Tag Archives: Iowa

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!

Campus May 29 2

May 29–Peony blooming at Mount Mercy University.

Campus May 29

Another May 29 image of peony on MMU campus.

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A Short, Cold Walk in the Woods


Shadows of trees

I’m out of the yard, headed down to Dry Creek. I like the shadows on the snowy bit of grass.

After the annual New Year’s Day brunch at my sister’s house, I came home with my wife, daughter and grandson. It was nap time.

I woke up around 3, and worked for a while in the office, but when I looked out the window, a cold squirrel who was huddled in the tulip tree caught my eye. Right—I was going to fill the bird feeders this afternoon. It’s pushing 4, but at minus 4 degrees it’s as warm as it will get today—so I put on boots, coat, hat and mittens. And I also took my Nikon.

On the way around the house, I spotted a flock of small brown birds hanging out in a honeysuckle bush, as if waiting for me. “Where have you been?” I was inside where it is warm, dinosaur friends. Food is on the way.

I fumbled with the birdseed and feeders, and had to take off the mittens to deal with the anti-squirrel wire (it does not prevent them from eating, but from removing the feeders and taking them apart).

When I was done with my dino and rodent self-imposed duty, I was in no mood to go inside too quickly. It’s been bitterly cold in Iowa leading up to this New Year’s Day, and I was ready to spend time outside, even if just a few minutes. Dry Creek, in recent years, has rarely been dry, but I knew it had little water in it when the cold weather hit. Where there had been a bit of water, there would now be ice, anyway.

So I opened the back gate and ambled down to the streambed. I liked the quiet crunch of snow and sense of solitude, despite the occasional traffic noise from nearby C Avenue. Snapping images as I went, I headed under the C Avenue bridge, walking west in the bed of the creek.

Fallen tree arch.

West of C Avenue Bridge, walking west in Dry Creek bed. Passing under fallen tree arch.

Deer tracks let me know I wasn’t the first or only mammal to pass this way. It was bitterly cold, but very pretty as the late afternoon light turned golden and the cloudless sky was a soft wintery blue.

I saw a few skittish birds along the way, and passed under the arches of a few fallen trees. Maybe a quarter mile or less from home, I came to a tree crossing the creek that would have taken more effort to pass—doable, but a bit of limbo for an unlimber old man.

Tracks in snow

Mammal tracks in snow. Deer, and an old man.

I had only one layer on my legs and not particularly warm socks in my boots, and I was feeling the cold, so I decided the tree was a convenient turn around point. Besides, I definitely planned to be home before the light started to fade—no rambling in the woods in winter twilight for me.

As I returned to my own yard, I caught sight of a woodpecker, a frequent feeder visitor, and snapped a few more images.

Then I went inside. My wife was awake, but the grandson was still asleep, so I did a bit more class work on the computer until he awoke.

School starts tomorrow. Winter term is only one course to teach, but that one class meets for a lot of hours a day—it’s a fairly intense teaching experience, and I have a large section this term.

So, it was good to take a 20-minute hike in nature, even on a bitterly cold afternoon. A Facebook friend posted the other day that we needed to remind ourselves of the good things about living in Iowa, given this extended cold snap. These pictures, I suppose, are part of my answer. Cold as it is, Iowa is still a quietly pretty place, and a quiet pretty place, late on a sunny winter afternoon. I loved the quality of light at this time of the afternoon–the golden sunshine and blue shadows and sky. See more of my images from this walk on Flickr.

And a short stroll in the winter woods was a good way to kick off 2018.

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And as a Bonus, Snow Started Falling


Cookies

Christmas cookies, baked by Katy, decorated by adults in a contest judged by daughter and son-in-laws who could not be there. I am sad to say that “Red Dwarf,” my thick, red star, did not win.

Merry Christmas, 2017—there are still some presents wrapped in the living room, so after Mass this morning, I’ll get to find out what my wife bought for me. For her, there will be less mystery because she was with me when I selected most of her gifts, and by “I” I mean “she.”

Still, we are going inexpensive this year with only a few low-key gifts, deliberately. We purchased a second vehicle this fall, and are counting the Dodge Dart as our main mutual Christmas gift. And there is one box that she doesn’t know the contents of—containing nothing of expense or of consequence, other than I wanted her to have at least some small surprises.

I hope you and yours are enjoying family and friends this holy holiday season, and whether you celebrate the birth of the Christ child, the secular gift-giving winter (or summer) school break or neither, I wish for you the joy of loving human connection this season of kin.

Although there are some presents still present in my house, our main Christmas celebration fell on Christmas Eve. Our oldest son and his wife were able to fly out from San Francisco for a week, and most of our local clan gathered—daughters from Dubuque, Marion, Monticello; and a son from Ames.

The house was full of noise and chaos on Christmas Eve, with the sounds of a few Christmas songs played on the piano by my oldest son mixed with jazz improvisations, especially when grandchildren decided to join in. Play was constant and boisterous. One son-in-law and grandson had to skip the party due to illness, which somehow seems true to family tradition, but it was good to have a full, loud house at this time of year.

Piano

At the piano.

The youngest grandson didn’t get his nap in, and it did show by the end of the day, but that’s just life.

We had a full Thanksgiving-style Christmas dinner, with turkey and most of the trimmings (we skip the cranberries and other fancy salads, and had been snacking all day on Christmas cookies, so pie wasn’t in the picture, but otherwise it’s the full TG deal, cooked almost exclusively by my wife). After stuffing ourselves with stuffed turkey, it was time for the big gift opening, which involved a few presents for adults, but mostly the grandchildren’s gifts.

gifts

Chaos of gift opening. Scooter, used as chair, is headed my way so grandson can sit on it and chat.

Several gifts were immediate hits. Two grandsons loved the remote-control spider that their grandmother found for them. A scooter for a 2-year-old from an aunt and uncle was mostly a pushed platform that performed as an impromptu moveable chair, but it was very much in use. A doctor kit led the daughters of a mother who is in the final stages of studying to be a nurse to become a medical team treating an ailing patient (said mom). Treating her included laying on her stomach and poking her face with various toy plastic medical instruments, and I’m happy to report she survived treatment, although it looked a bit dicey for a while.

The gathering was slightly delayed. For one thing, again true to Christmas tradition, we were missing a few items and there was a last-minute shopping trip. For another, Mother Nature made morning travel a bit hazardous with her own gift to us.

A White Christmas! We are in a mild drought in this part of Iowa, and true to form winter so far has been mostly dry, with just a few flurries here and there. The best chance of snow in the forecast was Friday, and while there were flakes in the air that day, it amounted to no accumulation on the ground.

But Christmas Eve started with genuine white stuff. Not a lot, maybe three-fourths of an inch, but enough to make it officially white out. As the snow ended mid day, it turned cold and will be bitterly cold today, Christmas Day, but only in a weather sense. Inside, we’ll look out on a pretty white world and think of a coming new year, of an ancient birth and its meaning, and of family—it will be pretty warm.

All in all, thanks Mother Nature. And Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas to us all and to you all. God bless us every one.

Eve Snow

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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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Friday Floral Feature: The Week the Tick Magnet Appeared


possum

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.

cottonwood

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


maybemilkweed

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.

yesmilkweed

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.

peony

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.

clematis

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

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Friday Floral Feature: Dandelions Rule


dandelion

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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