Sunday, December 29, 2013

Ghost Cat

Ghost Cat

I was looking out my back door, debating if I wanted to go out. There were lots of things to do at the end of the year, backyard-wise. I could cut back the dead hibiscus stalks. The dried hydrangea flowers rebuked me for not having taken advantage of their beauty when they were full and vibrant and I should pull them off. The withered tomato vines were still in the garden.  Yet, I stood there doing nothing. The day was cold and gloomy. Why bother going out when it was so much better inside?

That’s when I saw it – the ghost cat. I had never seen such a fully white cat before. It was hustling through as if it was on a mission. I opened the door and called out, “Hey, cat!” It looked over at me for a nanosecond before continuing on its way. We grabbed a photo of it just before it disappeared into the neighbor’s yard.

Was it an albino cat or just a white one? I wasn’t close enough to see. An albino lacks pigment so its eyes seem pink, reflecting the blood vessels inside, and its skin is pink, too. Where did this cat come from? I hadn’t seen it before. But it shook off my lethargy and reminded me of the year about to pass.

This time of year brings up the ghosts of thoughts/actions/decisions past. Sometimes they are energizing, sometimes they are tinged with regret. Yet the seasons always shift, the days move on, and we are presented with new options. It is tempting to make resolutions for the coming year, decisions that frequently disappear almost as soon as they are made, that become the ghosts of the future. They are too definitive, I think.

This year I am making inclinations more than resolutions. I am inclined toward sending out more of my writing. I am leaning in the direction of renewing contact with people I like but have let slip away. I am tending toward being gentler in my approach to life, to laugh a lot more. Nothing momentous, just simple possibilities. 

So on the cusp of 2014, I thank the ghost cat for waking me up. And I wish all of you the very best of the New Year.

Folk singer Woody Guthrie made his list of resolutions in 1933, when he was 31. He called them Rulin’s and they were quite practical. Did he follow them? Here they are:

Something about Albino cats:

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Dusting of Possibilities

A Dusting of Possibilities

A major snowstorm was predicted – again. And again it didn’t happen. What we awoke to was a dusting of snow, barely enough to cover the sidewalks, cars, lawns, and trees with a trace of white. The sky was gray with clouds early on but as the morning progressed, the sky lightened. It seemed the storm had moved on, to the north and east, and the temperature will be too warm today for the snow to remain.

In a way I was disappointed; I like snow, even if I have to shovel it. The “dusting” wasn’t wasted on me, though; it was a meditative way to start the day. It hinted at possibilities. In the immediate case, it was the physical indication of what could have been, had the snowstorm occurred. But it seemed to be deeper than that, almost a reminder of the potential in all things. We often assume the “dusting” of an idea is all there is when, like weather reporting, that is really only the suggestion of something, a probability. Great discoveries start with a dusting of possibility.

It was a grand way to begin the day - a pristine moment of beauty and a subtle message to be the idea we are meant to be.

Learn about long-term weather predicting, find out weather forecasts for your area, and get a larger look at the world’s weather:

Monday, December 9, 2013

Tiger, Tiger

Tiger, Tiger

I like cats, even those strays that find themselves in my backyard. I shoo them away just to protect the birds on my feeders but I know they only leave if they choose to; they own whatever territory they are in.

Recently, I had the opportunity to expand my sense of backyard to Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve in India. There was no guarantee that we would see any tigers as we drove around the national park but we were lucky and saw two, a male and a female, in different parts of the Reserve. Those cats were magnificent. There was no doubt about who owned this territory.  I was in awe as I sat in the open Jeep watching them stroll from the brush, unhurried and tolerant of the gawkers snapping their photos.

It is hard to describe the impact of seeing a tiger in the wild. The animal is big, a housecat on unbelievable steroids. It has authority; the sheer bulk of its muscular body demands attention and caution. In this natural setting, its presence is both stunning and formidable. I felt privileged to have had the chance to see them unburdened by any cage, free in their own environment. Someone said that in a zoo people are the observers and the tigers are the observed but it is the reverse at Bandhavgarh – we are the observed and the tigers are the observers.

I found it quite a stunning reversal of awareness. It opens up a new perspective of what it means to co-exist in a world that is home to a great diversity of beings. We need to respect, and often to protect, life in its myriad forms. The Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve is doing its part for the tigers.    

Here are facts about and the history of Bandhavgarh National Park and its Tiger Reserve:

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Harvest Delights and Future Worries

Harvest Delights and Future Worries

Harvest time provided delightful veggies this year. There were cauliflowers bigger than dinner plates, broccoli heads that challenged them, zucchini from the size of small cucumbers to large gourds, red beets and yellow beets, tomatoes of all sizes, colors, and shapes.

We are fortunate to have access to local farms where I live. The farmer’s markets abound with produce and the supermarkets try to offer as much local fare as the season will allow. Organic is becoming more available and when on sale will often equal the price of non-organic goods.

Lots of cities celebrate the fall harvest with festivals, antique auto events, arts and crafts fairs, 5k races, swim meets, wine tastings, apple picking, hay rides, you name it. It is a time to appreciate the labor that went into producing the food we place on our tables and to acknowledge the change of seasons.

But let’s not forget how fragile the land that is the basis of this bounty can be. The recent Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, besides being so deadly and destructive, played pick-up sticks with the coconut palms, laying them flat, their roots in the air. In 2012, the corn crop, which was headed toward a bumper year, was caught in a heat wave that greatly reduced its potential and with less corn to sell, prices rose.

It’s a reminder to not take it all for granted. We need to tend to
the land in a more nurturing way and to be more responsible about how we affect the climate so that we may have many more fall harvests to celebrate.

First Lady Michelle Obama celebrates the harvest, too:

A look at what may be limiting our future celebrations:

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Supporting Trees

Supporting Trees

I was out at a local park this weekend, enjoying a walk in the autumn woods. The leaves were brilliantly backlit with the afternoon sun; the variations of red and gold were breathtaking. Some leaves were still green, holding onto their branches as hard as they could, while others had already turned brown and blew off with the slightest breeze.
There was a creek that reflected the shapes and colors of the sunken leaves and with the movement of the water, the scene looked like an impressionist painting. Very inspiring.

Standing on the bridge, overlooking the water, I saw something even more
inspiring. There were two trees at the edge of the creek, holding onto their footing
where the earth slipped into the water. Their balance seemed precarious, as half their
roots were not anchored.

But as I looked up into the high branches, I saw that the trees were leaning
inward, toward each other. One trunk, that of the thinner tree, rested in the crook of the branches of the other tree, and further up, the heavier tree was held in place by the higher branches of the thinner one. I could almost imagine these trees being best friends, reaching out and helping each other when times got tough. And because they were doing so, they both were able to survive.
If trees can do that, I would hope that people could, too. Perhaps by
helping someone else we might find that we are being supported as well. As I said, it was
all very inspiring.

If you happen to be near Medford, New Jersey, take a peek at the park;           

Monday, October 28, 2013

Pumpkins for Halloween and After

Pumpkins for Halloween and After

Halloween is upon us again and there will be lots of dressing up going on – princesses, witches, ghosts, skeletons, you name it. Even pumpkins get a chance to join in with carved or painted faces, decorative decals, wigs, fake ears, googly eyes and expressions that range from funny to frightening.

I prefer to keep my pumpkin uncarved until after the holiday because I have post-Halloween plans for it and don’t want it to spoil; it is food, after all. So, after the big day/night, if you have a pumpkin you might want to use in a different way, one that nourishes and delights without the scary element to it, here are some suggestions:

Remember eating pumpkin seeds as a kid? This is where they came from. Cut off the top of the pumpkin, roll up your sleeves, and dig right in. It’s wet and stringy inside but getting the seeds out is worth it. This is a great job for kids where they can be messy with permission. You can rinse off the seeds or not, your choice. Lay them out on a sheet pan and drizzle them with oil (and salt if you like salty seeds). Bake them in a 225-250 degree oven for about an hour, stirring them occasionally. Check on them periodically. If they seem dry or are beginning to brown, take them out. Cool them down before eating.

Peeling off the skin isn’t easy but it is less difficult when the pumpkin is soft. Cut the pumpkin in half. Scrape out the seeds (if you haven’t already), and turn the halves cut side down on a flat sheet with sides. Add a layer of water to the pan and bake at about 350 degrees for 45 minutes or more (it depends on the size of the pumpkin). When a fork is easily inserted into the skin, remove from the oven and cool. The skin should come off easier now. Mash the pumpkin and use in your favorite recipe.

You may want to use smaller, sweet pumpkins for your recipes instead of the Jack o’ Lantern size. I have used both – and butternut squash as well. The puree from any of them can be used in soups, smoothies, cakes, pies, pancakes, waffles, muffins. If the cooked pumpkin insides are too moist, let the excess moisture drain off in a sieve.

Pumpkin pieces can be baked, steamed, boiled, and microwaved. Use the method that most suits you. I plan to make pumpkin soup, as I do each year. What I don’t use, I freeze, to be used another day, in another way. Enjoy your pumpkin and…


Here are some great ways to use your pumpkin:

For some lower-sugar, delicious-sounding recipes:

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Palisades in Autumn

The Palisades in Autumn

My backyard extended a little further this past week as I traveled up the Palisades parkway along the New Jersey side of the Hudson River on the way to Massachussetts. The trees were dressing the cliffs with fall colors and the roads were crunchy with fallen leaves. It is autumn, at last. The temperatures here are still a tad warmer than is typical but that should be changing soon; I heard that tomorrow will only be in the mid-fifties.

Autumn is usually such a lovely time of year in the northeast. It provides a palette of reds and golds as the trees begin their resting period. It is a gradual transition from the intensity of summer into the extremes of winter. While each season has its typical characteristics, I find the edges between them most interesting. It helps the land and the animals prepare for what is coming. It signals migrating birds to fly.

I think it helps people, too, to anticipate the next phase of the year. We get clues on how to dress, what foods are best to eat, what activities are appropriate to engage in. I’m glad that I live in a four-seasons area even though in the midst of winter I sometimes wonder about a warmer climate. But then I would miss the snow. When the seasons change, it feels like I have finished reading one book and am ready, eager, to start on another. 

Wherever we live, whatever the weather, each season has its holidays, its plant cycles, and its own personality, its individual charisma, all there for us to enjoy.

A look at the Palisades and activities available:

And a look at the characteristics of the seasons:

Monday, October 14, 2013

Pumpkin Patch Near Home

Pumpkin Patch Near Home

I was out on a pumpkin hunt with my grandson, seeing how many pumpkins we could find around the neighborhood. They seemed to be everywhere this time of year, bright symbols of autumn and reminders of Halloween. We found pumpkins on porches, on the steps of the local elementary school, peeking out of windows. And then we came upon a pumpkin patch, in front of a house right in the middle of a block!

I mostly think of a pumpkin patch as being in a farm field, certainly not in a housing development. But there it was, in a space more apt to have small clumps of flowers or seasonal plantings of mums than a pumpkin crop, green vines bearing yellow flowers and orange fruit (yes, a pumpkin is a fruit). 

I asked the owners about it. It seems that they had left a pumpkin outside to feed the rabbits that happened by. The seeds that weren’t eaten planted themselves and now were happily growing. That got me thinking about how life has a way of supporting itself. The plot the pumpkins were growing in wasn’t ideal for the length of the vines but they were thriving nonetheless, a symbol of life’s determination to express itself. We live in a tough world yet the seeds of hope survive, even in the most difficult situations.

The pumpkin patch was a joyful surprise for me and added quite a few pumpkins on my grandson’s hunt. 

(The final count: 61).

This site has just about everything to know about pumpkins, from planting to harvesting to eating. Enjoy!

What’s a fruit, what’s a vegetable?

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Our Tulip Tree as Harbinger?

Our Tulip Tree as Harbinger?

Our Tulip tree is finally shedding its leaves. I say finally because it usually starts the process in August, turning its leaves golden well before the other neighborhood trees begin changing and by the end of the month, its limbs are bare – a hint of Autumn before the season officially changes. So here it is, early October, and the tree is only beginning to lose its foliage. What is going on?

Tulip leaves are sensitive to water. When the weather is dry, the typical condition in August, the tree feels water stress and the leaves tend to lose their viability. But this year, according to the Office of the New Jersey State Climatologist at Rutgers University, while we had a rather warm July, we also had the wettest June on record and the second wettest summer so the tree had less stress and stayed leafy.

It was nice to have the tree so green for so long but this was not usual summer weather. Will this be what summer is like from now on? Anything that alters weather shifts what we can expect from the vegetation. With so much information coming out about how the climate is changing worldwide, it may seem like a little thing to be concerned about individual plants. Yet weather conditions affect all things, be it the soil, plants, insects, animals, humans. I know that weather goes in cycles. I also know that we have changed the atmosphere through our activities on earth. Perhaps the Tulip tree is one of the harbingers of change, of what will be the new normal. As my father used to say when I asked a question he couldn’t answer, “We’ll just have to wait and see.”

From The Washington Post Health and Science section:

Office of the New Jersey State Climatologist at Rutgers University rain statistics:

Monday, September 30, 2013

Speak for the Trees

Speak for the Trees

My neighborhood is about 45 years old. The garden plantings that were once mere twigs are now full-grown, often overgrown, bushes. The trees, especially, have grown in height and stature. A variety of species were planted on the strips of grass near the curbs to provide shade along the sidewalks, a welcome benefit during the hot summer days.

As the years pass, however, the trees are having trouble. Their roots are struggling for space to expand. Many sidewalks are now a mixture of gray and white concrete patches applied to the sidewalks to repair cracked cement where the tree roots have forced their way outward. Sometimes the trees expand over the cement squares, demonstrating a will to grow regardless of the circumstances surrounding them. Others send roots underneath the sidewalk squares, raising the cement blocks as they reach toward the expanse of the lawn.

We labeled this tree’s break for freedom The Step. It used to be a little glitch in the sidewalk; now it is several inches up, demanding care when we walk. I wonder how much more the cement will be raised. Will the homeowner take action and cut the roots so the concrete block can be lowered? Will that harm the tree?

Planting trees with limited growing space seemed like a good idea in the beginning but it stunted the plants’ growth. Many houses now have no shaded frontage because the trees have died, way earlier than their designated lifespan would indicate. Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax  speaks for the trees; we could have used him when the houses were being constructed. Trees are an important and valuable asset to our communities but their needs should be considered, too.

Sometimes we forget that our actions have long-term effects. It is hard to fully anticipate what might happen decades down the road, whether in regard to nature or politics or health, but if we take the time to look beyond what seems like an immediate benefit to the possible later results, perhaps we could spare ourselves some angst – and the trees a shortened life.

Want to know how long trees can live?

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Bald Eagles are Back!

Bald Eagles are Back!

I see many birds in my backyard, even some large ones like crows, hawks, ducks and the occasional turkey vulture. Bald eagles, however, are not among them. This weekend I took a mini-cruise on the Maurice River in NJ and had the opportunity to spot eagles galore. Some were on their nests, others were perched on the bare wood of trees along the banks of the river. The eagle here (click on the photo to enlarge it) had caught a fish and was flying off with it. The bird landed on a branch and proceeded to enjoy its meal.

The bald eagle, our national symbol, was once in trouble. A combination of land development, destroyed habitat, and hunting threatened to destroy the eagle population. Some claimed that the pesticides like DDT were responsible for thinning the birds’ eggshells and contaminating fish and water supplies. The population had gone from 100,000 nesting pairs to only 487 in 1963. DDT was banned in 1972 and on July 4, 1976, the US Fish and Wildlife Service officially listed the bald eagle as a national endangered species.

Since then the eagle population has rebounded. On June 28, 2007, the Department of the Interior announced the recovery of our nation’s symbol and removal from the list of threatened and endangered species. There are now over 9,700 nesting pairs in the U.S. Quite a comeback.

Seeing a bald eagle is thrilling. It has a presence. It also has a right to be here, as much as we do. We really do need to be more sensitive to our world. I’m glad to see the bald eagles are back.

History of the Bald Eagle’s decline and recovery:

Two pages of great Bald Eagle info:

History and activities along the Maurice River:

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Tomatoes - Again?

Tomatoes – Again?

I’m sorry. Here it is, almost at the end of the growing season and I am still talking about tomatoes. I admit to being obsessed with them this year. Perhaps it was the challenge of trying to actually harvest some before the squirrels and rabbits got them all.

Challenges often lead to innovative solutions and this one did. We discovered that surrounding the tomato vine with fine netting seems to keep the critters at bay. I don’t know if they are confused or if the mesh coating covers up the tomato smell; what I do know is that we have had produce ripening on the plant without interference.

I acknowledge that the patch is not pristine looking and I can’t imagine a real farmer doing it but for such a small plot, it has proved to be a reasonable answer to an annoying problem. Each day I eagerly go out to the garden and pick the latest juicy, red treat.

Okay, I confess that I don’t deny the animals everything. After all, they can’t go off to the supermarket when they need food. I leave some of the lower hanging tomatoes out of the mesh for them to share. But at least now we can all enjoy Mother Nature’s bounty. I don’t need to wait until Thanksgiving to be thankful – I feel grateful every time I eat a tomato grown right here at home.

Tips for growing tomatoes:
And now, recipes for those great tomatoes!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Footprints in the Sand

Footprints in the Sand

Here are my footprints in the sand. There is something so tempting about digging into the grains and feeling them wrap around my feet, the warmth cuddling my bare toes. I’m obviously not the only one who likes walking in the sand; there were many tracks, feet and shoe impressions intertwining along the path. I could do it for hours, drifting along the water’s edge on the beach.

This particular site is not at the shore, however; it is at Atsion Lake on Route 206, part of Wharton State Forest in southern New Jersey in the Pine Barrens. It was part of the iron bog and glassmaking industry that existed in the mid 1700s to the mid-1980s. The red-tinted water reflects its iron ore and cedar origins. Atsion was acquired by New Jersey in 1954 and opened as a recreation area.

It is compelling to walk in sand even though the imprints are changeable and fleeting, prone to symbolism and clichés, and always left behind. Perhaps the lack of permanence is its attraction. Wind, water, other people, birds, and sometimes vehicles shift the sand and each day presents a clean palette for all who choose to make their mark. I find a sandy stroll is meditative and also a good reminder to enjoy today because life itself is all the same things as footprints in the sand.

What can you still see in Atsion?

Trails and natural Atsion attractions:

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Young Blue Jays

Young Blue Jays

A couple of young Blue Jays, just coming into their feathers and colors, were recently spotted on the feeders. They may be fledglings but their heft jiggles the feeders when they land and shakes them when they leave.

We seem to have a few Blue Jay families in the area. I know that some can be migratory but short of banding these particular birds, I can only guess they are year-round residents. That suits me just fine. A friend in the UK said that they don’t get such colorful birds so it makes me all the more appreciative that we do. Several things that may help them to stay: the feeders, of course, as they like nuts and seeds, the pine trees out back which provide good nesting opportunities, and the oak tree in our front yard that supplies an abundance of acorns. I discovered that Blue Jays love acorns. So these young birds will have a nice source of food to enjoy now and stash for later.  

The awkwardness of the young, whether avian or human, changes as they grow into themselves. They adapt to their environment and develop survival skills that help them progress to competence. These Blue Jays are already beginning to smooth out their spiky head feathers and exhibit a confidence in their grip on the feeders. What a treat to see.

Practically everything you can think of to ask about Blue Jays is answered here:

Monday, August 26, 2013

Spiders Have Their Place

Spiders Have Their Place

Spiders are not my favorite creatures. Perhaps this is because I was bitten by one long ago and never forgot the experience. Having admitted that, I have to go on to say that every creature has its place on earth and spiders are no exception.

One of the great things about spiders is that they eat mosquitoes. Considering how the mosquito population has exploded in recent years, this is a reason to celebrate the hairy/speckled/crawly species. Spiders actually eat thousands of insects that can plague your garden and/or home. They are much greener than chemical sprays as an insect repellent.

Even though spotting a spider makes me nervous, spiders, themselves, tend to be shy. If you don’t bother them, chances are they will leave you alone. They usually won’t bite unless they feel threatened. They keep a low profile and keep away from confrontation if possible. So it’s a good thing I tend to keep out of their way. But sometimes a spider will be visible, as this one was. It was spinning a web between the buddleia and hydrangea bushes right outside my dining room window. It was fascinating to watch. The silk thread was so fine that the spider seemed suspended in mid-air. Back and forth the arachnid went, creating a geometric grid so delicate it was hardly noticeable.

I think the spider I saw was an orb spider but I can’t be sure (anyone know?) because there are so many variations. Perhaps the diversity is one reason that spiders have been mythologized. Creation stories and folktales abound; Charlotte and her web are classic. I believe that variety is something to be appreciated. Perhaps I need to broaden my belief to include spiders.

So much to know about spiders:

Just as much to disregard about spiders:

How to tell an arachnid from an insect:

Monday, August 19, 2013

Remembering Eloise, Again

Remembering Eloise, Again

I was cleaning out the kitchen pantry and came across a bag of gravel tucked down in the corner on the floor behind the bottles of water. I used to put them in my cockatiel Eloise’s cage to help her digest better. It’s been over two years since she died at the advanced age of twenty-two; most cockatiels live 12-15 years, occasionally to 20, so we had the pleasure of her company for a little longer than most.

I have to say that seeing the gravel gave me a heart-twinge. It took me many months not to expect the hello chirp she offered whenever I entered the house. And the place her cage once occupied is still bare. She was a great companion bird.

Some people claim that companion birds don’t qualify as natural because they aren’t free in the wild to hunt for their food, establish nests, mate. True, they aren’t. But nature has a way of expressing itself anyway. They have particular food preferences as they would in the wild. They choose those they prefer as their main companions. And they certainly have their own, distinctive personalities. Are they shaped by their genes or by their surroundings – or both? The nature vs. nurture question arises with humans, too.

Our neighbor’s grown daughter was visiting and we started talking about birds. She had the job as a teen of caring for our cockatiel when we were away. She remembered Eloise fondly and spoke of her very definitive character. I was happy to hear that Eloise had made such a lasting impression on others who had contact with her.  I thought about how every living thing reflects its own, individual nature whether out in the wild or not and leaves part of its energy within its realm of existence.

Today I was remembering Eloise again, grateful that she spent some of her natural life with us.

Different birds have different life spans:
Cockatiels respond to their surroundings:

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Trenton City Museum

The Trenton City Museum

Don’t you love discovering something new and enriching? This weekend we found The Trenton City Museum in Trenton, NJ. It is a little gem situated within Cadwalader Park, which was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape designer of Central Park in New York City. The site consists of 100 acres of urban parkland with a variety of trees and shrubs, curving nature paths and roadways, and lots of places for picnics. 

The museum is housed in the Ellarslie Mansion, built in 1848 for Henry McCall Sr. of Philadelphia, as a summer residence. The mansion had a varied history of use over the years but was renovated in 1971 as the museum it is today.

The museum currently has a wonderful Crafts exhibition on the first floor. The second floor galleries focus on Trenton’s famous ceramic industry and house a collection of ceramicware, decorative arts, industrial memorabilia and historical objects. A photography exhibit is opening August 9th and will run until September 22nd.

Sometimes a surprise is what we need to awaken our senses and remind us of the treasures around us. Flowers do that for me each Spring, when the buds hint of their imminent blossoming. But that’s the nature of discovery, the unknowing that gives way to delight. It seems to come out of the blue yet, often, was there all the time. Like a park and a museum that is only a car ride away.

A lovely place to discover:

Monday, July 29, 2013

Wasp Nest!

Wasp Nest!

I was walking past the bushes in front of our house when I noticed an insect flying into the bush on the end. What was it? A small, black insect with yellow stripes across its lower body. A wasp!

I started paying more attention to the bush. Other wasps flew inside. Some flew out. There was quite a lot of activity. When I looked closer I saw something gray inside. It was a huge nest!  I passed that bush every day; how could I have missed it?

We’ve had wasps starting to build nests before, usually in the corner by our garage where they were visible and easy to eliminate while still small. But this nest, hidden as it was, went undetected and housed lots of wasps.

The nest that wasps build is papery, made from fiber the insects collect; snippets from man-made paper products such as paper bags or cardboard boxes, scrapings from the bark of trees. The insect then chews the fiber and mixes it with saliva. This makes the fiber extremely soft and moist. After a period of chewing, the wasp adds the paste to the nest structure and spreads it out with its mandibles and legs. After it thoroughly dries; a type of tough, durable paper is formed. Voila! An incredible nest.

While I was obsessing over what to do about it, my husband went out and sprayed it. A few wasps flew in and out but the activity pretty much stopped. Two days later, when I looked into the bush, I saw that the nest had split apart and the wasps were gone. I can’t say that I was sorry to see the end of the nest and its inhabitants - I remember being stung by one of those little guys and it wasn’t fun. But every creature has its value and these seem to be good pest controllers. I was torn between fear of being stung by wasps and the nuisance of being bitten by mosquitoes. The mosquitoes won – and I have the welts to prove it.

A close look at a wasp and some info about its nest building:

Monday, July 22, 2013

Tomatoes For All

Tomatoes For All

Hi Everyone. The summer became rather busy so I gave myself permission to take a blog break. I hope you are all well and keeping cool if you are in the heat zone. But I am back and looking things over in my backyard.

We planted a variety of tomatoes this year – cherry, beefsteak, and heirloom varieties. They are all growing nicely, thriving in the heat/rain cycles. Some of them have grown to an incredible size, which thrills me.

I was watching one as it got bigger and started turning a deep shade of red. It was ripening so sweetly. I could imagine how it would taste. The day I went out to pick it, though, I had a shock; a quarter of the tomato was eaten into. I could see the seeds. The juice dripped from the opening and I could smell the fresh tomato aroma. I mourned the loss of such a beauty.

There was another tomato on the vine that was just starting to ripen. I didn’t want the same thing to happen so I placed a cage around that section of the plant.  But when I went to check on it the next day, the cage was lifted out of its moorings and the tomato had been nibbled on.

Was it a wascally wabbit that was getting into the garden or a sneaky squirrel? I was talking to a man who had a vegetable garden and he said that groundhogs, in particular, loved tomatoes. I occasionally saw a groundhog around but not lately.

I needed a plan. While I love letting the tomatoes ripen on the vine, I decided to pick them when they were partially red, before the creatures got into them, and to let them ripen the rest of the way on my kitchen counter. So far that is working. We ate one of our tomatoes yesterday and it was absolutely delicious! I can’t blame the outside critters for digging in.

I know that everyone needs to eat and I don’t mind sharing but I would like some produce for myself, too. Next year I will plan differently, perhaps setting aside a small plot for the local scavengers; this year I will just enjoy what I can and at least take pleasure in knowing that my tomatoes are making a party for many mouths.

Here are some ways to discourage squirrels, and I imagine other critters, from chomping on your tomatoes. Some are practical, others tongue-in-cheek:    

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Clouds Communicate

Clouds Communicate

It rained yesterday. Well, poured actually. The sky was a blanket of gray clouds that let the rain come down steadily for the whole morning, alternating heavy downpours with ordinary showers. The rain stopped after noon, the clouds thinning out and letting the sun peek through occasionally. They moved on the upper breeze separating into dark and light areas that hinted at a change in the weather.

There are many different kinds of clouds, depending on the amount of moisture and their height in the atmosphere. Not every cloud signals rain though some clouds herald danger, like tornado cloud-tunnels. Cirrus clouds tell of improving conditions while cumulus clouds indicate fair weather. They all have their personalities.

As a kid, I always liked to look for images in the clouds. The puffy white ones were best for that, hinting at faces and dragons, rocket ships and eagles, or whatever came to mind at the moment; clouds spur the imagination. Family car trips went quicker when we focused on the clouds.

The cirrocumulus clouds I saw recently delighted me. They brought to mind popcorn scattering over the earth I wanted to open my mouth and catch them on my tongue. For a while I was a kid again. These were high atmosphere clouds and they lifted my spirits.

Today the clouds are gathering once more. They look like nimbus clouds, the kind that builds into thunderstorms. We can read the clouds and understand what they mean. Everything in nature communicates in its own way. I find that fascinating.

Here are the different kinds of clouds:

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

A Gift of Diamonds

A Gift of Diamonds

Sometimes it is easy to take my backyard for granted. I can see the same things, in the same way. I appreciate it all as it is – the bushes, the flowers, the wildlife, the birds - but nature is always changing and without looking for the newness of things, it is possible to miss the subtleties. So every now and then, I make it a point to observe the usual as if I’m seeing it for the first time and I am often surprised by what I see – like on one wet afternoon…

Heavy rain alternated throughout the day with drizzles and hints of sunshine. When the sky finally cleared in the late afternoon, everything was more bedraggled than beautiful. Then I noticed the Hosta on the patio. Its leaves were heavy with raindrops after the downpour. But as the sun peeked out, the drops took on a shine and POW! Those ordinary drops sparkled like diamonds, brilliant and startling.

I looked around at the backyard differently then, seeing the plants as jewels that dotted the garden with color. The rain made it all glitter. The scene went from damp to delightful. My spirits, too, rose from humdrum to radiant. And all it took to make the shift was my letting go of what I expected so that I could see a gift of diamonds.

For a look at what creates raindrops, it’s back to school to check out the water cycle:

Monday, May 20, 2013

Art and Nature at Storm King Art Center

"Adonai" by Alexander Liberman
Art and Nature at Storm King Art Center

This week I was at a unique site called Storm King Art Center in the Hudson River Valley, about an hour north of New York City. It is a 500-plus acre sculpture park and museum that features a permanent collection of works by a variety of masters such as Alexander Calder, Barbara Hepworth, Jeff Koons, and Roy Lichtenstein. A main feature is thirteen large sculptures by David Smith, placed around the grounds, and there are some magnificent works by Alexander Liberman.

The museum has nine galleries in a chateau-style building with windows that allow the outside to be part of the display. Large sculptures are integrated into the landscape of lawns, fields, hills, and forests, making every view a combination of art and nature. Maya Lin used the land itself in “Storm King Wavefield” to create a sculpture of seven wavy hills that generate a sense of movement and flow. Andy Goldsworthy wound an elegant stone wall through the woods. It is hard to resist the urge to feel the texture of the materials used and to move amid the various forms; alas, there is a no touch, no climb rule.

Mother Nature adds spectacularly artful panoramas at every turn. A broad expanse of meadows leads the eye to green hills and a cloud-flecked sky that provide a perfect backdrop for trees, artistic forms, birds, and dreams. It is hard not to be engaged with the site. It is a call to reconnect with one’s inner self through the art of man and the glory of nature 

For a brief overview of Storm King and links to some artists:

For photos of the sculptures: 

Monday, May 13, 2013

Exuberant Azaleas!

Exuberant Azaleas!

Last year the azaleas in front of our house bloomed in nice, neat, round bushes, as they have for years. They gave the entrance a pleasing and colorful approach. Most of the other azalea bushes in the neighborhood behaved in a similar way. They were polite. Refined. At the end of the season, I pruned the bushes to remove some dead branches, being careful about pruning off the buds that are laid down after the plants bloom. I expected another year of dignified flowering.

This year they flowered, right on schedule, sending out their customary peachy blossoms. Only something changed. The bushes became exuberant! They shot out beyond their customary shape and reached for the sun. There is no restraint here. I had never seen anything like it.

Each time I think I should do something about the wildness, I end up smiling instead. When I come home, I have to stop for a minute to enjoy the fullness of the bushes and the in-your-face burst of flowers before going inside. My friend, coming to visit, stood dumbfounded when she saw the azaleas.  “They don’t usually grow like that,” she said. Certainly not in suburban gardens. Then she said something about them fitting in with my energy.

That got me thinking. There are thousands of varieties of azaleas, with different colors, heights, petals, and growing patterns - in their own particular way. There are billions of people expressing themselves in their own particular ways. And why not? There is energy in diversity.  If we can tolerate, even desire, variety in Mother Nature then why not in human nature, too?  There may be surprises, sometimes problems, but most often there is dynamic growth.

A helpful guide to growing azaleas:

For FAQ and in-depth answers, try the Azalea Society of America’s website:

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Strawberries – Big, Yummy, and Organic

Strawberries – Big, Yummy, and Organic

I love strawberries. They usually are small to medium in size but the package I just bought has huge berries! Not only are they big but they are yummy, too. What a Spring treat.

Which leads me to a distressing subject – the quality of our food. Strawberries are on “The Dirty Dozen” list. So are cherries, grapes, spinach and potatoes, among others. This list indicates that certain fruits and vegetables retain the highest levels of pesticides. 

Other than growing our own produce, what can we do to get the best quality food for our families? Well, I buy mostly organic. What does organic mean? According to the USDA Consumer Brochure: Organic Food Standards and Labels: The Facts, “Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations…Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation.”

While there is no way to guarantee that organic food will be pesticide free (considering the air, water, and soil quality), at least we can support programs that attempt to produce food without adding chemicals into the process. 

I tend to buy organic, especially of the most pesticide-susceptible foods. More stores, even the larger supermarkets, are carrying organic products now. But the choice is ours to make. I see organic farming as not only offering us healthy foods but also as supporting our planet. These strawberries are a responsible – and delicious - example of what can be produced.

Check out “The Dirty Dozen” and find some safer produce items:

USDA definition and regulations:

If you want more detailed (and somewhat scary) info:

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Groundcover Plants Add to a Garden

Groundcover Plants Add to a Garden

I have pachysandra growing in my backyard. It is flowering now; delicate white blossoms are peeking out from their green leaves. Pachysandra is a groundcover plant. Groundcover is exactly what it says – a plant that covers the ground. It spreads easily and makes the space where it’s planted a garden feature.

We have another groundcover in our front yard, too. It is Vinca or periwinkle, a plant that sprouts little purple flowers and can take over a lawn.

I love the way these plants seem to take care of themselves. Whatever the season, they bring green vibrancy to the area where they grow. In Spring, they send up flowers that are a nice reminder of what is ahead. In Winter, they remain green under the snow and slough off the frigid temperatures. The rest of the year they just grow – and spread – as the garden goes through its cycles.

There are a variety of reasons to plant groundcover. A steep incline can be kept from losing soil with a covering of St. John’s Wort, for instance. Shady spots that could use a little color would look nice with a covering of blue Ajuga leaves. There is a plant for almost every need. Plus, I think, groundcover plants add an air of sophisticated neatness to a garden.

It’s almost as if groundcover knows it has a chore to do and just does it. It makes me think of the idiom to “cover a lot of ground” which means to deal with a lot of information or to travel a great distance. It implies a purpose and determination, a stick-to-it quality. I hope I have that when there is a job to be done. There is a positive energy to the phrase, a hint of admiration when someone covers a lot of ground. These plants seem to embody the concept and I do admire them for it.

Some varieties to investigate:

Do you have a favorite groundcover? Now is the time for planting so I’d love to hear about it.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Magnificent Magnolias

I like to see the magnolia trees around my neighborhood. Their flowers are full and fancy, the petals soft to the touch, and the fragrance is enticing. I tended to think of magnolias as only southern trees. Not so. They grow in a wide range of areas. In fact, there are some 200 varieties around the world and they all are beautiful.

But there are positive and negatives to most things and magnolias are not an exception. Here are some of the positives:
Magnolia trees definitely have that WOW factor. They are magnificent trees that are hard to ignore.
They are relatively fast growing.
They produce incredible flowers, which come in many colors depending upon the variety, that are a delight to our senses.
They come in many choices including evergreen or deciduous trees.
You can find a variety that suits your location and preferred blooming time.

Some of the negatives:
Spent magnolias flowers literally cover the ground when they fall.
The flowers produce pollen – good for the beetles that feed on them but not so good for allergy sufferers.
Their roots are ropy and can get tangled around the base and they also extend farther out than most trees, which makes them hard to transplant.
They can be large and dominate a landscape, up to 80 feet tall and 50 feet wide, though there are smaller options that are more in the 25 feet tall and 20 feet wide size.
Magnolia wood is soft and is prone to breakage in storms and damage by mowers and string trimmers.

So it is kind of a balance among factors - beauty, maintenance, drama, practicality, delight, appropriateness – at least for us as homeowners and planters. The yin and yang of nature. Most of life is poised between the two. What seems positive at one time may shift to negative at another and vice versa. The magnolia just follows its genetic path being magnificent and troublesome, depending on one’s point of view. Why shouldn’t we enjoy the positive even as we deal with the negative? 

Magnolia basics:

Monday, April 15, 2013

April Showers...

April Showers…

“April showers bring May flowers.” Remember that old saying? Well, here we are in April, experiencing a variety of showers from the drizzle today to the downpour a few nights ago. The early bloomers are drinking it up while the soil is warming up and loosening for Spring planting.

It’s nice to have the illusion of predictability that the saying implies, especially as the seasons have been a little different lately – hardly any snow in winter (at least not around my backyard though some places had whopper storms that slammed them with feet, not inches) and eighty-plus degrees before Spring had a chance to take a deep breath. But plants are not relying on the saying to do what they do. It has as much to do with where they are growing, whether they are annuals or perennials, when they develop their bulbs or seeds. Even so, rain does bring warmer temperatures and moisture that stimulates plant growth and energizes the earth.

If we look deeper into the saying, however, we can see that it is as much about us as it is about rain and flowers. It hints of sunny times following clouds, of the value of patience, and of keeping a positive outlook even when things seem dark and dreary. Sort of a prompt to our growth as well. Not a bad way to start the season, whenever the season starts for you.

And a look into the origin and symbolism of the saying:

Monday, April 8, 2013

Lavender is Lovely

Lavender is Lovely

I went to my local market today and was surrounded by a familiar scent as soon as I went through the door – lavender. There were pots and pots of the plants gracing the flower stand. The flowers were just beginning to open and more buds were peeking out. I passed them by to do my shopping but I went back before I paid. They were just too enticing to ignore.

I had planted lavender in my garden in years past but not recently. I decided this year I would do it again. This is a lovely plant.  Tiny purple flowers delicately rise along a thin, green stem. The leaves are subtly elegant with a hint of gentle fuzz that is pleasing to the touch. The smell of lavender can be heady, announcing its presence before the plant is even seen, which must be why it is used in soaps, oils, candles, sachets, even in teas - a treat for the senses.

But then lavender is lovely in other, more important ways. It has a long history of medicinal use and is a staple in aromatherapy. Some is proven, some not, but it is used in a variety of applications for many conditions. One of its uses is for its calming effect. Lavender oil embraces the whole body in the bath. Sniffed, it seems to relax tension and may help with insomnia.

At the very least, lavender is a lovely addition to a garden, as it will be to mine – and maybe to yours?

Look at this lovely plant’s uses:

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Pretty Pinks

Pretty Pinks

The daffodils are now in full bloom in my backyard. Such a beautiful display. Vibrant yellow flowers brighten up even a cloudy day. The purple periwinkle flowers add their own vibrance in the groundcover that ambles through various spots in the garden. Soon nurseries will be advertising flats of blossoming plants to begin the spring planting season.

I appreciate the rejuvenation of the outside perennials each year yet I don’t want to neglect something that has been blooming all through the winter – my African Violet. It is an indoor plant that has been putting out pretty pink blossoms for much of the year.

I don’t take my African Violet for granted. I know it needs proper tending. The plant needs light, though not direct sunlight, so the north-facing windowsill where it resides is perfect. It likes water but not too much. When the soil seems dry, I give the plant a drink. The recommendation is to water it from the bottom so as not to get the leaves wet. I usually do though sometimes it gets a good soak from the top. No doubt the nurseries wouldn’t approve but my sweet plant doesn’t seem to mind. If the leaves appear a little droopy, I give the plant some food and it perks right up.

All living things have their particular requirements. I value this plant and want it to thrive so I give it what it needs. I value relationships and want them to thrive, too. I try to nurture them in ways that will keep them strong and healthy. We may not all need the same things but care and attention is something everyone – and everything – can benefit from. My African Violet seems to like the interest I take in it. Surely friends and family deserve as much.

Here are tips for caring for African Violets:

Monday, March 25, 2013

Vernal Equinox

Vernal Equinox

The vernal equinox has just passed, the time when the sun shines right on the equator and the hours of day and night are just about equal. The March or Spring equinox brings increasing daylight, warming temperatures, and rejuvenating plants and flowers.

The crocuses here have already faded but the daffodils are just now flowering. Their leaves have been hinting at blooms for a while and the buds have been teasing but here are the blossoms - at last. And today it is snowing.

It has snowed in late March and early April before so this is not that unusual but it isn’t necessarily welcome. Most of us are looking forward to the temperature moving out of the snow zone. While we are eager for the season to change, we have to remember that the equinox is the cusp of the seasons, the turning point, not the closing of a door; the year holds on to a little of the past even as it turns toward the future.

The daffodils may huddle into themselves for a bit longer but they will return with vibrant yellow flowers and Spring will assert itself. The snow will be gone, early season plants will poke out of the ground, trees will start to green up; there are buds already on the branches.

Like the changing seasons, we tend to hold on to what is familiar, too. But while we honor the past, let’s not close the door on what is unfolding before us. Let’s enjoy Nature’s changes as we move into a new space. And let us be open to the promise of growth in our gardens, in our thinking, in ourselves.

Happy Spring!

Monday, March 18, 2013

Herb Planting Time

Herb Planting Time

I have been buying basil in my favorite Whole Foods market all winter. A package of the hydroponic herb can last several weeks, sometimes longer. It is one of my favorite spices. So now that the weather is hinting at Spring, I am beginning to think of planting some in my garden.

I already have mint back there. It comes back every year. At first I had planted mint in the ground but it spread so fast and so far that it threatened to be the only thing growing in that space. I dug up as much as I could and replanted it in a large pot, which gives me more than enough leaves for my needs. I still get outcrops of mint where I least expect it but it is manageable.

This year I think I will make an attempt to grow my own basil outside. My friend’s neighbor, who owns an Italian restaurant, has a virtual nursery of basil plants in pots outside his townhouse. It doesn’t seem that hard to do. I would be in basil heaven to have so much of that herb growing in my garden.

I am also thinking of planting cilantro, which I absolutely love. Cilantro, like basil, has many uses – in sauces, salads, sprinkled into soups. And the simplest of all is to add some to any kind of sandwich for a distinctive lift. 

Yes, I will plant herbs this Spring. I don’t need a whole lot, just a bit. They are subtle tastes but their presence always makes me take notice. I think they will be a good reminder to pay attention, to be in the present while eating, a very Yogic concept. Maybe that little bit of herbal awareness will generalize and spice up the rest of my day.

 The basics of basil and other herbs - definition, planting, harvesting, drying,and more: