Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Flowers and flour

The autumn clematis, shown here in September, is still green in November.
Flowers in the house didn't happen this month, apparently because of everyone's preoccupation with flour of a different sort and a certain feasting holiday. I would have been late to the party anyway, for much the same reason.

Still, I have found the monthly floral blog crawl to be a nice motivator to do some sort of botanical arrangement in my house, as well as an opportunity to feast my eyes on and be inspired by the floral and artistic talents of the other participants, so I paid a visit to a local florist and made a couple of arrangements anyway.

My son's apartment is just one block from Roger Beck Florist, so when I dropped him off yesterday after he was done borrowing the car, I stopped in. I picked up a disparate assortment of elements, and I think the nice fellow helping me had his understandable doubts about their combining into a pleasing display, because I intended to supplement them with what I could find still in my yard and garden.

In fact, when I got home and started playing around with the blue and white mop head hydrangea, sprig of rose hips, purple seeded eucalyptus, tall green-purple foliage thingy (protea, maybe?), and branch of curly willow, I quickly surmised that they weren't all going to go together no matter what else I introduced into the mix.

So I added the willow to my existing front step urn.

The rose hips and mystery foliage branch, plus a few more quirky black orbs from the black-eyed Susans in my yard, helped fill out the small gilded pail in my front porch, which I had filled with sand to hold the cuttings from the too-long dogwood when I made the front step urn display.

The porch bouquet
For the indoor display, I cut a whole bunch of lavender from the back garden, which was still looking perky and smelling wonderful, and several tangly leafy stems of the autumn clematis, which appears to be largely undaunted by the several frosts we've had so far.

The hydrangea proved a disappointment, since it had wilted by this morning, so into the compost it went. I had cut the stem and put it in fresh water, so I'm not sure what the problem was. I will admit the mop heads are not my favorite hydrangeas, I much prefer our native Annabel and the panicles and lacecaps. Maybe it knew I didn't think much of it and went into a sulk.

The resulting arrangement is all foliage and no flowers, but I rather like it. The afternoon sunlight was a bit harsh when I took this photo, but when the sun isn't shining in on this spot, it's too dark to photograph it at all. Maybe next time I want to photograph something on the buffet we'll have a cloudy day, and then the afternoon light will be just right.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

In the Middle of Everywhere, U.S.

At the corner of Cretin and Marshall in St. Paul, Minnesota.

(Teachers and homeschoolers take note: Wouldn't this make a fabulous geography project? Add seeking permission to use the city's light pole, and you've got civics in the mix. A variation on this concept: the community solar system.)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Lingering Autumn

My front steps
Yet another beautiful mild sunny day in Minneapolis. I'm experiencing something akin to spring fever, but with a twist: I feel drawn to the outdoors even when I have things I need to do indoors (that's the part that's like spring fever), but with even more compulsion, because we are headed not to summer, but to a Minnesota winter.

On my not-quite-daily walks with Brigit, I usually head to the mailbox to drop in a postcard or two for my Postcrossing exchange. The round trip is about 2/3 of a mile (1 km), just right for an old dog, and for me, too. I tend to be somewhat purposeful when I walk or ride my bike—I need a destination to motivate myself. So when I don't have anything to mail, I'm not so likely to get out for a walk. Hence, the Postcrossing hook.

I like my neighborhood and its mix of natural areas along the Mississippi River and Minnehaha Falls, and its small residential gardens and houses. Most of this area was built up in the 1920s after the Ford plant opened across the river in St. Paul, and the Intercity bridge, known informally as the Ford bridge, was built. Soon workers at the Ford plant were building modest Craftsman bungalows to live in, just a short commute from work, and the Longfellow neighborhood was born.

Some of those bungalows now have sweet gardens and I enjoy varying my route from time to time to change the view. With this lingering autumn, there's often still plenty of green and even an occasional blossom, especially with cold-tolerant flowers like this lovely little periwinkle tumbling over a garden wall.

Today I turned up a different street than usual and discovered a second pensive gargoyle in the neighborhood, sitting in a less abundant garden than the first (shown in this post, also about my walk to the mailbox), but still in an attractive setting.

A few jack-o-lanterns still sitting on front stoops have that weary after-the-party look.

Although most of the trees and shrubs are bare, some colorful leaves are still hanging on.

And back in my own garden, where, on Sunday, we finally raked our leaves off the lawn and onto the gardens, a couple of cheerful violets peak through the debris.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Sounds Heard on a Walk

Brigit, my 90-year-old (almost 14) dog
On a recent walk with my dog, Brigit, I heard a woman talking on the phone, kind of loudly, sounding like she was engaged in a bit of an argument; then I saw her leaning against her fence, seemingly oblivious to our presence as we walked by. Her voice faded away gradually as we made our way up the street.

The next day, as we walked the same route, and passed the same house, there she was again in the same spot, with her phone, sounding like she was having the same argument as the day before. It was as if she had never left that spot or stopped talking.

On another block along our regular route, there is a dog hidden from view by a solid wood fence. It knows when we are passing by, and barks a steady staccato rhythm until we are well past. It sounds like it's actually saying the word bark.

Bark bark! ... Bark! ... Bark bark! ... Bark! ...

Monday, October 31, 2011

Late October Floral Gleanings

The flowers in the house challenge today, being Halloween, was to create something goth, or at least Halloweenish. And when I peeked late last night at the blog page of the instigator of this monthly blog crawl, I was truly amazed, inspired, and intimidated.  If you haven't been to see Jane's "Flowers in the House of Horror" yet, you really must. And from there visit all the wonderful blogs sharing their exquisite arrangements.

By comparison, mine is the floral equivalent of throwing a sheet over your head with a couple of eye holes cut out before heading out to beg candy from the neighbors. Oh, well, we do what we can with our limited resources and talents.

I went out into my garden yesterday evening and gathered several black-eyed susan seedheads, as well as some dogwood stems trimmed from my newly planted little shrub, a few grasses, and twisty willow twigs—from the corkscrew willow stems I put in my front step urn last fall, which sprouted in the spring, and which I finally planted in a big old whiskey barrel on the south side of the house a couple of weeks ago, because I don't want a monstrous willow taking over my yard, but I hated to just get rid of them. I figure this way I will have a source of cuttings, and if it doesn't survive the winter in a barrel, well, I'm none the worse for having tried. But I digress.

I combined these garden gleanings with a few of the dark red mums I have in a pot on the patio, and the flowers that were still good in a bouquet that a friend brought over last weekend (another form of gleaning), which included some orange lilies and more dark red mums and green mums and a few greenish alstromeria, which I figured were all the right colors (I dumped the ferns; I do have some aesthetic sensibilities). But now I see that all those flowers overwhelm the twigs and seedheads that would have given the bouquet a more Halloweenish flavor. I probably should have made two bouquets.

But, no time for that, I need to go grocery shopping, and I haven't even been to the store to stock up on candy for the little darlings who will come to the door yet. Horrors!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Why late fall in Minneapolis isn't so bad

At the co-op: fresh cranberries from Wisconsin. And organic pomegranates and persimmons have recently arrived from points south, their season just beginning.

•  •  •  •  •

Yesterday, I was working in the garden. My neighbor came round to her backyard from the side with a sunny clump of marigolds in her hand, the roots and dirt still attached, and said that they looked so pretty she almost hated to throw them in the compost, but she didn't think they would overwinter in the ground.

"Put them in a pot on the front steps," I said.

"I'm not that ambitious," she said.

"Then at least take cuttings for a bouquet," I said

"I think I'll do that," she said, and gave me some.

As we were talking, a cedar waxwing landed on the fence. "A cedar waxwing!" I said. I was surprised and delighted because I hadn't seen them in the city before. "Oh, yeah, we get flocks of them this time of year," she said.

Later, as I was biking across the Ford Bridge, coming home from Saint Paul, I stopped and stared at a red cedar tree—it was alive with cedar waxwings. The pretty little birds' tawny yellow wingtips flashed brightly as they flitted about amongst the green needles eating the blue juniper berries.

This is why I love living so close to the Mississippi River, a major flyway for migrating birds.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Salt—so life is always flavorful

My friend Marsha taught me this method of drying herbs: to immerse them in kosher salt until they are dry, then remove the leaves but don't worry about the small bits left behind. So you get your dried herbs and a seasoned salt as well. I think the reason for using kosher salt is because the iodine added to processed salts can discolor the leaves, but I'm not really sure if that's it. Since I'm using kosher sea salt to dry the last of the basil from my garden, and sea salt retains its naturally occurring iodine, I may find out. But I prefer sea salt because it's prettier than the plain white kind. (Even though I know that it's also supposed to be lower in sodium and higher in other trace minerals and more flavorful than regular white table salt, the real reason I buy it is because it's pretty.)

Last summer, after we bought this house, Marsha brought us a gift of a loaf of bread and some salt she had seasoned with rosemary, and a lovely card in which she had written this note:

"Bread—so you never go hungry, and
salt—so life is always flavorful"

Friday, October 14, 2011

Friday, October 7, 2011

Winds-day on Friday

I've been noticing that everyone's being kind of wistful these days. Such beautiful weather in October inspires a very different response from northerners than the same weather when it makes its first appearance in May. Then, we felt great relief and excitement; now, we feel wistful. It's no less a pleasure, I think, it just has a different context.

My new Prairiefire flowering crabapple was looking so pretty yesterday, with its leaves turning an unusually lovely shade of red for that species; and already today the wind has blown nearly all of them away.

Some landed in the birdbath.

The black-eyed susans have dropped their cheery golden petals, but still look handsome with their healthy foliage, round black seedheads, and colorful stems.

The fall raspberries offer just enough fruit for my yogurt in the morning. The canes are dreadfully overgrown, I need to cut them down and purge the unproductive ones—for some reason, there's a large section that just won't bear fruit, both on our side of the fence and our neighbors. Our neighbors Bonnie and Joe removed the ones on their side, and I need to do my part so that mine don't re-colonize their much tidier raspberry patch. For raspberry work, it needs to be cool enough to wear long sleeves, so I keep saving that one for later. I think "later" has come to now.

Besides the raspberries, there's still much to do in the garden. We need to tidy up the garden beds we've started but won't be planting til spring, cutting ditched edges with our spades and covering the exposed soil with woodchips, which we fetch by the carload from a spot where the city's forestry department dumps it for residents' use.

The kitchen garden has been fenced and boxed, but it needs the center leveled and covered with class 5 gravel, for a firm base under either a thin layer of pea gravel or pavers of some sort. The center, being too small for another raised bed but much larger than needed as a pathway alone, will be more like a small garden plaza, as I imagine it. I plan to have spaces held open to plant perennial herbs by placing plastic flower pots with the bottoms cut off here and there before spreading the gravel. I have a lovely image in my head for this; it remains to be seen whether I can pull it off.
The kitchen garden fence, adorned with an oil filter we dug up in the spot. Doesn't it (the oil filter) have an attractive rusted patina, though?

And the many perennials that have been trying to get by amongst the raspberry canes need to be transplanted to the not-quite ready beds along the south side of the house.

I do hope the forecasts of a long, mild autumn prove true!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Christmas in October

Here's what I'm working on these days, hoping to complete a self-published chapbook or zine about "The Twelve Days of Christmas" for the Nokomis Urban Craft Fair on Nov. 12. It's a little research-and-art project I began five years ago, keep returning to each year at Christmastime, then realize I started too late in the season to do anything with it for that year, and leave off. This is earlier than I've started on it before, and I've got all that earlier work to build upon, so I just might get it completed in time this year. (If not for the Nokomis event in November, then before the next craft sale I plan to participate in, on Dec. 3).

I'm envisioning it as a kind of compendium, a compilation of lists and trivia and drawings. I'll let you know how it goes.

I'm gathering visual references as well as information, hence the partridge and pear.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Sweet harvest pickles

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about making sweet pickles using my late mother-in-law's recipe, and discovering midway through that I didn't have quite enough sugar. I went ahead with them anyway, reasoning that, with the vinegar undiluted, it probably doesn't matter how much sugar I use as far as preserving them.

As it turned out, I rather liked them better a little less sweet (they're still plenty sweet). Then, in a comment, Ashley (aka Michigan Matron) asked me to share the recipe, and I meant to do so a little sooner than this.

I intend to make another batch myself, with some of my bounty from a recent trip to the Midtown Farmers Market, our local urban community market. I'll probably reduce the sugar again, even though I've restocked the pantry, just because I like them better that way. And I may include some carrots in the mix, reducing the cucumbers a little to keep the quantities the same, just because I like to experiment, and the additional color sounds appealing to me.

This recipe is the original, with my variations in parentheses, so you can choose the way you prefer to make them. Enjoy!

Ruth's Refrigerator Pickles (makes 3 pints)

7 cups sliced cucumbers, unpeeled (or 6 cups cucumbers and one cup thinly sliced carrots)
1 cup sliced onion
1 cup sliced green pepper (I used mostly red bell peppers, for the color)
1 Tblsp salt
1 tsp celery seed (I used Simply Organic's all-purpose seasoning, which includes celery seed)
1 tsp mustard seed.
—Combine all of these, stirring so that salt and spices get thoroughly mixed with the vegetables, and let stand one hour. (I put it in a large stoneware bowl and cover it with a plate.)

Boil together:
2 c. sugar (I used 1&1/2 cups)
1 c. white vinegar
—Stir to dissolve sugar. Let mixture cool a little. Put cured vegetables in pint jars, pour in vinegar-and-sugar syrup; wipe edges clean and screw on bands and lids. Or use any jars and lids you have. Refrigerate.

You can eat them as soon as they're cold, and they'll keep for months in the refrigerator. Make some now and you'll have a nice homemade condiment to bring to those holiday gatherings.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Flowers in the House, a little late

I've been meaning to join the monthly Flowers in the House blog tour, but I haven't quite got the hang of when to expect it (it looks like it may be the last Monday of the month?), so after admiring the many lovely contributions this afternoon while at the coffee shop, I hurried home to gather a couple of bouquets and jump in.

Except first I had to run to the co-op to pick up some things for dinner, and then feed the pets, and then get the rice started and the squash in the oven ...

Hence, my rather meager contribution. I hope to do better next time, except late October in Minnesota is not a particularly bountiful time for fresh local flowers, but, who knows? We may be enjoying a lingering mild autumn at this time next month.

The orange impatiens are trimmings from my kitchen window baskets, which were in need of a bit of rejuvenation since their midsummer peak. I had considered simply pulling them out altogether, since I don't think impatiens tolerate any frost at all, but then I realized we may yet get that lingering mild autumn and perhaps they'll perk up a bit, so I trimmed them back to encourage them to give it the old college try. The ivy cuttings are from the window baskets, too.

And when I saw someone else's lavender in the bathroom (so sorry, now I can't find which one that was!), I thought it was such a lovely idea that I would just be a shameless copycat and do the same! My lavender is the English Munstead variety, which might survive our Minnesota winters, and I dearly hope it does because I would love to keep it going for many years.

So, that's my small and hasty contribution to Flowers in the House! Thanks for stopping by.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Sharon and Craig Plant a Tree

I had begun this with a lead about how we have a custom of planting at least one tree at each house where we have lived since we bought our first house together in 1987, but it got to be too long, so I am saving that story for future zine. I like to draw trees, anyway, so I will look forward to crafting that one.

For this, I will just tell you about the tree we planted on Tuesday (which turns out to be kind of long anyway). We wanted a small tree to shade the patio but not the flower gardens in the backyard, and to avoid interfering with the power lines that reach diagonally across the yard, as well. After considering the various small trees that would be suitable for this site, I settled upon the ornamental crabapple Prairie Fire for its many fine qualities, especially disease resistance, since many of the crabapple trees around here were losing their leaves prematurely this summer due to something or other. My neighbor kindly pointed this out to me when I mentioned that we wanted to plant an ornamental crab, and since I really didn't know what was afflicting the other trees, I looked for one with resistance to as many diseases as possible.

But I also wanted a tree with a spreading, rounded form (the traditional apple-tree shape), that got to be about 20-25 feet high and wide, and had small persistent fruit that the birds could enjoy but that wouldn't drop in the yard and on the patio. I found a handy chart in an article offered by the University of Colorado Extension Service, and from that selected Prairie Fire.
The view from the home office window, where I'm writing this blog post

Our venerable local institution, Bachman's garden center, has always had a place in my heart because my grandmother loved Bachman's and was a loyal customer. For most things, I will go to our local independent garden center, Mother Earth Gardens; but for trees and sometimes shrubs, I like to go to Bachman's. And wouldn't you know they had a tree sale going on, which included free delivery. So, after calling to make sure they had the tree I wanted in stock, off I went to select a handsomely formed specimen and arrange delivery.

I think I mentioned that one of the reasons I like the flowering crab is because birds enjoy the fruit, especially in winter when other foods are scarce. Well, a similarly named crab (prairie something-or-other), is noted for its sterile flowers; it doesn't form fruit. I remarked, while my salesperson was writing up my order, that I thought a crabapple tree with no crabapples seemed kind of pointless to me, and another employee said it was to avoid the mess, especially from all the birds that eat the fruit and leave their droppings behind. So, apparently some people dislike the very bird-attracting qualities that's always one of the factors I consider when selecting a tree or shrub. Who cares if the birds poop on the patio? I have a hose and I'm not afraid to use it!

Future patio shade

The tree came on Tuesday, which was an especially blustery day. Craig was working at home, nursing a cold, and I headed off to an appointment and some errands shortly after the tree was placed in our backyard by a nice man driving Bachman's iconic purple delivery van. As I was heading out to the garage, the tree in its large pot was knocked over by the wind and I figured I may as well leave it lying on the ground, rather than set it up to be knocked over again.

When I got home in the afternoon, it was propped up at an angle, leaning against a bench. Craig reported that he had set it back up several times and was just trying to keep it from lying on the ground, possibly breaking some of the branches. We agreed that we really should plant the tree soon, so it wouldn't get knocked over anymore.

We proceeded to do so right after supper, but this time of year it gets dark quickly, which is why I don't have any photos of the tree planting in progress. The ground was so dry and hard from the long stretch of dry weather we've had since the middle of summer (after a summer that started out with much flooding!), that it took extra effort and lots of water to soften the ground enough to dig a decent hole. Then we discovered we had dug a little too deep and had to backfill a bit (planting a tree too deep dooms it to failure).

When we finally got it planted it was quite dark out. I set the sprinkler on low for a couple of hours to soak the ground all around the root zone.

The wind howled that night, but our newly planted tree just swayed and shook its branches, proving itself a tough little tree and seeming to be happy to have its roots underground at last. We'll get a load of woodchips soon to spread around the base, as well.

I turned on the sprinkler today again, since our recent rains have been rather scant, and soon after I sat down to write this, I heard a bit of commotion coming from the backyard. I looked out the window, and there, frolicking in the sprinkler and perched in the branches of our newly planted tree, were about a dozen sparrows, a couple of house finches, a goldfinch, and a cardinal!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Clouds and critters

Lately I've been a little obsessed with clouds: noticing them, enthralled by their many moods and textures, wanting to photograph them. So I've been trying to remember to take my camera with me when I head out on my bike, just in case I get an opportunity to take an interesting photo of clouds. But clouds alone, no matter how billowing and layered, don't really make for an interesting photo without something else in the foreground or at the edges, to frame it and provide a bit of punctuation, don't you think?

Well, I also like the geometry of powerlines, especially when birds gather on them, and there are always a lot of pigeons on the powerlines over Minnehaha Creek near Hiawatha Avenue, right where the parkway bridge crosses over. But powerlines, even those with birds on them, could use a little something more, too, I think.

So what a perfect pairing, I say.

Noticing the restless skies when I got ready to take the bike on some errands in the Nokomis area today, which would take me over the aforementioned bridge, I actually remembered to bring the camera with me.

At one point, I was standing just under a light pole to the west of the creek, and I kept hearing a squirrel scolding me from above, so I looked up and turned my camera on him, and he continued to stare me down and scold! I guess he didn't approve of me standing right there.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Not-so-sweet pickles

Many years ago, when my mother-in-law, Ruth Cox, was still living, I brought her some cucumbers from my garden and she made them into crisp, sweet, refrigerator pickles, and they were yummy. I've since learned that it must have been a tradition from the Scandinavian side of the family; I've had similar sweet cucumber pickles at the Swedish Institute, served alongside Swedish meatballs and potatoes, and at the Minnesota History Center on Sittende Mai, or Norwegian Independence Day.

I asked for the recipe and made them a couple of times since. I enjoy bringing them to my sister-in-law's house during the holidays—bringing something made from her mother's recipe feels just so, you know, nostalgic and all that, and they do complement the array of foods, both traditional and new, that other family members bring to share.

So when two of our neighbors gifted us with cucumbers from their gardens, I naturally pulled out Ruth's refrigerator pickle recipe again. Reminded that the recipe includes onions and bell peppers, I happily traipsed off to the Midtown Farmers' Market to add to the bounty.

But it didn't occur to me to check my supply of sugar before starting, and when the vegetables had had their hour or so with the salt and spices and were ready to be bottled up with the vinegar-and-sugar syrup, I found that I was a half cup shy of the two cups of sugar it called for, to be dissolved into one cup of white vinegar and poured over the cucumber medley.

I spent some time searching for the sugar bowl, hoping it had a half cup of sugar in it, only to finally discover that it had been washed and returned to the buffet some time ago. So I went ahead and made the pickles with what I had, reasoning that the amount of sugar probably isn't essential for preserving the pickles, since the vinegar is undiluted and the jars are stored in the refrigerator.

And when I sampled them after they had chilled an hour or so, I discovered that I rather like them a little less sweet. They're still sweet, but now they have a bit more tartness as well. I'm pretty sure Ruth wouldn't mind. Don't all hand-me-down recipes evolve a little from one generation to the next?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Pardon me while I indulge in a little shameless self-promo

So, as some of you already know, I have this Etsy shop under the name Arty Didact (see link at right; or just click on the name, since I turned it into a link too), a name I coined kind of on the fly when I was marketing some dice games I invented back when I was homeschooling my kids and I wanted to find a game that used multiplication in scoring, and I couldn't find one, so I got some dice and made one up. Since unschoolers are really autodidacts, the "arty" play on words seemed to fit, so I set up the shop without spending too much time thinking about the name. If I wanted to be taken just a little bit more seriously as an artist, I probably should have set it up in my name instead, but due to some odd bit of probably false humility, I felt uncomfortable using my own name as my shop name.

Speaking of false humility, I'm also rather ambivalent about promoting myself, and am not particularly comfortable with churning out the hype and doing the whole rah rah look at my stuff! spiel. I just like to create unique and useful objects that are attractive or at least interesting, and put them out there and see if anybody besides me values them. And sometimes somebody does value them enough to buy them and, really, I couldn't be more thrilled.

So when I learned that the HandmadeMN Etsy street team, of which I am a member, was looking for people to offer items to give away as a way of promoting both the team and participants' shops, I thought, um, yeah, OK, sure. Why not?

So, if you'd like a chance to get this useful and attractive little zipper pouch, click on over to here and follow the instructions, OK? I'll even cover the shipping cost if you win it, so what have you got to lose?

With that kind of enthusiasm, you're probably wondering why I didn't go into marketing, aren't you?

Friday, September 2, 2011

My walk to the mailbox

I don't walk the dog nearly as often as I should, but when I have something to mail that doesn't require a trip to the post office, I enjoy walking to the mailbox about a quarter mile away, taking a mini tour of my neighborhood, and marking the progress of my neighbors' gardens over the course of the season. I often think I should have taken my camera with me, but I never think of it before I head out the door. So this time, I went back on my bicycle and photographed a few of the vignettes that caught my eye this time around.

A few days ago this beautiful new retro-style bicycle showed up locked to the stop sign on the corner. First it had paper covering the fenders and chain guard, but today it was uncovered. Perhaps it is somebody's surprise gift and they haven't shown up to claim it yet. Anyway, I thought I had better take a picture soon, since it wasn't likely to stay there much longer, and, sure enough, when I came home this afternoon after riding my bike to the coffee shop to do some proofreading, it was gone.

Just a few steps before I reach the mailbox, I pass this charming garden on 42nd Ave., with its pensive gargoyle sitting on the porch. When I went back to take a couple of pictures today, a man pulled up in front and I asked if it was his house. No, it belongs to his friends, whom he was visiting, but he said he would pass along my complements on their garden. I was a little embarrassed to be caught photographing the house, but he didn't seem to think it all that odd, so I guess it's OK.

This grapevine, which I assume to be our native riverbank grape, has climbed right over the top of the  privacy fence to show off the way its red stems match the fence's red paint (in truth, it didn't look quite that red to me when I saw it, but I was pleased that the photo turned out to enhance the color without me having to tinker with it.). Soon the birds and squirrels will likely feast on the grapes.

And here's my destination. I kind of wish the homeowner on this corner would plant something to decorate the mailbox, but at least the house is occupied. Last winter it was empty and no one was shoveling the walk for a while, so it became impossible to even get to the mailbox. Maybe once the new owners are all settled in they'll get around to planting a mailbox garden. Do you think?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Hydrangeas are for butterflies, too

I hadn't really thought of hydrangeas as a butterfly shrub, and I don't recall noticing any butterflies on or around the Annabelle hydrangea that grew at our last house. However, it had only been planted just before we moved in there and it didn't really start blooming in its characteristic profusion until last summer, when we moved out.

Still, I was genuinely surprised when I was going for a bike ride about a week or so ago and spotted a tiger swallowtail happily sipping from a panicle hydrangea in an alleyside garden just a block away. The same shrub played host to a small blue butterfly (like the one I had spotted in my yard only a few days before and wrote about here) and several bees. I really like most hydrangeas, but because I believed that they didn't have much wildlife value, I've tried to temper my enthusiasm for them somewhat, wanting to emphasize wildlife-friendly plants in my garden as much as possible. Now I feel like I've just been given the go-ahead (by a butterfly, no less), to add a hydrangea or two to my landscape plans.

But the one kind of hydrangea I have not so much cared for are the Endless Summer macrophyllas and their mophead kin. They were introduced by Minnesota's own Bailey nurseries several years ago and received with great enthusiasm because they were the first mopheads that can survive our zone 4 winters. I'll admit that my tendency to be suspicious of anything that's too trendy may have somewhat influenced my tepid response to these popular flowers. But it's more than that. Try as I did to appreciate them, I just found them to be a bit too artificial looking for my taste; and I don't like the extra fussiness of tinkering with the soil pH through the use of various additives (most commonly aluminum sulphate) required to get the intense blue color that makes them so popular.

I don't know whether Endless Summer appeals to butterflies, but I do know that the more showy flowers are the ones that are not fertile, so they have no reason to offer nectar to entice pollinators. The kind of hydrangeas that have both the showy flowers and the nonshowy fertile ones (which tend to look like little buds, either clustered in the center, like in the lacecap above, or mixed among the nonfertile blooms, as in the panicle at top), are more likely to offer something for the butterflies. (I admit, I'm speculating here, but it stands to reason, doesn't it?)

I photographed the blue lacecap, above, at a bed and breakfast in Ludington, Michigan, last week when we took a road trip up and around the top of Lake Michigan after bringing our daughter, Nora, to college in Albion. I love the pale blue of the outer florets paired with the deep indigo blue of the small fertile flowers in the center, and was thinking that it would sure be nice if I could grow a hydrangea like that at home. But most of Michigan is in a much milder climate zone than Minneapolis. So, imagine my surprise when I learned that one of the newer introductions in the Endless Summer series, called Twist and Shout, looks just like that!

I'm still considering the different panicle hydrangeas and haven't decided which one I'll plant, or where. But now it looks like I may end up with an Endless Summer hydrangea as well, once I find out whether their soil pH preferences match up with my front yard, where two overgrown fir trees (slated to be removed this winter) have been dropping their needles for a few decades (which may have acidified the soil).

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Baby Blues

I was out in the backyard today when tiny pale blue wings fluttered by. I had my camera handy, so I grabbed it and took some shots as the lilliputian butterfly flitted about among the white clover in my lawn. I know there are a few types of blue butterflies in Minnesota, all of them with a wingspan no bigger than about an inch, and so easy to miss unless you're keyed in to spotting pretty little things. Maybe I'm even a little obsessed with them; I think they're adorable and will make a point of planting their favorite flowers to encourage them to stick around.

All the blues are small; in fact, the tiniest butterfly in the world is the pygmy blue, native to the American Southwest, according to Stokes Butterfly Book. Its wingspan is less than a half inch.

The upper side of the wings is the blue part, a pale almost lavender color that you only glimpse as it flutters about.  This guy would not spread his wings when he perched on the clover, so all I could get is a shot of the underside of the folded wings, which is more silver, with distinctive spots. But that's how you identify them, so he was actually being helpful. See the hint of orange in the two splotchy spots near the base of the wings (you should be able to click on the second photo to get a larger view; it doesn't look as orange in these photos as it did in real life), and the two rows of black spots with white margins, and (this is really hard to spot) the really tiny threadlike "tail" by the not-quite-orange spots? All those markings identify this guy as a male Eastern tailed blue. (And you thought I was being sexist, didn't you?) The females don't have the orange spots and aren't as blue.

It won't be hard to provide both nectar and larval plants for these and the other blues—silvery blue and spring and summer azures are also found in Minnesota (and far beyond, of course). They all like legumes, such as clover, vetch and alfalfa, for both caterpillar food and nectar. The silvery blue also likes lupine and dandelions, and the spring azure goes for dogwood, wild cherry, and meadowsweet. (I believe that's the wild spirea, S. alba, although some sites that came up on a quick search say it's filipendula; that's why I often find common plant names a bit annoying, even if they are more poetic than their scientific counterparts).

Eastern tailed blues also like to take nectar from goldenrod, asters, fleabane, white sweetclover (that's our native clover) as well as the Dutch white clover often growing in lawns and pictured here. Did you notice how many of those plants are common weeds that many people work very hard to get rid of?

It's good timing on the butterfly's part, since I am in the process of planning the gardens; a delicate reminder to remember all the butterflies that may find their way to my yard, and not just the big showy ones (I already have a few species of native liatris planted to please the monarchs).

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A poppy pops up most unexpectedly, and other reports from the late summer garden

I went outside to bring out some trash this morning and was surprised by this sweet little poppy growing amongst the daisies and thistles next to the sidewalk. It's at the edge of the area that is slated to become our kitchen garden, and I am planning a mixed border, including self-sowing annuals, to run along the outside of the as-yet-to-be-installed picket fence, to attract beneficial insects and serve as a cutting garden for bouquets, as well as to simply look pretty. And here's a cheerful reminder to include poppies in that mix!

I have no idea how it got here, of course. I am pretty certain there were no poppies in any part of the garden last year (though it is possible I overlooked them or forgot). At first I thought the seeds may have come from the compost—mine or someone else's—but I don't think it's breadseed poppy (P. somniferum), that's usually taller and most likely a "single" blossom, not a flouncy double like this one. Perhaps it came from someone's wildflower mix, but how it got here remains a mystery. Birds? A squirrel or chipmunk? One of our many nonhuman gardeners of happenstance, surely.

The abundance of rain during this heat wave has certainly taken the edge off, at least for the plants. The lavender seems to be thriving, as you can see here. I envisioned something of a mini hedge of lavender when I planted these four earlier this summer. Even the most hardy lavender is only marginally so in Minnesota, though, so it remains to be seen if it will come back in the spring. It is currently on the west side of the garage, but I am thinking of moving it once I have some of the other gardens prepared. But digging new garden beds is not a project for 90-degree days!

The black-eyed susan and garden phlox are just coming into bloom. They, too, are slated to be moved, probably to the south side of the house. My current "plan" (more like an idea than anything so organized as a plan, really) is to have a wide strip of tall sun-loving perennials, both native and cultivated, all along the south side, except where the faucet and air conditioner are. I need to build up the soil a bit there, to get that gentle slope away from the house, and then plant deep-rooted plants that won't require supplemental watering most of the time, but will seek the moisture way below the surface. I'm envisioning something of a cottage/prairie garden hybrid, with some of those taller prairie forbs and grasses to the back, and the not-quite-so-tall cultivated perennials in front of them. Or something like that. That's a September project, though, when it's safe to move the peonies, which are the only plants (other than weeds) growing there now.

It definitely helps to be in no big hurry to get these various gardens installed, because my ideas have evolved over the past year as I've observed what's going on all around the property, where the sun shines most, where the rain water tends to puddle, and so on.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Let's Put on a Show

A note card featuring my drawing
This post is, eventually, about a craft show I'm in this Saturday. But first, a little context.

So I have this Etsy shop, for which I chose the rather obscure name Arty Didact, trying to convey the marriage of art and information that appeals to me and characterizes some of my work, and playing off the meaning of autodidact, a self-educating person.

Informative back of the lily note card

Quite frankly, I haven't sold very much at all on Etsy. I tried reading the forums for advice, and joining a couple of teams, and adding more and more items to my shop, because everyone says that's what you're supposed to do (that is, those participating in the forums on Etsy say this, repeatedly and emphatically). And when you don't have something new to add, you're supposed to "renew" listings, which means that you re-list them as if they were new, because when someone is searching for a category of items on Etsy, the most recently listed ones generally show up at the top. So it's like keeping something in the front window at all times.

A paper mache bowl
But when I was being as obsessive as I could about promoting my shop, I wasn't spending as much time making stuff. And I found that spending time each day listing and re-listing and promoting my shop isn't really very interesting, and the people who say it pays off to do that appear to be even more obsessive about it than I was. There are websites and blogs where you can offer give-aways, for example, and some people offer discounts and deals through their Facebook page and blogs, and, well, really, I'm just not into all that. I don't go for promotional offers and hype as a consumer, and it's really against my nature to try to promote my shop in that way, too.

So I've eased up on the re-listings, and I haven't added anything new to my shop in a while because I've been kind of busy with other things (house, garden, freelance work, family...). But, the one thing that I have found to be helpful and fun is the local network of Etsy shopkeepers, called the HandmadeMN Etsy Team. They are a great group of creative people, and through the group forum, I learn about a wide variety of show opportunities, including the smaller ones that fit my budget and level of commitment.

Most notably, this Saturday is the HandmadeMN Summer Market, and the way it came about was kind of cool. First, it started back in March with Erika Herker posting an announcement that she learned that she could reserve a large pavilion in Roseville for free, and maybe it would be cool to put on a mini art fair there consisting of members of our team. From there, an enthusiastic series of messages followed, and eventually, the summer market was organized. It made me think of Spanky and Our Gang: Let's put on a show!
Photo by Erica Herker

I'm looking forward to it, despite the forecast of 90-degree heat that day—and am so glad we will not only be in the shade, but also will only be operating from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. No getting up early on a Saturday and no lingering in the late-afternoon heat! I am grateful to the ladies who chose that time frame!

If you're in the Twin Cities area, it would be really swell if you'd pay a visit. Sorry I'm not offering any coupons or specials or snazzy promos like that, but I will have some cooling peppermint candies on my table to share. I guess that's a give-away, isn't it?

HandmadeMN Summer Market
Saturday, July 16, 10 a.m.–3 p.m.
Rainbow Community Pavilion
1201 Larpenteur Ave. West
Saint Paul, MN 55113