December 29, 2013

Twelve of my favorite things

Reflecting on the past year, I realized I tend to "wish away" the colder months in my northern climate.

That's not a healthy way to live.

Time marches on too quickly, no matter what the season.

To change my attitude, I decided to create a list of my favorite outdoor "things"--one per month--so I'll have something tangible to look forward to in each season. Selections for some months were easier, because true favorites came to mind. Others were tough--either because I prefer to stay indoors (January, February), or because there are too many favorite things (May-August).

Sometimes the transition months are the toughest emotionally--especially late August through September.

So here's my list. These favorites might change from year-to-year, but they're some of the highlights that will help me savor each month in the year ahead and avoid wishing away the days.


January is brutal here. But even on the coldest days (-20F/-28C), when most creatures are hiding under cover, the dark-eyed juncos still make an appearance and are very fun to watch.


Nothing beats the winter blahs like a walk to the lake to see fascinating ice formations. Sunny, "mild" days are the best.


Much of March is still wintry here, but under the snow and leaf mulch, the Hellebores are budding. Their emergence (late March or early April) is as miraculous as their full blooms.


April is a variable month in Wisconsin. It might be snowing one day, and 80F two days later. Often, the Star Magnolias bloom in April.


There is no earthly place more beautiful than southern Wisconsin in May. Since I had to pick a favorite, I chose Trilliums. But May overflows with incredible spring ephemerals.


And then the Roses bloom! I have very few in my garden, but June is the peak of their beauty here. I could spend hours gazing at a single Rose, even when it isn't perfect.


I made a slight exception in July. I chose a summer collection of flowers blooming alongside the vegetables in my potager as one favorite bouquet. The pollinators love them, too.


In August, I can have as many BLT sandwiches with fresh Tomatoes as I want. Need I say more?


September is a transition month, and is often difficult for me. Fortunately, the hummingbirds are especially active as they prepare for and begin their migration. Definitely something to look forward to.


In early October, the monarchs are still migrating through the area. As the Maple and Oak leaves change to red and orange, they mix with monarchs floating down from the heavens.


What can I say about November? Not a favorite month, although there's always so much to be thankful for--including Mosses. If you look closely, they're truly incredible!


December is uncomfortable in this climate, although stunningly beautiful with a fresh snowfall. Snow or no snow, the winter berries always add color to the landscape.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ 

When I think of these simple pleasures, and many more, the year ahead looks bright and hopeful. Each month carries its own unique blessings.

My wish for you in the year ahead is that you will find many simple pleasures and gifts that will bring you much joy.

Happy New Year!

December 21, 2013

Lessons beyond the solstice


Today is the solstice--a time for all of us to celebrate. In the Northern Hemisphere, the days begin to get longer, while in the Southern Hemisphere, summer starts!


Here in the north, most of the winter is ahead of us. But at least we'll have more daylight to get us through. As I write this post, my part of the world has just been coated with a thin (quarter-inch?) layer of ice. Tonight, we'll get eight to nine inches of fresh snow--which is a blessing, actually, because it will fall on the weekend and because we're much more skilled with driving on snow than on ice.


Autumn seems so long ago, and many of you probably feel the same way. But as we move ahead toward new experiences, it can be helpful to share what we've learned from the past.


Many of you shared particularly helpful lessons for this past season's "Lessons Learned" meme:

Karin at Southern Meadows, in Georgia, U.S., was busy with new hardscaping and landscaping projects. But she learned that "despite all the things on the to-do list," she still needs to "take time for reflection and quiet in the garden." During reflection time, she notices the little things that are the most important aspects of gardening for wildlife. She also learned (and shared) some valuable lessons about migrating butterflies.

Donna at  Gardens Eye View, in New York, U.S., ran out of room in her vegetable garden, so she's planning to add more space next year. Her advice: "Don't start growing veggies unless you have time, and know that when you start you'll either quit within a season, or become addicted--adding more every year. I became addicted," she says, "even though I've had failures every year."


Jason at Garden in a City, in Illinois, U.S., learned several lessons by observing the dramatic transition from late autumn to early winter. He shared the specifics of his garden plans for Woodland Phlox, Bleeding Heart, Hardy Geraniums, Great Merrybells, Swamp Milkweed, Joe Pye Weed, and New England Aster--among others. Jason asks, "When does your mental gardening kick into high gear?"

Sarah at Galloping Horse Garden, in North Carolina, U.S., got a bit carried away with Torch Lilies. When the weather gods gave her winter blooms two years in a row, she got greedy. She wanted more. And she wanted the entire neighborhood to see them, so she planted them out front. "Never mind that they were safe and sheltered by the side of the house and would be unprotected and exposed to the elements up front," says Sarah. Unfortunately, when a hard frost hit in late November this year, the tender buds were toast. "Don't be greedy," she says. "Appreciate what you have for as long as you have it."


Holley at Roses and Other Gardening Joys, in Texas, U.S., caught the flu while on vacation. When she came home, her Camellia was blooming. Holley was sad that she was sick and stuck inside during such a lovely time in her garden until she realized the garden looked incredible from inside the house looking out, too. "I didn't realize just how important those glimpses of the garden truly are," she says. "Being able to enjoy blooms and beauty from inside the house is both a celebration and a lesson."

Aaron at Garden of Aaron, in Tennessee, U.S., shook off disappointment about the early winter weather and took stock of numerous plants in his garden, including Creeping Raspberry, Ajuga, Gold Dust Plant, Dixie Wood Fern, and Purple Coneflower, among others. Nothing like planning for the next growing season to deal with disappointment over a quick end to the previous one.

Diana at Elephant's Eye on False Bay, in Western Cape, South Africa, rediscovered the beauty of her Sea Hibiscus--in particular, the foliage color and shape. But why didn't it bloom for several years? Diana's lesson: Go back and read the instructions. This plant likes full sun and wet feet. Also called Wild Cotton Tree or Lagoon Hibiscus, it grows along the coast from Eastern Cape to Zululand and extends into the tropics, where it's widespread along the shores.


Others who participated through their comments included Deb at Deb's Garden, who had to learn patience as she recovered from surgery--which actually gave her more time to relax and enjoy her garden. Shirley at Rock-Oak-Deer and Janet at Plantaliscious both shared the lesson that the plants we don't capture with the camera are often the ones we remember most fondly.

Helene at Graphicality-UK learned that Fuchsia cuttings perform better outside than inside--even when the temperatures flirt with frost. Anita at Castles Crowns and Cottages learned that each of us needs a bit of nature during our days in order to thrive. Jane at Hoe Hoe Grow learned that procrastination can leave a person with two bags of Tulip bulbs and soil too wet to dig before winter.


Seems we've learned some critical garden lessons during the past season. If you've written a post during the past few months that fits here, feel free to add the link in your comments. And, of course, if I've forgotten anyone, please let me know and I'll update the post.

Thanks to all--for sharing your lessons and comparing notes. If we don't connect before then, have a very Merry Christmas and a Blessed New Year!


(Note: Photos in this post were not taken recently. I've been a bit under the weather, and with the recent ice storm and cold, I didn't feel like venturing out. Plus, I had quite a few photos of snowy benches that seemed appropriate for this post.)

December 18, 2013

Plant of the month: Agave utahensis 'kaibabensis'

OK, OK, this plant obviously is not native in my state. In fact, Agave utahensis is only native in two U.S. states: Arizona and Utah. I'm highlighting it this month because it seems to be surviving the harsh elements of my climate quite well, planted in a pot with a grouping of other cold-hardy succulents. To read more about how my microclimate experiment started, click here.


Time will tell if this Agave, and it's companion succulents, will survive a USDA zone 5 winter--on a covered screened porch, out of the direct wind, away from the ice and snow and rain. I'm planning to neglect these plants until about March. That's what most sources tell me to do--put them in a protected place and don't water them until spring.

The three Cactuses in the pots have shriveled to a fraction of their size during the summer, which I've read is entirely normal for cold-hardy Cactuses in winter. The Sempervivums seem just fine. And this Agave looks pretty much like it did in August. (The photos here were taken during the summer, but believe me, it looks the same. Well, maybe slightly larger because it grew some additional leaves). This is amazing to me, since we've had several days and nights below 0F (-18C).

I hadn't even planned to try an Agave, but I was intrigued by the description at, where I purchased it. According to the vendor, this particular Agave is an excellent addition to a rock garden. It likely will only grow to 8 inches tall and wide, and it's hardy to zone 5. Perfect for my little potted rock garden.

I adore the size, the color, the form, and just about everything about this Agave, which in my garden will remain a potted, outdoor plant. Frankly, I'm smitten.


Coming soon: The Garden Lessons Learned wrap-up. Please share a post or your thoughts about lessons you've learned during the past few months. To join in, click here to leave a comment with a link to your post. Thanks!

December 12, 2013

The paradox of glitter and simplicity

There are two sides to the holiday season. The busy, hectic, shopping, wrapping paper, and rushed to-do list side of our days,

And the hushed, simple, powdered sugar-coated, stripped-down-to-the-essentials side.


There are still signs of autumn in the bright glow of the sparkling snow.


But the arctic blast of frozen white begins to dominate.


We add the sparkly, festive trimmings in preparation.


And we say a wistful “goodbye until spring” to the hardy perennials that, by some miracle, find a way to survive the brutal, long months of winter ahead.


We stock up on supplies for warmth and comfort as we gather with family and friends,


While snow settles on the evergreens and every branch and crook where it can find a resting place.


In our few spare moments of reflection, we marvel at the beauty of the simplest natural formations,


Partly because we know the days are short, so observation time is limited.


And every little miracle is a gift.

This is my Seasonal Celebrations observation. Join Donna at Gardens Eye View for more posts about how gardeners around the world are celebrating.


Coming soon: The Garden Lessons Learned wrap-up. Please share a post or your thoughts about lessons you've learned during the past few months. To join in, click here to leave a comment with a link to your post. Thanks!

December 07, 2013

The power of a single flower

'The impression of his personality was so strong on those who knew him that all words seem cheap beside it. Those who never knew him can never, through any word of ours, be brought to realize what they have missed. He had a quaint, crisp way of talking, his literary style in fact, and none of the nature lovers--the men who know how to feel in the presence of great things and beautiful--have expressed their craft better than he.'

~David Starr Jordan, educator, naturalist, philosopher, and university administrator, on his friend and contemporary, John Muir

U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt (left) and naturalist, John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, on Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park. In the background: Upper and lower Yosemite Falls.
By Underwood & Underwood [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Some people are larger than life. They face overwhelming odds, yet somehow manage to accomplish so much in their short lifetimes that it's almost hard to think of them as human beings. They inspire us to accomplish more.

Probably not surprising to my readers, John Muir is one of those people for me. How could a man--born to Scottish immigrants of modest means, and nearly broken by farm labor and very stern upbringing--go on to accomplish so much? He was a farmer, inventor, sheepherder, explorer, writer, and conservationist. To this day, many consider him America's most famous and prominent naturalist.

I decided at the beginning of this year to write at least one post a month reflecting on Muir's contributions. Now that the year is almost over, I feel like I've only scratched the surface in learning about Muir. He published more than 300 articles and ten major books. He wrote lovingly of his beginnings in Dunbar, Scotland and Central Wisconsin ... and of course, the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Fortunately, the complete text of all his books is available for free through the Sierra Club. People continually find inspiration in his words. And his influence on this country, and the world, will live on as long as people care about nature.

What would Muir think of our world today? I think he'd be both sad and impressed with the state of affairs today. Mostly sad, probably, that so many species are extinct or endangered. But perhaps with a touch of acknowledgement that many of us are aware of the problems and continuing the quest to save natural places. Proud of every single national park, of course--even though many face challenges in blending the needs of nature with the importance of allowing visitors.

I also think he'd encourage landowners and gardeners, in particular--in the cities, the suburbs, and the countryside--to preserve natural habitats, and to plant flowering plants and a healthy mix of native plants.

Yes, John Muir would probably be sad for reasons too numerous to list here. But he'd ask those of us who are custodians of natural places to preserve them and encourage biodiversity. He'd encourage us to garden to feed our fellow man and at the same time to encourage pollinators and wildlife. He'd probably applaud people like Ron Finley, who said, "Gardening is the most therapeutic and defiant act you can do, especially in the inner city. Plus, you get Strawberries."

There's so much work to do, but we have the tools--heirloom seeds, pesticide-free plants, tiny and large plots of land--to make a difference. Sometimes that means responsible horticulture, and sometimes it means letting nature be, untouched by human hands.

And as Muir, himself, said, "There is that in the glance of a flower, which may at times control the greatest of creation's braggart lords."

November 30, 2013

Garden lessons learned: autumn 2013


Of all the transitions between seasons, this is the weirdest one to write about. Moving from autumn to winter seems to happen faster than the other transitions, and it feels odd to write about "autumn lessons" when we've had "winter" weather for a couple of weeks.


Of course there's plenty of material for this "Lessons Learned" meme, because I learn (and re-learn) every season of the year.


So here goes. Here's what I learned during autumn 2013:

• Get the camera ready for the Purple Lovegrass (Eragrostis spectabilis). This misty plant has a similar effect to Pink Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris)--clouds of soft fluffy color in early autumn. Plus, it blooms from August through October. I discovered a patch at the cottage this year, and the purple/pink cloud of inflorescence was magical in the afternoon light. But I didn't have a decent camera with me. My bad.

• Sow perennial seeds in late autumn. It's easier and cheaper than purchasing and planting perennial plants in the spring. This autumn, I planted seeds for Agastache foeniculum, Boltonia asteroides, Carex pennsylvanica, Conoclinium coelestinum, Mertensia virginica, and two species of Asclepias. Who knows if any of them will germinate and grow next spring, but the investment in seeds was minimal. Plus, it's kind of fun anticipating which plants will appear.

• Add some veggies to the display. Swiss Chard, Pansies, and Ornamental Kale all perform well in my autumn climate--long after the first frost and into the late winter. I'm already planning my autumn potted arrangements for next fall.

• Wear comfortable sturdy, supportive shoes when visiting public gardens or traveling. I thought I'd packed the appropriate "comfortable" shoes for my London trip this fall, but after only one day of walking through airports and London streets, my feet ached! By the time we got to Kew Gardens, walking was painful. My fondest memories of Kew are sitting down outside the Orangery restaurant and taking a slow tour through the Grass Garden (including sitting breaks). Fortunately, I had other shoes along to wear for the rest of the trip. But next time I'll be ready with hiking boots or athletic shoes with extremely supportive, durable soles.

• Prepare for a quick seasonal shift in November if October is mild. This fall was brief. It almost seemed like we went from summer to winter overnight. No complaints here, because the extra warm days were nice. But I need to remind myself to be ready for the sudden blast of arctic air.


Now it's your turn: What gardening and nature lessons have you learned and relearned this season? If you live in the Southern Hemisphere, please share your spring lessons.


To join in the Lessons Learned meme, share a new or a previous post you've written regarding things you've learned. No Linkys necessary: You can simply add the link in your comment.


Please also join Donna at Gardens Eye View for the Seasonal Celebrations meme. Posts that cover both memes offer a chance to reflect on the past season and look ahead to the next at the same time. Both memes will be active until the solstice, when we'll post the wrap-ups.


November 26, 2013

Plant of the Month: Ornamental Kale

I can't decide which Ornamental Kale I like best. As a relative newcomer to growing them, I chose 'Glamour Red' and 'Kamome Pink' this fall. They're all fun additions and offer vibrant color even to northern gardens, well into November and often December.

Brassica oleracea acephala 'Glamour Red'

'Glamour Red' is a drama queen with its shockingly bright magenta burst.


And its veiny hardy green foliage.

Brassica oleracea acephala 'Kamome Pink'

'Kamome Pink,' in my limited experience, holds up a little better to freezing weather.


It's not quite as dramatic, but it's equally lovely.

Ornamental Kales prefer full sun or a touch of shade and well-drained soil, according to Cornell University's Home Gardening Guide. They also:

  • Grow to a height and spread of about 12-18 inches;
  • Tolerate frost, often remaining colorful into early winter;
  • Are nonaggressive and noninvasive; and
  • Are edible, although questionably palatable.

  • Personally, I simply like the way they look--even at the end of fall.



    Happy Thanksgiving to our American friends!

    November 20, 2013

    On dogs, butterflies, and bruises...

    "When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the 
    rest of the world."    ~ John Muir

    dog walk
    By KAAY. Click on photo for full citation.

    Sometimes the answer to a problem seems black and white.

    But it's important to consider the gray areas.

    For example, dogs are man's best friends.

    I don't have a dog, but if I had to choose one nonhuman animal to accompany me in a survival situation (and I couldn't have a horse), that animal most likely would be a dog.

    dog love
    By Michael McPhee. Click on photo for full citation.

    Many of my friends, and most of my family members, have dogs. They're cherished members of their nuclear families as well as our larger extended families.

    dog run
    By 4028mdk09. Click on photo for full citation.

    We don't want them to hurt or to suffer in any way. That's a black-and-white issue for most of us.

    And then there's the issue of the disappearing monarch butterflies.


    It's easy to put off thinking about them until next year or until they're endangered. Or worse, yet, to give up and think there's no hope for them, or to simply not care. There are so many factors stacked against them. And all they are, afterall, is ... butterflies.

    It's not like they're man's best friend.

    dog tilt
    By Vindhyana. Click on photo for full citation.

    This issue is a little more gray.


    Consider the words of John Muir at the beginning of this post: "When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world." Are monarch butterflies "canaries in the coal mine"? What impact would their extinction have on the rest of the world? Put another way, are their disappearing numbers trying to tell us something?

    So much has been published about dogs and butterflies, and most of us care deeply about both of them. Again, black and white.

    Unfortunately, what helps one species harms the other:
    • Monarchs need Milkweed--that's all the caterpillars can eat;
    • But Milkweed is toxic to dogs.

    milkweed seeds

    I harvested seeds from two types of Milkweed this fall: Swamp Milkweed and Whorled Milkweed. I asked friends and family if they wanted seeds for their gardens to help the monarch butterflies. Several without dogs didn't hesitate to say "yes."

    Of course, I mentioned to the dog owners that Milkweed is toxic to dogs, so they'd have to be careful where to plant it. Frankly, that brought the enthusiasm about planting Milkweed down to about a one or two, on a scale of one to 10.

    My goodness, I can't blame them. A dog is a part of the family. Dogs chew ... on just about anything. Dogs that chew on Milkweed might get sick. Black and white, right?

    I'm terrible at sales--especially in situations where I completely understand the "No, thanks." So when a dog owner says, "Oh, well, I can't grow that because my dog might eat it," I give up.

    But this post is about the gray areas. If you have a dog (or a horse, or an outdoor cat, or any other mammalian pet), but you also care about monarch butterflies, consider the gray areas before you give up on the monarchs.


    Here are just a few ideas on how pet owners can protect their pets and also help prevent monarch extinction:
    • Plant Milkweed in fenced-in gardens that your pets can't reach;
    • Support organizations and public gardens dedicated to supporting and protecting the monarch;
    • Volunteer at a nature center to help maintain monarch habitat; or
    • Consider rearing monarch caterpillars in a safe container or tent, away from predators (including pets). Click here for instructions on how to do it.

    If you have other ideas on how to protect both pets and monarchs, please add them to your comments.

    For more information about the status of the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) and how you can help, visit the World Wildlife Fund or the Monarch Joint Venture.

    Monarchs have been on our minds and featured on our blogs more than ever this year, because they're "near threatened," according to the World Wildlife Fund. Man's best friend is, arguably, the most important and cherished species for human survival. But there are gray areas--ways we can support both.

    For months now, the song "All I know," written by Jimmy Webb and popularized by Art Garfunkel has been going through my mind. It's a simple song, really, and some might call it overly melancholy. But I find it powerful and wise in its simplicity. It applies to human interactions, but also to how all earth's creatures--including man and his best friend--interact and "bruise" each other. Here's to working on the gray areas, and making the bruises less severe.

    (For a poignant video set to the music of "All I Know," click on the picture below.)