Thursday, January 14, 2021

And Now for Something Yellow

We put away the Christmas items the weekend following Epiphany, by which time I'm in the mood for something with a completely different feel. Something light, and yellow, and uncluttered. At the center of the new buffet vignette stands Julia, resplendent as always in her yellow dress.

Yellow is one of Pantone's new colors of the year for 2021; the other is gray. (Or, that is, "Illuminating," and "Ultimate Gray.") But for me, yellow is always the color of the month for January.

Yellow was my mother's favorite color, and her birthday was January 29. I would search for a yellow primula to give her, but often had to settle for a kalanchoe instead. I gave her a couple of yellow mugs over the years, too, which came into my possession after she died in 2015. One holds pens on my desk and serves as a pleasant functional memento. Mom would have turned 92 this month.

Julia, the yellow clad figurine and the human she represents, dwelt in this house before us. Julia was the owner of the house and died a year or so before we bought it in 2010, having reached the age of 90-something. According to our neighbors, she was active right up until the day of her death, which occurred quietly at home, here in this house. 

She lived independently for many years after her husband, Harry, died. She had a lush flower garden and a gentleman companion. She enjoyed a warm and friendly relationship with our neighbor Bonnie, who tended Julia's garden the summer after her death, and later helped me identify some of the flowers Julia had bequeathed to us. 

We first looked at the house (the exterior, that is) in spring when an abundance of yellow daffodils were blooming all around the backyard. We took a tour inside on Mother's Day—our Realtor, who was young enough to be my son, and whose father had been our Realtor when we bought our first house, gave me a hug and wished me a happy Mother's Day. 

The 1920s bungalow is so characteristic of the Longfellow neighborhood of South Minneapolis that the term Longfellow bungalow is quite common around here. We have long been attracted to this style of house, and this one is a fine example of the style, without being too precious or elaborate. 

And it has a built-in buffet! A buffet offers such a perfect display area, a sort of playground for creating seasonal vignettes. I had wanted one since we bought our first house in 1987, but hadn't managed it until now.

A couple of weeks before we were set to close on the house, Julia's heirs had an estate sale to clear out the myriad possessions that they had crammed into the garage for ease of showing the place. We went and introduced ourselves, and selected a few small items to buy as a kind of bridge connecting us to the house's previous inhabitants. 

Porcelain figurines of ladies in fancy dresses are not usually my sort of thing, but I thought one of them would be a fitting avatar of the previous owner and her taste in decor. I chose the one with a yellow dress, perhaps thinking of the daffodils I had admired a month earlier, or of my mother's favorite color. The family said that this one did indeed look like Julia. Of course she does. And here she stays.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Tiny Christmas: Who needs a tree?

We used to always get our Christmas tree about a week before and keep it up until Epiphany (aka Twelfth Day), but the last few years our local spots have run out of trees before we got to them. The first time it happened, we made the trek to a nearby suburb and found a plentiful selection to choose from. I made a mental note to be sure to get a tree a bit earlier next time so we could buy either from Nokomis Beach Coffee shop, which offered free delivery in the neighborhood, or Mother Earth Gardens, which is even closer and has a full complement of wreaths, greens, and more.  

We missed the last tree by a day (or so) again last year, so this time I made myself a calendar reminder to get the tree in early December, figuring we could keep it outside in the snow until it was the right time to bring it in.

Right after Thanksgiving, I bought a wreath and a small swag at the garden center, and some branches of berries to add to the arrangement of greens I had gathered from my own garden for the front step. There were plenty of trees to chose from then, but I figured I would get a tree from the coffee shop, since I was buying a lot of other things from the garden center already. Spread the business around a little, you know? I was going to be sure to get over to Nokomis Beach in the next week or so—still early, in my mind.

Well, they both sold out by December 8th this year! The report from Mother Earth Gardens was that demand was unusually high, and they were hearing from a lot of people who hadn't even had a real tree before. People weren't traveling for Christmas, and they were feeling some nostalgia besides. Pandemic comfort decor, I suppose.

We didn't feel like traveling, either, not even outside the neighborhood in search of a tree. Perhaps it's the pandemic effect for us, too, but we realized we were more in the mood for a scaled-down holiday anyway, and a tree seemed kind of, well, opulent. Especially a tree we would have to go out of our way to get. 

I bought some extra greenery from Mother Earth, including a bundle of small fir boughs that I put in a sturdy crock and set on the buffet, in order to bring the essence of Christmas tree into the house. 

The folks at Mother Earth also had some tiny arrangements of flowers and greens in pots that were a mere 2" in diameter. I bought one to put in an equally tiny cast-iron urn I bought years ago, which had been too small to use for actual plants because the roots outgrow it in about two weeks. But an arrangement in florist foam was perfect.

It gradually dawned on me that without a tree to requisition all of our ornaments, I could place some of them around the house on various shelves, in cozy little spots, or hanging from other things. I really enjoyed spreading tiny Christmas all around the house and now am thinking about how I could do even more of that in future.

We might forego a tree next year too, only this time intentionally, now that we've discovered how Christmassy the house can feel without it. Not needing to rearrange furniture or sweep up needles is an added bonus.

I hope you are enjoying this Christmastide (which isn't over until January 6, you know) in your own small way.

Hanging from a lamp in the den.

Atop the wainscot in the bathroom.

A broad view of the buffet, with unhelpful cat.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

The Calendar Cards Get a New Sleeve

When I first made the Useful Calendar (more on that here) into a set of cards, from its original format on a single sheet of letter size cardstock, I fashioned a sleeve to hold them by adapting a template designed for artist trading cards (ATCs). The calendar cards at that time were ATC-size (2.5" x 3.5").

Because it was a flat sleeve with the seam on the side, and I was putting 16 cards in them, I made it a little bigger and gave it some reinforcement by laminating the whole thing with packing tape. It was rather fussy and time-consuming to make each one that way, but it made a very durable, long-lasting sleeve that could be refilled each year for several years.

Then I made the cards slightly larger to make better use of the paper I printed them on. Instead of trading card size (2.5" x 3.5"), I made them 1/8-letter size (2.75" x 4.25"). Now I don't need to trim anything away, I just cut the printed cardstock into 8 cards.

But these no longer fit the old sleeves, so I adapted the sleeve I was using to accommodate the new size. I made a pattern out of stiff plastic upcycled from a pocket folder, so I could just trace around it.

That worked fine for a few years, mostly because I don't do a high volume of business, especially of the pocket version of the calendar (I sell more of the ones with a wood stand aka a desk calendar). But then I had an inquiry last January from a person who wanted to buy a large quantity for their employees, with the sleeves, and I couldn't accommodate them. They settled for 15 of them and let me know at that time that they would like a much larger quantity for Year of the Ox (2021).

So I started looking for a ready-made sleeve that I could use, but could not find anything the right size. Then tinkered with creating a better design that would still be durable while also being easier to make. I noticed that the card sleeves I found online had the seam in the center of the back instead of at the side. I thought that looked nice and would be stronger because there isn't the stress that a seam on the side has to contend with. 

I also realized that I needed to accommodate the thickness of the 16 cards in a more precise way than just making the sleeve a bit bigger. I used a technique similar to the draping method of designing clothing (I used to be a seamstress/tailor), wrapping scrap paper around a rectangle of corrugated cardboard representing a stack of cards, creasing it at each edge, front and back. From this I took measurements and notes.

I then tested some paper samples I had, making a miniature prototype because my samples were so small. I carried the test sleeve in my wallet for several weeks, taking it out and handling it and putting it back to test its durability. It became apparent that the new design would hold up very well.

I made a new template in InDesign so that I could print them with my own artwork on the front (and brand them with my shop name on the back). Then tested the printed one on some nice gray cardstock I already had in letter size (it's set up to print 2 on a letter-size sheet), by handling it a lot and rubbing the printed side with my fingers. As I had feared, the toner started to rub off and look worn, so I coated it, and the others I had made so far, with Gel Medium, a clear acrylic that can be used as a sealant. Because the sleeves were already assembled when I brushed it on, they resisted warping from the moisture in the medium, and it dried pretty quickly. It results in a sheen on one side of the sleeves, and visible brush strokes, but I think of that as just the handmade touch.

Now I need to get in touch with that customer from last January to see if she still wants the Year of the Ox calendars! Even if she doesn't, I appreciate that her inquiry prompted me to design a better card sleeve.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

On World Homeless Day, Let's Remember, and Help, and Be Grateful

In Greg Brown's song, "Just a Bum," he reminds us that but for chance and fortune, any of us could end up down and out and possibly homeless:

"Some people live to work, work to live
Any little tremble and the earth might give
Ya can't hide it in a Volvo or a London Fog
Can't hide it in a mansion with an imported dog
No matter how we plan and rehearse, we're at pink slip's mercy in a paper universe ..."

Today, October 10, is World Homeless Day, according to the United Nations. Since its founding in 2010, the purpose of the day is to call attention to homelessness and urge people to work on solutions.

Here in Minneapolis, homelessness was made more visible this summer when the park board decided to allow encampments in our public parks, even in "nice" neighborhoods like mine, near Minnehaha Falls.

The Minneapolis Park Board has  adopted what I would call a policy of rational compassion, designating certain areas and parks for encampments, limiting the number of tents that are allowed in any given spot, and issuing permits to people and organizations who take responsibility for managing the encampments and helping the temporary residents find indoor shelter before winter. 

They don't pretend that this is any sort of solution to the problem of homelessness, acknowledging that it is a stopgap measure, as superintendent Al Bangoura recently stated:

"We know that sheltering homeless people in Minneapolis parks is not a safe, proper or dignified form of housing and is, at best, a temporary solution for encampment individuals before cold weather arrives."

One such encampment, at Logan Park in northeast Minneapolis, was recently profiled in the Star Tribune. There, a local church, Strong Tower Parish, is hoping to open a 24-hour shelter in November to serve homeless people such as those who have been staying in the park. This will be the second winter that the church has sheltered homeless people, but this time they are seeking funds from the CARES Act to make their building a more suitable shelter, with lockers and showers, along with a new ventilation system and other improvements to make it safer from COVID-19.

Such encampments on public land are not new in Minneapolis. A couple of years ago, a large encampment of homeless people, mostly Native Americans, formed in South Minneapolis alongside a walled area next to Highway 55, also known as Hiawatha Avenue. It came to be known as The Wall of Forgotten Natives, and, later, the Franklin Hiawatha Encampment. The people staying there were eventually moved to what was called a navigation center, and from there into shelters and, in some cases, longer term housing. You can read the story of that experience on the Franklin Hiawatha Encampment website.

The outreach team at St. Stephen's Human Services is also working in cooperation with city and park board officials to help people who are currently camping in the parks to find better shelter.

Another local organization that has been working since 1972 to get people into affordable, safe housing is Project for Pride in Living. They also offer job assistance, career training and coaching, and even clothing to help their clients dress for job interviews.

CloseKnit focuses on facilitating connections between youth experiencing homelessness and caring adults; their emphasis is on supporting those relationships, and connecting host homes with resources to meet their needs. They started out specifically helping LGBTQ+ youth who were estranged from their parents, but have since expanded their mission to help all youth. The reality, though, is that it is most often queer kids who get kicked out of their homes, as documented in a recent report from the Wilder Foundation.

We used to publish a small print journal we called Minneapolis Observer Quarterly (MOQ), and in one of our last issues, the spring 2010 edition, writer Mary Jane LaVigne wrote an essay about volunteer work she did for Project Homeless Connect, which provided services to homeless people in a biannual event at the Minneapolis Convention Center. Her role was with an oral history project, nudging people to tell their stories. She wrote about several of the people she interviewed and how the experience challenged assumptions one might be tempted to make about homeless individuals as "other."

She ended with a quotation from one of her subjects.

"When you get home tonight," he said to her, "run your hands along your walls; be grateful to your walls and the roof over your head. Then go outside and touch the sides of your house. Be grateful that you don't have to sleep outside. You never know. You never do."

Monday, October 5, 2020

The Supreme Court and English Quarter Days

Today, the US Supreme Court starts its new term, meeting (remotely this year) on the first Monday in October. Although not explicitly stated on its official website, I can't help but think the tradition has its roots in the English quarter day customs.

From the Middle Ages to the twentieth century, the first day of each quarter of the year on the English calendar was the time for magistrates to hold court, debts to be settled, rents paid, and other financial and legal matters resolved and noted in the record books. The idea was to set a limit on how long such things were allowed to go unresolved.

The days roughly corresponded to the seasonal events of solstices and equinoxes, with the year beginning on Lady Day (March 25), followed by Midsummer (June 24), Michaelmas (Sept. 29) and Christmas (Dec. 25).

In 1752, England and its dominions (including the American colonies) adopted the Gregorian calendar reforms, along with the Scottish practice of starting the year on January 1. The traditional quarter days continued to be observed, however, and even today, the fall term at English colleges is called Michaelmas term. 

Today, the English financial year is divided into standardized quarters that are the same as the US system: Jan. 1, April 1, July 1, and Oct. 1.

Michaelmas (pronounced mick-ul-muss) is still the name for the first of the four quarters of the legal year in England, when certain courts begin sitting in October, after an elaborate ceremony at Westminster Abbey. The US Supreme Court session used to begin with a ceremonial visit to the White House, but now they get right to business hearing oral arguments on the first day.

The Supreme Court didn't always begin meeting on the first Monday in October, however. When it was founded in 1790, it was scheduled to meet on the first Monday in February and again in August. It was changed to October in 1917, according to the National Constitution Center.

By the way, this cheerful fall-bloomer, the aster, is known as the Michaelmas daisy in England.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Happy Muharram, Happy New Hijri Year. But why today?


As a calendar maker, I am quite interested in calendar folklore and history, including the different start dates for the year. Many calendars have their origins in the agricultural cycle and thus begin the year in spring, with the vernal equinox, or in the fall, with the harvest season. Our calendar’s start date has its origins in the Roman practice of beginning the year shortly after the winter solstice, when the days begin to lengthen again. All of these traditions are based on the sun and what is called the solar year. 

Then there’s the Muslim calendar, which begins the new year on August 20 this time — but really this evening (August 19), because an Islamic day begins at sunset. Next year it will occur on Aug. 10, and in 2022 it moves into July. It will keep moving forward in the Gregorian calendar because the Islamic calendar is strictly lunar, without adjustments to make it align with the solar year. 

Whereas the traditional Jewish and Chinese calendars, and a few others, are luni-solar — a hybrid that inserts an extra (intercalary) month or two at regular intervals so that holidays move forward on the Gregorian calendar (the lunar part), but then move back again so as to stay in the same season (the solar part) — the Islamic calendar makes no such accommodation, perhaps because its basis is religious, not agricultural. Prior to that, the nomadic Arab people had been using a lunar calendar, which was adapted by Muslims to mark their founding event. 

The Islamic calendar began in the common year 622 (AD/CE) and the month of Muharram, when Muhammad and his followers migrated from Mecca, where they were persecuted, to Medina, where they established the first Muslim community. The migration is known as the Hijri, which is also the name of the Islamic calendar. 

The new year is called al-Hijri (or al-Hijra) or Muharram 1. (The different spellings reflect different transliterations from the Arabic.)

Addendum for nerds like me

This page started as a Facebook post on my business page, but quickly became unwieldy for that format. The information is based broadly on the various books and articles I have read over the dozen or so years I have been fascinated by calendars. But I did not wish to take the time to go back through my sources and notes to cite anything specific, so do take the foregoing with a grain of salt. I did check Wikipedia to refresh my memory and get a couple of details straight, though.

For those who want more information, the Wikipedia page on the Hijri year offers a nice concise explanation. 

For a broad history of calendars presented in an engaging format with photos and illustrations, visit the web museum Calendars through the Ages. 

These two sources don’t entirely agree on the details, and neither is reliable enough to use alone for fact-checking or term paper research, but they do provide some historical and cultural context for understanding the Islamic calendar (and others, in the second one).

I welcome corrections from those who know more than me about this topic, and other relevant comments. But I do moderate so I can delete the spammy stuff.

Monday, August 10, 2020

With apologies to the bees and goldfinches

I'm not the most fastidious gardener as a general rule, and when a relentless heat wave like we experienced for nearly all of July comes along, I'm even worse. There were a few days at the beginning of the month when I got out in the garden early in the morning (like, around 6 a.m.) intent on making at least the most public part of my front garden presentable, and I did accomplish that much anyway. But for the rest of the month I looked out through my windows at the rampant weeds and said, "mmmm ... maybe tomorrow."

I favor a not-too-tidy cottage garden look, with an emphasis on native plants balanced with and contained by a few old-fashioned staples, like peonies, disease-resistant roses, and a boxwood hedge. 

I planned the garden with birds, bees and butterflies in mind, and placed a bird feeder in the front yard where we could see it from our dining room windows. Knowing the spilled seed would mean a lot of weeds (mostly sunflowers), I tried to design it so that the messiest areas would be screened somewhat from the street view: there's a serviceberry (Amalanchier laevis) and then a row of boxwood between the feeding area and the front edge, with a "terraced" flower garden next to the sidewalk (shown here in August when it's mainly just the mums blooming).

("Terraced" is in quotes because the front edge of the yard is set off by a low retaining wall we made from chunks of concrete after taking up a sidewalk in the back. A second row of sidewalk chunks is arranged a few feet back from that, in front of the boxwood. Hence, it's a "terrace.")

Respectability isn't the only reason to weed and maintain a garden, of course. Weeds tend to hog water, nutrients and sunlight, and they'll take over everywhere if you don't yank them out once in awhile, such is their nature. 

But the birds and bees don't care about any of that. I have let bindweed get way out of hand after seeing a hummingbird nectaring from its small pinkish white flowers, and now we are struggling to untangle the bindweed from everything else, including the volunteer sunflowers around the bird feeder.

A mystery mint showed up in the flowerbed next to the front steps earlier this summer, standing out conspicuously as it loomed over the coral bells and low growing vinca surrounding it. I kept putting off doing anything about it until I had the time and inclination to weed that whole garden. Knowing how aggressive mints can be, I finally decided that I had to just go yank it out and leave the rest of the weeding for a cooler spell. 

Then one morning as I sat at the dining room table drinking my tea, I noticed goldfinches landing on the swaying mint plant and happily plucking something from it again and again. I don't know what, exactly, they were eating, but I didn't have the heart to spoil their fun, so I let it go a bit longer.

Finally I did yank it, and a few of the surrounding weeds. Not long after, the goldfinches had moved on, and were plucking petals from my neighbors' tall zinnias. 

I also cut back the catmint (Nepeta), which the bumblebees really love. Like other members of the mint family, it kind of over-grows itself and falls open at the center; the stems get too long and flop over, and the flowers fade and lose their charms. The bees continued to visit the blossoms even as I was cutting the whole think way back. I laid a blooming stem aside on the front step for a few moments because a bee wasn't finished with it yet. 

But the bees, like the goldfinches, moved on to other flowers. (They especially love my repeat-blooming Henry Hudson roses in the backyard, below.) And the catmint will be blooming perkily again by September.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Packing some unstructured play into a little tin

Our grandson, who's almost 3, visits on Friday afternoons. When he arrives, he usually heads straight for the den, where we have an assortment of toys and random items, including wooden blocks and animal figures; puzzles and cards; books we saved from our children's early years; a couple of long cardboard tubes; balls; cups; measuring pitchers and other kitchen utensils; and assorted containers. 

Some secondhand items that will go into tins of "stuff" for kids.
Surely you remember playing with some mix of toys and nontoys when you were small—inventing  games and stories, conducting experiments, and generally playing in unscripted ways. I remember playing with my mother's extra buttons among her sewing notions, as well as other objects that weren't really toys. 

Early childhood professionals stress the importance of such unstructured or open-ended play in developing children's skills in creative problem solving and original thinking. Carrie Shriver, an early childhood education specialist at Michigan State University, says, "Play, and in particular creative play, has been identified as a key component of building children’s resilience, ability to focus, and the ability to act intentionally, even when the outcome is unknown. These skills translate into competence and capability in adults." 

She describes "open-ended materials" as those things that do not have a predetermined use (the way a licensed character is connected to its role in a movie, say). "A block can be a car, phone, doll’s chair, ice-cream bar or any number of other things in play," she says. (Read the full article here.)  

The little desk where I assemble the tins of stuff.

I think I must have been feeling some nostalgia for this type of play when I decided to make and sell little collections of random "stuff" for kids, in a mint tin (which always include a few buttons). I first got the idea when I would be selling at craft shows, and I had a dice game I invented for school-age kids to practice math skills. I noticed that children who were too young to do the math wanted to play with the dice.

After adding these tins to my inventory, I noticed that preschool-age kids were attracted to them, while slightly older children tended to look at them quizzically and say things like, "What are you supposed to do with this?"

That change in attitude with age seems to fit Shriver's explanation that the first five years are critical in laying the foundation for creative skills later in life. "From birth through age 5, children’s brains are literally forming the complex web of synapses that last throughout their lives," she says. I can't help but wonder if those kids who don't "get" the little boxes of random stuff have already had their capacity for inventing their own form of play driven out of them. 

Michael Patte, professor of education at Bloomsburg University, describes what he calls unstructured play as "a set of activities that children dream up on their own without adult intervention." He's concerned that too many children are over-scheduled, and that open-ended play is not happening enough these days. 

Magnets I made with buttons, postage stamps, and my illustrations.

I no longer sell at craft shows, but I still enjoy assembling my odd collections of very small open-ended materials into tins, which I cover with digital collages of my illustrations printed on a label. I suppose I'm really indulging in my own type of creative play when I collect items for the boxes, and make others (magnets, bottlecap tokens), fit them into a tin, and arrange them for photographing, before offering them for sale in my Etsy shop.

Are you ever too old to enjoy a little open-ended play? I sure don't think so.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Your Valentine's Day guide to a few card sellers on Etsy who eschew crudeness and cliches

With Valentine's Day coming up, and as part of my continuing effort to revive the rather forgotten tradition of sending cards in the mail to those you love, I'm offering this guide to a few of my favorite shops that sell cards on Etsy (full disclosure: and mine). You need this if you want to search for any kind of cards on the site, because a generic search for Valentine cards—or even birthday cards!—yields an unpleasant abundance of the crude and cliche'd. While Etsy automatically screens your search results to favor those shops that offer free shipping (usually with an order of $35 or more), you're on your own to filter out anything else.

I made this rather unpleasant discovery recently when doing a test search on the site. I simply searched for "birthday cards" to see what came up. Boy, did I get an eyeful! Nearly the entire first page of results featured crude sexual humor and images. If I were a first-time shopper on Etsy, those results would likely turn me off from using the site at all. I actually worried that I could be losing potential business because people who might like my cards will never get past their first impressions.

An assortment of mild-mannered valentines (made by me) you will not see in your search results on Etsy. To see more like this, just click here.

I looked for a button to filter my results from "adult" content and found nothing. I then looked in the discussion forums and, after several minutes of searching, learned that I wasn't the only one to be dismayed by such results. Someone offered the helpful tip that you can include in your search terms "-mature" to screen the results—except, that only works if the sellers remember to mark their items as "mature," which many of them do not. Plus, that still left me with an abundance of derivative pop-culture cliches, not to mention rampant copyright infringement—a lot of sellers on Etsy don't seem to realize that Disney characters are not theirs for the taking.

With Valentine's Day coming up, a search is even more likely to be problematic for those who don't really care to sift through all that. So I thought I would help you bypass the search process by showing you some shops selling cards that are original, creative, clever, beautiful, and suitable for all audiences.

Of course, I sell cards too, and you can see them in my Etsy shop here. But apart from that plug (and the photo above), this post isn't about my items. Herewith, a highly selective list of Etsy shops with cards that I'm sure will delight you. For each, I selected just one example, and linked the name to the corresponding shop on Etsy.

Wild Roses card by Cindy Lindgren

 Cindy Lindgren is a fellow Minnesota artist who creates illustrations in an arts-and-craft/nouveau style, many of which are iconic images from that era, such as this stylized wild rose. She also sells prints of her illustrations, fabric pieces with her designs printed on them, and several useful items all featuring her artwork.

Letterpress card by Green Bird Press

Green Bird Press is a letterpress shop whose cards are simple and elegant in that way that only letterpress does; yet this artist also serves up subtle geeky humor, sometimes purely through the images.  It's a fun shop to browse, especially for fans of sci-fi, comics, and general randomness.

Tattooed hamster card from Go kittie

Go kittie is the shop of an artist in London, UK, who does whimsical illustrations of animals and prints them on notecards. She seems to especially like pugs, so if you're looking for a card for someone who owns a pug, or if you love pugs, you will be delighted with the selection here. In additions to pugs and this tattooed hamster, you'll find cats, foxes, a badger, a few other breeds of dogs, and other animals. All of them are really cute, but not in a cutesy way, if you know what I mean.

Tandem bike love card by Rachel Inc.

Rachel King Birch is a Philadelphia artist who puts her hand-drawn illustrations on cards, tags, and tea towels under the shop name Rachel Inc. She has several love-themed cards and tags worth checking out. This tandem bicycle is one of my favorites.

It's very hard to choose just one card from Sacred Bee!

Pamela Zagarenski is an award-winning illustrator and author of children's books who sells elaborately illustrated cards with quotes and clever sayings through her business Sacred Bee. Her Etsy shop is under her own name. I ordered a few cards from her last summer and was delighted not only with the cards, but also with the packaging.

Added eco-friendly bonus: Her cello card sleeves are compostable, which she mentions on her site but it's not indicated on the sleeves themselves.

This two-puffins card would be sweet for a wedding.

Kate Broughton is an English artist living in Leeds, UK, who describes her artwork as nature-inspired. Besides a very nice selection of cards, she also makes nail stickers, notebooks, magnets and more, all featuring her lovely artwork.

Here's a tip for getting the most out of your Etsy shopping experience: scroll all the way down from a shop's main page until you get to the "About" section (which used to be easier to find). It is a sure way to identify the true makers from the copiers and resellers, and it's a nice way to get to know the artist a little better.

One of many love cards by Edgar and Suzanne Cabrera

Edgar and Suzanne Cabrera are a husband-and-wife team who make their playful illustrations into cards, posters, garlands and tea towels. There's a bright, simple cheerfulness to all their artwork, and they seem to like raccoons a lot! Their Etsy shop is called An Open Sketchbook.

I'm going to stop here, even though there are more artists selling cards on Etsy that are quite delightful. You are welcome to browse my favorites on the site anytime, and you can search within my favorites to see only cards (or anything else if you want to see my recommendations). To see the public favorites of any Etsy seller whose taste you like, such as those featured above, click on their name in the upper right of their shop's homepage. It's possibly the most effective way to do a filtered search on the site—let an artist be your curator.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

January is the time for seed catalog season to begin

The pretty little mug was made by Judy Anderson, Dragonfly Guild pottery.
The first seed catalog arrived more than a week before Christmas. I was annoyed. Don't they know better than to send it out before the holidays? It's like they broke a cardinal rule of gardeners' etiquette.

It wasn't one of my regular garden supply companies, nor will it become one. It went straight into the recycling.

But now that January is well underway, I have begun to peruse the assortment of catalogs that arrived at more suitable times, all of which I've ordered from before. I'm not at all ready to start planning my garden yet (the garden plans in the photo above are from last year), but I relish this dreamy pre-planning phase, when anything is possible. I mark pages with sticky notes, circle plants I like, jot notes in the margins about where I could grow this or that.

The glass mosaic with orange flowers was made by
Chris Miller, a LoLa artist.
I do this for flowers, vegetables, and herbs, but I'm mostly interested in flowers at this stage. I want them all!

I plan to start some clover seeds soon, to have a nice pot of shamrocks by St. Patrick's Day. (I've written about clover and shamrocks before, such as here.) And I'd like to get an early start on some strawflowers or paper daisies, which seem to need lots of lead time. I started some from seed last year, but got only a couple of the dryable blossoms. I had envisioned making a charming string of them for a sweet botanical garland, like the one I saw in a Remodelista post last fall. But two blossoms does not a garland make!

To get me through the dreariest winter months, I'll splurge on flowers from Seward Co-op, where I buy my groceries each Friday. And begin setting up my seed-starting operation in a sunny south window upstairs (with added lighting). And pore over my seed catalogs, enjoying this easy, dreamy stage, when the garden has no weeds or pests. Just possibility.

"I dwell in possibility," —Emily Dickinson
(For the full poem, visit the Poetry Foundation)

Some seed catalogs I like:

Johnny's Selected Seeds

Select Seeds

John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds

Jung Seed

Renee's Garden Seeds

Monday, July 15, 2019

An ode to chamomile and shade

One day last week I got out into the garden early so that I could do a little weeding in the shade. The chamomile, which scatters its seeds rather widely next to the fence where I was working, was still shaded also, and so its petals drooped, awaiting the sunlight.

Drooping petals await the morning sun.
Once the sun cleared the tree across the alley and its light fell on the chamomile, the flowers came alive. The white petals perked up and spread out around the yellow centers, the sweet appley fragrance rose invisibly, and dozens of tiny flower flies showed up, fluttering daintily from one blossom to the next.

The flowers open, the flower flies come.

It made me think of a poem by Japanese poet Ryokan (even though it's about butterflies). 

The flower invites the butterfly with no-mind;
The butterfly visits the flower with no-mind.
The flower opens, the butterfly comes; 
The butterfly comes, the flower opens.
I don't know others,
Others don't know me.
By not-knowing we follow nature's course.

[From Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf: Zen Poems of Ryokan, trans. by John Stevens. Shambhala Publications, 2004.]

Harvesting chamomile on a not-so-hot day in the garden

I try to keep up with harvesting the blossoms to dry for tea, not so much because I drink a lot of chamomile tea, but because if I let them all go to seed, they stop blooming and the plants dry up and that's the end of it. If I keep harvesting, they will keep blooming all summer. I don't worry about picking so many that I keep it from reseeding; it's really not possible to do that.

I usually pop off the blossoms with my thumbnail and into a bag while sitting on a chair that I bring out to the garden. But harvesting those prolific blossoms can get tedious even while sitting, especially in the sun on a hot day, so with temperatures in the 80s already at 10 a.m., and climbing to 90-plus pretty quickly, I took a scissors and cut off several bunches, then sat down in the shade of our patio umbrella to pop the blossoms off and into a paper bag for drying in the garage.

A thumbnail is a very handy tool for separating the blossoms from the stems.

A lot of the flowers were already past their peak and destined for the compost, so I placed my harvest basket on the table to hold a handful at a time from the bucket where I had put all the cuttings, with my paper bag between my feet for dropping in the blossoms. A second bucket collected the compostable leftovers.

A mass of chamomile stems and flowers in the shade of the patio.

For drying the flowers, I use a grocery bag that's been cut down to half its height, plucking the blossoms so they fall into the bag until there's enough for a single layer at the bottom, then set the bag on a table in a dark spot in the garage where they won't get sunlight to turn them brown, and leave them for several days to dry; I leave the bag open for maximum air circulation. We don't put our car in the garage in summer (much easier to get our bikes in and out that way), so there's no exhaust fumes to spoil the herbs. 

A glass of iced tomato-veggie juice aids the harvest on a hot day.

I've got some spearmint growing in a pot this summer, so I'll be sure to dry some of that, too. It complements the chamomile very nicely in an herbal tea blend, which tastes pretty good iced on a summer evening, when shade from the house falls on the patio and reaches across the backyard. 

Pretty soon the chamomile is shaded too, and the petals fold down, as if tucking themselves into bed for a good sleep before the morning's visitors arrive.

Chamomile with poppy petals and a tiny bee (probably Ceratina genus), on a morning in July.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The delight of starting pink pansies indoors

I haven't started seeds indoors for several years, but this year I decided to renew the practice because I wanted pink pansies.

They are surprisingly hard to find. My local garden center, Mother Earth Gardens, has a really good variety of plants during the growing season, especially when it comes to Minnesota native plants, heirloom vegetables, and herbs. Plus loads of perennials and annuals. It's pretty amazing all the choices and variety they offer for a small urban garden center.

But, like other garden centers, they don't have pink pansies, except maybe in a six-pack of assorted colors, with one of them pink. But I wanted lots of pink ones, from light pink to mauve and burgundy. So I searched online until I found them at Swallowtail Garden Seeds.

The photo at left is  of the Heat Elite Pansy in pink shades, from their website, but you can't find these particular ones anymore. I assume they are sold out for this year.

I bought the seeds in January, along with some lettuce seeds (romaine and butterhead, my favorites), and paper daisies (Helipterum roseum), which are also mostly pink (as you may notice if you click the link).

I started the pansy seeds in late January and the paper daisies soon after, along with a few other flower seeds. The lettuce I'll sow directly in the garden very soon (ideally, I should have done it already—as soon as the soil became workable, which was a couple of weeks ago or so).

I used cardboard egg cartons as my seed-starting trays, which has worked very nicely. Pansies germinate in the dark, so I covered them with the egg carton lid until they poked their tiny green noses up, about a week after sowing. Then I uncovered them and kept them in a south window in a warm upstairs room.

My pansy seedlings in their egg-carton tray in mid-March, six weeks after starting.
But I didn't buy and set up supplemental lighting until March, which, in hindsight, I should have done much sooner. I had hoped they'd be forming flower buds by now, but they still have a ways to go, and I blame inadequate lighting for their slow progress.

I eventually potted them up to 4" diameter round pots, which was probably too big of a jump, so they languished some more after that, but now, on the first of May, they are showing real signs of progress in the porch, where they're getting sun from south and west windows.

The pansies are in the round pots farthest back. The square cardboard "pots" (boxes) hold marigolds at the center, and 3 tithonia at front. Photo taken on April 28 in the porch.
Even though the pansy seedlings haven't gotten as far along as I had hoped, I'm glad I started them from seed, along with the other flowers. It's very satisfying to nurture them along and eventually watch them flourish and bloom in the garden.

If the bunnies don't eat them.

Come to think of it, maybe I'll plant the pansies in the tall cast-iron urn on the front stoop.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Writing notes by hand really is better sometimes

I've taken to jotting appointments and dates on a pocket calendar, and then later adding them to the  calendar on my computer, rather than entering them via my phone when I'm scheduling them. Although, honestly, I find myself using the calendar app less and less as I have gotten used to going back to paper.

Writing stuff down first with an actual pen on an actual paper calendar is working better for me. First, because it's quicker and easier to do it that way than to enter the pass code on my phone and then open the calendar app and then enter the info into the form—even when the process is not interrupted by a reminder to update my software. And, second, sometimes the phone auto-fills the wrong information; or I discover later that there's no reminder when I was sure I had set one up; or I am unable to find the appointment on my electronic calendar at all.

It also seems like I remember things I wrote down better than things I noted via device; so I was pleased when I came across some research supporting that claim.

Studies comparing these two methods of recording information suggest that writing by hand really does improve learning and recall, even without all the distractions and annoyances I experience using my devices.

Neuroscientists say that our brains are engaged more and in different ways when we write by hand, and this brain engagement helps us to learn and remember things better. For example, a study in France found that children who were taught letters while writing them by hand, later recognized them better than a group of children who learned their letters on a computer.

Those same scientists repeated the experiment on adults, teaching them a new language that used a different alphabet, and again found that the adults taught by way of handwriting remembered more than those taught by computer. (This and other fascinating research is reported in The Guardian in this December 2014 article.)

Meanwhile, at UCLA, two psychologists tested college students to find out whether taking notes by hand affected learning and recall differently than using a laptop. They, too, found that students performed better on tests after a lecture if they had taken notes by hand. They tested one group of students (divided into a pen-and-paper set and a keypad set) shortly after the lecture, and another group a week later, allowing time for study and review. In both instances, the note-writers did better than the typers; and the group tested a week after the lecture showed an even bigger difference favoring the notes-by-hand technique.

The way that these studies were conducted suggests that the participants did not have to deal with all the little distractions and annoyances that I stumble over when I attempt to use electronic devices for jotting appointments and notes, and yet they still found an advantage in taking notes by hand.

While none of these researchers is suggesting that we go full luddite and abandon our electronic communication devices altogether, their findings do make the case for also using our pencils, pens, and paper notebooks and calendars. Think of them as exercise equipment for our brains—and as the ultimate backup devices, provided you remember where you put them.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Flowers in the house as we wait for flowers outside

It's April in Minnesota, which means that today is lovely and sunny and about 60 degrees, and there are tulips and crocuses just poking their green tips up out of the soil.

And tomorrow, a snowstorm is coming.

So I have been trying to complete my late winter/early spring pruning of trees and shrubs that I was supposed to do in March, except there was way too much snow on the ground and I needed to buy a new pruning saw and shears, which I didn't get around to until a week ago. For that, a not-so-early spring is actually helpful.

But for my spirits,  I have taken to buying bouquets at the co-op during my weekly grocery shopping trips, so I can enjoy some flowers and greenery in the house while not-so-patiently waiting for them to appear outside.

A recent article on one of my favorite eye-candy websites, Gardenista, offered some tips on arranging flowers like a Frenchwoman. I find myself torn between falling into dreamy idolizing of all things French, and Oh, Please. Really? But it was fun to look at the photos, so there's that. And some of the tips were actually helpful, in that they helped me articulate what I am attracted to when I see a flower arrangement that I really like, such as a limited color palette and a touch of wildness.

I started some seeds in January, including some pink pansies that have been languishing. I should have invested in some supplemental plant lighting a little sooner, I have concluded. I have the seedlings in the porch now, which is enclosed but unheated, with south and west windows, and I added a grow light, but they remain tiny. I'll end up buying pansies at the local garden center for my front step urn, but my tiny pansies will surely bloom eventually. Other flowers I have started from seed are looking pretty good, and giving me some hope for the near future.

I also started some Dutch white clover, for St. Patrick's Day, by which time they looked pretty cute.

But I decided to keep them going, and now they've become quite lanky. I've changed up their companion figurines from elves to something more Easterlike, and I'm rather enjoying them as quirky houseplants. I may repot them in something that will go in an Easter basket, although I am enjoying them in their cute little planters, so maybe not. They'll eventually join the compost pile out back.

Meanwhile, I'll be trying to finish up that pruning before new growth starts, and checking to see what new bouquets Seward Co-op has to offer this Friday.