Category Archives: Garden

Sounds of Hope During Fall Planting


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Whimsical street signs in Madison, Wisconsin.

It’s a stressful time for your gardener correspondent. Mid-term hit me like a ton of bricks, and I’m swimming hard to dig myself out of my work hole.

But what else is new? It’s the rhythm of life for a college professor. And my students would hasten to add that I can reduce my own stress by reducing theirs—fewer assignments would make grading a lot easier.

Anyway, in between grade binging, I took a recent trip to Madison, Wisconsin—a brief fall break getaway to a nearby city I had not visited before. My wife and I went, along with one of our daughters and a young grandson.

The 3-year-old grandson, for the most part, had a blast. The daughter was ready to smother her father in his sleep. My snoring, apparently, is not a restful background sound. Sorry about that.

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View of Madison from observation deck high on the Capitol.

Anyway, now that I’m back, I have found a few minutes for things other than school work. Starting last weekend and continuing this weekend, I’ve been planting bulbs—the usual suspects, some tulips and daffodils and crocus. The young grandchild has been “helping,” and his grandmother even got him his own gloves and trowel today.

Well he used them for a few minutes, then wandered off to the sandbox. Despite a cool, wet day, he removed his boots and socks—because, for unknown reasons, it’s a rule to him that the sandbox is a no-shoe zone.

Anyway, I haven’t gotten all of the bulbs in the ground yet, and may not tomorrow. I’m over halfway done, however. I also have some milkweed seeds to put out. A few of my milkweed were, I’m afraid, completely consumed by hungry caterpillars, killed by the butterfly that I’m trying to aid. I’ll plant more.

Although I never have enough time for it, I always like fall bulb planting. It seems like an investment in future hope, and I need that.

Also, I was watching four grandchildren for a daughter whose babysitter was not available, and tonight after supper, one of those grandchildren volunteered to play a tune on the piano. That piano originally was my mother’s. I owned it for a while, but had to give up piano lessons because I didn’t have time for them. I gave the piano to this granddaughter, who wanted to take lessons.

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Small hands pick out a tune on an old piano. These hands are small I know, but they are hers they aren’t my own and I enjoyed what they did. (Yes, I’m quoting a Jewel song, why not?)

And it was nice to hear the old piano make some music. Again, it’s a connection to the future. The future is uncertain and sometimes a frightening place, so it is good, I think, to have some positive ties to it through music and flowers and Madison.

We’ve talked about taking more grandchildren on short trips next summer, if time and our lives and theirs allow it. Madison isn’t the only place we may go, but based on my our first trip there, it won’t be our last.

Among other things, I am thrilled that the city is committed to having public places publicly accessible. We wandered into the state Capitol and were astounded at how open it was—entering the Iowa Capitol feels like going through airport security by comparison. The zoo in Madison is fine and free. We paid to get into a botanical garden and a children’s museum, but the entry fees were ridiculously low by 2020 standards. And we didn’t have any bad food experiences in Madison; we enjoyed our every meal there.

Well, cool. And again, something from my past that I can also look forward to in the future.

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Celebrating My 61st Birthday


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Aug. 31–Just in time for family birthday party, the Monarch caterpillars have a party, too.

Another year on the globe. Besides mowing the lawn, I’ve also dedicated part of this Labor Day weekend to celebrating my 61st birthday. The actual day was Friday, while a family party was Saturday.

It’s been good. My wife got me a cool GPS bicycle computer and an interesting-looking grammar game. My children got me a copy of the class board game Risk, a hibiscus bush which should have huge, pretty pink flowers next year and a birdhouse for my backyard nature oasis.

Friday featured some breakfast scones that my wife got up and made for me. Lunch was in the school cafeteria at the university where I teach—which does not sound all that special, but I take my lunch most days and consider eating in the cafeteria a special treat. Supper was Thai food at a nearby restaurant we like.

And Saturday’s birthday feast featured the last summer day meal—brats, hot dogs, potato salad, macaroni salad, baked beans—and brownies and ice cream for dessert.

I thoroughly enjoyed the day. It was great to have my youngest son, who is headed overseas for a couple of years for a post-doctorate position at a university in China, home for it, and it was great for my other nearby kids to make it.

Thank you, universe, for another year. I’m not much into resolutions, I don’t typically make them at New Years, but I think birthday resolutions make as much sense as any others, so here are some resolutions or goals for my 61st year on this planet:

  • Vote for a Democrat who wins. That way Tangerine Hitler can fade into the trash heap of history. Really, I know, suddenly this happy birthday post got all political—but the Dunce-in-Chief said today that he’s not heard of a Category 5 hurricane before. Someone please check his meds? And vote him out.
  • Re-watch a substantial part of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” I started with season three the day after my birthday. I won’t be able to re-watch much more during the semester, but these are annual goals, right? And that show just so often make me smile, even if it is very ’90s.
  • Learn something new. I just downloaded a new language ap, and plan to work a bit on my rudimentary Spanish. I also may try to learn to count in Hungarian—my father’s family were all Hungarian, and I would like to visit that country. Can’t make that visit a goal yet for this year—it probably will be a retirement trip and I’m not there yet—but I can start learning a bit of the language. And I’ve already visited some Spanish-speaking places—it seems like I would not be hurt at all to improve on language skills.
  • Get some kids to like Tessa Violet. To be fair, not all college students go crazy when I start playing my Tessa tunes in the newspaper office—one editor a few years ago learned to love Tessa when she went through a tough breakup and saw herself in “Sorry I’m Not Sorry.” But I’m always a bit surprised so few of the new generation listen to her I like the idea of her.
  • Learn to appreciate some new cuisine. I like many international foods—Thai, Chinese, Ethiopian. But there’s a lot of the globe that, culinarily speaking, I have not explored. I like to try new foods and want to find the next taste. Any suggestions, readers?

Well, that’s it, for now. I may be getting older, but I enjoyed myself this weekend. But I still want to have more fun. Maybe it’s time for the next episode of Buffy.

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England Day 1: A Pleasant Zombie Walk


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On the walk to school–pretty, familiar looking northern hemisphere sky, somewhat less familiar street scenery.

The luggage showed up quickly, and that was a blessing.

We flew from Detroit to Amsterdam to get here, and then from Amsterdam to Norwich. We had a fairly tight layover in Holland—but our overnight flight landed a few minutes early, and the connecting gate to our next flight to the UK turned out to be in fairly close proximity to our arrival gate.

But our bags did not make it with us, and we were not alone. At the Norwich Airport following the morning flight, there was a bit of a queue at the lost baggage desk. Sigh.

Still, entering the UK these days is pretty easy. There used to be an odd little customs card to complete, and a separate line for non-European passports that involved a bit more questioning. Monday, we were in line with all the British passports, there was no customs form and the questioning was concise.

We were picked up by our daughter, and met the toddler grandson who we have seen before, but mostly know via WhatsApp video calls. He was a little confused at first—those people from the computer can step out of cyberspace? —but quickly warmed up and even allowed me to carry him about the house a bit in the afternoon.

Our daughter had to leave on an extended errand, which was OK because my wife and I had at best only dozed on the long overnight flight, so we both took a 3-hour nap. And in the afternoon, we walked with her and the grandson to go meet out two granddaughters, who attend two different nearby schools. I felt a bit fuzzy headed on the walk—I’m afraid I was a bit of a living zombie—but the sky was pretty, and company pleasant and it was nice to be out. The strong cup of coffee my daughter made for me did not hurt, either.

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Bikes at school as we arrive to pick up granddaughter. It is nice to be in a country were bicycles are “normal” transportation.

I’m not yet used to the local geography. I sort of knew my way around Norwich before, from a previous house that my daughter and son-in-law were renting. They have since purchased a house. It’s in the same general neighborhood, but right now the streets are a bit of a confusing mess in my jet-lagged mind.

Still, despite being very tired, it was exciting to again see our Norwich family. The grandchildren didn’t appreciate my dad jokes, but nobody does, and that’s OK. After all, a dad joke (my oldest granddaughter is studying the Romans, which I suggested were named for their penchant for oars) is at best measured in a scale from “I don’t get it” to outright groans.

England is an interesting mix of familiar and alien. Roses are blooming here, as they are in Iowa. I saw bees among very familiar flowers—my son-in-law and daughter have very pretty foxglove in their tiny back garden, nice colorful blooms you can see from the kitchen window. At the same time, everything is different here. They speak English, but it’s not American English—you can understand them, but there is a bit of work to it. I suppose they feel the same about us. Their tiny row houses are all crowded together, which seems like a more space-efficient way to construct a city, but is not the familiar American ranch home on individual quarter-acre lots. When we were waiting at one of the schools, I looked out over a nearby hillside in view, and the rows of chimneys we could see looked very “Mary Poppins” or “Yellow Submarine.”

We were blessed with a nice day, warm and sunny, and are even more blessed with the warmth of familiar familial re-connection. The grandchildren are bigger and older, and I’m betting we will have some fun over this visit. The luggage, as it turned out, made the afternoon flight from Amsterdam and was delivered to a neighbor while we were doing the zombie walk to school.

UK! I’m tired, and I’m typing at 3:30 a.m., but that’s OK. We are here in Norwich, and I can’t wait to see what adventures await us.

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California Day 7: The Nature of the State


During this visit to California, I’ve been in two cities: San Diego and San Francisco. I haven’t had the opportunity to visit many natural places, beyond the hillsides north of San Francisco that my son and I experience on a bike ride, which I describe on my other blog.

It’s an odd time of year, this May. It’s been in the 50s and 60s here in California, the kind of days where you sometimes wear your jacket, sometimes carry it. We’ve felt the warmth of the California sun, but also the coolness of Pacific breezes.

Meanwhile, we’re watching news reports of all the crazy weather in Iowa. We’ve missed a stormy time there, and it’s been warmer in Iowa than it has been in California.

Anyway, even if it is a little cooler here for these few days, spring and summer are clearly further along. So here are a few images of summer-like views in cool California:

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Iowa Spring: Buds and Crazed Monkeys


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Crocus in my yard. Many coming up, will have to plant more next year.

Spring! When the thoughts of young men and women turn to crazed monkeys.

A student at MMU recently wrote a blog post about that second idea, which I find very amusing. It reminds me of how Mexican birds once seemed to hate me, and on a service trip some years ago, I go the nickname “bird boy” for all the times birds dropped their poop bombs on me. All things considered, I suppose I was lucky I was not the target of monkeys.

Anyway, we’ve turned the corner. There may well be frost or snow yet in our future—it’s early April, after all, but spring is for sure here. It is a compressed spring, with maples blooming after the flowers started, which does not seem like the usual order, but buds do show that plants are waking up:

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I already posted about my first flowers, but the Crocus is being joined by others in my gardens, which is nice to see:

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First Flowers of 2019 Arrive


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March 23, 2019–First flowers of spring include this crocus in my backyard.

The creek behind my house has returned to its banks, and the Cedar River is dropping for now. We’ve been lucky in my area, I hope my western Iowa and Nebraska neighbors can recover from this sudden, wet spring.

Today was the final Saturday of spring break, and I spent a fair amount if it indoors vainly battling with the mountain of grading Which Must Be Done By Monday.

But for a while this afternoon, I was in the backyard, cleaning debris of winter off of gardens, giving the barren yard a quick rake and scattering grass seed.

Spring may be extraordinarily busy, but it’s still a season of hope. And today, the colors started to appear. I saw a crocus in bloom in the yard, and I know others are poking up. In the garden by the rock wall, some snowdrops are showing their pretty white selves.

No squib yet, but I’m sure it’s on its way. Many daffodils and tulips are starting to push through the thawing ground, and some hyacinth look ready to bloom in a few days.

The world is still largely brown and the ice hills by the parking lots have not yet melted. Flood risk is still with us, as snow north is still melting and rain may fall on sodden ground.

But for today, I saw flowers, and that’s something. The brown season is coming to its end, and everywhere, green is poised to emerge and colors are ready to appear.

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Baby, It’s Cold Outside—No Joke!


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Social media feeds are freezing up with dire warnings about the cold that is headed our way.

“This is not something to mess around with,” warns a Facebook post by the Cedar Rapids Police Department. “The cold temperatures combined with the wind could be potentially life-threatening.”

crystalsAnd no, I don’t think when I was a lad in the 1970s that we would have been terribly hardier and more able to stand it than we are now. I recall lots of school snow days, and our older homes were vulnerable to cracked pipes. My dad used to have to put a heating lamp on the battery of the VW micro bus overnight on these super cold nights in the sometimes-vain hope it would start in the morning. Cars back in my youth were terrible winter vehicles—the VWs would take forever to warm up, but at least had their engines over the drive train. American cars, with their ridiculous rear-wheel-drive, were hopeless compared to today’s relatively hardier, better-designed vehicles.

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Still, I want to praise winter. Hear me out before you throw something.

In December, the weather was so mild that we wondered if winter would ever come (spoiler alert, it would). I had planted several milkweed seeds, and in December I wondered if they would get the cold-weather signals that they needed to germinate. Native milkweed is planted in fall because it won’t sprout until it experiences winter.

Well, I’m guessing the seeds have got the memo by now. Sure enough it does look like winter has arrived—with a vengeance.

One student who I follow on Twitter had lamented a few weeks ago that she was wanting some snow. As an Iowa gardener, so was I. And to quote a meme posted by Fr. Dustin Vu, “If you choose not to find joy in the snow, you will have less joy in your life but still the same amount of snow.”

But, yeah, I’ve had enough snow now, thank you.

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The thermometer is going to drop and keep on dropping as the winds pick up. We already have a substantial snow pack, and got more snow last night.

It is also supposed to warm up this weekend—and rain. On the snow. Followed by another chill down. And more snow.

The winter of 2019 is making a name for itself, and I’m too polite to repeat it.

cardinalBut winter still has its charms. Snow is pretty. All of the images on this post are taken by me in January 2019 in my Iowa backyard. I think they are pretty. Snow crunches pleasantly underfoot, it makes it easy to pick out the cardinal couple that visits my bird feeders, the winter air is fresh and wholesome—when it’s 20 above zero and not 20 below.

So, no, I do not hate winter. But no, I’m also not completely out of my mind—I don’t love the deep, deep arctic blast we are in for.

Stay safe out there my friends. Pay heed to the CR PD and weather service and every weather station. Don’t mess around when Mother Nature is seeking your demise.

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And there is an upside to this season. I like winter when it is not so extreme. The fall bulbs I planted are now somewhat protected by a white blanket. When it finally warms up a bit (and we know that the cold we have this week will not hold, our hemisphere is slowly turning again to face the nearest star), snow people and sledding and snowball fights with grandchildren will again become practical rather than dangerous.

The seed catalogs have started to arrive. A flowerful aisle has appeared as if by magic in a local farm store—filled with colorful pictures and little pots where you can start baby plants.

We’re almost to February. The signs are there. Even I, a fan of winter, will concede that the best thing about it is that it will end. We may yet have a long slog of cold weather ahead, but it is inevitable:

Spring is coming.

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