Category Archives: Garden

June is Busting Out in Peonies


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Peony in my front garden. I shot this image on May 28.

I grew up in various places in the United States—I was born in Tennessee, although I was so young when we moved from there that I don’t have any memories of that place. I have a few dim snatches of memory from Schenectady, New York, although we moved to California just before I turned 4.

From ages 4 to 8, we lived in several towns in California. I have numerous California memories, but honestly, they tend to be a rather confusing knot that doesn’t specify time or place all that well. My son lives in San Francisco, and I know I visited that place in the 1960s, but when I took a trip out there to see him, absolutely nothing at all looked familiar (my main memories of 1960s California were that we toured a Canadian destroyer which had steep stairs, seemed huge and was a dull grey; and a minor earthquake had occurred and some storefronts had broken glass. As an adult visiting the city by the bay I saw zero Canadian destroyers and no broken shop windows.)

My more organized narrative memory, which honestly is not all that great, really starts in Clinton, Iowa. For a short time, we lived in an old rented house on Third Avenue South, but then we moved to a house on Seventh Avenue South after, I think, about a year, which means we lived there from about 1967 to 1972.

In my mind, that house in Clinton is probably the one I think of as my boyhood home. I learned to mow grass and appreciate girls while I lived in that house (the two are unrelated). There was a huge hedge in back, and while I sort of liked it sometimes, I’ve never been tempted to plant a hedge in any of my houses. They get big and get out of control.

My father planted numerous trees while we lived on Seventh Avenue, and the tree-planting bug clearly took root in me. I am glad to say that I have three live redbud trees in Iowa in a place where the climate is pretty much the same as Clinton—we tried planting that kind of tree in Clinton and they always died. I don’t know why.

The house in Clinton had a large front porch with a porch swing (whose chain my sisters and I occasionally broke through rather rambunctious swinging). That porch served as lookout post, pirate ship and thunderstorm hangout. The house also had a lip on the wooden siding that the brave or foolhardy could use to travel all the way around the house, toes on the lip, fingers braced on the underside of the siding, sidling across a 10-foot chasm over a driveway cut into the basement.

It was in this house that my father grew a small garden that for some reason yielded plenty of tomatoes, sweet corn, cucumbers and other garden treats for a large family. My father’s ability to grow food for the family is something I have always envied—and never been able to emulate.

And there were a few flowers at the Clinton house. In the back by the alley, at a corner gap in the hedge, there was a big lilac bush, and its blooms always smelled sweet and heralded the coming of spring and the ending of another school year. I disliked school and learned to love lilacs.

On the east and west sides (the house faced north) of the back yard, beyond the hedge on the west (there was no hedge on the east) were lines of peony plants. And perhaps because they also heralded the end of tedium and boredom known as a term at Sacred Heart School, I have kept a lifelong appreciation for the peony.

And this year, June 1 is just past the peak of peony season in Iowa. These pretty flowers mean the transition away from spring to early summer—the prevalence of ants, the appearance of fireflies, the freedom from school (as a professor, my attitude towards school has grown a bit more positive, but I will also freely admit that my favorite months of the year still are any that start with J and don’t end in anuary).

Peonies! You fresh pom-poms of color. I plant more than I ever get to grow and bloom, but I do have some that bloom, and I like that. They are pretty and smell nice—they have a subtler fragrance than a lilac, you have to lean close to experience it, and it you do, be careful of the ants or bees when you sniff.

They are the flowers that announce the best time of the year is here in Iowa. Hip-hip hooray!

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May 29–Peony blooming at Mount Mercy University.

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Another May 29 image of peony on MMU campus.

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Filed under Flowers, Garden, Memories, Weather

Planting Trees on Arbor Day, 2018


eco clubWe were lucky it was a warm day. Earlier this month, we had several snowfalls in Cedar Rapids, and it seemed the ground would be pretty frosty.

But a tree planting event was scheduled for Arbor Day, today, and as luck would have it, the weather has changed. I know, Iowa, right?

Anyway, the MMU ECO Club coordinated the tree planting events, bringing 17 trees and a DNR expert to campus.

The original plans were to start at 8 a.m., but the club wisely changed that to a 10:30 a.m. start, assuming that the club and volunteers might get the trees into the ground by the planned lunch at 12:30 p.m.

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Zachary Ceresa, president of MMU Eco Club, getting ready for tree planting.

Indeed, the planting went quickly. There were probably 5 or more volunteers per tree, and although tree planting can be work, if you only have to plant one and four other people get turns at the shovel, it’s a fairly quick, fun process.

I’m a tree person. My tiny yard is virtually a forest due to all of the trees my wife and I have planted—I’m not even sure what the current tree census is at casa de Sheller, but it is quite a few.

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Rachael Murtaugh, Mount Mercy director of sustainability. She uses dandelions in all of her decorating.

And I have always enjoyed tree planting. It seems like an intuitively generous act, in a way, in that you’re trying to benefit the future—both your personal future and the future that goes on beyond you. Not all trees last that long, but many might—the group I was part of planted a sturdy 6-foot oak that, I hope, will be around for many years.

The Eco Club is interested because trees create a cascade of positive environmental impacts. I was interested in planting partly because it’s just soothing for the soul.

The day was beautiful and the volunteers plentiful. It was a fun way to mark the spring.

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DNR expert teaches us how to plant trees.

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Feeding Birds Below Zero


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Unlit Christmas light on front porch, with snow, on cold Dec. 26 morning.

Bitter cold settled in the day after Christmas, 2017.

The temperature was below zero Fahrenheit. A bit of a breeze was blowing, and the weather app on my phone said the resulting wind chill was around 16 below. Despite the sunshine, it’s a cold winter morning.

Such weather is not completely terrible news—a cold snap should help germinate milkweed seeds, for example. And warm weather pests will be reduced in number.

The bird feeders were mostly empty, and I presumed the neighborhood avian dinosaurs probably wanted some calories, so I donned my boots, hat, gloves and coat and headed out.

It was indeed cold, but not as uncomfortable as I expected. While low temperatures make for an impressive wind chill factor, the air was thankfully not moving much—and zero degree air is still nose breathable. Dress for it and don’t stay out too long, and you’re OK.

The hardest part was undoing my anti-squirrel wires on the feeders with gloves on. I normally do this bare handed, but not today. The awkwardness was worth it for the anti-cold protection.

I poured seeds into two feeders and opened a new suet cake, then put the feeders back up and put the wires in place. Then I hid by a playhouse for a few minutes to see if any birds were ready for their snack.

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There is a particular woodpecker who shows up often, and he was first to arrive. He’s fairly brave, visiting the feeder when I’m 15 yards away or so. I snapped a few images. Another bird arrived, a small grey one who usually grabs and goes. He (or she, not sure with this kind of bird) came and went quickly, as usual.

I only shot images for a few minutes. It was time to go inside and warm up—and look out at the feeders from behind window panes for the rest of the day.

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Finished with Fall Planting


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Pretty fall oak leaf seen in my backyard during bulb planting this October.

If all goes well, there will be new Crocus, tulips, Daffodils and Iris in my gardens and yard come spring. I think I actually finished the bulb planting around the end of October or so, and followed that up with some additional seed planting.

My RAGBRAI Team Joe pals, in honor of my missing the final two days of the ride this year with some health issues, had saved me some Milkweed seed balls from the ride. I had also retrieved a seed balls few at the Indian Creek Nature Center during a fall event there.

Besides the clay balls loaded with Milkweed seeds, my wife had also collected some seeds directly from plants growing in the ditch outside our son’s apartment building when we visited him during fall break.

I planted the clay balls in late October when the bulbs when in the ground (Milkweed is sewn on the surface—“planting” clay seed balls meant just placing the balls on the soil surface). On Nov. 5, I separated the seeds from the fluff and proceeded with planting. The balls has already been placed either in gardens or at the edge of woods along Dry Creek behind our house. The seeds went in the same areas—gardens and wood’s edge.

I have high hopes for most of the bulbs. Come spring, crocus will be poking up in the yard, while Tulips and Daffodils will appear in gardens. Iris? I plant them pretty much every year and have very limited luck. Not sure why, but it’s just the way the garden grows. Still, here’s hoping for some new Iris next year.

And the Milkweed? I try to plant some every fall. I do have a few “butterfly flower” plants I put in last year that came back this year, so my gardens aren’t totally free of Monarch butterfly habitat, but I want to do more to aid those majestic insects. Maybe, with some luck, some of these Milkweed seeds will push up next spring. We’ll see!

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Wanting Something to Rot in the Ground


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Danny Mishek, president of SelfEco.

I saw a cool product today. and I wish it was readily available each spring.

Danny Mishek, president of SelfEco, a company in Stillwater, Minnesota, gave the annual Barbara A. Knapp lecture at Mount Mercy University. In his speech, he told about how his company makes two product lines: plastic eating utensils and plastic plant pots. The hook is that both product lines are produced mostly from corn stalks and roots—they are plant-based, biodegradable plastics.

And the pots, which rot away in the ground, also have fertilizer embedded into their structure.

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SelfEco seed-starting pots. Danny Mishek gave them to me. Now I have to figure out what seeds I want to start next year ….

I want them. I want all the plants I buy for my garden next spring to come in them. May the idea grow and spread. Mishek said 4.2 billion garden pots are sold annually, with only 2 percent recycled. His pots don’t need to be either tossed or recycled—you simply plant the plant, which feasts on the fertilizer at its roots as the pot decomposes.

“If something is going into a landfill, it’s a missed opportunity,” Mishek said.

He showed pictures of forks, plates and champagne flutes his company also produces, with the idea that these are again put in a compost pile rather than tossed or recycled.

It was, to me, a pretty inspiring speech. Of course, as a gardener, the idea of not having to de-pot my flowers immediately appealed to me, but Mishek’s company is doing something important that can help solve a big environmental problem.

I enjoyed the presentation, even if it included a rather famously debunked quote that is often attributed to Gandhi: “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you WIN!”

I’m not sure what made me google for a source, but those words just didn’t sound like Gandhi, to me. In fact, they did not come from him. PolitiFact and Snopes.com have both dealt with the quote—PolitiFact checked into it when Donald Trump tweeted that quote during the campaign last year.

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Dr. Tracy Tunwall, fauclty chair, introduces the speaker.

As usual, you can’t trust a Trump tweet. Then again, Polifact notes that both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton referenced the same words and falsely attributed them to Gahndi. And, although not really from Gandhi at all, the words reflect a nice thought that did fit the speech well.

Anyway, that’s all an aside. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing Mishek speak, and thought he peppered his remarks with good advice for students. For instance, he noted to students that they would all be judged—it’s inevitable. That should motivate you to do good things so that “they will judge you for being awesome.”

He also noted that making choices is a key in life. “You only have so much energy. You can’t put 25 hours into a day,” he said.

Nice words. You can’t put 25 hours into a day. Probably, as it nears midnight, that means it’s time for me to go to bed. I won’t try to put more hours into this day. But after the speech, when I thanked Mr. Mishak for his interesting words, he gave me a sample package of pots.

I may not put more hours into a day—but I’m looking forward next spring for finding reasons to put these pots in the ground!

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#RadicalModeratesUnite! Protest 101


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Dr. Taylor Houston, assistant professor of sociology at Mount Mercy University.

I’m not sure I’m cut out for this protest business. Sure, I marched for science. I am also the proud brother of sisters, many of who sport “those” pink hats. And yet, I don’t want to divide the world into “us” and “them.” That may be a necessary step, however, if I aspire to run a successful “movement” to enact social change.

And I do. I’m so concerned about the doughnut shape of our current politics—about the hollowing out of the middle and our migration into like-minded, competing, hostile camps farther on the left and right that I want to close the cap, bridge the divide, put the hole back in the doughnut.

I want a middle, darn it. I don’t want to act so surprised that former President Bush has some intelligent things to say. I don’t want to associate with folks who find the Obamas—surely one of the strongest, healthiest, most traditional and respectable nuclear families to inhabit the White House since, I don’t know, ever—so objectionable on a personal level that only invective can describe them.

I want to be able to respect a President, Democrat or Republican. The present President has exempted himself from that instinct, by the way, due to gross incompetence, rampant narcissism, corrosive ignorance and pervasive use of racist dog whistles—I can only respect a Republican who wants to serve America and serve as president to all of her citizens. If the last nine months have taught us anything, it’s that, left or right, GOP or Democrats, we should acknowledge that the crazy old man who temporary resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is not that President. He needs the apprentice treatment—to be told “you’re fired”—ASAP.

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2017 Fall Faculty Series Logo by MMU.

Yeah, I know, I’m deviating from my core message. Trump bashing is not helpful while I am trying to say “up the middle!” I say it because there will be a U.S beyond the Trump era, and I do want an America where there is a hint of compromise and competence among our political elites.

#Makepoliticsworkagain. #ItsnotthenewsthatsfakeDon.

Anyway, Dr. Taylor Houston, assistant professor of sociology, gave an interesting talk tonight at Mount Mercy University Oct. 24 as part of our 2017 Fall Faculty Series. His speech was called: “Protest 101: How to be an Effective Activist.”

He noted early that he wasn’t really going to give any complete recipe, but rather some sociological perspective on what makes movement successful, and some advice for would-be activists. I can’t fault the content of what he said—he seemed to base his remarks clearly on good social science—but some aspects of his talk were disconcerting.

For example, to have a successful social change movement, it’s very helpful early on to define an enemy, so you can court cohesion among “your” allies by having a “them” to attack.

 

Bah, humbug. I wish it weren’t so—more divisiveness seems to be just what we don’t need—but as a communication tactic, I have to concede the advice is completely valid.

Other points Dr. Houston made included:

  • Watch for your WUNC. “The strength of a movement is determined by its WUNC,” Houston noted. That is, a movement needs to have Worthiness (from the point of view of the people who support it), Unity, Numbers and Commitment. Those interplay in interesting ways, he noted. For example, “numbers” doesn’t have to be a majority—the TEA Party movement has successfully reshaped the Republican Party with relatively small numbers, but enough commitment and key strength in primary races to make its mark. WUNC. Get some. A lot, actually.
  • Start local. If you want media attention, you’re more likely to get it from local journalists. If you want to influence conditions in Cedar Rapids, Mayor Ron Corbett is a much easier to influence than President Tangerine Hair Nightmare (sorry, slipping again. Mr. Drumpf does that to me).
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    Man at the speech handed me this. An invite! I’m invited to protest!

    Send an invite. The most important step to get fellow travelers to sign on to your movement is to do something and ask others who are like minded to join in. “People who care the most are the most likely to get involved,” Houston noted. “Those mostly likely to be involved are those who have been asked.”

Houston had much more to say—about framing a message, for example. About how starting a movement is a lot easier than actually accomplishing a goal—and we seem to excel at making noise but fall short at knowing what to do next.

So, what movements do I want to start? As I noted, I’m ready for some radical compromisers. For people who are willing to “make it work.”

And, secondly, I still want to start the Pollinator Garden Movement at MMU.

Join me, friends. Let’s try to talk and find common ground. And let’s also grab our rakes and plant some Milkweed seeds!

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Went for a bike ride around Cedar Lake before tonight’s speech. And saw this. Milkweed! We need more of it. So say “us.” Not “them.” Darn them, anyhow.

OK, as I said, I don’t see this protest thing as coming naturally to me. Still, I found Dr. Houston’s talk fascinating, especially when he complimented the crowd for filling Betty Cherry on “the start of winter.”

Oh, you poor southern sociologist, from the Texas city of your family name. Winter is coming.

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Watering Gardens of Worry in Fall Heat Wave


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Browning ferns in odd late September heat. The calendar says fall, but the weather says heatwave.

A former professor of mine posted an interesting video on Facebook recenlty, a Vox commentary on how news media use a war analogy to cover natural disasters, especially hurricanes.

One point of the commentary is that positioning Mother Nature as the enemy in a heroic survival struggle absolves humans from a more difficult conversation. Such as, who put all those expensive developments on barrier islands? If a dam fails and 70,000 people have to flee—what does it say about that dam idea? And isn’t climate change influenced humans and a real thing?

Mother Nature isn’t our enemy. Earth does not have to mean, but be. It’s up to us to understand and do what life has always done: Adjust.

I am not trying to belittle or trivialize the struggles or tragedy humans face. We’re all in this together. I and my wife are conversing about which aid agency we will donate to, and I’m worried about in-laws in Florida and an in-laws family in Puerto Rico.

Instead, what I’m thinking about is how tragedies tug at our hearts in the short run, but sometimes we increase risk in the long run. We should be careful about earthquake resistant construction, about leaving flood plains open for water, about farming practices in Iowa that will absorb more water and leave less runoff.

Sadly, that does not seem the mood of the times. We fuss about how we react and think less about how we act.

This morning was a weekly ritual, these days. I unwound my garden hose and sprayed on the backyard gardens, trying to save what can be saved in this odd, hot, dry fall.

Ferns are browning—not a serious problem, honestly, because I know from experience most ferns just let their tops die in a drought and emerge again when the wet returns. But young bushes, trees and perennial flowers planted this year are at risk. Given heat in the 90s, I should be watering maybe every other day, but I only have time for once a week due to the crush of school work.

So, I do what I can and do what we always do—hope for the best. And hope I’m not wasting too much precious water. We’ll see what comes back next year. If a few flowers expire in my gardens, I’m aware that’s a pretty minor issue compared to flooded homes or lost lives.

Still, I’m trying to adjust to Mother Nature in the short and, I hope, longer term. My heart was a bit heavy as I sprayed my garden, despite the assistance of two young grandchildren who helped lighten my mood a bit.

I was wondering about what it would be like to be in oppressive heat on a tropical American island with no power and no way to contact relatives to let them know you’re OK. Puerto Rico, Texas, Mexico—I hope we do what we can to help you. Thoughts and prayers are just the start; treasure and action must follow.

And I hope we learn.

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