Category Archives: Garden

How to Turn 60


Audrey and I pause for a selfie before riding the Sac and Fox Trail.

My 60th birthday won’t come again, but tomorrow will the only day after my 60th birthday, and that day won’t return, either.

But if I were to be stuck, “Groundhog Day” style, in a 24-hour period that would repeat—well, today might not be my best choice, but it would be a decent choice. Today was a pretty good day.

It began with me fixing a special breakfast for myself—I made plain oatmeal, added some butter, salt, pepper, two over-easy eggs and cheddar cheese. It was a tasty way to begin my birthday.

We’ve had rain recently in Iowa, a pattern expected to return tomorrow, but today was cool in the morning and very pretty in the afternoon. I have been driving to work most of the week, but today I put on the special bicycle shoes and rode my road bike. A day at work is always a better day if I get there and return on two wheels.

And for lunch, my wife took me to Taste of India—probably the best restaurant in Cedar Rapids for a birthday lunch, if you like Indian food. I do.

After afternoon work, I got home about 4:30, and noticed a flat of mums on the front stoop. My wife had already gotten me two Rose of Sharon bushes for my birthday earlier this week, and I will plant those this weekend. Mums are one of her favorite flowers, but I enjoy that splash of fall color, too—and I love to plant pretty things. I think of it as an investment in hope, the future and the wonderfulness of this planet we find ourselves inhabiting. Planting always boosts my mood, so seeing the flower flat was another reason to smile today.

And the house smelled divine when I got home. Someone had baked an apple crisp for me.

Before we watched “Thor: Ragnarok,” a DVD someone got for me on this special day, I attached the bike rack to the van and loaded our mountain bikes on it. My wife had suggested that, if the weather was right, we might enjoy a bicycle ride on my birthday—if I agreed. I did, and I suggested we got to the Sac and Fox, a trail I have been on several times this year, but have not shared with her before today.

And the bike ride on the trail was delightful, featuring perfect late afternoon golden light, and clouds enough to keep us from warming up. We had ridden maybe 5 of the 7 miles on our way to the south end of the trail, and I had noted to Audrey that, although it had been a very pretty ride (the Sac and Fox is the prettiest bike trail in Cedar Rapids), I was surprised there had been no deer. I had encountered deer on my summer pre-RAGBRAI rides on this trail.

And almost immediately, on cue, there, up ahead—a group of maybe seven deer, adults and fawns, loitering on the trail. They moved north off the trail as we approached, but stayed nearby in the woods, so I paused and photographed them.

Two of the deer.

Yes, the ride went well. And we felt we had earned our post-ride supper of apple crisp with ice cream (that’s all we had—but honestly, after a Taste of India buffet, how much could we have possibly eaten?).

My birthday season hasn’t really ended yet. The weekend after Labor Day, we’ll probably host a family brunch with kids and grandkids, and that will be fun. And probably there will be cake.

I don’t know that I would recommend 60 all that much. My body is aging, and showing its wear and tear in various ways. I’m still battling a stubborn ear infection, and getting to learn what my father’s life was like as his hearing faded away. My arthritic knees and hips dictate a certain slowness to my gait, when they don’t inflict pain. My family has a weight-loss challenging going, and I truly am trying, but at the start of your seventh decade on this planet, trust me, weight does not melt away. Well, I suppose apple crisp suppers (or savory egg and oatmeal breakfasts followed by spicy buffet food) don’t help, either.

But, whatever. I’ll do what I can and also try to enjoy myself. I’m 60. The little things don’t matter any more. And today I had a very good day—thanks, mostly, to my wife. Shout out to my delayed twin, my four years to the day younger sister, who still lingers in the midst of her sixth decade.

Sis, 60 is coming, knock on wood. And when it gets here for you, I hope its arrival is at least as nice as it was for me.

We ride off into the sunset.

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The Summer of Milkweed and Butterflies


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When I shot this image in June, this was a mystery flower–it’s swamp Milkweed.

It began in spring. I have for years planted Milkweed seeds in my gardens, with almost no results. Last year, I purchased some “Butterfly Flower” Milkweed plants at a local nursery, and at least those plants did grow. Also last year, for the first time, a few baby plants that maybe could be Milkweed were spotted in the garden, but didn’t grow much.

This winter was a bit mixed. We had some cold. It was not a particularly harsh winter, but it lingered and the spring that followed felt very truncated before hot weather suddenly appeared.

And somehow that odd combination—a chilly winter and quick spring, followed by Iowa hot—seemed to be what Milkweed had been waiting for. While in past years, results had been limited, suddenly in the front garden last year’s baby Milkweed sprang up like, well, weeds.

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Final day of RAGBRAI, West Liberty, I stop to get some Milkweed seed balls to toss in ditches.

The Butterfly Flowers didn’t all come back, but the plants that did grew robustly and bloomed with pretty orange flowers. The common Milkweed didn’t bloom yet this year—but several of the plants grew to several feet in height.

And in the side garden, a tall spiky stranger appeared, an impressive, 3-foot plant with pink flowers. I didn’t know what it was until we attended the Monarch Fest at the Indian Creek Nature Center, where there were pictures of Swamp Milkweed.

And not only was Milkweed suddenly present in the gardens, but Monarch butterflies on whose behalf these plants were installed didn’t waste much time in finding my Milkweed patch. Suddenly, this year, there were those distinctive black, yellow and white caterpillars. Indeed, the identity of the Swamp Milkweed was confirmed by the presence of baby Monarchs.

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Caterpillar on Swamp Milkweed this week.

Well, it’s August and the press of school work is starting. I have syllabi to prepared, a newspaper staff to help organize and a bike club to encourage. The end of RAGBRAI, in my universe, is sort of the unofficial end of summer.

And this summer, we adopted a caterpillar from the Nature Center, fed it and had the pleasure of watching it fly off.

My gardens had a few losses from the winter that have not been restored—my two Rose of Sharon bushes both died, for example. I like that kind of flower and eventually will replace them, although I didn’t find them this year. No butterfly bushes are growing in my gardens this year despite the welcome presences of many butterflies—that perennial is dicey in my region of Iowa and is really almost an annual.

But this was the first year the dogwood tree in back bloomed, and the first year in which Milkweed firmly took hold in my gardens. All in all, I’ll list it as a successful growing season.

And now summer is psychologically, if not physically, over, the fall bulb catalogs are arriving, and the year is marching onward.

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An Unexpected Nature Show


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Grandchildren at the Old Capitol at the University of Iowa, Iowa City. We thought they would all prefer the Natural History Museum, but several said this historic building was their favorite thing to visit during our day out.

We were hosting four grandchildren this week on an overnight stay, and had most of a day until late afternoon that we would spend with them.

So we planned to make a day of it—french toast for breakfast, a trip to the Natural History Museum and Old Capitol at the University of Iowa, lunch out, some park play, finishing it off with afternoon ice cream.

As it turned out, the best laid plans of mice and men sometimes work at as well as you could possibly expect. These four young grandchildren are old enough to enjoy the museums, liked playing in a city park in Coralville, and appreciated the ice cream. It was a good day, according to plan.

And it was also unexpectedly much better. I was glad the museums don’t open until 10, because packing up four young children takes a bit of time. And as we were slowly accumulating all the stuff we needed, encouraging children to take restroom breaks and don shoes, something wonderful that was not on the agenda took place.

As I was carrying a bag with sunscreen and bug repellent out to our minivan, I noticed a Monarch butterfly nervously flitting about. I have tried to grow Milkweed in my gardens for years, with little results, but for some reason things are different this year—“Butterfly Flower” purchased from a local nursery came back strong this year, and Common Milkweed seeds chose this spring of all springs to finally germinate and strongly grow.

And it did not take much time this year for butterflies to find this new habitat. I have not been able to locate pupae, and so I’m not sure if any butterflies have resulted from my efforts, but clearly butterflies have been laying eggs on my plants, based on the caterpillars.

It is funny, I think, that most of the time gardeners are not thrilled to have caterpillars consuming their work, except when Milkweed is planted. Then, the larval stage of this pretty insect is most welcome.

Anyway, back to our museum day adventure. Monarchs are not particularly skittish, as butterflies go. They live their lives knowing that their caterpillar diet has made them nasty to eat, so they are fairly bold. What was wrong with this skittish, spastic specimen of a usually serene insect species?

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Butterfly in front garden.

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Pausing on Milkweed (with the same caterpillar I made images of before).

I paused and watched. And then I figure out what she was doing. She would land quickly on a leaf, hanging on to the edge, and loop her body under the leaf, then flit to another leaf and repeat.

This female insect was bursting with eggs and was depositing said eggs in my garden.

I called out to the grandchildren. They responded to my urgent calls as grandchildren usually do—slowly, one at a time. The mother butterfly flitted off and I was worried they had missed the show.

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Laying egg.

But no—as I encouraged grandchildren to exit the house and get settled in the van for the trip to Iowa City, she kept coming back. She laid eggs on the Common Milkweed while one granddaughter watched. Another saw her as she focused on nearby Butterfly Flower.

And once all the kids were in the van, she provided her best show. There is a tall, spiky flower in my side garden that showed up for the first time this year and bloomed in small pink flowers in a broccoli shape. Common Milkweed blooms pink in pom-pom shapes—and none of my young plants of that sort have bloomed yet, anyway. But, I suspected that this tall plant was Swamp Milkweed, which is just a another variety of the butterfly –friendly family of plants.

Confirmation came this morning. For the first time, we spotted caterpillars munching on that side garden plant—Monarchs don’t make many mistakes. Milkweed is what this plant is.

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What is this tall plant that mama butterfly is pausing for a snack at? It is Milkweed, too, as was proven by caterpillar presence.

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Strong evidence–this is the same plant with the pink flowers. Young monarch doing it’s best to eat it.

And, as if she thought it was her duty to teach young children one last nature lesson, as the doors of the van were still hanging open but the children seated within, the butterfly came back again, landing on the side of the swamp plant that was just feet away from the nearest grandchild sitting in a van.

She hung at the end of the leaf, curled her bottom side over, which seemed like she was posing for the best egg laying photo I managed to get, and then took off.

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Egg that was placed there while children watched.

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Monarch on mystery plant that we can now call Milkweed with confidence. In this egg laying festival, she hit all three varieties of Milkweed I have planted.

There, on the bottom side of leaf, was the egg.

That was cool.

We adopted a caterpillar at the recent Monarch Fest held at the Indian Creek Nature Center, and it formed its cocoon last week. I am still hoping it will emerge before I leave for a week of riding a bicycle across Iowa, but there is no sign of change from it yet.

Still, it felt like we were exposed to the full range of Monarch life cycle Wednesday—several caterpillars, a busy laying adult, a clear view of an egg and the cocoon in my kitchen.

Thank you, butterflies, for making a good day a great day. The day seemed like it had potential to be a good one anyway—and it was. Luckily, the thousand things that could have gone wrong (sick child, serious meltdown, big fight) did not take place. The children enjoyed themselves, which meant the grandparents enjoyed themselves.

And beyond the museums, there was the impromptu lesson provided by a skittish insect. So often in life, spontaneous pleasures are the best.

If you haven’t, find some Butterfly Flowers and plant them in your garden. And Monarchs aren’t the only pollinator in trouble, but plants that help them, including native flowers like cone flowers, aren’t hard to plant, either. Recall that fall is the time to sew Common Milkweed seeds. It may take a few years, the plants grow when they want to and not on your time schedule, but there are rewards for the effort.

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Peonies, Roses and Daddy Longlegs


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Earlier this month, Daddy Longlegs on flower in side garden.

The odd, ever changing summer in Iowa continues.

On Tuesday, dodging rain, my wife and I had gone shopping, and we picked up a few of the season’s last plants on clearance. We got two small rose bushes and two pink peonies.

My plan was to plant them under a birch tree in our front yard. I think my back yard is just getting too shady for these kinds of flowers.

Anyway, when I went out to garden Wednesday, I started by taking my good camera and making a few images of the fine morning. It had rained Tuesday and was very damp, but fine and nice on Wednesday—usually this summer, we’ve been either very humid and warm or downright wet, so Wednesday was one of the precious in-between days. No rain and no extreme heat—it was just Iowa pleasant.

I was impressed by the number and variety of Daddy Longlegs I found this morning, crawling at the edge of plants, on patrol for food to scavenge. I learned via a PBS article and a DNR web site that these non-spider arachnids basically don’t hunt—they are walking around looking for dead insects or decaying leaf to eat.

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Pair of Daddy Longlegs on Hosta. They shed legs as a defense, and according to a PBS article, if a male wants to mate and the female is not in the mood, she may rip one of his legs off.

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On Milkweed.

And, if attacked, they shed a leg and move on. More than half of Daddy Longlegs will lose at least one leg in escaping a predator (or potential mate) during their life.

Well. It was not the only interesting nature note of the morning.

As I planted my roses and peonies, a bit of a disturbance broke out in a nearby ash tree. A small bird was being chased about by a tiny bird—a hummingbird was swooping at another bird, which was complaining about the harassment.

I’ve seen hummingbirds several times this summer, but never caught an image of one. I pointed the good camera up in the ash tree, hoping to be lucky. And I was, because it appeared the hummingbird actually roosted, waiting for its next opportunity to be macho or birdo or dino—whatever we should call it.

And when, on the computer, I looked at the image, I realized the tiny bird was not sitting on the branch—it has a tiny nest in the ash tree.

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Hummingbird on guard in nest.

The city is cutting out ashes, and this is a city tree, so at some point it will be removed. I hope it’s after the fall migration.

And I hope to see some pretty pink peonies next spring!

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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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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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