Sunday, December 14, 2008

Winter Garden Cuttings

(Here's my latest garden column in the Southside Pride.)

A small item in the fall newsletter of the Minnesota Native Plant Society caught my eye recently; it impugns the popularity of filling our outdoor containers with black spruce tips for the holidays. Even though the gathering of spruce tips is regulated and licensed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the writer is concerned that the popularity of the ubiquitous mini trees could eventually put undue pressure on the peat bogs where they grow.

“I would rather imagine black spruce growing in a native peat bog than being managed as a crop, and, as I see it, every acre of cut spruce tips is an acre that could be left in a natural state,” writes Elizabeth Nixon, chair of the society’s conservation committee.

It appears that the practice poses no imminent ecological problems, thanks to the DNR’s oversight, so if you really adore them, by all means buy spruce tips from your local garden center. On the other hand, if you see a guy selling bundles of them off the back of a pickup, don’t do it.

I have used spruce tips in past years, but somehow the combination of their omnipresence this time of year, which makes me just a little bored with them, and the way they so readily let fall a shower of little needles, which makes me a lot annoyed with them, has led me to seek alternatives.

Besides, this is a gardening column, and, unless you have a peat bog in your yard, you can’t grow them yourself.

On the other hand, several of the the more unique and, to me, more attractive seasonal displays feature plants you can grow in your yard — hardy shrubs that not only offer cuttings for decorating, but food and shelter for wildlife, and a more attractive landscape to enjoy all winter long. The following are just a few that you’ll find at garden centers now as cuttings, and again in the spring as landscape plants.

Winter greenery
You may already have white cedar (a.k.a. arborvitae) or juniper or other small evergreens growing next to your house — these common foundation plantings may even strike you as nothing special, but their branches are attractive and fragrant, and a few discreet cuttings won’t hurt this time of year. They won’t look so good if you just stick them straight up in a pot as you would spruce tips, though. Think of them as you would foliage in a bouquet, surrounding and visually supporting the more colorful upright elements.

In fact, it helps to compose your winter pots using the same three design components as you would a pot garden in summer: something tall and spiky, something bushy and colorful for the middle, and something spreading or trailing. Evergreen branches, whether cut from your foundation plants or gathered from the ground at the Christmas tree lot, may serve best in that third capacity, as a trailing or spreading feature.

Tall twigs
It’s the bundles of red dogwood twigs that first got me thinking about growing my own winter decorations. You can really put out the money for a sizeable mass of these, and they look so stunning standing up through the snow, why wouldn’t you want them in your winter garden anyway?

Native to our wetlands, this tall shrub known by the species name Cornus sericea (or sometimes called Cornus stolinifera) will thrive in any garden soil. There are several cultivated varieties, some of which have been developed at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

Red-twigged dogwood will grow in full to part sun, prefers a neutral to acidic pH but will tolerate slightly alkaline soil, and grows 6 to 8 feet tall with a spread as wide or wider, but there are some smaller cultivars. It can form a bit of a thicket, though the cultivated varieties are likely to be less aggressive than the native plant. If you want to take a lot of cuttings in the winter anyway, that shouldn’t be a problem. To keep the brightest red stems coming, prune out the oldest (dullest) ones in the spring to stimulate new growth (it’s the new stems that have the brightest color). The small, somewhat discreet flowers are white, followed by white berries that the birds will happily devour.

Berry delights
Winterberry is really a form of holly that is native to Minnesota. Unlike the spiky-leaved hollies you find at a florist shop, this one, Ilex verticillata, is deciduous — it drops its leaves in the fall, leaving behind dark branches sporting bright red berries. It’s another wetland plant that doesn’t require a bog to thrive — in fact, it can spread somewhat aggressively in wetlands, but tends to stay put more in regular garden soil. It’ll grow in sun or partial shade, but you’ll need both male and female plants to set fruit.

Common winterberry, the native shrub, will grow 6 to 10 feet tall and as wide, but there are many cultivars, some of which are quite compact. The leaves are not terribly attractive, but most varieties turn a nice dark red color in fall and tend to drop early, revealing the colorful berries. Some varieties may have orange or yellow fruit.

Roses are not usually selected for their fruit, but some do develop brightly colored hips, as they’re called, that can be as showy as holly berries. Since we usually buy roses in spring or summer when they are blooming, we won’t see what the hips look like at that time, so if you want that added winter interest, select a variety that is known to have showy hips.

Fortunately, the roses with the most colorful hips are also among the hardiest and most disease resistant. The University Extension service has an excellent pamphlet on hardy roses for Minnesota with a chart listing many varieties and their various characteristics, noting any that have particularly showy hips.

Of course it’s not practical for most of us to grow all of these shrubs in our city gardens, but if you can find room for one or a few of them and plant them together to form a winter vignette that you’ll see from your window, it’s sure to brighten those bleak days after the holiday d├ęcor has been put away.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Barn buddies

My daughter has a horse, a sweet mare named Tempest, which she stables in the suburb of Lino Lakes, about a 35-minute drive from our house. Today I drove her there so that I could take some pictures of her and her horse for our Christmas correspondence. As usual, the pictures aren't all that great because I didn't plan ahead so I would have a spare battery charged up, and the battery runs low quickly because of low light conditions, which is especially a problem when you are trying to photograph a moving target. And it doesn't help that I get distracted and photograph other things like this barn cat on a vintage Massey-fergusen tractor, thus using up precious battery life.

There are three barn cats at this stable, two that are still kitties and this adult cat, Tiger, who walked up to me and meowed demandingly while I was waiting for Nora to finish warming up her horse before bringing her outside, even as the natural light was quickly waning.

The kitties, named Snickers and Tommy, are orange and white. Tommy came outside to greet us as we arrived, then immediately started pouncing on bits of straw. Nora scooped him up and carried him into the stable with her, and as she paused to greet the various horses who stuck their muzzles out of their stalls as we walked by, some of them would stretch their necks enough to put their big horsey noses into the cat's soft fur. The cat didn't seem to mind this at all.

When we got to Tempest's stall, Nora handed the kitty to me, and he immediately snuggled into my arms contentedly and watched as Nora led Tempest out of her stall and prepared to groom her before riding. After a while the cat got a little restless, but didn't seem to want to jump down, so I moved closer to the horse and the cat climbed up onto the horse's back. Tempest still had her blanket on and the cat just settled right down.

In order to remove the blanket, Nora picked up Tommy and placed him on the horse's head, where he proceeded to play with Tempest's ears, which she didn't seem to mind. I only have blurry photos of that, the light was just too low inside the stable and I didn't want to use a flash and startle the horses.

After Nora put Tommy down and he scampered off and disappeared, I asked where he had gone.

"Probably in one of the stalls," she said.

"Don't the horses ever step on the cats?" I asked.

"They're very careful. They can feel the cat around their legs," she said. But then, after a moment or two, she added. "I have seen barn cats with kinks in their tails, though."

Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween Phenology

I came across my notes from last Halloween, a rare experience -- the finding of the notes, not the taking of them. I try to keep track of how many kids show up at our doorstep demanding sugar so I know how much to buy the next year. Then it occured to me that weather may play a role in those numbers (we didn't have a lot of trick-or-treaters in 1991, for example, when a monster blizzard dumped more than two feet of snow on the kiddies), so I made a few notes about that as well. I love that sort of trivia, so I'm sharing it here (plus it gives me a way to find it again if I lose my handwritten notes!) -- my report from last Halloween in bucolic South Minneapolis (the photo is of a yard in my neighborhood that I found especially charming).

The weather was windy and dry, with temperatures in the 40s by evening. The high that day had been 62 degrees, the low 44 -- very similar to today's forecast for the Twin Cities, except we don't seem to be getting any wind today.

I lit the candles in our pumpkins at about 6 p.m., when it was just starting to get dark, placing votives inside glass holders to keep the wind from blowing them out; in one pumpkin I placed a partially burnt down pillar candle, so the sides of the candle protected the flame from the wind. Thanks to the pushing back of the return to Standard time (finally! I've always wondered why they had us setting the clocks back on the Sunday before Halloween!), we didn't get any early trick-or-treaters interrupting our dinner. At least, I'd always thought that the early onset of nightfall was the reason the smaller children headed out at such an inconvenient time.

The first kids showed up at 6:45 p.m. By 7 p.m., if I read my hatch-marks and notes right, we had had about 20 kids, 4 of them teens (who showed up at 7 p.m. -- always worth noting when the first teens show up, signaling the phase when the candy supplies will dwindle rapidly!) Another 20 came after 7 p.m., with the last one showing up about 8:45 or 9 p.m.

I had handed out both balloons and candy and made a note that the balloons were very popular. I should have read that sooner! I may go out and buy some balloons yet today (I think I had some halloween-themed balloons, which I imagine I can find again at the local Walgreens.)

My final note was that there were no dominant character themes among the small kids.

I wonder if we'll see any politically themed masks this year? I can think of a few scary ones, depending on your particular leanings! But that's another topic, and one that I'm pretty darn tired of, so I won't go there now.

Happy Halloween, whoever may read this!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

City Serenade

Sometimes I wake in the middle of the night — likely a lingering sleep pattern from when my children were babies — and I just lie there, listening to the city night slowly roll over into morning. We live in a quiet neighborhood, fortunate that our Nokomis bungalow does not lie under a flight path. On the first open-window nights in spring, I’m aware of the low hum of traffic on the crosstown, the faint whine of airplanes taking off. But by midsummer, the crickets’ cheerful all-night chorus drowns out these machine-made sounds. And for a time after the last bus has rumbled down 54th Street, I could almost be in some quiet rural enclave — just the crickets and me.

A car passes now and then. Our neighbor opens the door to let her dog answer his nocturnal calling. A friendly muppet of a standard poodle, he’s usually very quiet, but sometimes something excites him and his exuberant barking pierces the night. A rabbit?, I wonder. A prowling cat? A racoon? The door opens, a muffled voice hisses, “Bogie! Get in here!”

I know dawn is approaching by the rustling of my window shades — the air has begun to move. Then the first bird announces itself. In the spring and early summer, this is usually the distinctive whistle of a cardinal, but by September they have run out of things to say. Soon a cacophony of bird song begins a crescendo; I pick out a robin, a finch, a chickadee.

The birds are interrupted more and more frequently by car doors opening and closing, engines starting, as the earliest workers are whisked away to useful industry. Then the familiar rumble of the bus tells me the day has begun in earnest.

Bogie makes another foray out into his yard, and now my dog is tap dancing outside the bedroom door, impatient to do the same.

The day brings its own set of sounds, both human and animal. When I walk the dog I am constantly stopping to peer up into the branches of a tree because I hear the soft tapping of a downy woodpecker, the nasal nih-nih of a nuthatch. I hear the scuffle of sneakered feet; a jogger passes, her ears plugged into an I-Pod. The cicadas are boisterously warmed up by afternoon.

Soon it will be too cold to leave the windows open anymore, but so also will the cold silence the insects and subdue the birds. The pleasures of listening to the city at night will diminish, so I won’t mind shutting the window. And, really, I should get some sleep.

I wrote this essay for my quarterly magazine, MOQ -- Minneapolis Observer Quarterly. If you'd like to know more about MOQ, such as what else is in the current issue and how to obtain a copy or maybe even subscribe, please go here.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

My garden column

I've been writing a garden column in the Southside Pride, a south Minneapolis community newspaper, in exchange for which I get a little ad promoting my quarterly mag., MOQ (Minneapolis Observer Quarterly). I was up at the aforementioned cabin/lake home when the September column was due, so I wrote about the garden behind a coffee shop in Longville, Minn., near the cabin. I did this drawing while sitting on the coffee shop's patio. Here's a link to read this month's installment of the column.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Over and Under the Rocks

We went "up North" last week, which means we went to the family vacation home on Woman Lake, Minnesota. I used to go up there all the time when I was a kid, but we only get up about once a year or so now (which is plenty; I don't know how my parents did it, going nearly every weekend with four kids).

I used to like to play in the shallow water as a kid, and with the water level a bit low this summer, we had a nice little bit of shoreline, so I enjoyed selecting rocks and stacking them into cairns. I wasn't content with just the very small rocks, or with the ones lying on the surface of the sand and easily picked up; when I spied a partially submerged one that looked like just the sort of thing I was looking for -- kind of flat and oval, good for stacking -- I pulled it out of the lake bottom, releasing a cloud of dirt and bubbles in the process.

I also used to get leeches on my feet when I was little -- we called them bloodsuckers. I remember my mother and aunt patiently picking them off (and maybe it was only once, but I sure remember being freaked out about it). So it didn't really surprise me when I was stepping out of the water and my 20-year-old daughter pointed to my right foot and announced, "You have a leech."

It was about an inch and a half long, and although I acted calm, I was a bit squeamish about it, so I asked my husband to pull it off and he kindly obliged. Then I noticed a few tiny little gray leeches, about a quarter-inch long, on the same foot. These weren't as intimidating, so I tried to pull them off myself, but they were too tiny to grip. "We need to use a tweezers," I told my husband.

We went up to the house and he patiently picked all the tiny leeches off my foot -- we counted 14 of them! All of these were on the same foot, and nobody else got any, even though we had all been walking around in the shallow water among the rocks. So I wondered if that submerged rock I disturbed had been some sort of leech "nest."

I found a NOVA Web site based on a program they did about the medical use of leeches, and from there linked to a fact sheet that explained that leeches do attach their eggs to rocks, so I must have stepped into a newly hatched brood or something. I guess I got my comeuppance for disturbing the lake bottom -- from now on, I'll only select rocks that are lying on the shore!

Monday, June 23, 2008

A polite conversation?

When visiting Boulder, Colorado, while my husband was attending a conference, I walked down Pearl Street to a little convenience store called Lolita’s to buy sunscreen and some bottled spring water. There were two tables outside the store, and there were two men sitting at one of them, so I sat at the other to apply my sunscreen and drink my water.

The two men looked to be maybe in their mid-30s or early 40s. Soon two younger men, maybe in their early 20s, came along; they greeted the seated men as though they had met before but did not really know each other well. There was some talk about “last night” as though they had all perhaps been out at the same local bar. Then one of the 20-somethings said to one of the seated men, “By the way, you know, it’s really bad etiquette to use your speaker phone in the bar.”

The seated man said, in a quiet, calm voice, “Oh, really? Well, you know, I don’t really give a f**k what you think.”

The other one continued in an equally calm, polite-sounding tone, “I just thought I should let you know, man, that it’s not good etiquette.”

“Well, I’m sorry if I offended you man, but I really don’t give a f**k.”

This continued for a few minutes, with neither man raising his voice or betraying any anger in his tone, and with the seated man repeatedly using the f-word. Finally, the younger man departed, saying “God bless you, man,” as he walked away.

The seated man talked to his friend for some time after this, saying that he thought the younger man must be very priviledged and accustomed to telling other people what to do and how to behave -- with frequent use of the f-word -- and then said that he was known to be a nice person, that he knew several influential and wealthy people in town, that he was 42-f-ing years old and therefore deserving of respect. He also said that he grew up in the Bronx, had attended UCLA, and that he bet the younger man had never been in a knife fight or pulled a gun on anyone. He said that he knew people who would respond violently to the younger man’s correction, and that such a response would serve as a valuable lesson to the young man -- all the while repeating that he did’t give a f**k what the guy thought. But at no point did he raise his voice or betray through his tone the extent that he was, by his words, obviously offended.

Although I found the ironic diatribe somewhat entertaining, I decided to leave while he was still talking about it because I figured he might eventually say to me, “What the f**k are you looking at?” and I didn’t think I wanted to engage in that conversation.

But he never raised his voice.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Visiting Boulder, Colorado

My husband was going to Boulder, Colorado, for a LOHAS conference, and I said, how about if I tag along? So here we are in Boulder. It's a lovely town nestled just next to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, population about 100,000 -- just enough to make it a vibrant city, it seems. There's a pedestrian way through the middle of downtown, called the Pearl Street Mall. It goes for several blocks and you can't so much as ride a bicycle down it -- it's all for walking.

We went out Thursday evening to look for a place to eat dinner and discovered that there's a lively night life on the mall. We noticed a crowd gathered on the corner of Pearl St. and 13th, where a street performer was regaling them with some lively antics. He had recruited a few assistants -- two men who stood facing each other with their arms folded across their chests, and a woman to whom he handed various instruments, including a hatchet and, a little later, a lit torch. He then climbed up and stood on the men's crossed arms and it appeared that he was going to have the woman toss the items at him to juggle, which was a little hard to fathom! But then he instructed her to step a little closer, then closer still, then he had her hand him the hatchet, torch, etc. He said, "You didn't think I was going to have her throw those things, did you?" She looked relieved. But it was probably the guys he was standing on at that time who were the most relieved. Anyway, he proceeded to juggle the hatchet and lit torch and other object (I didn't notice what it was) quite artfully. We moved on after that.

Eventually, we went to a wine bar called The Kitchen, which was recommended to us by a fellow operating a small winery where we had stopped for a glass earlier in the afternoon. It was crowded and lively, definitely a hot spot in town, and Craig noticed that it was full of young people -- much younger than us, certainly. It was too loud for conversation, so we we mostly took to people watching, and Craig commented that there were mating rituals going on all around us. True enough. We enjoyed our stroll back to the hotel Bolderado in the cool of the night, played cards, and went to sleep, old fogeys that we are.

There are more photos on my Flickr page.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Grapevine lilacs

Here it is the last day of May (and our 28th wedding anniversary today) and we still have lilacs and even some late tulips blooming around here. It's unusual to have lilacs this late in Minneapolis, so this is kind of a treat.

Last year, I transplanted a wild gravevine to the base of our lilac tree and it's already taking off up the tree, of course. So much of the lilac is bare wood that I thought the vine would be nice way to get more green on it, especially in summer when it's done blooming. Of course, I didn't bother to find out if our landlords liked his idea! Oh, well, they're not too fussy when it comes to the landscape, as long as we keep things reasonably tidy and stay out of trouble.

But I thought it looked kinda cool when one little bunch of lilac blossoms formed low on the tree, next to the grapevine, looking like a bunch of grapes!

Monday, May 19, 2008

Lovely long-lasting lilacs

We are surrounded by lilac hedges, courtesy of two of our neighbors -- retired single men who don't seem to notice or care about their lovely bushes. So I knew I could gather a bouquet and nobody would mind!

When the kids used to gather lilac bouquets at Grandma's house, they always wilted only an hour or so after being placed in a vase. So when I read somewhere that you're supposed to pound the stems with a hammer to get them to take up water, I tried that and it seemed to help. But later I learned that doing violence to the stems in that way was not good for the cuttings, and indeed it only seemed to extend the life of the cut lilacs by a few more hours.

These lilacs were cut yesterday and I photographed them today. You can see that even the leaves still look fine.

I wish I could remember where I read this, but here is the technique: Bring a pitcher of very warm water with you out to the lilac bush, make clean cuts with a bypass pruning shear (which doesn't crush the stem), strip off the lower leaves and plunge the cutting into the warm water, immersing as much of the stem as possible (right up to the blossoms if you can). Ideally you leave them in the warm water overnight, but since the water doesn't stay warm that long anyway, I don't think it matters if you transfer them to a vase, also filled with warm water, which is what I did. When I transferred them I made sure to strip off any leaves that would be under water so they wouldn't rot and spoil the water.

I know that some bouquets do fine with only enough water in the vase to cover the bottom inch or so of the stems, and maybe after a day or so of curing, these lilacs would be fine that way too, but as long as there are no leaves under water, I am keeping the vase as full as I can so the whole stems remain immersed.

Lilacs last such a short time even on the shrub, so I like to keep them as long as possible indoors!

(Note added on Thursday, 5/22: the lilacs are just starting to wilt this evening, so they lasted about 5 days.)

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Biking to Mom's

Last week I told my husband that I wanted to go see my mom on Mothers Day, to have lunch or maybe just coffee. Since I've been riding my bike so much lately, he said, "Are you going to bike there?" She lives in the suburb of Roseville, which is a pretty good distance north and east of our South Minneapolis home, so I laughed at the suggestion -- of course I wasn't going to be that ambitious!

But then on Sunday morning when I was walking the dog, I considered what a very lovely day it was -- sunny and mild, although a bit windy -- and I thought why not bike to Mom's? I have all day. And as soon as I had that thought, I remembered that when my mother used to work at the VA hospital, which is only a few blocks from where I live, she often rode her bike to work. Wouldn't it be swell to retrace my mother's bike route to visit her on Mother's Day?

So I checked the distance on Google maps and found that it's 13.5 miles. I figure that I bike at about 7-8 miles per hour, so it could take me close to 2 hours. No problem, I have time today. But just in case I'm too tired to bike home again, I asked my husband if he would come and pick me up to take me home after. Of course he said he would.

I called my mother to let her know my plans, then I asked her how long it used to take her to bike to work at the VA. "Oh, I think about an hour," she said.

An hour! You may think that sons compete with their fathers, but I found myself determined to get as close to my mother's time on that trek as I could. So I pedaled hard and fast east across the Mississippi River, up the River Blvd. (north), turned onto picturesque Summit Ave.(east again), which has a dedicated bike lane, and proceeded to Lexington Ave., which would take me north through Como Park, a large park in St. Paul on the way to Roseville.

As I was peddling along on Summit Ave., a pair of bicyclists in Spandex whisked past me. (I think of bicyclists who wear Spandex, and those funny shoes, as serious cyclists.) I picked up my pace to match theirs and followed them as far as Lexington, where they continued on Summit and I turned left, heading north.

On this day there was a wind from the north at 30 mph. After I left Como Park, Lexington Ave. veered to the west, and since I still needed to go east as well as north, and didn't want to add more distance to my route, I continued north and headed up through a residential neighborhood.

Just before you enter the suburb of Roseville, you cross a major east-west thoroughfare called Larpenteur Ave. For a long way, the north side of Larpenteur is occupied by a large cemetery, so I kept going east until I came to Dale St., which crosses Larpenteur and heads north into Roseville; this would bring me quite close to my destination.

Now I knew that Dale St. had a pretty-good-sized hill right before I planned to turn off of it, about 2 miles from Larpenteur. But I hadn't remembered that it had an even bigger hill right after you cross Larpenteur. In fact, I am certain it was the biggest hill I ever encountered on a bike! And it was followed by a second hill only slightly smaller than the first, and finally that third hill before the turn.

Well, with the cemetery on one side and a large park on the other, there was no detouring around the big hill, so I put my head down and pumped away. I had a nice long downhill run before heading up the monster, but the 30 mph head wind (did I mention that the wind was from the north?) actually prevented me from getting much momentum. So I had to shift down to my lowest gear almost as soon as I began the ascent, and when I was about halfway up, huffing and puffing with every revolution of the pedals, a bicyclist in Spandex passed me easily. By the time I reached the summit and could look down the other side for a long distance (and at the next hill), she was nowhere to be seen.

I coasted on the downhill side and then puffed my way up the next hill, not quite as big as the first, and then a third time (all into the wind) before reaching County Rd. C and turning to the east, where I encountered only a slight climb to get to my mother's street, and then a relaxing descent down Virginia Ave. to her house.

It took me an hour and a half. I asked my mother, did it really only take you an hour to bike that distance? She pondered a bit, then said it was probably more like an hour and 15 minutes. And she never went by way of Dale street, but rather took a route that was mostly level. She also reminded me that I was biking into that north wind most of the way. So I guess I didn't do too bad!

My mother drove us to a pleasant little cafe where we enjoyed lunch and coffee, and then learned that they were giving a free piece of cake to each mother. It was a delicous multilayered torte with strawberries and bananas and cream and a little dark chocolate. We should have shared one! When we got done, we were stuffed. So I decided to bike home as well, but I didn't take Dale St. this time.

I made it home in an hour and 15 minutes -- with the wind at my back.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Eagles in the city

We have a nesting pair of bald eagles in South Minneapolis, right near Hwy 62, and today I spotted this one perched in a tree on the banks of Lake Nokomis, in a residential neighborhood about 6 miles from downtown Minneapolis.

I was riding my bike around the lake when I looked up at this tree because I sometimes see cormorants perched in it, and they are so big and funny looking that I just get a kick out of them. When I first saw the eagle its head was down and its back was to me (as it is here), and so it didn't register at first what I was really seeing, I just thought, wow, that is a really big bird in that tree. Then it lifted its head and I was just awe struck -- an eagle! Right here in my neighborhood!

The crow in this picture was first perched on a nearby tree, and it cawed constantly at the eagle. Then it flew over and took a couple of dives at it, then perched where you see it here, and continued to caw. Finally it flew again, took one last dive at the eagle, then flew away. The eagle was preening itself the whole time, ignoring the crow.

Other people walking around the lake stopped to look at it, including a woman who lives very nearby and who comes to look at it often -- she says it likes to perch in that tree because there are dead branches, thus fewer leaves to block its view of the lake and the fish. All of our city lakes are stocked for fishing, so I'm sure there's plenty there for it to eat -- probably walleye and northern and tasty fish like that.

A couple that came walking by said they had just been over by the nest (about a mile or less away from this site) and that there was another eagle sitting on the nest. That one is larger than this one, they said, so it's probably the female. Sitting on the nest? Sounds like we'll have more eagles soon!

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Sacrificial tomato plant

Actually, this poor hapless tomato plant survived its ordeal and is thiving in its pot once again, with dirt covering its roots. I had purchased it for the purpose of drawing it for a new gardening column I am writing for the Minneapolis community newspaper the Southside Pride.

So you may be surprised to learn that I did not write about tomatoes for my first column, slated to appear in the May editions (they publish three neighborhood editions each month). Rather, I wrote about dirt. That is, I wanted to address the fundamental "elements" of gardening, wishing to also recall the traditional four elements: earth, air, water, fire. So, for the first column I wrote about earth/dirt in the context of organic gardening -- for example, that you feed the soil, not the plant, by making compost and adding it to the garden.

But I didn't really want to draw an image of dirt or compost to go with the column. So since I started by telling about my first gardening experience, in which I grew a couple of tomato plants, I decided that a drawing of a tomato plant would be just the thing. And I wanted to draw it roots and all not only because I like those sorts of botanical drawings, but also to convey the sense of reaching into the earth.

And the only way, it seemed, to prop up my model so that I could do the sort of drawing I wanted, was to shake out the roots and then suspend the plant from a ceiling light in the dining room. So there it hung, slowly twisting in the air until I found a way to stop it (by placing a clear plastic ruler on a lamp and setting that next to the plant; hard to explain, but it worked).

I didn't think to take a picture of the drawing before I brought it over to the newspaper, so I'll try to fetch it back when they're done with it and upload an image of it then.

Friday, April 25, 2008

April flowers

One of my favorite harbingers of spring in Minnesota is the cheery yellow forsythia that I planted in my front yard. The little bush is only four years old, having been planted as bare root stock in the summer of 2004 -- it looked like a lifeless twig when it arrived. I then dug it up and moved it when we moved in September 2006, so I'm pleased it's not only still with me, but establishing itself nicely in its new home.

It just started blooming a few days ago, around April 20. In most years it has bloomed by early April, usually on my grandmother's birthday, April 9. But spring seems to be a little reluctant this year; not only has it been cold so far this spring, but we once again have a threat of snow in the forecast. However, in 2005, when the forsythia was blooming on April 9, it snowed on May Day! So who knows what can happen in a Minnesota spring!

I took this photo today when the rain was just a light mist. Too wet for bike riding, but OK for a quick stroll around the yard to see how the gardens are coming along.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Help! My Car Fell Down and Can't Get Up!

Our 1991 Honda, with 172,000 miles on it and decorative accents of rust complimenting its light blue skin tones, was dubbed the Crapmobile by our very unimpressed 17-year-old son on the day we bought it. For more than a year now, our initial $1,000 investment has gotten us where we need to go, including as far as Ely in northern Minnesota and back again, with only a modest infusion of additional cash.

My husband, Craig, used it to commute to the Life Time Fitness offices in the far-flung suburb of Eden Prairie, where he worked as managing editor of Experience Life magazine, until the magazine offices were moved to the much closer Highland Park neighborhood in St. Paul, just 2.67 miles from home (now he usually walks). On those occasions when Craig has apologetically offered a ride to his boss, who owns a shiny new Prius, she has assured him that she “loves” the Crapmobile and its distinctive character.

But the tired old car had been complaining for some time whenever we turned the wheel. It would creak and groan loudly, and even though we found its loud protestations amusing, we did know that they were also worrysome. Since it would soon be time to get another oil change, I told my husband that I would ask our mechanic to investigate the cause of the complaints then. We suspected it had something to do with the wheel bearings, since the sound was coming from the left front wheel, and we had recently had the bearings on the other front wheel replaced.

But I really wasn’t prepared for the sound I heard when driving through the Life Time Fitness parking ramp for an appointment with Ashley, a personal trainer there.

I had been putting off making use of the free membership we enjoyed (a benefit of my husband’s job), mostly because I’m not fond of gyms. I’d rather get my cardio outdoors on a bicycle; indoor spaces full of sweaty bodies hold no allure for me. But despite having ridden my bike throughout the winter, and walking the dog a mile or more at least five times a week, my weight hasn’t budged from the all-time high it has been stuck at for the last several years, and I knew I needed to be more strategic in my efforts.

So I was truly ready to get to work on some seriously productive sweating as I entered the parking ramp (I would have biked the 2.67 miles to the gym, but Mother Nature was in the process of gleefully dumping six inches of snow on the city), when I heard a loud CLUNK! and the sound of something dragging.

Denial immediately set in as I imagined a large branch and wondered how I could have run over something like that inside a parking ramp. I got out and peered under the car. Nothing there. I got back behind the wheel and started to move it forward again, only to hear more of the loud dragging noise. I tried backing up to dislodge the invisible thing. Then, finally admitting to myself that there was nothing under the car but definitely something seriously wrong within it, I turned the wheel to move it to one side so other cars could get around mine -- and heard another CLUNK! followed this time by a sudden listing to the left. The left front wheel was now skewed at an unhelpful angle; the Crapmobile would be going nowhere on its own wheels anymore today.

When you drive a car like mine, you keep your mechanic’s phone number handy; he diagnosed the problem over the phone as a broken ball joint and soon I was in the queue for the tow-truck guy, who had had nothing to do all day until right before I called him, and now must complete another tow before he could come to my aid.

It took more than an hour. I spent most of the time hovering somewhere near the car, explaining, apologizing, and politely declining kind offers of assistance from people toting gym bags, including one gallant fellow who wondered if changing the tire would do the trick.

Much to my relief, other vehicles, including The Boss’s Prius as well as some rather hulky SUVs, did manage to steer around my wounded car, so parking lot traffic proceeded reasonably well. The Boss expressed kind concern for my inconvenience, and tactfully suggested that it might be time to abandon the Crapmobile for something with fewer miles -- and car payments. I thanked her for her concern.

Then a woman with an air of authority and a Lifetime Fitness nametag identifying her as Denise came out with a young man who must have reported the disabled vehicle in the parking ramp. I did not recognize him as one of the people who had offered me assistance.

Denise sized up the situation and then announced that she would recruit a couple of PTs (personal trainers) to move the car. To where I didn’t know, since it didn’t appear to me that there was any better place for it at the moment. I also didn’t know how you would move a car with a busted wheel, but she seemed confident it could be done and back she went into the building.

A few minutes later several guys came out, most of them slender young men in black Life Time Fitness T-shirts, and two bulky fellows who were obviously weight-lifters. They eyed the car with its skewed front wheel and said, “What is she thinking? We could push it if the wheel wasn’t busted, but we’re not going to pick up a car!” I couldn’t tell if they were mostly amused or flattered that Denise thought their weight-lifting abilities extended to automobiles. One of the bulky guys returned to the building, presumably to lift more appropriate objects, but the other lingered, having just completed his workout.

He and the black-T-shirted PTs stood around for several minutes discussing parking lot etiquette, or the lack thereof, as several vehicles steered around the Crapmobile, and around the 180-degree turns of the parking ramp, at speeds which they clearly disapproved. “It serves people right to have to drive around your car,” one of them said, “They drive too fast in here anyway.”

After one especially impatient driver passed, garnering disapproving comments from all of the guys, one of the PTs said, “That will be one of my yoga-class people; they’re the worst.” I mused that perhaps that was because they needed the yoga class to help them calm down, but he disagreed. “They’re just as bad after class,” he said.

Having exhausted the conversational possibilities that my car offered, and having been informed by me that the tow-truck guy just called and would be here in 10 minutes, the PTs and the weight-lifter returned to the building.

The Crapmobile now sports a new ball joint and axle and despite the $470 price tag (including the tow, which cost extra for the pain of manipulating through a parking ramp), I still figure we’ve spent far less than we would in car payments on anything likely to be an actual improvement over a car that, despite this little mishap, has proven to be quite reliable.

And now that it doesn’t creak and groan so much, we’re becoming more aware of another sound coming from under the hood whenever we’re in the process of slowing down to a stop, a kind of wahka-wahka-wahka. The brakes work fine, so we’re not worried about our safety, and since the car is due for an oil change soon, I think I’ll just ask our mechanic to take a look at it when I next bring it in.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

A Minnesota spring

Yesterday I was walking my dog, Brigit, on almost-dry and clear sidewalks, today everything looks like this! Such is a Minnesota spring. I can't really say that I mind, it's so pretty and it'll be gone in a few days. I went out with my camera after walking the dog and took a few more pictures, which are posted on my Flickr page.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

City sidewalks

When I was a kid growing up in the St. Paul, Minn., suburb of Roseville, I used to stay overnight at my cousins' house in Minneapolis on Thanksgiving weekend. They lived on Penn Ave. S., near Minnehaha Creek, in a modest but nice neighborhood. I recall being particularly impressed by the fact that they had sidewalks.

In Roseville, if you went for a walk, you strode down the middle of the street; but in the city, there was this marvelous paved way just for pedestrians. It was so nice to walk with my cousins to a little store only a couple of blocks away and not have to worry about cars en route.

It was so civilized.

I now live in Minneapolis, and sidewalks are still one of the reasons I like living in the city. But lately I have found myself walking in the street more often than not when I take my dog for her daily stroll; the sidewalks have been treacherous, as small patches camouflage themselves among the shallow puddles and wet pavement.

I am not a perambulator; I prefer to walk somewhat briskly. I engage in these daily walks not only for the fresh air and to see and hear the crows, cardinals and woodpeckers that enliven my neighborhood, but also to raise my heart rate just enough and work up a bit of a sweat to burn off the fat I have accumulated over the years. So when I have to slow down to a careful crawl to avoid injury, I am more than a little dissatisfied with the whole experience.

The dog doesn't seem to mind; she has more time to sniff when we go slow. Conversely, she is not happy when I lead her out onto the rough but unslippery asphalt road, where there are no smells to engage her. I compromise on these occasions and take her back onto the sidewalk whenever I see a stretch that is dry. In fact, our route is pretty much determined by the condition of the sidewalk on any given block: Shall I turn or go straight? How does the sidewalk look this way compared with that?

My own 40 feet of city sidewalk is nearly always clear and dry. I have no qualms about sprinkling grass-killing deicing salts after shoveling to ensure that no slick spots remain behind. I do buy a product with minimal environmental impact, at least among those available at my local hardware store. But I am more concerned with safe sidewalks than with keeping the grass healthy. It's easy enough to reseed it in the spring.

And I am looking forward to more of spring and less of this not-quite-spring-not-quite-winter that plagues my daily walks with uncertainty. I enjoy the kind of surprise that involves sighting an unexpected migrant bird passing through the neighborhood, but not the sort that has me finding myself suddenly sprawled on the pavement.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Winter biking

When you ride your bike in winter, people think you’re a lot tougher than you really are. They don’t realize that you get warm from the exertion: as long as you’re dressed for the cold, your ears are covered and you have good gloves, it’s really not so bad. Though I’ll admit that when the air temperature is in the teens and below, it stabs at my fingertips no matter what gloves or mittens I wear. And when it dips below zero, that’s enough for me to leave the bicycle in the garage.

But I keep finding that I miss my daily bike rides when I don’t get out. Like today, for example, we had a new snowfall, and I have deadlines that make me feel pressed for time. So I got in the car and drove to a different coffee shop in my old neighborhood --because I still needed to get away from the distractions I encounter at home with two teenagers, three cats and a dog, to finish reading a book from which I am taking notes for something I am writing for my quarterly magazine.

I went to the other coffee shop not only because I also like that one, but because I just can’t justify driving the short distance to my local spot. If I’m going to drive, I must go somewhere farther! Now I’m hoping the streets will clear themselves well enough for me to venture out tomorrow -- I especially hate going two days in a row without riding my bike.

It’s not that I’m trying to prove something, it’s just that this coldest winter in seven years has also seemed to me one of the sunniest, and that persistent bright sunshine keeps drawing me out in the afternoons. That and the fact that my home office is located in the basement, with a small north-facing window above my head. Through it I can see the sunshine on my neighbor’s fence and it makes me think about the big south-facing windows at my neighborhood coffee shop -- not to mention its convivial air and the baristas who prepare my latte when they see me rolling up on my bicycle (until I decided to switch to green tea, causing some confusion for a time), and the other regulars whom I enjoy seeing and visiting with.

Sometimes I will encounter other winter bicyclists and we would greet each other as though we were members of the same club, even though we had never met before. I have exchanged winter bicycling tips and routes with some of these, as well as the general comeraderie of people who share the same eccentric pursuits.

At one point I had noticed that my bike was getting harder to pedal, and I wondered if the tires were somehow more sluggish in winter. Then, after a fellow I had talked with about winter bicycling had mentioned the need to clean the gears off, I inspected mine and found them perfectly packed with dirty snow and sand. On a mild day, I rinsed them off with warm water and then re-oiled the chain. It operated so smoothly after that, I almost felt it was too easy!

However, the spilled water at the bottom of the garage flowed under the door, and when the temperature dropped precipitously that night, I found the garage door frozen shut and couldn’t get my bike out for several days! It was, in fact, really too cold for bike riding that week, and at the end of the week I persuaded my teenage son to get the door open for me and soon I was back in business.

Now it is March, sometimes the snowiest month in Minnesota, so who knows how much bicycling I’ll be able to do. But soon enough it will all melt away. I’m looking forward to easier, longer bike rides this spring!