Tag Archives: fall

Sounds of Hope During Fall Planting


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.


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.


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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Filed under Flowers, Garden, Grandchildren, Travel

The Third Phase of Fall


C Avenue, rising sun reflected in pond surrounded by snowy lawn–Dec. 9, 2018, 8 a.m. or so.

Like many Iowa seasons, to me, autumn falls into three parts.

There is the sequel to high summer, the final phase of the hot time of year, the September phase one of fall. In the evening there is a cool tinge to the air, but still the sounds of crickets as the day is still powerful enough to keep the freeze at bay.

Spiders are suddenly huge and everywhere.

But the plants know winter is coming—growth in all woody things is over and every plant that aspires to come back after the long sleep is hunkering down. There are still late flowers—mums and others—but the sex season in the plant world is mostly over. Dwarf bushes are starting to turn shades, and sumac, some of which were already crimson in high summer, are in full fall color.

Then the equinox passes and the night is starting to gain on the day. Lows dip into the 30s, and the first, tentative frosts arrive as the season turns to fall, phase two. Many trees begin to show colors and shed leaves. The night sounds begin to quiet, and the daytime insects are big and sluggish—unless they are in the sweat bee family, in which case they are pushy and obnoxious.

A few trees stubbornly remain green in this phase even as most others take on their sleep season look.

Then, sometime at the end of October or in early November, the hammer comes down. I always think the first definite frost is not really “it,” because a surprising number of hoppers and beetles and spiders can still be seen crawling around post-frost—they managed to hide in the night and appear in afternoon sunshine.

But when you get beyond mere frost to a genuine freeze, and for several nights in a row the temperature dips well below the ice point—well, it’s different.

This week, we had a dusting of snow. Lows dipped not just to freezing, but to the upper teens. Some leaves still cling to trees, but those leaves look dead and spent. The bare tree season is upon us. We’re not quite into early winter brown, but the shape of the world around us is suddenly there for us to see, as the green canopy that shrouded the hillside all spring and summer is gone.


Around 4:30, I arrive home, looking west at clouds now visible, where tree foliage would have obscured the view. Bare trees on Nov. 9, 2018.

I am not usually bothered by the first snow, even if it this year it seems a bit early. I miss the greens and flowers of summer, and it will be a relief in five months when some of the bulbs I buried before the hard freeze become early spring flowers, but the gardens need the winter break. It’s one reason our summers are so full of plant life—we get the cleansing of winter to clear out harmful, plant-eating insects.

So, phase three of fall is here. The snow this morning was not exactly a pretty white blanket yet, there wasn’t enough to hide the green stubble of lawns, but the bit of snow is a sign that the gardens are now in slumber phase, I won’t need to smell like lemon pie for months to avoid blood-suckers, and the cool morning air feels fresh, if a bit brisk.


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Finished with Fall Planting


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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Update on Project Milkweed


Common milkweed seeds, gathered from a ditch in Ames Iowa next to the apartment building where my son lives there. I separated these out Friday and also planted them.

I haven’t coordinated a planting effort on the Mount Mercy campus, so I’m not sure there will be many milkweed planted there this year—although I do have an envelope of seeds saved, and may inquire about at least planting those in a few established garden spots.

The final three workdays of this week were fall break at Mount Mercy, and they flew by. On Friday, we invited four grandchildren over for a sleepover party—they spent all day Friday with us and will go home midday Saturday.

I want to describe part of our Friday—but first, a minor word of caution. This post will end with some fall photos, and my cohort in crime for the garden milkweed planting did point out an arachnid, which I did photograph. So the very end of the post is not spider safe. If you are averse to spiders, go ahead and read the post, just don’t scroll to the end of the photos.

Our busy grandchildren day included trip to Half-Price Books followed by Thomas Park, lunch at McDonald’s and them home to pack up bicycles, which we took down to Cedar Lake for a ride (it was warming by then, I’m happy to say). After that, some of the grandkids walked up to HyVee Drugstore with grandma to get bread sticks to go with pasta for supper, while I stayed home with the others.

Amelia, a 5-year-old granddaughter, wanted to help me plant after she saw me separating out milkweed seeds from the bag Audrey and I had collected near our son’s apartment in Ames, Iowa.


Amelia, ready to plant seeds.

I had two sets of milkweed to plant—an envelope with a generous supply of seeds (I kept a second one for possible MMU use) and a bowl of all the white fluff and leftover pods, which also had many seeds left in it.


“Extra” seeds and pods. I did not try to be very efficient gathering seeds–I knew I was going to scatter all the rest behind my fence anyway, in the hope that Mother Nature’s way of planting milkweed will yield some results.

First stop was the woods behind our fence, where I scattered the “extra” seeds and pods, mostly at the edge of the tree line, hoping that sunny spot will promote milkweed growth.


Seeds in the air, edge of the woods behind my house.

After that, Amelia brought the seed envelop down to me so we could plant in the gardens. But when I opened the envelope, only about 1/3 of the seeds where there.

Amelia looked a little sad. “Some of them blew out,” she said. I interpreted that to mean she spilled some, because the seeds in the envelope didn’t have their white silky wind catchers attached, and it wasn’t especially windy.

No matter—1/3 of the seeds was still quite a few, and in the back of my mind was the thought that I did not have to save my second envelope. So, we planted—basically we used a trowel to scape soil in several small areas, scattered some seeds there, and then covered them with a very thin layer.

Milkweed seeds don’t go deep into the soil, and are best planted in fall. The seeds want to overwinter before germinating, or so I’ve read on the internet. Honestly, I’m not the person to consult on this—although I’ve tried for several years to get milkweed going, I don’t have much success.

Anyway, after we got done I didn’t bother to get the second envelope right away. Instead, Amelia and her brother and I simply enjoyed the later afternoon in the backyard, playing various games. When it was starting to cool and I thought it was going to be time to go in soon, I have them the usual 5-minute warning.

Amelia went off by herself and sat on some stone steps that lead from the upper to lower yard. “Grandpa,” she called. “Come here!”

I ambled over, and asked what she wanted. “This is where the seeds spilled,” she said. I moved some leaves on the steps—and sure enough, hundreds of milkweed seeds were just laying on the steps.

So I swept them into my hand and we did planting, round two. And I didn’t feel the need anymore to break into my second envelop. Maybe a small-scale planting at MMU can still happen this fall.

To finish the story, here are some random fall photos taken while Amelia and I were planting, with the caveat that this is where the spider sensitive need to leave this web page:


Fall mum in bloom in garden (and Amelia and I planted some milkweed next to it).


Vine creeping over fence is turning colors (above). Oaks (below) starting to look like fall (maples and tulip tree don’t have the memo yet, crab apples are taking on fall hues).



“There is a big spider,” Amelia said. I looked, and sure enough, right on the gate handle, this big spider was sitting. The board it is on is the one I just slid to lock the gate. I was a bit startled at first–but it’s kind of a pretty looking hunter. And I always figure spiders outdoors are good news–anything that eats mosquitoes and flies is welcome in my gardens!

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Filed under Flowers, Garden, Grandchildren, Mount Mercy

And Joe TV Is On The ’Net

Not Joe me, Dr. Joe of chemistry. At Mount Mercy, Joseph Nguyen had the idea for the fall faculty series about the War in Vietnam.

Last week, he stopped by my Intro to Journalism class to answer questions about the idea. I ran the camera (not all that well, I will admit) and a student scripted and voiced the resulting story:

Anyway, if you are at MMU and are interested, we’ll have another planning meeting Friday at 2 in Warde Hall 310. Hope to see you there!

Slide I used at SGA meeting to inform students of plans for fall series.

Slide I used at SGA meeting to inform students of plans for fall series.

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A Few Damp Fall Friends I See Out My Window


Weather turns wetter Sunday. Drizzle drips from leaves of pear tree outside my home office window.

Weather turns wetter Sunday. Drizzle drips from leaves of pear tree outside my home office window.

Sunday—the dry spell that we’ve been enjoying came to an end, and since then we’ve been treated to the dark side of an Iowa fall—cool, wet, monotonous rain with none of the dramatic skies and energy of a summer storm.

Of course, summer storms can also come with tornados, so I’m OK if the more frigid fall rains cascade with less drama. And there were a few rumbles of thunder today, just to remind us that the northern hemisphere is just starting to shy away from the nearest star, and there’s still some heat in those solar photons.

Anyway, as the first damp drizzle of the three-day rainy season kicked off Sunday, I was in my home office, writing an exam that I gave speech students on Monday.

As I worked, I could not help but watch out the window. Animal Planet, the backyard version, was playing. Mostly, it was birds, although the star of the show was a mammal.

Squirrel stretches for a meal in a pear tree.

Squirrel stretches for a meal in a pear tree.

I took a break every few questions to point my camera out the window and snap a few portraits. One is just of the wet pear leaves, but the rest are fall visitors, attracted, I think mostly by the pear fruit.

I didn’t succeed in recording all of the visitors. There’s a robin who has not yet departed the city for the countryside for his winter home. A pair of cardinals reside in the bushy area near the clothes line—very near the office window—and put in an appearance, first he, then she. But they moved too quickly for me to capture their little avian souls with my Nikon soul catcher (cardinals are Amish and don’t like to get their pictures taken).

One interesting black and white bird was just around the chimney corner, and the only halfway decent photo of him I got shows more chimney then bird. Still, I like the image, so here it is.

And then there was the well-fed tree rodent who appeared right before rain broke up the backyard party. Where do all the birds go in the rain? I don’t know, but they don’t hang out by my window.

The squirrel was not as skittish as the birds, and I got multiple squirrely images. I like the one of her standing on a branch, reaching for a pear. At this rate, the fruit won’t last long into the cold weather that surely is coming, but we’ll see.

The rain is actually good news, from my point of view. I know it delays an already slow harvest, but for an urban gardener, things were getting a bit dry out there and it’s nice to bank some moisture before the winter sets in. And I planted grass this fall, which needed the wet since I don’t have time to water.

I’m stuck inside. Writing exams. When I’m not shooting wild things.

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Late Summer Visitors During An Early Fall

Resting on a dead crab apple tree--the flashy green of a male hummingbird, just getting ready to take off.

Resting on a dead crab apple tree–the flashy green of a male hummingbird, just getting ready to take off.

It felt like fall for part of the first half of September, but now that we are starting the second half, it’s warming up again.

Probably not really summer warm, though.

Still, as I was getting dressed this morning, my preparation for work was temporarily delayed and I ran to grab my camera and shoot these images out of my bathroom window. They are not as clear as they could be for several reasons, including low morning light (it was just after 7) and shooting through a screen.

I think this is the female half of the pair--more brown than green. They did visit together, but I didn't get lucky enough to capture a photo of the two at the same time.

I think this is the female half of the pair–more brown than green, although it’s not easy to see from this side. They did visit together, but I didn’t get lucky enough to capture a photo of the two at the same time.

But a pair of hummingbirds, a male and a female, were visiting the feeders in my backyard.

They should leave soon. Hummingbirds migrate south, following the blooming flowers that are their food. The sites I consulted say that feeders such as mine don’t change the timing of that migration, which should occur soon.


It looks like it’s sitting on the post, but I think she is hovering on the other side–note the beating wings barely visible.

Before they left, I’m glad to have caught them. I’ve seen hummingbirds now and then this summer, and I’ve been aware that something is drinking from the feeders. I’m glad to have proof that at least some of this food is going to its intended recipients!

Thanks for one of the final sights of summer, hummingbirds.


Posing. Don’t often catch a hummingbird just sitting there.

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A Quick Dig In Two Gardens Closes Fall Planting

The hosta roots, unpacked, before  planting.

The hosta roots, unpacked, before planting.

There is some fall work to do in the yards and gardens, and I’m so busy at this time of year that I have fallen behind. A few limbs on the young tulip tree are growing too directly towards the house and need some tender axe therapy, for example.

Raking has fallen by the wayside, and leaves are constantly being tracked into the house.

There are several bushes by my deck that my wife and I have agreed will be cut out before spring—but probably not before Christmas break.

Anyway, despite the late semester rush, and consequent work-filled weekends, I did finish the fall planting today. As I wrote earlier, we had ordered a lot of fall bulbs this year, and the order was split between our yard and the yards of two daughters.

One part of the bulb order, however, didn’t come until this week. We have a front garden where I cut out some overgrown evergreen bushes two years ago. The middle space of that looked sparse, and my wife and I agreed that, since the garden is on the north side of the house and shady, it would be a nice spot for some hostas.

Now, I know a lot of you out there don’t plant hostas. They are not what you could call uncommon plants. And given enough time in the wrong place, and they can be a stubborn plant that can get out of control.

A picture from http://www.kvbwholesale.com/product/Bressingham_Blue_Hosta, the site were we ordered this plant. This is what we should see in spring.

A picture from http://www.kvbwholesale.com/product/Bressingham_Blue_Hosta, the site were we ordered this plant. This is what we should see in spring.

But, I like hostas, partly because so many of my gardens are shady and not a lot of plans do well in them, but hostas do, and partly because I like both their leaves and their small white or purple flowers.

So we ordered some Bressingham Blue hostas from K.van Bourgondien, the Ohio bulb company that we got the rest of the bulbs from.

I’m not sure why the hostas arrived so long after the other bulbs, which were planted in late October. And we’ve had some very cold nights—I was a bit worried about what the ground would be like to dig in. Fortunately, it was wet and warm today, and the ground was fine to work with.

So, assisted by two grandchildren, I planted the hostas today. As planned, three went in the front garden to fill it in a bit, and three others went into the newish back garden by the chimney. There were only supposed to be five root groups, but either a piece had broken off one or a worker at the warehouse tossed in a tiny one too small to count, because we actually had six.

My wife shot this photo of a grandson and granddaughter helping me plant hostas in the back garden.

My wife shot this photo of a grandson and granddaughter helping me plant hostas in the back garden.

The hosta roots are supposed to be dormant and are to come back in spring. In the past, we’ve usually just bought hostas at local garden centers and put in plants during the growing season. That approach has worked well, and the only reason we did a fall planting this year was that we wanted this particular plant just because it looks a bit different from the green or green-and-white hostas that we have now.

There’s much gardening yet to be done, including a mountain of raking—and when I’ll get it done, I don’t know. But at least the bulbs and roots are buried, and that gives me additional incentive to look forward with anticipation to the new spring next year.

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A Tale of Two Nikons on an Ideal Fall Day

Step one--place yourself tummy down on swing.

Step one–place yourself tummy down on swing.

Step 2--launch of the Overlord! Amelia loves to swing in this position and to announce, as she holds her arms out: "I'm flying!" Pictures with larger SLR Nikon.

Step 2–launch of the Overlord! Amelia loves to swing in this position and to announce, as she holds her arms out: “I’m flying!” Pictures with larger SLR Nikon.

We used to joke about the Wapsipinicon River when I was young. From the time I was 8 until I turned 13, we lived in Clinton, Iowa, just north of the Wapsi on the Mississippi River.

One year in the 1960s—69, I think—there was severe flooding along the Mississippi. But, it seemed, almost every year there was some flooding along the Wapsi. It turned into an eastern Iowa cliché of the 1960s—if you flush your toilet, the Wapsi will overflow.

That’s about all I know about the Wapsipinicon. Today was the first day I’ve ever been to the Iowa state park named after the river, located where it flows past Anamosa, Iowa.

I can’t tell you much about the park, although in general, I would say almost every Iowa state park, as well as many of the county ones, that I have been in have been extremely cute. Iowa is not a state of breathtaking vistas, but in creek and river lands, where there are some hills and a few bluffs and lots of trees—walnuts, pines, cottonwood and oak—well, Iowa can have its natural charms. Sure, we could use a mountain or two. But we do have the Wapsi and some creeks that flow into it and a park named after it that was just about as great a place as you would want to be on a gorgeous October day.

Waterfall, viewed from bridge on trail to Horse Thief Cave in Wapsipinicon State Park.

Waterfall, viewed from bridge on trail to Horse Thief Cave in Wapsipinicon State Park.

Fall in Iowa can get drab and cold, but most falls feature a few days like today. It was cool this morning, but warming by the time we got to the park. I wore a warm sweatshirt, and considered taking it off, but it was cool enough that leaving it on felt all right, too.

My wife and I were there with two of our daughters and six of our grandchildren. We picnicked, played in a playground and walked a short trail to one small cave.

As the grandchildren age, it will be nice to come back to this park for longer walks on the trails.

I only saw a little of the park today, but what I saw was quite nice, in a quiet, Iowa, we-have-nature-but-it-won’t-take-your-breath-away-but-you’ll-still-think-“how nice”-as-your-grandkids-chuck-walnuts-into-a-creek-to-watch-them-float-and-hear-the-splash sort of way.

It was a coming out party for a small Nikon camera, a Coolpix that we bought a couple of years ago for my wife’s first trip to England. I took three cameras to the park—my big Nikon D3100, our newest GE point-and-shoot, and the wife’s Coolpix. The Coolpix is small, and had been lost for quite some time—months. It turns out we had placed it in a pocket of a baby buggy, and it was discovered there Friday.


Tristan looks at the waterfall on the trail to the cave. Like the waterfall photo, this one was taken with the little Nikon that turned up just yesterday. Welcome back, little N.

Well, it was time today to get to know this camera a bit more. I shot some pictures with big Nikon, and they were nice, as expected. I also shot some, and my wife and one of my daughters shot some, with little Nikon. And I shot some video with little N, too.

Little N distinguished itself. I think it really outshines the bigger GE camera. It focuses more quickly and definitely shoots higher quality video.

Anyway, back to the park. It was a whale of a day. I started calling Amelia “Overlord,” which matches her demeanor most of the time. She proved she has the power of flight, by placing herself belly down on a swing and yelling “I’m flying!” Nobody would argue.


Below–Nikayla swings. Here, Mr. T runs at the playground. Little N is a good camera, but action pictures like these are what Big N does well, and these are photos from the SLR Nikon.


The other kids were in grand moods, too, as befits such a nice day. There was lots of running, playing, tossing walnuts, being scared of caves and swinging. The picnic was visited by too many aggressive bees, but not so many that it was spoiled—just made it a bit more exciting than it ought to have been.

Bees aside, Wapsi Park, little Nikon, you both distinguished yourselves.

All in all, this was a fantastic fall day.

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What Kind of Day Was It?

It’s the second week in November, and as I listened to my favorite NPR program at 10 a.m. Saturday (Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me) I was raking my yard and sweating.

There were a few hardy bugs around, a lady bug fruitlessly hunting on a spent brown dried flower, a few mayflies flitting about, some grasshoppers. And, of course, box elder bugs.

A fat squirrel was not waiting until she needed the crab apples—she likes them, darn it, and is eating them now. She spent some time perilously hanging on the edge of a small crab apple, then crossed the lawn to a much larger and sturdier pear tree, where she continued her lunch with those hard green fruit.

Before raking, I took some pretty fall photos. The trees are mostly bare, but there is plenty of quiet beauty in the gardens on this unusual summer day in fall. I briefly went behind the fence and startled two does who were lazily munching on the still-green weeds back there.

Later, in the afternoon, I took a bike ride on the Cedar Valley Nature Trail. By the time the afternoon turned started to turn dim, the winds had picked up and some sprinkles feel.

Rain, then snow, are due tomorrow. That’s more like November. But it was nice to spend some outdoor time today. I never really mind raking leaves much, especially on a day like this—who wouldn’t rather be outside anyway?


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