil, yum. What a delicious herb. It is great in lots of dishes. It gives a mouth-pleasing taste when added to almost any sauce. Sautéed in cold pressed virgin olive with garlic and a variety of veggies (I love red peppers, onions, and zucchini) and mixed in with any kind of pasta, it makes a very satisfying meal. Toss some chopped basil onto a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich and see how it perks things up.

In researching the herb I discovered other wonderful things about it. I found out that, being a member of the mint family (who knew?), it is recommended for helping digestion. A cup of basil tea is very soothing. It seems that basil has a slight sedative property as well.

All this and a beautiful plant, too. The leaves are deep, vibrant green. Just gently touch them and you will release the sweet basil fragrance. Very pleasing. They are fairly resilient, too. If they wilt from too little water, just give them a drink and they’ll revive. During those 90 degree days my poor plant was panting for water. One morning when I went to check on it, I thought it was a goner. The leaves were completely wilted and the stems were bending and weak. Some diligent watering brought everything back to vibrant life.

Here’s a puzzler: Someone I know remembered his Italian grandmother telling him that it is best to pick the leaves toward the end of the day because that is when the oils have reached the leaves and the taste is strongest. Did anyone else hear that? Is it true?

Some basic basil info:http://ohioline.osu.edu/hyg-fact/1000/1644.html

Monday, June 13, 2011

Prickly Pear Beauty




Several years ago I visited the shore house of one of my yoga students. She had a patch of prickly pear cactus growing on the side of her house. They were blossoming and I thought how exquisite the flowers were and how unexpected from such a harsh plant. She gave me a piece of the cactus, which I planted in my side yard. Over the years it grew slowly, putting out a few buds and a flower or two but this year…the cactus is in full bloom! I can only imagine what the desert must be like when the various cacti are blooming.

Besides the beauty of its flowers, though, this is a surprisingly beneficial plant. It is a complex carbohydrate food whose various parts may be eaten. The pads are vegetable-like with a green bean quality and okra texture, the flowers impart fruity tastes and can be made into candy or jelly, and when cooked down the nectar can provide an alcoholic kick (tequilas anyone?). It has medicinal qualities, too, that may in lower cholesterol and regulate glucose in diabetics; the sap is like aloe vera and can be used to soothe burned or irritated skin. But it is called prickly pear for a reason. The spines can hurt and can be hard to remove from unprotected skin.

I am not inclined toward anything except admiration right now so I’ll be careful and keep my distance. It is an interesting plant to ponder on, though. It’s beautiful but dangerous. It looks so plain until it flowers but what a wealth it is hiding. And one wouldn’t think that a cactus would survive in this northeastern environment yet here it is, bursting with life. A beautiful reminder of the mystery of nature.

Here are some more photos of prickly pears from the Google files:
Images for prickly pear cactus

Monday, June 6, 2011

African Violets



My mother-in-law loved African violets. Over the years she propagated hundreds, if not thousands, of plants. She had grow lights above rows and rows of pots. The flowers glowed in various shades of pink, purple, lavender, and blue. Some plants had white flowers with purple ruffled edges, some had double pedaled blossoms. I was surprised at the variety of possibilities that existed. She insisted on keeping the plants small, though I have seen plants that bloomed in twelve-inch pots, diligently removing any stray outcroppings and paring the stems to keep them contained. She was a faithful member of the African violet Society where she lived in Arizona, attending their shows and displaying her plants. Raising the violets was less of a hobby than a passion.

I can’t say that I am as enamored of African Violets as she was, but I have come to appreciate their delicate beauty. I have one plant out of the many she gave me over the years that still survives. It was doing well and then I moved it to another space in the house that it didn’t seem to like as much. It drooped and I thought I would surely lose it. I took leaf cuttings and am trying to resurrect it. When roots sprout I will repot it and return it to its original location. In the meantime, I have a store-bought plant is flowering and makes me smile. I don’t think I will ever be as good an African violet cultivator as Mom was but I am grateful that she helped me to see the fine quality of this tiny bit of nature.

Here is just about everything you need to know about the care and cultivation of African violets. Feel free to share your experiences with this lovely plant. http://www.uri.edu/ce/factsheets/sheets/africanviolet.html http://www.extension.iastate.edu/publications/rg322.pdf

Monday, May 30, 2011

Geese at the Library



Where are these geese going? There is no water available, no food. They are in a busy parking lot, a dangerous place for geese. And where is their flock?

Geese are all over lately. I see them walking across busy streets, exhibiting not a care in the world. It’s common to see a line of geese in spring – goslings in the middle, mom and dad front and back – taking strolls. Cars stop, fortunately, to let them pass. Sometimes a whole line of cars on both sides of the road will sit patiently to let them amble across. It has become a frequent site in my community as more geese are staying around. Geese Crossing signs have joined the signs that warn of ducks and deer.

Geese mate for life so this was probably a mating pair. Nesting time is March through May. It would make sense that they would be looking for a good place to raise their young. But in a parking lot? Surely there must be a better site for a nest.

But then - they are in the public library parking lot. I am, too, which is why I discovered them here. Maybe they came for a copy of Petunia by Roger Duvoisin or Gossie by Olivier Dunrea to read to the babies they plan to have. Or perhaps they are a young couple seeking a how-to on nest building. I’m sure the librarians will be able to help; they always help me when I have a question.

I came out of the library with an armful of books and looked around for the geese. They had gone. I hadn’t seen them in the fiction stacks but then they might have gone directly to the children’s section. I wished them well. I’ll remember to tell my grandchildren about the geese at the library the next time they visit.

Are you looking for a good children’s book about geese? Here are some fine choices:
http://www.librarything.com/tag/geese

and how about some info?http://www.veganpeace.com/animal_facts/Geese.htm

Monday, May 23, 2011

Smoke Tree



A few years ago we were looking for a small tree for a particular spot in our backyard. We found a smoke tree in the nursery and chose it because of its deep, purple leaves. It had tiny flowers that grew in groups and added to its allure. We didn’t understand why it got the name smoke tree until the flowers matured; then it was obvious. The cluster of flowers looked like puffs of smoke. Quite an ethereal effect.

It is a versatile plant. It can be a tree that grows about 12 - 15 feet or trimmed to be a shrub – several make for a nice border hedge. It tolerates a variety of soils and actually prefers dry feet to being over-watered. The color of its leaves varies depending on the amount of sun it receives, although it thrives in full sun or partial shade. We liked it so much that this year we bought another one to plant on the other side of our yard.

I like the quality of illusion of the smoke tree. What you see is not really what is there. And what is there, your mind really doesn’t see. So much like life where things are hidden within plain sight. Even with this lovely tree, I found out that the seeds are poisonous to small animals and handling it can be an irritant to one’s skin. Beauty vs. the beast. It keeps things interesting.


Here’s a brief look at the smoke tree:http://www.rainyside.com/features/plant_gallery/shrubs/Cotinus_coggygriaRoyalPurple.html

Monday, May 16, 2011

Peter Rabbit's Relatives



I thought I had it made. I bought a flat of organic broccoli plants and left it out back before planting the veggies in the side garden. My husband kindly watered it each morning and the leaves were flourishing. I was somewhat concerned that the squirrels would get to the plants before I did but I watched them sniff at the flat and then move on. They didn’t seem interested in broccoli at all. Was this, finally, something I could grow without interference?

Then one morning there were a only couple of munched leaves and then nothing. Just one skinny, leafless, truncated stem in an otherwise empty container. I was ready to vilify those squirrels when I saw one sniff the pathetic stem and leave it alone. Hmm. Maybe they weren’t the culprits. If the squirrels didn’t eat the plants, what did?

“The bunnies are back,” my husband said. “I saw a couple of them in the front yard.”

Aha. Peter Rabbit’s relatives. I usually love to see rabbits around. They are particularly charming animals. I remember the time when I was down on the lawn weeding and a young rabbit nibbled his way through the clover to within a few feet of where I was working. We looked at each other and peacefully continued our tasks. There we were, just two of nature’s creatures companionably doing our own things. But now…

I wouldn’t do anything harmful to rabbits though I would certainly like to have my vegetables able to grow. With fingers crossed, and a cage or two, we planted a watermelon vine and some tomatoes. I know rabbits have to eat, too, but I should think there is enough grass, clover, wild strawberries, and sunflower seeds to keep their tummies happy. I silently sent a message, Stay away bunnies. I would hate to have to call on Farmer McGregor for help. On second thought, maybe a fence will do.

The humane society is the best Farmer McGregor if you have rabbit problems:http://www.humanesociety.org/animals/rabbits/tips/solving_problems_rabbits.html

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Tulips Today

Today I was noticing that there is an abundance of tulips around here: deep purple (almost black) flowers down the street, red and yellow ones up the block, and a riotous display a short distance away. Tulips appear early in spring, sharing that distinction with crocuses and daffodils though there are later blooming varieties that come up in April and May. Most people associate tulips with Holland but the flowers originally came from Turkey where they were named “tulbend” or turban because they were thought to look like the traditional Turkish hats.

Tulips are welcome the world over, with more than enough varieties to satisfy any taste. The colors have been overlaid with meanings, mostly having to do with love and relationships: red for passionate love, yellow, once thought to signify hopeless love now represents cheerfulness, pink is for well wishes, white for forgiveness. And purple, of course, is for royalty. Even so, there are layers of meaning for each color and florists tend to be sensitive to them as tulips are popular holiday favorites.

I find tulips uplifting. They help announce the end of the cold and sometimes harsh winter, for one thing. There is nothing like their vivid splash of color to awaken the senses. They also remind me of the mystery of the hidden, their bulbs enfolding their essence to be appreciated upon flowering. And how fascinating to know that even when the earth is frosty there is life continuing. Tulips as metaphors? Why not? Inspiration is everywhere if we look for it.

http://tulipcaretips.com/cultivation/growing-tulips-life-cycle-facts-you-should-know

Monday, April 25, 2011

Glorious Goldfinch



I saw my first goldfinch in the Berkshires hills in Massachusetts. How glorious it was – neon against the deep green pines. I think it helped awaken me to the joy of observing birds. Now I see goldfinches regularly on the feeders each spring; it is the New Jersey state bird. Familiarity does not diminish its impact, however. This is one beautiful bird! The male, of course, is the most brilliantly colored in it eye-catching golden yellow. It is hard for this bird to hide in the bushes. The female is less vibrantly colored though not without interest. She is a dusky yellow that requires a moment to define yet still is lovely.

They are seed eaters. I know they like thistle seeds but they seem pretty happy eating the black oil sunflower seeds that we provide all year round. Sometimes we have several goldfinch families vying for seed on the feeders. They are sociable birds and gather in groups. They hang out with the house finches, too.

Goldfinches build nests a little later than most birds because that’s when the seeds ripen. We discovered a nest about five feet off the ground, tucked into the branches of our forsythia bush. We kept a respectful distance until the nest was empty but then it was a welcome reminder all through the snowy winter that no matter the weather spring, and nests, will come again.


The male goldfinch is easy to spot if you want to interest kids in bird watching. Here is a free printable coloring page for the kids: http://www.friendsacrossamerica.com/colorstatenjbirdflower.html

Monday, April 18, 2011

Easter Cactus


My Easter cactus is in bloom. It is a delight to see the bright pink flowers opening up on my windowsill. And it’s right on time, an April bloomer. As usual, I have been somewhat lackadaisical in my stewardship of the plant. Only after it sent out buds did I check it out. I learned it likes a loose, fairly coarse soil with dry feet so it doesn’t get root rot. It is advised that the plant be placed on a dish with pebbles and watered that way. The cactus thrives in indirect sunlight. It appreciates being fertilized once a month between spring and fall. After its growing period it is best to give it a winter rest in a cool place with minimal watering.


Okay, what did I do that was right? Well, not much. There was no pebble-dish for my plant – I watered it when the soil on top felt dry. But its feet were probably dry because the water must have been pretty much absorbed by the time it got down there. I fertilized it when I remembered rather than on a schedule. There was no official rest period for my cactus; it remained on the windowsill all year. It got the right kind of indirect sunlight, however, as my windowsill faces north. How, I wondered, did this poor plant survive no less put out such beautiful flowers?


I remember an experiment I did with a friend. We each potted two plants, put them in the same place, and watered them equally. The only difference was that we nurtured one plant more than the other, talking to it, caressing its leaves, sending it our best wishes. Both of us found the same results, the nurtured plant thrived while the other one just maintained itself. I realize that I have been doing the same kind of nurturing with my Easter cactus, appreciating it even as I didn’t follow the prescribed care. And it thrives.


Maybe rules don’t count as much as intention. Would all people thrive if we offered them basic needs and appreciation? In our contentious world there often isn’t room for nurturing or acceptance of differences. Common wisdom for the Easter cactus wasn’t what helped the plant grow but grow and flower it did. I wish every person, in every culture, in every country be giving the liberty to thrive. It’s a good time of year for us all to blossom.

Monday, April 11, 2011

For Eloise


For Eloise I usually blog about what is going on around me – in my backyard, my neighborhood, places I visit and things I hear about. Today I have to blog closer to home. I may have mentioned my cockatiel Eloise. On April1, she turned twenty-two; on April 10 she passed into birdie heaven.


That is a long life for a cockatiel; most live 12-15 years though I did hear of a bird that lived to be twenty-six. We were aware that she was beginning to show signs of age. She hadn’t been flying as much lately and when she did, she often got lost and had to be rescued. Her food choices changed. She used to love vegetables (she preferred red-leaf lettuce to romaine) and fruits (she would dance back and forth on her perch when watermelon was being served) but she began to ignore anything wet or soft, favoring crunchy things. And she stopped wanting to do her usual things such as roosting on the railing of my chair in the kitchen to share my lunchtime crackers or keeping my husband company on his shoulder (she liked him best) while he read the morning newspaper. I always knew when my husband was about to come home because Eloise would chirp loudly and, sure enough, shortly thereafter he would pull into the driveway. I became aware recently that she stopped chirping at his approach.


We knew she was winding down but she was still pretty perky and interacted with us. Shortly after her birthday Eloise started to seriously decline. She was always free to leave her cage though she began to spend more time inside and when she left tried to fly, she went down to the floor and could not fly back up. My husband or I would gently lift her and she would scramble back on the bars. Eloise had always been a family-conscious bird. Even though I fed her first, she would wait until we were both seated at the table before she would dig into her own dish; suddenly she was eating before us or ignoring her food altogether. Then she started wanting to spend more time with me, a distinct shift from her fixation on my husband. She would let me gently pet her, a previous no-no, and lay her head against neck when I stood beside her cage. Her chirps changed, too. They became weaker and of a different quality, almost like a plea for me to come over and be with her, which I usually did.


On Saturday, Eloise made a sound that made me put aside what I was doing and rush over to her. She instantly stepped off the top of her cage and onto my shoulder. Then she snuggled against my neck and stayed there. It seemed to comfort her. If I moved, she moved – to get even closer. I spent much of the afternoon and all of the evening with her pressed tightly against me. At bedtime, we gently put her in her cage and said goodnight, wondering if she would be there to greet us the next day.


Eloise was down on the bottom of her cage in the morning. She had died in the wee hours by herself. I was feeling sad about her death but also about not being there when she died. But then I remembered that people often wait until they are alone before they depart. We buried her lovingly, already missing her. She had been a long-term companion. I hoped that we gave her as much as she gave us, that she felt loved and cherished during her life.


I am sure that many of ,you have loved animals or birds. Please feel free to share your stories.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Airplane in the Plum Tree


Last fall a neighbor’s preteen son got his toy airplane tangled up in the ornamental flowering plum tree in our front yard. I came outside to see him and three friends on my lawn shouting and throwing sticks and stones into the branches. They succeeded in dislodging lots of leaves and a couple of twigs but the plane remained in place. I didn’t want them to be disappointed but I also didn’t want my poor tree harmed. One of the boys had been vigorously climbing among the branches and the wood was bending. I did some shouting myself, demanding that the boy get down before he got hurt. Although the tree is not a sapling, it is delicate and not used to holding that kind of weight. I assured them that when my husband came home we would get out our ladder and rescue the plane. By early evening we did get the plane down and I returned it. We had been very careful not to damage the toy though I wasn’t so sure about the state of the tree after its ordeal.


Now it’s spring and the tree is beginning to blossom. There are pink buds on all the branches but there are also snapped-off edges to some of the limbs that give evidence to the fall’s trauma. Trees must have hearty souls. The Bradford Pear in the yard next door lost half of itself, a large trunk’s worth, during a storm yet it is sealed off the damage and is flowering. The township cuts large gaps in the trees that grow around utility lines and the trees, even in their truncated state, continue to send out leaves.


I respect trees. Their variety is incredible and their strength inspiring. Trees feed us and shade us and provide beauty of form, color, and perseverance. They even support housing for lots of creatures and when they are harvested, housing for us as well. I guess I needn’t have worried about my little plum tree; it can take look out for itself. But I do hope it knows that I care.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Robins are Back


The robins are back! They are the traditional announcement of spring. A few of them have found my backyard where they gather to munch earthworms underneath the bird feeders. They scratch the ground and pluck the worms up with their beaks, a food they seem to relish though they get most of their diet from bugs and berries. I’m lucky there are only a few: robins because they often roost in great numbers. I remember seeing a stand of trees leading to my father’s apartment complex completely covered with robins.


This robin flew into my peach tree after a hearty lunch and seems to be scoping out the surroundings. I think it’s a male because of its darker red coloring. There is probably a female somewhere nearby; this is breeding season. I will carefully look for a nest, no doubt hidden in the branches of my overgrown forsythia bush. Robins can have two or three successful broods. Their blue eggs are vibrant and beautiful. But I say carefully because robins are known to dive-bomb a snooper to protect the nest.


I like the idea of nature’s yearly repetition - April showers, May flowers, and robins in the spring. There is something comforting in anticipating the cycle, in remembering that even as things change, they are also somewhat predictable. I know that not everyone has the same seasonal signals but they may have robins. These birds are prevalent all over America. Maybe that’s why the bird is called the American Robin.


Monday, March 21, 2011

Daffy for Daffodils



I’m daffy for daffodils. When their leaves peek through the crusty winter soil I am reminded that warmer weather is approaching, that spring is about to kiss the waiting bulbs and early blooming flowers into life, and the earth is renewing itself once more. The tall, spiky deep green leaves that defied snowflakes and sudden cold snaps are fuller and robust now. The buds, elongated hints of anticipated blossoms, tempt me to get out my gardening tools and play in the dirt. And now…voila! The daffodils are open. The corona reaches out like a trumpet to herald spring. There is nothing quite like that golden yellow to perk up the spirit.

Of course, there are other colors to delight us as well. There are even miniature daffys, if you prefer. According to the American Daffodil Society there are between 40 and 200 daffodil species and over 25,000 hybrids! The ADS puts out a lot of information about daffodils on their website http://www.daffodilusa.org/daffodils/faq.html and they also have a journal. I learned that narcissus is the Latin or biological name for daffodils but there is no difference.

But there are many things that excite me about daffodils. The color, yes. The early blooming, certainly. Then there is their persistence. I thought I had raised all the bulbs in my side yard to replant in another location but they are back through bulb division that I didn’t catch and I’m glad; they are so cheerful. And even better, the squirrels (I apologize for talking about them yet again) don’t seem to eat them! We don’t have tulips but we always have daffodils. How great is that?

Here is a picture of my daffodils. Feel free to post photos of your own.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Pick a Pack of Pansies



I’m getting ready. I bought a pack of pansies. It was an impulse purchase at my local supermarket. How could I resist those smiling flowers? They made me forget that I had to run from my car through a chilling rain. They flaunted their colors: pink and purple, a dusky maroon and shy, dawning yellow. I chose purple, a regal color.

Pansies are interesting flowers that come full of meaning. The word pansy is from the French pensee, which means thoughts and remembrance. It is most often associated with loved ones, those currently in your heart and those who have passed away.

They are practical, too. They bloom prolifically from spring until fall, adding vibrant color and fun to a garden. Although they look delicate they are rather hardy and make great borders. Pansies, particularly the yellow and blue variety, have a pleasing perfume-y aroma and both the flowers and petals are edible.

For me they, like the crocuses that just came up in my front yard and the robins who made a brief appearance in my back yard, are harbingers of spring. I am looking forward to the rebirth of my perennials and to planting some new annual guests. They all remind me of the cycle of seasons, the renewal of life. Yes, I’m getting ready. For planting. For spring.



Monday, March 7, 2011

You Lookin’ at Me?

I haven’t written about squirrels in about, oh, four minutes. But they keep coming up with stuff I can’t ignore. This little guy was running up and down the pole beneath the baffle. Sometimes all we could see was his tail hanging out of the tube, sometimes his head would be poking down. He stopped midway with a “You lookin’ at me?” expression that made my husband run for his camera. This wasn’t the fearful “hide from the hawk” kind of action. Nor was it the “how can I get the seed?” dilemma. He was hanging on with attitude. Expressing entitlement. This baffle was his and we had better not challenge that!

Okay, then. We have lived with this kind of furry brazenness for quite a while now and it doesn’t intimidate us. (Hear that Squirrel?) Only it is coming up to spring and I start to browse the garden catalogs with, if not trepidation, a tad bit of nervousness. Squirrels have challenged everything I have planted. As I mentioned before, we have yet to enjoy one single peach from our lovely little tree. Once a squirrel sat munching on a beautifully formed green pepper while he stared me down. These guys don’t seem to like my basil plants but they dig them up anyway. I could almost imagine them snickering (“Heh, heh, this’ll get her!”) before I bolted out the back door yelling at them to leave those pots alone!

This year I am thinking of trying some patio gardening – blueberries, dwarf cherries, tomatoes. Maybe if I see the critters eyeing the goodies I can move the pots to another location to confuse them. (“As if!”) Did someone say something? Anyway, at the risk of my best laid plans going awry, I will be out there with springtime expectations and squirrel awareness. Those cherries look so darn delicious. This year, squirrels, I will have a harvest! (I hope.)

Any thoughts about squirrel-proofing a garden?

Monday, February 28, 2011

February? March? April?


What a crazy month February has been! We had snow. There were temperatures in the teens. Then it warmed up. Friday the wind was whipping through with hurricane force. (Isn’t wind supposed to be a March feature?) Now the weatherpeople are telling us to expect, on the last February day, torrential rain. (April showers, anyone?) So on Sunday before the rain and after the wind and possibly in the middle of what is most likely a weather aberration, I am outside with no coat, enjoying the sunshine on a spring-like afternoon.

Punxatawney Phil, that famous groundhog predictor of when spring will arrive, came out of his burrow on Groundhog’s Day at Cobbler’s Knob in Punxatawney, PA and did not see his shadow. This supposedly means that we will have an early spring. My daffodils must believe it; they are sending up leaves. There are buds on the bushes and hints of greenery on most of the trees. They are taking their chances. I remember snowstorms as late as early April and surprise frosts when the calendar said it was officially spring. But I know that plants have their own timetable more dependent on the light and the earth’s axis than on the weather channel.

That doesn’t stop me from appreciating the day as it is, from being in my backyard, talking to the plants, pruning the dead wood, anticipating what I will do in the garden. It doesn’t stop my neighbors either. The kids across the street are shooting hoops, the girls next door are out in their leotards, back from dancing, without a coat in sight. I see strollers on the street and hear the joy of outdoor life. I think the variability of the weather adds awareness to our activities. I know it helps me focus on the present moment – and on this penultimate day in February it was delightful.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Green Acres


This is a Green Acres site. Right now there isn’t much green to be seen; winter is still having its way with us, though it teases with an occasional spring-like day. But the trees will soon send out leaves, the wildflowers will bloom, and the bare land will be dressed in green again This particular acreage is situated along a busy roadway in Marlton, New Jersey.

Green Acres is a program that preserves natural spaces for public use or safeguards the natural environment from development. It depends upon both public and private partners. So far over 640,000 acres have been protected in New Jersey alone.

There has been so much development over the past decades that woodlands and farms now are likely to be housing developments or malls. So I love to see these signs that are popping up in many towns. Part of horse farm has been preserved and its flattened fields replanted with evergreens. A family farm continues to as a working farm though it is surrounded by housing developments. A field became a place for local teams to practice and compete. Small plots of land are sometimes donated and may end up as larger pieces as contiguous acreage is added.

I think it is important to maintain a mixture of land usages within a town. Parks for people to stroll in, jog though, or refresh themselves. Historical sites preserved for residents to have a sense of the history of their surroundings. Wild, natural, places to elevate our spirits and remind us of our connection with the rest of the natural world. Green Acres seems to me a good thing, something respectful in a world in which respect is often hard to come by.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Spring-Dreaming


The snow seems to have stopped for now. Today is meant to be close to sixty. The layers of ice that coated the streets are reluctantly melting and the piles of icy white are pulling back from lawns and parking lots all around town. Spring daydreams are interrupting my work; I sense March in the gusts of wind that rattle against my office window.

But not to get too far ahead of myself, I saw this barren nest in the low branches of a tree not yet convinced that it is time to send out its foliage. A wise decision, I think, as I listen to the latest weather report. The temperature is going to drop down to the twenties tonight.

This time of year is fickle. Almost as if Mother Nature can’t decide what to wear. I can relate. Winter jacket or fleece? Corduroy or linen? Long sleeves, short sleeves, sweaters, or Tees? And the nest? Will it be occupied by the same mother bird for a new batch of feathered babies or is it truly abandoned, left to fray to pieces over the course of the year?

The shifting of seasons is a time for observation. Here in the northeast, because of being in a geographical place that experiences four seasons, we have plenty of opportunities to contemplate the vagaries of nature, indeed, of our own imaginings. When things stay the same our thoughts tend to as well. Throw in a little snow and the neighbors come out to play. Let spring showers drench the soil and we hunger to plant a vegetable garden. Summer heat sends us to the shore, fall leaves turn us inward.

I think I saw a young cardinal on the feeder this morning. It seems a tad early for fledglings to be about but maybe not, maybe mommy birds are spring-dreaming, too. Are you?

Monday, February 7, 2011

Fog, Shmog


Last week there was fog. Lots of it. Neighborhood after neighborhood peeked out from behind its curtain and traffic lights emitted radiant glows as the fog cast auras around them.

Yes, I know that fog causes a decrease in visibility and can make driving dangerous. I also know that it blurs everything into a colorless mass of gray. The composition of fog is ordinary – dewy water droplets, sometimes icy crystals, hanging in the air. Fog, shmog, you say. What is the big deal about fog? It’s only a cloud, after all, that’s close to the ground.

Ah, but that is exactly the big deal. Fog says, SlowDown! Certainly for safety when driving; I don’t want to minimize the need for caution. It is more than that, though. A cloud is something mysterious. Fog tends to slow down our automatic assessment of what we normally see and perhaps our judgments of those things. It makes us pay attention, to be alert to the unexpected, sometimes for our personal safety. Yet conversely, it feeds our often-repressed inner child’s imagination. What might be hidden in the haze? A castle, perhaps, with a princess in a lofty tower. A parade marching by with the sound of its drums and excitement muffled (are those children on the sidewalk holding red and yellow balloons and cheering?). Where is that unicorn going?

Then there is the sheer beauty of a foggy day. It’s hard not to be captivated by how a fog hints at things, begging us – daring us – to fill in the blanks. Here are some captivating photos: http://www.terragalleria.com/pictures-subjects/fog/fog.9.html and some fog info as well www.crh.noaa.gov/jkl/?n=fog_types
As Carl Sandburg wrote: The fog comes on little cat feet...
Intriguing, isn't it?

Monday, January 31, 2011

The Survival of the Cleverest


Crash! Bam! I heard a lot of banging against the windows in my kitchen, dining room, and smack into the glass panel of my back door. It startled me the first time this happened but by now it is somewhat common and I know what it means: a hawk is on the prowl. The birds take off from the feeders and bushes, from their comfortable perches on the roof, and head into what looks like clear space in their panicked flight to escape. I am always surprised that they don’t give themselves concussions, they hit that hard, though I haven’t yet seen any bird lying zonked out on the ground.

As usual, I ran to the window to check out the drama. Creatures were scattering everywhere in mad disarray. What surprised me though, was what the squirrels were doing. One of them looked up at the sky, then dashed onto the bare limbs of the butterfly bush under a canopy of concealing snow. Another wiggled its way between the seed pails we keep on the patio and blended into the shadows. The most intriguing of all, however, was the squirrel who found an alternative use for the baffles we put up to keep exactly those critters off the bird feeders. This one shimmied up the pole and into the tube. Normally, if they are just investigating the possibility of getting up to the feeders that way, they soon see the futility of it and come right down. This time the squirrel stayed silent and hidden with all of its parts tucked tightly inside.

Sure enough, I saw the hawk whip through the backyard, its wings spread wide but nothing in its talons. It took off beyond the tulip tree to parts unknown. The squirrel in the baffle slowly peeked under the tube and looked around. No hawk. It slid down and started eating the seeds that had fallen from the feeders. And then everyone returned to resume what they had been doing before the alarm went off.

I thought of Darwin and the survival of the fittest theory. The scene I had just witnessed made me re-think what the fittest means. Is it the most physically fit, the strongest? Is it the most adaptable gene pool? Perhaps it refers to a superior mental agility. Maybe it’s all of the above. Certainly, in this case, survival was due to some very clever actions. It makes me wonder how over the years scientists could discount the thought process in animals. That seems to be changing. I hope so. This was an impressive display of individual problem solving and what clearly seems an example of the survival of the cleverest.
I am sure I’m not the only one to witness the actions of some very clever animals. If you have, too, share what you’ve seen with us.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Legacy of Snow


What a winter we’re having. Snow, on and off, and cold, cold, cold. Last week we had just a thin covering of the white stuff but it was still enough to play in. Or maybe not. Are the kids, are we, getting jaded? The major (so far) snowfall brought out the shovels, serious work for adults and fun help for kids. The big storm yielded snowmen on front lawns, with traditional carrot noses. The medium one was good for stomping through piles of slush. This little one, well, it seemed to be ignored. All it was good for was brushing off the car and watching it evaporate as the day wore on. This week a combination of rain and snow is predicted here; not much fun.

I remember the huge snowstorms of my childhood or maybe they just seemed big to me. My friends and I made snow forts and threw snowballs at each other. We took out our pails and constructed snow castles with turrets and protective snow walls. If the snow was high enough, we dug tunnels snaking through them from our house to the neighbor’s.

Then it was my children’s turn. They dragged their sleds, one yank at a time, up and down the street or found hills to roll down. Mugs of hot chocolate steamed in the kitchen impatiently waiting for them but it was too tempting to make one more snow angel before coming inside.

I hope the frequency and the inconsistent quality of the snow won’t ruin the joy of it for the kids this year. For an adult, it is often seen as a nuisance; it shouldn’t be for children. How wondrous to have the sky slowly drift down to change the landscape from everyday to magical, to blur the absolute with a delicate coating of possibility, to kiss a cheek with just a hint of a story and then disappear. Let’s awaken every purple pail from the pile of slumbering beach gear to join in the adventure and re-purpose each sled or pot lid or trash can cover to serve the cause of fun. And may we all appreciate, and delight in, the altered state of mind that is the legacy of snow.