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.

Monday, March 11, 2019

It's a calendar, it's a zine, it's a diary — It's the Useful Calendar Almanac!

Yeah, I know. I'm writing about my 2019 almanac in March of 2019. What?

I actually finished the thing in January, and stitched together a prototype, which I marked up with corrections and notes, and then decided to use that one myself rather than discard it. Then I made a second one for my husband, who was missing his old-style printed calendar-planner. It's the size of a quarter of a letter-size sheet of paper, 4-1/4 by 5-1/2 inches, a nice handbook size that's also manageable for me to print and assemble at home.

Then I ran into a friend at the coffee shop, and when I showed him my copy he immediately said he would like one, so I made a few more to display during a neighborhood art event in February, the LoLa Winter Fine Art Exhibition, and he bought one, and the remaining 5 copies are now available in my Etsy shop. 

The truth is, this has been about four years in the making. Since 2015, I have made some version of an almanac-diary for my own use and as prototypes, always finishing them after the first of the year and telling myself I will make the next one in time to sell in the fall for the following year. These prototypes had limited text, since I didn't want to research and write articles, lists, and such for myself only.

But as I have modified the design of the Useful Calendar to allow more room for art, and to keep the font a readable size, and still keep it small and pocket-sized, I have left out more and more of the fascinating tidbits of information I gather along the way, and I really wanted to make them available in some complementary format, for which an almanac seems just the thing. And then it just made sense to have a few pages for a person to jot their own notes of whatever sort, whether using it as a planner or diary or phenology journal. So I added three lightly gridded pages per month.

This time I was determined to just get it out there, no matter the poor timing, and set the precedent that there will now be a Useful Calendar Almanac every year, alongside my usual compact-yet-informative calendar formats.

But I'm also equally determined to do all of it myself, from the research and writing, to illustrating, to printing and assembling and stitching. Because that's just how I do things, inefficient though it is. The following photos show the steps in the assembly process. Each one takes me about an hour to assemble, so I find something interesting to listen to and just immerse myself in the doing.

The cover, printed on card-stock, about to be cut and scored for folding

The flap to the left will form a pocket, because I gotta have a pocket.

Here are the pages, to be folded into signatures to form the text block.

Marking the signatures for where I will punch the sewing holes. The cover has the holes printed on it, so I punched those first and then use them as the guides for marking the holes in the signatures, because I will be sewing through the spine.

I chose some pretty-colored linen thread since the stitching will be both functional and decorative; the signatures will be sewn through the spine in a criss-cross pattern that forms X's on the outside. It means the center signature gets a bit more stitching than it would with a different style of stitch, because it is being sewn to the first and then again to the third signature in the process of stitching it all together. The result is a good securely bound book.

After all the sewing is done, I brush the spines with PVA glue, which remains flexible when set, so it will strengthen and protect the spine and the stitching. I brushed the glue over the edges, too, because I figure that's where the most wear will occur. They'll stay clamped like this overnight, after which the glued spine will still feel a bit tacky for a couple of days, but eventually it will just have a kind of rubbery feel.
I was going to offer these through my shop as a made-to-order item, but after I assembled a few and realized it takes about an hour just to do that, I thought I really can't ask what they're worth so late in the almanac season, so I am just offering the five that I've already made for $15 each, with a note in the description that the 2020 edition will cost $25 so as not to create the impression that $15 is a normal price for a hand-bound book like this. In truth, $25 isn't really a normal price either, but I do want to strike a balance between what I see as affordable and how much it's worth to me to make them. Because while I enjoy making them, I'd enjoy selling a few of them too.

Monday, December 10, 2018

The joys of open-ended play

When our son and daughter entered their teens, it appeared they had outgrown their Legos, so we donated them. Not long after, our son showed an interest in playing with the little plastic bricks again and I regretted having gotten rid of them, so we decided to get him a box of new ones for Christmas.

We went to the Lego store at Mall of America, which was something of an ordeal for me because I hate shopping malls. Still, we figured that was the place to find the best selection of Legos and to get a nice large assortment. What we found instead were a lot of "kits" designed to make only certain things, but not one (NOT ONE!) box of just plain Legos for making anything he wanted.

I was disappointed — I had just endured the biggest shopping mall in the country only to come away empty-handed.

I didn't know there was a term for what I was looking for, and what Legos used to be: open-ended toys, like wooden blocks, generic dolls, and all the random stuff that kids naturally gravitate to — rocks and sticks and other low-tech things like Mom's button box.

Open-ended, or unstructured play is when children invent their own storylines and rules, set their own goals, create their own structures and characters. It's the opposite of licensed character dolls from movies and shows, or kits for assembling a specific thing.

And it's so necessary for the health and well-being of children, some doctors are "prescribing" unstructured playtime, which is kind of an ironic concept, isn't it?

The American Academy of Pediatrics even released a report in August stressing the importance of open-ended play to develop flexible brains that can engage in creative problem solving and inventiveness to become well-rounded, successful adults.

"Play is learning" is a quote from Joseph Chilton Pearce
So if you're looking for a good excuse to avoid the mall and to not hunt down the hottest "it" toy for your child, there you have it. How about a good set of handmade wooden blocks from an independent crafter on Etsy?

You can even search the phrase open ended toys on Etsy and get some really inspired results.

Or visit an independent shop that sells consignment items from local crafters. That can be a fun exploration for you as well as have the potential to yield something unique that really engages your child.

Or just get out your button box and let your child rummage through it.

It's the sort of thing I had in mind when I started putting together little collections of random stuff in little tin boxes to sell in my Etsy shop, some of which illustrate this essay.

Happy playtime!

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Butterflies for the Useful Calendar -- some works in progress

I've been painting watercolor illustrations of butterflies for the 2019 Useful Calendar, and sharing pictures of some of them on my Facebook page. But as I always have something  to say about my artworks in progress (the back story, you could say), it occurred to me that this blog is better suited for that.

At the coffee shop, on a day suitable for bike riding, to proofread the calendar in progress.
Even though I settled on butterflies for my calendar illustrations several months ago, I'm a terrible procrastinator, so I started actually doing them about a month ago. Each one takes four to six hours to complete, so I really can't do more than one in a day; and I prefer to allow two or three days for the whole process: two days for sketches and studies and painting, then one day to set it aside before taking a fresh look and adding any finishing touches.

I've managed to condense the process into one day by making it my primary occupation (it's very difficult for me to make anything my primary occupation), and by being rather more disciplined about it than is my nature. It being cold and snowy and getting dark early does help, because I don't feel much temptation to get out on my bike in the afternoon these days.

A slightly later version of the calendar, with a few of the butterflies in place.
But a thaw is coming, and I have bulbs and roots (of butterfly-friendly native plants) still to plant, so I will have to muster a bit of extra resolve to finish the last two (yes, two left!) and get the calendar done and ready to go by the end of this weekend (which I am determined to do). Then I will make it available in my Etsy shop and, hopefully, at a couple of local consignment shops.

Now, here are the first few illustrations, with a bit of context and an explanation for why that butterfly for this month. I'll share more of them over the next week or so. 

Monarchs wintering on eucalyptus 
I wanted each month's butterfly to relate somehow to its month, so, being a Minnesotan, I wondered what I should do with the winter months. That led me to think about monarchs migrating. It's widely known that our monarchs fly to Mexico for the winter, but I learned a couple of years ago that those west of the Rockies winter in coastal California, in eucalyptus groves. So my January butterflies are monarchs on eucalyptus. 

I like to think these are in Pacific Grove, a charming city adjacent to Monterey. We stayed in Pacific Grove when our son graduated from the Defense Language Institute a couple of years ago, at a motel called the Butterfly Grove Inn, so named because it is next to a butterfly sanctuary. It was June, so there were no monarchs at the time, but it was a new discovery for me that monarchs wintered there. We hope to go back some winter.

Pacific Grove has a very nice natural history museum, too. I highly recommend it.

A pig and tiger swallowtails enjoying some mud

The Year of the Pig begins February 5, 2019, and I have made it a tradition to feature the lunar new year animal in my calendars, so I contemplated how to combine the two. What do they have in common? Well, as it happens: an affinity for mud! Several species of butterflies, including the tiger swallowtails depicted here, will gather in mud puddles to extract vital minerals from the wet soil, a practice known as puddling.

Question mark butterfly, left (November); zebra longwing, right (December)
I've not been painting them in any particular order, and since I am showing you winter butterflies (well, the swallowtails aren't a winter butterfly, I just put them in February because they "go" with the pig), here are some more of those.

The December butterfly is a zebra longwing (right), which flies year round in the far south including Florida, southern Texas, Mexico and Central America. It is the state butterfly of Florida, and one of its nectar plants is the firebush, on which I placed it to add a little splash of color.  

The question mark, shown perched head down on a spruce branch, could still be active in November in a milder region than Minnesota. Some of them will migrate to southern states, and some will hibernate in the north. Hibernating butterflies tuck themselves into a crevice in a tree or structure, or crawl into the midst of a brush pile, and spend the winter in a dormant state.  This nature museum in Chicago offers a nice succinct explanation of butterfly hibernation.

Butterflies may hibernate at any stage in their life cycle, depending on species. Those that hibernate as adults emerge fairly early in the spring, likely before there are any flowers to provide nectar. Luckily, flower nectar is not their preferred food; rather, they feed on tree sap, rotting fruit, and animal waste. 

That includes the mourning cloak, my March butterfly and another one that hibernates in adult form. I have seen these flying when there is still some snow on the ground — they'll even land on a snow pile to sip a little moisture, and probably get some nutrients from the dirt that's mixed in.

Hibernating butterflies, in whatever life stage they do it, need shelter in the form of leaf litter, brush piles and wood piles, as well as mature trees with gaps and crevices they can crawl into. You can help them out by not tidying up your yard too much in the fall.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

A nest hidden in the arbor

Earlier this summer, we were enjoying watching a cardinal pair that seemed to have taken up residence in or near our backyard. I had figured they must have a nest nearby somewhere, perhaps in our neighbor's lilacs, or in one of the trees that have volunteered along the fence. By midsummer, the juvenile cardinals were everywhere calling out in their one piping note. They had not yet learned to whistle melodiously like their parents.

And then there was the plain brown young bird that was acting like one of the cardinal brood but did not look like a cardinal. We finally figured out it was a cowbird. The cowbird lays her eggs in other bird's nests, one here and one there, leaving it to the unwitting adoptive parents to feed and raise her chicks. Often, this is to the detriment of the host bird's offspring, but judging by all the young cardinals chirping about in our backyard, the intruder doesn't seem to have done them any harm. (Jim Williams wrote about cowbirds in his Star Tribune birding column here.)

They eventually matured and scattered and I pretty much forgot about them.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I spotted a small broken speckled egg on the pavement under our narrow arbor leading into the backyard from the alley. We planted an American bittersweet vine on either side of it about five years ago and the vine has grown into a thick and rampant canopy. I looked up to see if I could spot where the eggshell came from and that's when I saw the well-hidden nest in the tangle of vining branches.

The location and size of it fits the description of a cardinal's nest provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology on their website All About Birds. The eggshell, however, could be that of a cardinal or a cowbird, they are similar enough that I really couldn't say — I'm certainly no expert, and I no longer have the eggshell to examine it.

I've recently seen and heard juvenile cardinals in our yard again, an apparent second brood, possibly from the same pair, but they don't use the same nest twice, and the one in the bittersweet does indeed look abandoned. 

No sign of a cowbird this time around.

(When researching information about cowbirds and cardinals for this blog post, I came across this terrific collection of photographs on a site called Wild Love Photography.)

Monday, April 23, 2018

Calendar design inspirations part 2

For years, I used to go to the annual Dayton's-Bachman's spring flower show at the Dayton's department store in downtown Minneapolis. It was an elaborate and fanciful exhibition of real flowers and topiary and whimsical statuary, set up in their large auditorium on the 8th floor for about one week in March. I would meet my mom and grandmother there, and later brought my two children at least a couple of times.

There would be a garden path that wound through the exhibition, revealing various vignettes following a theme. And it was all free — with a little gift shop at the end for buying garden-inspired products and a poster to commemorate the show.

In 1989 the theme was a book by Tomie dePaola, who designed the exhibition and created the poster. I was charmed and inspired by the airy whimsicality of it. I bought the poster that year and put it up on the wall in my kitchen, where it stayed until we moved nine years later. I don't know what happened to it after that; it may have been a bit tattered by then and we may have discarded it, or it's rolled up and stored in some forgotten spot.

I thought of that poster when I was playing around with design motifs and colors for the next Useful Calendar. As I mentioned in a previous post, I had settled on a theme of butterflies to illustrate the 2019 edition, and I was considering different fonts and a color scheme to go with that. Realizing that my usual tendency to make a bold blocky title is probably a bad match for the whole idea of butterflies, I started testing airier fonts and lighter colors.  

Another factor influencing my color choices was a catalog for The Company Store that was sitting on my desk as I was working on the design. My eye was drawn to the dusty pastel color palette of the quilt on the cover. It told me that, yes, muted colors can work.

So now that I'm pretty set on the color scheme, it's time to move on to trying different fonts, with a preliminary mock-up of the cover card to see how it looks once printed.

I do believe that design should follow function. I needed to see how well it all fits and looks on the cards. So I took the first four months of the current calendar, removed the artwork and used the space at top for notes about fonts I was trying out on that card.

I had one customer recently tell me that the text on this year's calendar is a little too small in spots. She was gracious enough to respond to my request for elaboration, and we determined that the text at the bottom of each card was the problem. Not only is it really tiny (8 pt), but I had set it in italics and the color blue. So I was feeling a little concerned about  going with my light airy scheme when I already had an issue with readability. 

At this point, I'm thinking that the solution will be to not only use a slightly bigger font, but to set most all of the text in black—and to use fewer words! 

I'll be turning my attention to the content now: checking the dates of the moveable holidays, and researching and writing the notes for the backs of the cards, which feature some less prominent holidays and interesting trivia.

I used to do all of the research and writing before starting on the design, but I have found that not only do I like doing the design work earlier in the process, but it also helps to then set it aside and ignore it for a while so that I come back to it with fresh eyes later on.

Which means that everything could change before it's done.