Yesterday I captured the sun glowing through my Swiss chard, illuminating the leaves like fire, or perhaps stained glass. Last night's frost has put an end to that, now they droop and flag, all the wind knocked out of their veiny sails. Today I must cut them down and try, really try, to find a recipe that makes me want to eat rather than simply adore them. Like wedding cake and lattice-top pie it falls into the almost too-pretty-to-eat category for me. Yet a little birdie might feel differently.
Earlier this year before the rest of the landscape was finished at our new home I was impatient and planted a fall garden in the kitchen beds, late even for Minnesota standards. Surprisingly those sad leftover veggies from the garden center rose to the occasion, especially the chard. But back when it was just a couple sprigs, the stonemason noticed a goldfinch sitting atop the leaves. He even managed a photo that identified the very culprit making holes in the leaves.
I thought back to a similar photo I had taken of a goldfinch sitting on chard plants at the University of Minnesota Demo Garden on the St. Paul campus. Hmmm, the goldfinches must sit on the sturdy leaves and eat insects I thought. What a coincidence. But of course, my curiosity was piqued.
I wondered how many innocent worms had been framed by these sweet little yellow birds?
Check out Cornell Lab of Ornithology, my favorite bird website and it will tell you that American goldfinches (Spinus tristis) are almost exclusively seed eaters, connoisseurs of thistle seed. In fact it states they are strict vegetarians, any insect eaten is by accident. Nothing is said about consuming leafy greens.
Do a search on Flickr for goldfinch and chard and you'll see flocks of finches perched upon raggedy chard, including my photo. Some theorize the birds are sipping water from the deeply grooved foliage.
Go on the garden discussion boards and it's another story. Loads of anecdotal evidence that goldfinches are enjoying Swiss chard in lots of gardens around the country. You might say that pokes holes in this venerable institutuion's knowledge of goldfinch behavior.
Have you seen goldfinches on your chard? And while we're at it, how do you like to eat it? I'm considering the creamy greens recipe from this month's Martha.
A lot of folks would say I'm certifiable. And they're right!
You may be too.
I just filled out the online application for certifying my yard as a Monarch Waystation. The last stones in the patio are being laid as we speak but it's not too soon to designate my beautiful new landscape as a waystation. Think bed and breakfast for butterflies.
I made sure to include numerous nectar plants and a generous amount of host plant Aslcepias tuberosa (butterfly weed) in my new garden for the exact purpose of helping the Monarch butterfly survive in spite of extreme weather, habitat destruction and pesticide threats.
Gardeners everywhere have noticed the low numbers of monarchs visiting our gardens this time of year when once they were present in great numbers while on their arduous migration. More than just a tough year, the monarch population is down 80% by some estimates.
Certifying your yard doesn't require a huge investment, You can purchase a waystation seed kit from Monarch Watch (the University of Kansas program that promotes and oversees monarch research and conservation) or you can buy plants at your local garden centers to fulfill the requirements necessary for certification.
If you're like me, my past two gardens have qualified on the spot due to my interest and action in making sure they were butterfly-friendly. Perhaps your garden is a monarch waystation already. Officially certifying your garden costs $16, however the money is put to good use at Monarch Watch.
In addition you can purchase a small sign to place in your garden that lets other people know of your good intentions while educating them to the plight of the monarch and what can be done to save this fascinating and gorgeous creature. Who knows? Maybe you'll start a movement in your neighborhood or town. Monarch waystations can be contagious.
Spring has sprung early everywhere, but especially in Minnesota where it has caught me with a backlog of "down south" stories still to be told, before I can even start on planning and planting up here...
...There is that moment, somewhere in your forties usually, where you catch sight of your mother in a shop window reflection, maybe a photo and then you realize, oh, that's me. Sometimes it's when you catch yourself repeating some familiar saying of hers, at other times it's a certain expression set on your increasingly lined face.
It's way before her time, but watching (and guiding) my daughter create her first garden was like a backward progression of this phenomenon.
It all started last year at the GWA conference when she accompanied me there on our way to visit her brother at his new school. As a budding food writer she found lots of helpful info and parallels at this garden writers gathering. And to my surprise she was right up there when they were handing out the sample plants.
So last fall I helped her plant up a large pot with all her swag, the centerpiece being the cute new Colocasia Bikini-Tini elephant ears. I gave her my sample as well since she's in zone 8. Lucky gal.
The adorable elephant ears are thriving in her mild climate in Savannah, although I had to scold her for letting them dry out and water them a few times for her this winter when she got busy. Though I will admit, part of her being busy was my extended stay, which necessitated many trips to Tybee Island, countless cooking experiments, forays for cupcakes at our favorite bakery and general larking around. It's a wonder she's getting her thesis done and that I finished several articles while I was there.
One of our expeditions took us to Herb Creek Nursery in nearby Sandfly where I took a few surreptitious shots of their gorgeous succulents to complete my upcoming article in Northern Gardener. She fell hard for the succulents and before I knew it we were trekking around finding inexpensive containers for all of them.
She learned some hard realities of container gardening; potting soil costs money and so do pots. I told her to keep an eye out for other items that could be re-purposed for pots. The next day at Target she did one of those SNL-style "Tuurrrget Lady" turns when she spied the cheap enamel Easter tins and said will these work? Next she was onto galvanized buckets at Home Depot.
She got our her handy-dandy drill to make holes for drainage and started planting. Soon we were back to the nursery for herbs. After all you can only purchase so much thyme at the grocery store for her favorite Ina Garten chicken recipes before it gets ridiculous.
Such a sight in her pink apron and red wellies, bent over a pot with her hands all dirty, a new gardener is born, following many generations before her. Her grandmother's Bakelite bracelets clicking on her wrist as she wrestled those succulents into the soil made me want to cry.
I always assumed she would start gardening, but not this soon. Now our phone calls include her pressing plant issues along with Savannah gossip and cooking questions.
It all gives me hope. Does this mean there's a possibility my son might feel the need to plant something, someday too?
Here we go with Part Two of my holiday gift suggestions for the gardeners in your life. And what a gift they are to you, by the way.
A few days ago I talked about all the great practical and appreciated gifts that gardeners would love to receive. Today I'm all about the things we don't need.
Some people just love thingamajigs and inventions "sure to make your life easier", and if that's the case, you can leave quietly and go sip egg nog in another room until I get to Part Three in a few more days.
However, just as many accomplished chefs believe you can make good food with simply a pan, knife and spoon, I think that gardening doesn't have to be complicated by lots of specialized tools,widgets and what-nots.
Thus a short and succinct list of things we'd rather you didn't get us.
If I sound a little surly with this list it's because I want everyone to have successful, happy gardening experiences. I want things to grow and flourish and bring joy to the person that tended them. A lot of the gimmicks and gadgets aimed at gardeners bring about guilt and disappointment. Many are just another marketing ploy that reinforces the faulty notion that you don't have a green thumb.
Everyone has green thumb potential. It's all about the right plant in the right place. Simple as that.
Attending classes and presentations put on throughout the year and throughout the country by Extension Master Gardeners who give the latest and most accurate information on gardening practices might be the best gift you can give yourself or suggest to others.
Stay tuned for Part Three: Silly, extravagant and ridiculous gifts for the gardener who has everything.
No matter where you fall on the issue of fall garden cleanup, you have to appreciate a recent tweet by Benjamin Vogt. He's a poet, gardener and author of Sleep, Creep, Leap, which recounts his adventures in prairie gardening.
"Just prepped my garden for winter by glancing out the office window and sighing. Seriously, why do people do fall clean-up? Nature doesn't."
I guess I fall somewhere close to this 140-characters or less, garden-maintenance manifesto. I don't do much. But I do a little.
I would venture that fall clean up routines are dependent upon gardening styles, weather and peer pressure. The more naturalistic setting can get away with less. While manicured and groomed gardens, like women of the same sort, demand more intense seasonal intervention.
Of course, those of us up north know that good snow cover hides a multitude of sins.
Raking leaves in the crisp autumn air is as much psychological marker as seasonal chore. In neighborhoods where pride of place is present, it's just what you do. I've been known to simply rearrange the leaves to cover the beds for what's known as "lazy (wo)man's mulch". However leaves can get matted and deprive soil of moisture and they create unhealthy conditions when left on lawns.
It's probably most important to remove leaves and other dead material from plants and trees suffering from any fungal issues. Disposing of that debris will help to stop the cycle of reinfection from year to year. Keep it out of your compost too.
Leaving some debris provides beneficial insects and other animals overwintering sites. However it gives all insects, some undesirable, a place too. There is never an easy answer.
Pulling up spent annuals even presents a dilemna. While some people welcome re-seeding plants, others will regret the thousands of descendants that pop up the following year. I compromise and deadhead the ones that are the most notorious propagators like fennel, nicotiana, jewels of Opar, and even then there will still be quite a few survivors.
I choose to leave perennials up over the winter unless they are already flopping before the first snow. I hate the cutting back in spring but find it a fair trade for feeding birds and critters. In addition to lovely seed heads like these...
Yesterday at the post office I came upon the prefect illustration of the fall cleanup quandary.
Across the street the parks crew were cutting down the Annabelle hydrangeas that flank the entry to a local park. I spoke with the head guy and he told me he would like to leave them up but just doesn't have the staff hours to deal with them come spring.
I leave all my Annabelles standing over winter. The chore of trimming them back is still waiting for me when the snow melts, but worth it for this sight.
Dried panicles of Hydrangea arborescens "Annabelle", note the lovely leaf pattern too.
And that's probably where the fall cleanup question splits; do we do it in fall so we can settle down into winter guilt free or do we leave it till spring when we are ready to get out and tackle anything, just to be outside.
The tales of September 11 often speak of timing, split-second decisions and the life-altering consequences that follow. Everyday we are at the mercy of traffic signals and small choices that put us at points on the map at random moments. Mostly they are without tragic results.
This week I'm taking a break from gardening and writing about gardening. I'm spending some time in Savannah GA where my daughter's starting her fall classes of grad school. Today as I went to meet her for breakfast I passed the fire station on Liberty Street and noticed a gathering of firefighters and family observing the solemn anniversary.
Here I thought, I had been too busy this month delivering kids to colleges across the country to think of doing something in remembrance. I do think, probably too much about how things can change quickly in life. it's probably why I go the trouble of making sure these kids settle in and feel comfortable returning to school and their other lives.
Writers with their vivid imaginations always ruminate on morbid possibilities. I want my kids to know how much I love them. Just in case.
On a gentler note, the timing of traffic lights and our dinner choices resulted in a life-affirming experience we didn't expect to encounter this evening.
The day before we'd stopped by the Pig and Shrimp, an outdoor cafe that's only open 4 days a week, usually not the ones when we pass by. A colorful character named Gerald runs this unique venue that warns its customers that friends don't let friends eat imported shrimp. His delicious shrimp po-boy reiterates this fact.
We got to talking with Gerald and told him we might come back the next night to try his BBQ. But when we got there, after a string of red lights and a few minutes before closing time he was flustered and turning away customers because his help had failed to show up. We took our food to go so he could close up and then headed to the beach.
Sticky and gritty with sauce and sand we took our limeades (he makes a killer limeade too) for a walk down the beach. and saw a group of people gathering. It was hard to tell what it was all about; a prayer service,a beach wedding?
Turns out we were lucky enough to happen upon a Loggerhead sea turtle hatching and rescue. Daily volunteer patrols at dawn monitor sea turtle nests and often reolocate them to the slope closer to the dunes since the first slope of the beach puts them in danger. From May to October, 60 days from egg-laying they hatch and make their way to the sea.
They face predation from animals, habitat disruption from sea wall construction, confusion from lights on shore, fishing nets and a host of other obstacles to survival.
This particular group of hatchlings were affected by the wave actions of Hurricane Irene. Unfortunately the marine biologist was only able to find two babies alive. She pulled out lifeless little turtles suspecting that fire ants in the nest might be an issue as well. An unhatched egg resembling a leathery ping pong ball was pulled from the sand too.
The two babies were taken to the water's edge, enabling them to imprint the area and physical action of crawling. From there they have a two day swim to reach the warm currents of the Sargasso Sea. If they were females, and if they survive, 35 years from now, they will return to lay their own eggs within miles of this very spot.
Assisted by the voulnteers they were set upon the wet sand, then washed up and down the sand by the waves, one step forward and two back over and over until they disappeared into the surf at sunset.
Maybe there's some sort of symbolism there.
I'm always stumped when asked to name a favorite flower. It's usually whatever is blooming at the moment. Of course, it's kind of like being asked to name a favorite child. And just for the record, I love both of mine equally for their equally different charms.
However this year, my choice is simple. The Mexican Sunflower, Tithonia rotundifolia, wins hands down, for ease, color, form, foliage and wildlife value. This bright beauty is a member of the daisy family, but it's more bodacious, with flaming orange flowers and striking green foliage. Depending upon your height preference there are three varieties from which to choose; "Torch", the tallest at 4-5 feet, "Sundance" at 3-4 and finally "Fiesta del Sol" at 2-3 feet. There's even a yellow Torch available now.
Tithonia is an annual flower that's easy to start from seed, growing best in full sun. It makes a great cut flower or container specimen as well.
Beyond it's dramatic beauty and statuesque shape, the greatest thing about Tithonia is what it brings to the garden...butterflies, bees and hummingbirds! Not many flowers draw all three in such numbers. And don't forget the goldfinches that perch on its sturdy branches to munch on the attractive seedheads.
Plant Tithonia and I guarantee you will have a garden buzzing with lively visitors.
Welcoming wildlife into your garden is so rewarding, you might want to check out my latest Star Tribune article, Planting for Pollinators, for more tips toward making a wildlife haven.
I'm going to go off the garden path this Garden Bloggers Bloom Day and do it a little differently. Usually I'm guilty of the same game the garden catalogs play, lots of colorful closeups and no full length views of the subject at hand. It's tempting to go in tight for the beauty shot. Maybe get out the macro.
I thought you might appreciate it a little less edited this time. I won't show all the warts and weeds, but you'll get a better idea of this garden I'm trying to make my own out here in the water, woods and wetlands.
Pee Gee Hydrangea blooming with courtyard beds in the background
Swallowtail on lily
Warm sunset colors
Out front, the blank canvas where my pine trees stood before a violent windstorm felled them. Check out my funky new stone wall. I'm studying the spot while I wait for it to "speak" to me and tell me what to plant. Any ideas?
Uncommon annual, Cerinthe with blue-green foliage and dangling blue-purple buds
(Note the large mosquitos on wall above the container, it is Minnesota after all)
And finally, the blooms of Persicaria "Firetail", Joe-Pye Weed and Rudbeckia planted just outside my son's bedroom so that he might glance up from his laptop and perhaps see a hummingbird or butterfly. What a nice mama he has.
"Show me your garden and I shall tell you what you are"...Alfred Austin; British scholar, politican and "plein air" poet.
Weedy and a bit overwhelmed.
Every week I tell people how to garden. However my own garden is having a bit of an existential crisis. I'm not sure I know how to garden anymore. At least for myself.
In Kansas I was on the cutting edge with my front yard kitchen garden. And now I feel like I'm running behind all the exciting horticultural trends while living in this conventional, often snow-covered, cul de sac somewhere in the suburbs of Minneapolis.
It was more than weather and climate that changed my gardening goals when we moved to Minnesota. Our famiy was changing. And those all-important family dinners from the garden that I orchestrated with such aplumb are now just delicious memories.
With a short season and shade, not to mention the curse of the cottonwood tree, I struggle to harvest a tiny increment of what I did before. And even when what seems like a thousand cherry tomatoes ripen before my eyes, I wonder why I even planted them. Hopefully I'll make my favorite roasted cherry tomato pasta. (Click to read the recipe in the post Do You Suffer From Cherry Tomato Guilt?)
But will anyone be home to eat it?
My son's schedule is mercurial at best, fluid with the whims of the latest text. Then two weeks from now he'll be moving to his new school, excited to be transferring to Case Western Reserve University in Ohio where he hopes to have a more fulfilling experience after "feeling like a number" at the U of MN just across the river. No more impromptu Sunday dinners at home for awhile.
My husband's schedule is frequently set in stone by the powers that be six months ago. But more often than not he just wants to go out, that same need for novelty and adventure that makes him so successful in business makes dinner at home for too many days, not so appealing.
During summers home from grad school, my daughter, an enthusiastic cook and food blogger, loves fresh produce; radishes to rhubarb and all things in between. Lately she's the one who rattles pans and rustles up dinner, that is, when we can get everyone on board. We come back from the farmers market with bags bigger than our ambitions.
Yet there's something about walking out the door and having that hand-picked moment. So I keep planting.
Meanwhile the trees, shrubs and perennials are overgrown and weighed down with bindweed and "morning not-so-glorious". The weeds are Jurassic this summer after the tropical heat and torrential rain. I realize the garden is too big and too hilly to remain sustainable in my gardening future. I long for a smaller, flatter lot in a real neighborhood where people walk by and stop to chat about what's blooming.
Too bad that faint whistling is the sound of Minnesota home prices dropping and not a benevolent breeze. After so many moves that weren't my idea, I can't move when it is.
Cul de sacs are coveted for their quiet and privacy but I should have taken note of the other terms used for such an arrangement. Dead end. Impasse.
Thank goodness the turkeys and other critters pass through, at least I can still feed someone by planting wildlife habitat.
This blog is one way I'm able to continue sharing my garden in spite of the non-existent traffic in front of my home. On this two year blog-aversary, thanks for turning around in my cul de sac, even if only online.