Tag Archives: Iowa

Friday Floral Feature: The Week the Tick Magnet Appeared


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An awesome opossum visits the yard.

Not the chick magnet—the tick magnet. I was eating a late breakfast in the sunroom that overlooked our back yard, when I noted a freaky, scary looking creature casually ambling across the yard.

Behold the opossum. North America’s only marsupial, and about as ugly a critter as you would ever hope to see.

I went and got my 4-year-old granddaughter, who was staying with us for the day, and we watched the possum. It noticed the attention and darted off. Although they look fierce, most sources say the nocturnal opossum is generally shy and tries to avoid people. This one was certainly true to form.

And of all the native mammals to spot in my yard, honestly the freaky looking possum probably is about the least problematic. Squirrels dig up blubs and sometimes even bite holes in your eaves to set up house in your attic. Woodchucks chew woody plants. And rabbits—don’t get me started. As I’ve written on this blog before, if God were a gardener in the Midwest and Eden was in Iowa rather than Iraq, it wouldn’t be the serpent who messed up paradise. To an Iowa gardener, our native snakes are benign, helpful presences. No—in the Iowa Eden, the Devil is personified by that destructive critter second only to Bambi in its capacity to wreck havoc in the garden—the bunny.

That rascally rabbit.

Anyway, so what we saw was a possum. And, if it were a rabbit, I would immediately go outside and sprinkle around that kind of animal repellent that seems more like a prayer ritual than anything that has an actual impact on the universe, but we do what we can. For a possum? Meh.

It’s a tick magnet. Possums don’t pose any threat to plants, but are insect eaters, and, according to Iowa lore, their favorite snack is the tick. So you’re welcome to hang around my yard as much as you want Mr. (or Ms.) Possum. Ticks carry disease, and Possums eat ticks. The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Anyway, in other garden news this week: Snow! Not winter snow, summer snow. Early each summer, the cottonwood trees release their seeds, and we have the faux snowfall that heralds warmer weather. Tuffs of fluff are in the air.

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Cottonwood seeds on front porch rocking chair.

Also, most peonies are still in the bud stage, but a clump in front picked this week to bloom. I know some gardeners don’t like peonies because they are associated with ants, but ants are everywhere and I don’t quite get that attitude. I don’t do anything to prevent ants on my peonies—they in fact are eating nectar the plant is producing with the intention of attracting ants, so I let nature be. The theory on the Iowa Extension site I consulted is that ants helps prevent pests. They are not required for peonies to bloom, but helpfully remove the waxy nectar film, and thus promote blooming—mostly, they are a neutral presence the plant may have evolved to attract just because other bugs don’t appreciate crowds of ants.

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And Irises are in bloom. Both Peonies and Irises appeared around town a couple of weeks ago, but my gardens are in a strange time zone where everything seems to bloom a little later. That’s OK with me, as long as the plants boom!

I’ve also been impressed with the bloom time of a Clematis in front that produces giant blue flowers. They flowers are in no hurry to fade, and there are many more buds. The Clematis season should go on for a while, since some plants in back are just starting to bud.

Anyway, it’s another rainy day today. I hope you enjoy some of the flower images from sunnier days this week.

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Friday Floral Feature: The Maybe Milkweed Week


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What do you think? Is it Milkweed?

Hope springs eternal in the spring. This week saw Dwarf Lilac in full bloom, a second Clematis with giant flowers take center stage in my front garden, and something else. Or so I hope.

Maybe Milkweed?

We’ll see. My gardening heart has been broken many times by this tough but hard to get started Iowa perennial flower. Of course I want Milkweed in my garden. It’s the only kind of plant that a Monarch Butterfly will lay eggs on, and the decline of the Monarch is at least associated with the decline of Milkweed in the Iowa countryside.

So, I try to do my part. Year after year, I sow the seeds. And year after year, nothing.

Last year, I purchased some “Butterfly Flowers” at a nursery. It’s a variety of Milkweed, and two of the purchased plants are coming up again this spring, which is nice.

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Yes, Milkweed–plant I bought last year is coming back.

But the common wild Milkweed plant grows larger and is preferred by the butterfly. It is a bit odd, I suppose, for a flower gardener to try to raise plants hoping that caterpillars will devour them, but that’s the way it is.

And the “weed” in Milkweed’s name is simply a mistake. It’s a pretty native perennial flowers, and all of us who grow anything to look at in our gardens ought to plant it, especially now. MMU, I’m looking at you.

Anyway, back to my garden this week. Something is coming up in front—something that popped up suddenly this May, just when Milkweed should appear.

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Peony after Wednesday night storm. Many in town are in bloom, but not in my gardens yet.

Sadly, there are lots of plants that look like this when they are young, but at least Milkweed is among them. After years of frustration, is this the spring when Mother Nature took pity on me?

I vote “yes,” although my vote means nothing. We shall see. At least I know that the store-bought variety of Milkweed has appeared this week, and that makes it a good week in the gardens.

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A second Clematis–with dramatically large flowers–bloomed this week.

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Friday Floral Feature: Dandelions Rule


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Phases of dandelion in my back yard–and yes, there is lots of creeping charlie, too.

I surrender. Dandelions were deliberately brought to the Americas by Europeans, so why fight any more?

Pretty yellow flowers of spring, summer and fall—I may spray now and then to knock you back, but that’s more for show or to get along with the neighbors. I can’t get rid of you, so I may as well learn to like you.

The gardens seem more summer like, these days. Early peonies have bloomed and quickly faded; the later smaller varieties of pink lilacs are getting ready to bloom. I’ve had one clematis plant spring forth in flower, and another that should break into flower soon.

And dandelions, which seem to be everywhere, offering their tempting pom poms to grandchildren who can’t resist the temptation to puff the fluff. Even the yellow flowers can turn chin or nose a fetching vermilion.

You win, dandelions.

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Friday Floral Feature: Stolen Tuesday Flower Photos


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Lilac in bloom. Sweet smelling time!

I already wrote about planting seeds with the aid of two granddaughters, so I’ll let that just be part of the Earth Day march for science post.

This week, cool April weather returned. We’ve had a generally warm and pretty April, but in the second half of the week, cold and clouds rolled in. It rained, and snow was also in the air, although I did not see any of the white flakes, and I’m OK with that.

While lows have been in the 30s, thankfully we have not really had a freeze, and with April entering its final days, I would expect that the weather trend soon will be much warmer.

Before the rains moved in midweek, on Tuesday morning I did a very quick walk in the gardens about before leaving for work, and I made some flower images in a few stolen minutes during the attractive golden light of morning.

I’m glad I have several different types of crab apple tree. Some are already getting past prime, but others are just coming on. In the front yard, the larger white crab apple is shedding many of its pedals, while its pink-and-white cousin (both trees were tiny twigs when they went into the ground on the same day, part of the same Arbor Day Foundation set) is just getting into its prime.

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Tulip in back garden.

Same story in the back yard—some crab apples are getting beyond prime bloom time, others are just kicking in.

The Moscow Lilac is at its peak and may be faded when sunshine returns. Redbuds, for the most part, are starting to put out leaves, so the pretty pink flowers aren’t going to be around long. One darker Redbud in front, however, is just getting ready to bloom.

Bluebells are still blooming well. Some Lily of the Valley have heavy looking buds, just getting ready to bloom. Early peonies are going to pop any day now—maybe once the sunshine returns.

Well, cool rainy days aren’t the best days to be outside. Still, to a gardener, cool damp days at this time of year are welcome. New grass is sprouting in back. And the grandkids and I recently planted seeds—and you know what they say about April showers.

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Crab apple in front yard.

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Marching Bigly for Mother Earth


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Iowa City March for Science April 22–my wife and two granddaughters and I took part.

The March for Science, planned this Earth Day, April 22, 2017, was not overtly political. After all, science is supposed to transcend politics—the chemicals of your body don’t care whether you voted for Hillary or Donald.

But, I was there, joining the nearest event in Iowa City, mostly due to politics. It feels as if both political parties ignore science, to our peril. Some liberals fuss about GMOs or vaccinations—or wonder why we spend money on NASA. But, pained as I am by irrationality on the looney left, let us give the right wing its due—it’s irrationality is much more widespread and, due to who is in power now, more dangerous.

Never in my lifetime have we elected a president so abysmally ignorant of everything—history, politics, and, yes, science. Never has one political party—the GOP—worked so hard against biology (yes, evolution is a thing), chemistry (if you burn that carbon it will go somewhere with some effect), Earth science (yes, the globe naturally warms and cools, but no, this particular extinction event is not natural), etc.

So I was in Iowa City to March. And it felt right, somehow, that I was there with two young grandchildren. Their lives have been shaped for the good by science—they live at a time when many humans, especially in northern North America, are well fed, comfortable and safe form most physical harms thanks to science.It wasn’t just the idea of democracy that made America great. It was the idea of ideas.So here is how I spent Earth Day 2017:

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Cool Iowa spring morning–planting pollinator friendly flowers on Earth Day with the help of two granddaughters.

First, we planted. I don’t even know who sent me some pollinator-friendly seeds at work, but thank you, benefactor. Those and other seeds (I’ve received bee-friendly packs from various sources) went into the ground this morning. Some of the seeds will be dormant until 2018—milkweed, for instance, must overwinter before germinating. But, where there is Iowa dirt, there is hope, and I hope this morning’s plantings will eventually aid both bees and butterflies.

Second, we marched. One daughter, with her young son, headed to Des Moines to march with our mathematician son who lives in Ames. My wife and I took two granddaughters to Iowa City. The girls made signs, petted dogs and gamely walked the whole March route. I am sure they didn’t understand what was going on, but I deeply felt that what we were doing was for their sake. The currently irrational political storm that is raging threatens science at many levels, and attacks on basic research are very shortsighted. Plus, we are delaying action that will be necessary to come to grips with global warming, and my grandchildren may suffer more than I do from our current shortsightedness. So, we march.

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One of many signs at Iowa City March for Science.

I am not naïve enough to think that today made a whole lot of difference. The miserly small-minded mindset of governments in both Des Moines and Washington wasn’t changed by my few small steps. But I was trying to make America great again.

Once, we were a courageous country that put footprints on the Lunar surface. We saved the Bald Eagle from extinction, and cleaned up much of the smog that chocked our great cities. We changed our habits so that rivers in Ohio would not remain flammable.

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Granddaughter during march.

Yet, today, we can’t even agree that Iowa water is dirty, that the planet is warming, that space is worth exploring or that science matters.

It does. I won’t be silent as my once great country falls into a deep intellectual malaise.

It’s time to speak, act, march and make some noise. We had the drive, brains and courage in our past to do great things. We still have them. We must overcome the bigly sad shrill voices of ignorance that dominate our discourse today.

Mother Earth, on behalf of Iowa and our nation, I apologize. I don’t know, somehow we got drunk in November 2016 and are living in an extended nightmarish hangover.

I don’t want us to do that again, and I vow to do what I can to do better.

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Friday Floral Feature: When Shy Bloomers Decide the Time is Now


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April 19–Moscow Lilac starting to bloom for the first time.

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April 19–Harsh winter two years ago killed off a red bud tree, which I replaced with a Magnolia. It is also blooming for the first time this spring.

News this week from the gardens: Several shy flowering plants have decided 2017 is the year to get into gear.

I purchases a tiny “Moscow Lilac” some years ago, about 8, I think, in a fund-raiser by the Art Program at Mount Mercy University. The bush is in a spot a bit too shady for lilacs—but then again, that pretty much just means it’s somewhere on my property. I’m a bit tree crazy, I admit.

Nonetheless, various other lilacs in my yard manage to push out a few flowers despite the copious shade. I was not surprised the first couple of years when the new bush was busy growing and not blooming. But two years ago it had reached about 5 feet, and it started to seem ridiculous—how big does that bush need to get before it can spare some sugar for sex?

About 8 feet, it appears, because that’s how tall the bush is. Two weeks ago, its leaf buds started to show, and I took a close look and decided, darn, another sterile spring.

I was wrong. On Easter Sunday, I noticed that way at the top of the bush, where I could not check the buds easily, Mr. Moscow had a surprise lurking. Flower buds were visible, and three days later, on Wednesday when I shot my second set of pictures for this weekly flower update, the buds were starting to open.

See my weekly Facebook flower gallery for more images. But here are a few of my favorites flower photos of the week:

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As advertised, the Moscow Lilac bush has pretty white blossoms. Now that it has started, let’s hope it can catch enough photons between the tree leaves to continue to flower.

The lilac isn’t all that’s newly bloomed this year. My “new” magnolia tree, planted in 2015, didn’t bloom in spring 2016, but is doing very well with pretty pale lemon yellow flowers this spring.

So far, the apple trees that are adjacent to the white Moscow lilac seems to be following their usual habit of not blooming. But, who knows?

I’m hoping some year soon to see Tulip Tree flowers and Catalpa blooms. Maybe 2017 is the year.

Maybe I’ll even see some apple flowers soon … if not this spring, then maybe next year? After all, crab apples in my shady yard manage to flower.

the weather has been good in Iowa this week. We’ve cooled off a bit, and there has been some rain, but we still have enough warmth and sun to feel like spring. How are your gardens doing?

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The First “Real” Spring Weekend


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When he was a feature writer for the Des Moines Register, Ken Fuson did a front-page “brite,” or happy feature story, about the first warm weekend day in Iowa in March (“What A Day!”). It was one long, joyous sentence.

I won’t try to mimic Fuson’s style—but this was such a day today. Granted, there has been nice weather in 2017 already—sunny, unseasonably warm weekends early in March. And it’s April now, so maybe nice weather is not such a jolt to the system.

But it still topped 70 degrees today. The sun was shining down, and it felt like the first true foreshadowing of the Midwest late spring yet to come. We’ve even had warmer days before, but the flowers and green and spring are just far enough along the road today towards true spring. In our minds, we could imagine June, the month of the year when Iowa can be the most pleasant spot on the planet (as long as it’s not rainy and flooding). Today, we could picture June.

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Grandson removes shoes late in morning. It had been cool, was was starting to hint at warm.

The day began windy and cloudy, a bit on the cool side. I spent the morning at a soccer pitch in Monticello, Iowa, watching a kindergarten-age grandson studiously ignore the rather random soccer game that languidly swirled around him without disturbing his great concentration on whatever it was he was so deeply focused on.

Well, the athletic gene runs shallow in the Sheller clan.

After that, there was a playground at the fairgrounds (where the soccer fields in Monticello are). The sun peeked at us now and then, there were a few random bug sightings, but we kept our sweatshirts (if not our shoes) on.

Then came lunch. Then, the afternoon. The afternoon! After our midday pizza feast, many of us started to warm up in the backyard of my daughter’s home. Coats were forgotten, ladybugs were everywhere, and my sweatshirt was draped over the cross bars of the swing set as I fulfilled a grandfather’s burden for a shifting cast of grandchildren (I pushed).

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Tired and exhausted by running, tossing and swinging in the increasingly warm, sunny, pleasant day, we headed back to Cedar Rapids. After a rest (the grandkids watched “Zootopia,” of which I saw only the snippet of opening credits and final 5 minutes—I suspect there was mid-movie snoring in the family room), I went upstairs. My 15-month-old grandson was up from a brief nap, so we donned shoes and headed in back for a flower photo safari. Within 5 minutes, several other grandkids joined us, so I did a fair amount of ball tossing and swing pushing between photographing flowers.

The cool morning had turned to a genuinely warm afternoon, milky sun beating down, buzzing bugs flying about—it had the smell and feel of the next coming season. The trees are still shaking off their winter slumber, but at the ground level, the annual hoedown of life is already do-si-doing.

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Early peony bud.

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First tulip.

I shot lots of images of crocus, early tulips, daffodils and other spring flowers. Bluebells, AWOL until now, have suddenly popped up. They are not super early spring flowers and are not blooming, but suddenly, like little garden salads, clumps of bluebell leaves have poked up all around the shady gardens.

Then, late in the afternoon, the dam burst. The bicycle would not be denied. I had taken my main commuting bike that I call “Clarence” and assembled the bus Friday by putting on the toddler seat and attaching a Tag-A-Long. I met the kids at a park Friday and took two home with the bike. The oldest grandchild had been lobbying for a bike ride all day today, and it was time.

The original plan was for her to ride her bike and for two other grandchildren to ride Clarence with me, but for some reason plans morphed. Recognizing we would climb some hills, the oldest granddaughter shrewdly shifted plans to the Tag-A-Long.

What followed was a series of bike rides of 2-3 miles each with a shifting cast of grandchildren. On ride number two, with the oldest grandchild, we paused to inspect a garter snake basking on the trail. Many birds, puppies, cats, birds and the one snake were all inspected or commented on during the rides.

Tomorrow, I plan to put in some grass seed and trim a few trees, as well as spending hours grading. I supposed I could have graded today, but the sun was calling, there were many, many grandchildren to play with (we had seven with us for most of the day) and it was THAT Saturday, the First Summer-Like Saturday, a day to drink nature in with no thought of tomorrow and no regrets.

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