Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Path Taken: Tracking Signs in Snow

Hello, housecat!

December descended and brought with it frigid temperatures and a thick blanket of snow. It covered my gardening lapses nicely, even if I wasn't quite ready to call it quits. I still maintain I could have planted the tulip bulbs. Instead, they are potted up for spring forcing.

I adore snow. I love the serene whiteness that brings calm to the landscape. I love the way it moves and forms patterns when windblown. The husband and I went for a nice neighborhood stroll, fluffy snow falling down around us. It brings a sense of peace and reminds me that winter can be a time of contemplation.

Snow also provides a canvas for the critters, especially the nocturnal ones. The backyard is a zigzag pattern of rabbit and squirrel tracks stitched back and forth between trees and brush. When it thaws, I'll find deposits of rabbit scat, fertilizing the beds.

A mouse going for a stroll.

We'll also see tracks of less obvious visitors. A mouse hopped his way across the driveway before I shoveled. Someone's house cat has also been out for a prowl. The voles have been active too. As winter progresses, I hold out hope for fox and coyote tracks. I'd rather the predators restore the balance of rodents than me.

Each snowfall I scan for evidence of the small dramas in the predator/prey opera, the daily tasks of survival. What do you find in the snow?

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Texture:The Autumn Prairie

The first flakes of snow blew through this morning. It's been a couple of days of high winds heralding the end of autumn and the arrival of winter. I've been soaking in the textures of the prairie this November. The dried leaves, flowers, and seedheads have left a ghost of the plant, often to stunning results.

Silphium terebinthinaceum, prairie dock
Prairie dock has dried into huge deep brown handkerchiefs curled into fantastic shapes. Their sandpapery leaves now showcase their large pores and elegant veins. They rattle in the wind like a clutch of gossiping ladies.

Silphium perfoliatium, cup plant
Cup plant's daisy flowers have dried into pale ghosts of their golden glory. It's sturdy leaves still wrap around the beefy stems, only more fragile and melancholy.
Silphium laciniatum, compass plant

Like frozen dancers, the leaves of compass plant twist in impossible contortions. They are woven through the grasses, stealthy in their pavanes. These stiff leaves and sturdy stems are unbending in the relentless winds. They clatter and cackle with abandon, not caring who hears them.

Goldenrod in full fluff
In contrast, goldenrod's fluffy poofs of faded flowers and fuzzy seedheads dot the ocean of grass and dip with the breeze. They are holding their seeds tight, still, unwilling to release them to the chances of weather and storm. Tawny cotton candy, their bounce adds buoyancy to the prairie.
Asclepias syriaca, common milkweed

The monarchs have fled to the balmy air of Mexico and the milkweed releases its bounty to the breeze. I have always been fascinated by the many textures of milkweed pods. The silky hairs of the seeds call out to be stroked. Ice and snow cling dramatically to the nubby pods. This milkweed feels abandoned to its fate now that the seeds have dispersed.

Like this bit of seed and down, I am caught. Captured by the textured of the prairie, I am drawn to reflect on how these living breathing plants have become elegant skeletons. The birds still descend upon their seeds. The rabbits hide in their fronds and muskrats harvest them for homes. But for now, they are arrested, halted, frozen. Their small sculptures give a subtle punctuation to the landscape. Their bare leaves and branches await the lacy limn of frost and snow.


Sunday, October 2, 2016

Fallen Stars of Autumn

New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)

Autumn stars have fallen to earth - as asters! October brings us a treasure trove of brilliant daisy-like flowers in a rainbow of colors. Smashing paired with grasses and evergreen shrubs, asters can be found from shade to sun. I love them for their late season color, but also because they are a last feeding stop for pollinators.

Calico Aster (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum)

We are blessed with a large variety of native asters in Illinois as well as a huge selection of cultivars on the market. The native asters can be quite rambunctious. I find that if you pinch them back in July, they will be much more bushy in habit and bloom later for an extended season.

'October Skies' aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium 'October Skies')

I do have a soft spot for one cultivar of aster -'October Skies'. This stunning large rounded plant features quarter-sized soft blue flowers with golden centers. I like to run my hands over the foliage as it is particularly fragrant. As with any aster, it is beloved by bees.

There are tall asters like Drummond's (Symphyotrichum drummondii) which can grow deep in the woods. There are tiny asters like heath aster 'Snow Flurry' (Symphyotrichum ericoides 'Snow Flurry') which is a groundcover that forms a soft wave of tiny white blossoms on needle-like foliage. There are robust plants like New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) that resemble a shrub. With so many to chose from, they are easy to add to a perennial border or native landscape. The bees and migrating butterflies will thank you!

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Benefits of Thunderstorms

Rolling in over the prairie...

One of the benefits of living in the Midwest and having a rural commute is I get to experience a lot of big sky. Huge sweeping panoramas of clouds, sunrises, sunsets, and thunderstorms. It's been a terrific summer for the big boomers. I haven't had to water anything but the plants in containers. There is something magnetic about the majestic scope of a supercell rolling over your head.


We love a good thunderstorm and are known to turn off all the house lights just to watch a lightning show. Not only does a storm bring needed rain, that lightning plays an important part in the garden. It ionizes nitrogen which then falls to earth and is readily absorbed by plants. You might notice that your lawn will green up after a thunderstorm and put on some extra growth. That little extra shot of nitrogen did the trick.

Another benefit of thunderstorms are rainbows. This was a particularly bright one and I didn't notice until I pulled it up that it has a faint double. Now this is the parking lot of the grocery store, and I was surprised that I was the only one pausing a moment to savor this stunner of a rainbow. If Mother Nature is going to put on a show, I like to take a minute and appreciate it. It's garish and loud and an exuberant reminder of the clash of water and electricity. The final fireworks of a summer show.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Now Is the Season For Insects

Tiger swallowtail on Liatris spicata

This year August has brought back the big butterflies. I've got monarch eggs on the milkweed finally and I've tallied more than 35 so far this year. 35 is a high number it seems, but I've been out photographing sites for work, which means spending a lot of time in prairies, woods, and wetlands. Need a butterfly fix? Head to the prairie or bring a piece to your own backyard.

I've planted the raingarden primarily in native prairie plants because their deep roots hold the soil in place and absorb more water. This year, many of them have reached the three year mark so I have a bevy of purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), gayfeather (Liatris spicata), bee balm (Monarda sp.), blue vervain (Verbena hastata) and black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia sp.) attracting a wealth of insects. Not to mention a lot of milkweed.

Zabulon skipper on Rudbeckia

The swallowtails have been casing out the place, although I haven't found a caterpillar - yet. We have a smattering of skippers, tons of bees, wasps, flies, bugs, and spiders. It's been remarkable how determined the bees are to get to the nectar of the bee balm. There are only a few florets left here and there, and still, they are magnets. Some bee species cut into the base of the flower for a quick sip instead of trying to negotiate the long tubular florets. Adding a few native plants really does make a difference!

Skipper on Echinacea

Crab spider defending its territory.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Pretties from the Prairie

Pictured clockwise from top: Ratibida pinnata, Monarda fistulosa, Helianthus helianthoides, Silphium terebinthinaceum, and Echinacea purpurea

As you may have noticed, activity on this blog has been spotty at best. Why? I've been working hard on trying to wrap up my first novel. I'm in the last stages, so it claims quite a bit of attention.

However, my regular job still involves lots and lots of prairies. I'm lucky to have one right outside my office window. I've just come back from a four day national conference on prairies and all that dwells within them where I got to meet some amazing people and reconnect with colleagues.

Because I have a big beautiful prairie to play in, I can indulge in my fascination with flowers. This is my desk bouquet. I keep a couple of vases in the office because life is better with blossoms up close and personal. The nursery staff likes to bring me ones that have broken off or been cut back. Some species do well in a vase and some go downhill almost instantly.

The coneflower in the raingarden has burst into bloom as well, so I have lots of composite flowers decorating home and office. I don't deadhead the purple coneflowers as I do the daisies because the finches will snack on the seeds come fall.

I encourage you to pick a posy to brighten your inside space! Sometimes it's really important to stop and smell the roses. To pause. To notice. To listen and pay attention and let the seconds tick slowly by while you count the petals.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Janustory - Wrap Up

It's been a crazy tradeshow week, so I haven't been posting. Here's the last threads of the little experiment I call Janustory:

27.       Running up to the tip of the highest hill and back each day, I am finding new muscles that constantly complain, ignoring the need for constant vigil.

28.       I am heartily sick of cold crab meat, but they are the easiest to catch in the myriad tide pools that are lined with colorful anemones and starfish.

29.       Having decided that this poor island may be my forever home, I’m headed into the trees to find more permanent shelter, yet I cannot give up hope of rescue.

30.       At last, at last, a beautiful big industrial freight ship has spotted my giant whipping flames and is turning rapidly about towards my solitary island, searching for this lonely traveler.

31.       As I watch the retreating frothing waves, I remember my long days and shimmering star-filled nights, but my heart lifts like the bouncing bow at my return to my dearest love.
This has been great fun to create and has really helped spark creativity elsewhere. Not to mention, re-start this blog. I hope you have enjoyed the journey!

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Janustory - Day 26

Today's installment: Will I miss this stretched out solitary time, filled with searing sun, diamond stars, and a bone white moon that calls my name at darkest midnight? #janustory #wordcount26

Winter makes me want to hide away in my own little world. I do my best thinking while alone, which is why my hour commute on country roads is actually rather nice. I can tune out and let the brain simmer away on whatever problem. Yet, I still like to be connected. Today, a photo of a solitary spider - all alone, but still within a web.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Janustory - Day 25

Today's installment: I have constructed a beacon of driftwood and relentless hope, praying for some sign of a ship or boat to carry me away from here. #janustory #wordcount25

Beacons cause us to pause and re-evaluate. The lone pine on a hill, the fire in the distance, cause us to stop and seek meaning. Today, we went to the funeral of the father of a friend. He was a man who gave of himself boundlessly and was a beacon of joy and laughter. He is a bright laughing flame in my memory and I am richer for having him walk through my life.

Snowdrops for remembrance

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Janustory - Day 24

Today's installment: I am rapidly giving up hope of ever seeing a human again and although the glowing plankton is quite beautiful, I miss real conversation. #janustory #wordcount24

One of these days I'll see glowing plankton in real life. It hasn't quite made it to my bucket list, but it's in the wings. So instead, I'll settle for flowers glowing in the sun.

Geranium 'Rozanne'

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Janustory - Days 21, 22 & 23

Social commitments and work have put me behind on posting here. To catch up:

Day 21: Yesterday, a torrential riot of a thunderstorm bristling with sizzling lightning, washed away my makeshift tent and drowned my nascent fire.

Day 22: Shivering, I have scoured the jagged black volcanic rocks, hoping and praying for a miraculous find brought forth from the watery depths.

Day 23: I may finally have mastered the ancient skill of making fire as I managed to get another tuft of carefully scraped fibers lit.

I'm having a lot of fun with this project. It's forcing me into creativity and sparking those neural pathways that expand my brain. Like a flower expanding its petals, working through creative problems causes new muscles to kick in and something beautiful appears.

Japanese anemone

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Janustory - Day 20

Today's installment: If I had a calendar, today would get circled as I finally managed the human race’s most basic achievement: fire. #janustory #wordcount20

It's the little things that keep us going. The unforeseen compliment, the pat on the back, the flower blooming stubbornly in the crack in the sidewalk. I like to try to find something beautiful in every day, be it a crescent moon or the line of a branch in an ancient tree.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Janustory - Day 19

Today's installment: The blue butterflies have been following me and I’m beginning to worry they may have it in for me. #janustory #wordcount19

Butterflies. So elusive and so seductive. We have a few native blue butterflies, but if you think they'll hold still for picture, forget it. Sometimes, you can sneak up on a monarch. Instead of blue butterflies, we have a butterfly on blue salvia. Enjoy!

Monday, January 18, 2016

Janustory - Day 18

Today's installment: It must be my 3,482nd attempt at starting a fire by rubbing twigs and still I am unsuccessful. #janustory #wordcount18

As a home gardener and a professional horticulturist, you lose some battles. I've lost count of how many plants haven't made it in the gardens. Ravages of weather, water, rabbits, and increasing shade have caused the contents of the beds to evolve and change. Then, there are complete mysteries. I can't grow clematis. I have tried. I have given them what is supposed to be ideal conditions, babied them, prayed over them and cursed them out. No deal. There's been many attempts and I fear my last one is truly a goner. 'Claire de Lune', I so wanted you to succeed.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Janustory - Day 17

Today's installment:  Is that scrap of white on the waves a ship or merely a lost and wandering cloud? ‪#‎janustory‬ ‪#‎wordcount17

Clouds are amazing things. A cluster of water vapor that can resemble fabulous beasts or superfine sugar, clouds delight and amaze us. In the Midwest, I am spoiled for big skyscapes. For some reason, I'm attracted to the dunes in winter, when few people are out and Mother Nature offers spare, elegant skies.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Janustory - Day 16

Today's installment: The small vine fibers are more or less successful for macramé but I’m getting blistered fingers. ‪#‎janustory‬ ‪#‎wordcount16

Tomorrow we head into the deep freeze with highs in the single digits. We shall see how frosty the front door becomes and if the cats will get over their animosity enough to cuddle together. In the meantime, a picture of a gardenia in all its tropical loveliness.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Janustory - Day 14 & 15

monarch chrysalis

The next installments:

The howling loneliness is all consuming and now even cannibals would be ready company.

With giant waxy leaves and vine fibers, I have managed to fashion a rain funnel.

#janustory #wordcount14 #wordcount15

So this week has been one of death. The world has lost major musical and acting talent and my world has lost a friend's grandmother and a friend's father. So far, today has not brought any more news of personal death, but the night is still young.

Death is ugly, messy, frightening, and heartbreaking, yet it can also be beautiful. We find a lot of interesting dead things when you work in the middle of a prairie and grow plants in hoop houses. There's a lot of frogs, for example, and butterflies. When you have a literal ton of flowers, you get a lot of butterflies, and let's face it, most butterflies don't live very long.

Because we find them beautiful, we have collected a variety of dead things. My friend Susan has been creating extraordinary collages and tableaus on her seed sowing table. In memory of those who have left you, I give you Susan's extraordinary eye for the stunning loveliness that can be found in nature at all stages.

Oh, and we find a lot of nests, too, which are in themselves works of art.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Janustory - Day 13

Today's installment: These tropical dawns are pretty spectacular, but how do I signal a ship? #janustory #wordcount13

Speaking of dawn, it's pretty awesome to work in a prairie sometimes. The light is amazing at dawn and dusk. Plus, you get freezing fog which turns the landscape ghostly and haunted. Goldenrod never looked so elegant!

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Janustory - Day 12

Today's installment: I wait for the water cup to fill and nurse bloodied feet. #janustory #wordcount12

Today, a video. My workplace is rural and in the middle of corn and soybean fields. The drive is beautiful and quite inspiring until it snows. Then it takes twice as long and is fraught with peril. However, blowing snow, especially at 25 to 30 mph is beautifully hypnotic.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Janustory - Day 11

Today's installment: The blue butterflied do not seem to appreciate my rasping storytelling. #janustory #wordcount11

Capturing butterflies is an exercise in patience. Monarchs are particularly skittish. So when you get a good shot, you share it!

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Janustory - Day 9 & 10

Yesterday's installment: With a battered pocket knife, I now can feast. #wordcount9

Today's installment: Never one for sushi, I begin to see the appeal. ‪#‎janustory‬ ‪#‎wordcount10

Last night we got about a half inch of snow and more ice. Yay January! Finally, winter seems to have shown up. It's still not cold enough to kill off Japanese beetle, but maybe the single digit temps the next few days will finish off some of the more delicate of the pest population. This photo reminds me of frozen dew.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Janustory - Day 8

Today's entry: Storm washed remains of ship contain unforeseen treasures. #janustory #wordcount8

How many times have we discovered unforeseen treasures in the garden? Living in a 1929 Sears kit house means my soil is filled with random bits of flotsam and jetsam that surface when working. I must wear gloves for the pieces of glass, broken china, clinkers, rusty nails and whatever else turns up. In winter, orchids can be unexpected jewels that remind us there are wonders around each corner of Mother Nature.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Janustory - Day 7

Today's installment: Fresh spring water dribbles, coats only tongue. #janustory #wordcount7

Water. It's a curse and a blessing. This year, we've seen record rains and storms across the country. Rivers in Illinois are still in flood stage - in January!! All that rain also replenished the Great Lakes, especially Lake Michigan. So today, I have an appropriate photo for the above text - the beach in Indiana in January.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Janustory - Day 6

Today's installment: Alone, I wander the broken beach. #janustory #wordcount6

I'm rapidly realizing that the pictures I want to share have nothing to do with the above chapter. Today, I'm captured by patterns in nature. Mathematically wondrous are the angles of a leaf! Perhaps reminiscent of the patterns of waves?

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Janustory - Day 5

Today's installment: Eyes gritty, watching moon rise. #janustory #wordcount5

I am thankful that the days are gradually getting longer. With a rural commute, daylight becomes more important when driving where there are no streetlights and farms are sprinkled intermittently. So today, I give you a photo of a glorious sunset because taking pictures of the sickle moon is particularly tricky.

Monday, January 4, 2016

January Sun

First, the next installment:

Tiny crab stalks prey. #janustory #wordcount4

Also, today was a rare sunny day in January. After about ten days of clouds, rain, sleet, freezing rain, snow, and a few other kinds of precipitation, the silvery sun of January is pretty magical. I understand why some Scandinavians take the time to sunbathe for 15 or 20 minutes in winter.

Clematis ternifolia or sweet autumn clematis

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Janustory Continues

January 3rd: Ship has capsized. ‪#‎janustory‬ ‪#‎wordcount3

And a photo for fun and to remind myself that it's pretty frozen out there. Not frozen enough, mind you, to kill any of the bad bugs, but at least it resembles winter.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Breaking Dormancy with a Writing Challenge

Yes, I've let the blog go dormant. It happens. Especially when another writing project becomes all consuming and you have three jobs. Then things change and you find you have more time and it's a new year, after all.

So, after discussion on Facebook among friends, I've launched Janustory. Here's your challenge:

Write a chapter each day using the number of words for that day. January 1st - one word. January 2nd - two words, and so forth. You get the idea.

Bonus points for keeping to one sentence per day and for having a cohesive piece at the end.

Post where you will and share as you like. This is for fun and as a creative exercise for when you might be stuck on something else. Please include #janustory and #wordcount1 (2,3,4,5,) hashtags.

January 1st: Beginning.
January 2nd: Journey underway.

Tiger swallowtail - for a something pretty.