Surprise Ending to 2010

December 31, 2010

Who could have imagined THIS?

In the early hours of dawn, warm gusts of wind, a thunderstorm, crashes of lightening, showers of rain – on New Year’s Eve! I look out from our second story bathroom window and saw that every flake of snow on the side of the house was gone. Not one speck of white.

I let the dogs out of the back door and realize Dominic will not have to do any snow shoveling on the patio. Then I recoil in disgust. Oh. ick. Every bit of dog waste and Damn Rabbit droppings is exposed. Oh. Gross. I hook up the hose and put on the power nozzle which promptly shoots out of the hose and across the patio. I put it in again, holding it between my fingers, and then turn on the hose. I spray everything towards the flower beds, walking back and forth. I rid myself of the water-wasting guilt by telling myself that existing conditions were not sanitary and could even be considered a health issue. Finally, it is washed clean.

Tony peeks outside to ask me for the camera. “You’re quite the picture,” he says. As I am dressed in lime green pajama pants (with fluffy white sheep), a purple windbreaker and pink and brown snow boots, I think he is being facetious. I give him a duck face and he goes back inside.

The ground is sodden and soaked all over the yard. The firepit is full of water, a little brick lined lake. There is no sign of it being absorbed. We are expecting a deep freeze to begin as we ring in the new  year, so that lake will become a block of ice within 24 hours. Isn’t that amazing?

Also amazing are the colors in the garden (my outfit not considered). The greens that have been exposed are rich and saturated, as are the shades of browns and reds and ambers. Everything seems to be in Technicolor, deep and true. The catmint looks untouched by any snow or frost; that is a hardy perennial. I would not be surprised to see it burst into bloom. The foxglove is the same, undamaged, unslimed, happy and crisp. The chives are bright green and while they are not perky – they lay flat against the ground, exhausted from the weight of the snow – they too seem ready to burst into purple bloom. At the bottom of the sedum, I see green rosettes, already preparing themselves for next year’s season.

A hunk of ice floats in the pond. Below is water and above is water, the ice hovers in the middle. I see no goldfish although I look carefully. It begin to sprinkle again, rippling circles forming in the pond and in the firepit lake.

The peanut butter on the bird seed ornaments is bleached from all the rain. It looks lardy and pasty, but is still covered in seed.

In the front of the house is the only place with snow. There are two melting lines along the driveway, where it was mounded each time it was shoveled.

There are brussel sprouts and spinach exposed in the veggie garden. The spinach looks perfect in every way. The brussel sprouts do too. I wonder if I could harvest them and have them with our New Year’s Eve dinner. I think I probably could. But I don’t.

It begins to rain a little faster, a little more and my hair is becoming truly wet. It is time to go in.

As I write this, the sky is clearing, the blue is breaking through. It is crisp and clear and colorful. What a beautiful way to end 2010!


Having A Meltdown

December 30, 2010

Yesterday, I watched two squirrels play, fight and then sit in a pout, one in the neighbor’s tree and one on the post of my wooden bridge. They sat there, in a standoff for about 20 minutes before someone finally decided to apologize, but I’m not sure which one finally was the bigger squirrel.

Today, everything began to melt. Our temperature here was in the low 50’s, with mid-50’s predicted tomorrow. How messy is that. Not only physically a mess, but I’m certain that this two-day jolt of spring temperatures will throw the more tender perennials for a loop.

I grabbed the shovel shaped like a snowplow and began pushing slush and dog leavings – and quite a few Damn Rabbit pellets – off of the patio and into the flower beds. Fairly soon, I realized this was exactly the type of heavy lifting I’d been warned against and put the shovel down. I’ll rope Dominic into finishing it tomorrow.

The water beads on a tiny accidental Christmas tree, shiny and round. And after weeks of silence in the garden, snow muffling everything, I hear sound again. I hear leaves rattling, I hear drips and drips and more drips. I hear our sump pump pulsing on and off, on and off, as I make my rounds in the garden. I hear the rattle of water in the gutters, the trickle in the downspouts. I hear seed heads tinkling in the breeze, I hear the grasses rustling their skirts again.

The snow melts quickest on rocks and bricks, and around the base of certain plants. The hardscape I can understand, as that absorbs and reflects the heat from the sun, but I am unsure why certain plants – like that accidental Christmas tree, the oregano and the yarrow – would generate heat at their base to melt a patch in the snow. Slimy lamb’s ears erupts near the pond, but many leaves are still looking crisp, like the brussel sprouts that have emerged.

The snow is melted through to grass in many spots, but it is still inches deep around the veggie garden, which is really strange as that area gets the most direct sunlight throughout the day. Obviously, I am missing some scientific phenomenon taking place here. I leave the compost bin lid propped open. It sorely needs water as the last layer of shredded paper is as dry as dust. Rain is predicted tonight and tomorrow, so I hope it will get a good soaking.

The melting snow also brings tracks into clearer relief. Damn Rabbits, of course, but also the squirrels. Those tracks are typically bunched together, like tiny ungloved hands and naked feet in the snow. They are in abundance under the pin oak. My tracks, newly made today, stand out sharply. All these marks will, I’m sure, be indistinct and blurred by tomorrow afternoon.

The squirrels have found the bird seed ornaments. AND HOW. Late this morning, there were five critters out there at once. One tackled the shepherd’s hook, stretching and reaching, sliding and then repositioning himself to try again. His white fuzzy stomach faced me much of the time and it just looked so soft and warm. I longed to give him a scratch on the belly, just like Griffey enjoys. Much success when he made it to the suet feeder and was able to hang there and eat the seed. He grabbed the card with little hands and then pulled off seeds with his teeth. Another one sat on the groovy bench, nearly frozen still. I went into the kitchen to get a better angle on her and saw that she was licking a card, just like you would the inside of an Oreo. She sat there and slowly worked her way all along the card, still and patient and calm. One more sat in a bush- yes, sat inside a bush, looking so very silly – and pulled a card apart, turning and twisting it in those sharp little hands.  The last two were the scavengers of the bunch, darting under each squirrel and picking up all the seeds that had fallen to the ground. Tails flashing, busy, busy, busy. Thank goodness they don’t visit for long because I so enjoy watching them. I’d never get a single thing done if they hung around all day.

About two hours later came the goldfinches, now discovering the refilled seed sock. I counted 6 at once, but they are camera-shy. As soon as I pointed my lens through the window, several of them whirred away and did not resettle. The hungry ones, the ones who know a good thing when they see it, the ones who don’t mind the paparazzi, stuck around. They were all males, their golden color faded for the winter, but still glinting here and there around their faces. Of course, they have their pecking order. The more aggressive birds sit on the sock. The timid flyers go to ground, picking up what’s left but still, I think, getting a very good meal.

Tony called me over to the window late in the afternoon. “Look at the chair seat outside,” he says. “It’s a Jesus fish.” And it was. The garden gods have a sense of fun.

Come evening, I straightened and reattached some of the Christmas lights that had fallen out of their anchors in the ground. When I stood up, I realized what a waste of time that was. It will all be coming down very soon.

Not What I Expected

December 27, 2010

The birds didn’t find the cardboard feeders today. How disappointing.


December 26, 2010

Today is the first chance I’ve had to breathe since the evening of the 22nd. There has not been a moment that hasn’t been filled with cooking, cleaning, visiting, cooking, cleaning again, wrapping, unwrapping, cooking some some and cleaning up.

My forays into the garden were only for useful purposes; dumping onion peels, potato peels, celery stumps, egg shells, broccoli peels and such into the hole by the rainbarrel. I didn’t get much of a chance to wander, to observe or even to think.

I have no idea what the squirrels have been up to.

Yesterday, Danny and I made ornaments for the birds. I had cut out strips of cardboard, about 3″ x 8.5″ and then threaded nylon string through a punched hole. So Dan and I spread them with chunky peanut butter (in retrospect, creamy would have been a better, smoother choice) and then covered the peanut butter with bird seed. Rich sat across the table and gave me a lecture about enabling birds and disturbing migration patterns. I began to explain that there are many birds that don’t migrate and we’ve disturbed their natural environment when I caught a glint in his eye – ah… trying to bait me? Not this Christmas, little brother. I took a big cleansing breath and sprinkled bird seed.

Dan was too involved with hockey, ping pong and some sort of nerf target game to hang these ornaments outside, so I took a minute after sunset to throw on my boots and drape them on the lilac bush, the groovy bench and the shepard’s hook.

We expected heavy snow but didn’t get it. There was a bit, hiding where I scooped a handful of snow to throw at Julie last night as they left. I’m not really sure who started it but suddenly as they headed out the front door, the air was filled with thrown missiles, bursts of snow, floating crystals and lots and lots of shouting.

I believe it was Julie.

This morning, the bird feeder ornaments are still untouched, but they are very greasy. There is a new layer of snow, but much less than was expected. The pond is filling and soon, we will not be able to tell where it actually is – there will be no dip in the yard. There are drifts and drifts everywhere and it’s not a simple task to slough around the yard. I am getting a workout. There are Damn Rabbit tracks everywhere again. One set of tracks makes me laugh. They run right up to a tree and then suddenly stop. I picture a Damn Rabbit bumping his face into the bark, like a Bugs Bunny moment, but I think these are squirrel tracks and the little guy jumped up into the tree.

The chive heads swing in the breeze, like heavy, doleful church bells.

The Christmas lights in the ground have created a row of deep, perfectly round holes as they warm the snow around them. These holes are like the sides of a canyon, showing me all the layers of snow that have fallen.

Gwen’s new shrubs are nearly buried, but her expectations are being fulfilled. The red branches stand out clearly and brightly against the snow.

The compost has accomplished a big bunch of nothing in the weeks since I’ve checked it. Now I’m thinking I need to throw a few shovels of snow in there, to moisten it and jumpstart some decomposition.

I look along the hydrangea bed in the back and see canine tracks again. Hmm. The dogs have not ventured beyond a very limited range and I don’t see any of their tracks actually leading to this grouping. Then I see them along the fence, in a meandering trail. My heart beats a little faster. Yes, there is a coyote visiting here and indeed walking along that bed. Winter is just so cool. When else can you see what really goes on in your garden?

The thistle seed feeder has been neglected lately, so I empty the few inches of seed that is left. Finches seem to be picky eaters. I fill the sock with new fresh seed and rehang it. The birds should find all these treats in the next few days.

I am looking forward to next week.

light in the snow

The Final Season

December 21, 2010

Today is the first day of winter. I have written and photographed and observed through spring, summer and autumn. This is it – the beginning of the end. There are only 89 days left in this project, 89 days until spring.

This morning, it was all about the new snow. Clean, trackless and undulating. It gently blanketed into all the holes made by a variety of things – boots, Damn Rabbits, Lucky and Griffey, running children and more boots. The snow mounds deeper and covers more and more. The boxwood is nearly drowned, the joe pye weed is swamped. Under the pin oak, the poppies have gone under, the foxglove is overwhelmed and the hostas are all covered. It is reminiscent of an archaeologic site. You hope and trust and believe there are wonderful things under there, but you can’t see a thing. You must act on faith.

No one is awake yet. There are no new tracks. No birds, no Damn Rabbits, no coyotes, no mice. Everyone is sleeping.

The pond has been frozen now for weeks, but it hasn’t been bitter bitter bitter for long spans of time. I don’t think it’s been cold enough to freeze all 15 inches or so. I think the fish are still alive, hovering at the bottom, hearts beating once or twice a day, suspended in the Matrix of the winter.

The snow is mounded on the edges of the driveway. Dominic pushes the snow from side to side like a plow, creating mounds higher and higher all the time. The butterfly bush twigs reach from the snow, like a stick-figure waving SOS from the ocean. It covers the iris, disappears the coreopsis and loses the lavendar.

There are sculptures everywhere. Chive stems splay out in a chopped, sandwashed brown spiral. A milkweed pod has seeds frozen in a moment, the feathers trailed with beads of ice. One of the evergreens has branches covered with snow and resembling dinosaur feet; another evergreen is coated in a blanket of ice and snow, almost gift wrapped.

89 days left to observe, to celebrate, to enjoy. 89 days left to see what can and does happen in the garden. The final season has begun.

Lunar Eclipse Bust

December 20, 2010

The news, at least for nature geeks, is filled with talk of the total lunar eclipse tonight. Even cooler, even nerdier, is that it’s happening within hours of the winter solstice with a full moon. It will be visible to the entire continental U.S. tonight. Astronomy aficionados all over the country will be waiting for the shadows, the orange color, the freaky effect on the light all around us.

Except here in Chicago.

It has been overcast all day, and expected to snow all night long. I look out at 8:30 pm and see no moon, only snow, filtering down in a steady powder. To quote a seasonal song, it doesn’t show signs of stoppin’.

The flakes are illuminated by my camera’s flash, like glitter in the sky. I head around to the front yard to enjoy one of my favorite holiday scenes; the lights glowing under the snow. I love how the colors spread, pools of lights, merry and bright and oh so icy. It’s such a stunning combination of heat and cold, of fire and water, of man and nature.

There will be no lunar eclipse visible to me tonight, so I make do with what’s available. The next total lunar eclipse is April 14, 2015. SIGH. I make photographs and then stand there and soak it in as long as I can stand the cold.

I hope there’s some corn for poppin’. And I mark my calendar.

Last week I received an email from an unfamiliar address titled “Your books are here!” I am a frequent (okay, obsessive) book buyer from Amazon and often purchase their used selections, but couldn’t remember purchasing anything used recently (for holiday gifts, I refer to the used books as “collector’s items” or “vintage”).

When I opened the email, the name instantly clicked. It was from the Master Gardener program and urged me to pick up my books, or I could wait until the first class.

Yeah. Right. Like I could wait.

Tony and I drove there this morning, the first unexpected and rather out of the way stop on our annual Christmas shopping day (We visit Oak Brook for The Container Store, Crate and Barrel and the like to buy stocking stuffers and enjoy lunch). I noted how long it took and also noted there was no traffic, so will double the drive time for my first day of “school.” The Will County Farm Bureau, where the University of Illinois Extension office is located, is a small, unassuming but attractive building just off Manhattan in Joliet. The front walk is edged with native grasses and there is a funny mailbox on the right.

Walking in, I was greeted by two older glass-fronted refrigerators filled with cheese, milk, cheese curds and eggs. There was also a cabinet displaying honey, for which I am a real sucker (that seems to run in the family, as Eliza carries a bottle in her purse – the ragpicker bag – at all times. Protects that singing throat, you know). These shopping opportunities are going to be a real weekly challenge. I love cheese. I especially love different flavors, things I haven’t tasted before – in my eggs, on crackers, sliced, baked with raspberry jam, melted on Italian bread, grilled sandwiches.

Cheese is delicious.

I tore myself away from the delights of the dairy diversity. I noticed a full country store, a business office and then the extension office, all opening into that front foyer, which was festively decorated for Christmas. A dark-haired lovely young woman asked if she could help me and I asked for Nancy, the woman who sent the email. She introduced herself as Marianna and said she could help. She led me to a small table where I signed for the book. I noticed there were a few groups – one person picked up books for several different people.

Then she gave me the book.

Oh my goodness.

This thing is MASSIVE. It is a beautiful manual, plastic spiral bound, full color, glossy. I walked back to the car, thinking that Tony should be carrying this because of the restriction about my lifting heavy objects for the next few weeks. When I flipped through it, I became intimidated. There are pages and pages of sketches of bugs to identify, pages and pages of diseases to learn, charts of soil types and problems, tree barks – goodness gracious, thousands of things of which I have given little thought. I was so proud that we’re composting! Oh! There’s a whole chapter on THAT!

I showed the book to my mom and exclaimed about the chapter on roses. “I don’t know anything about roses,” I lament. My mom, who planted, tended, powdered, watered and cared for a stunning, fragrant and extensive rose garden in our back yard in Harvey (I still think of the purple rose with fondness and nostalgia), says, “There’s only one thing you need to know about roses. Don’t plant ’em because they’re too much work.”

Well. Somebody has lost the love.

As for me, I’m looking forward to some seriously fun reading.

It's HERE!! My Master Gardener Manual!!!!!!

A Squirrelly Bit of Fun

December 16, 2010

I looked up from a particularly challenging bit of an assignment to watch the very beginnings of snow and saw them. They were having so much fun, rolling and jumping, completely at play in my garden. It was certainly time for a mind-clearing break and these acrobats provided the perfect moment.

There were three of these bushy-tailed frolickers, forming a ball of grey fur as they unknowingly entertained me. Those squirrels are just too adorable, seemingly full of the joy of just living. I got my camera.

As I lifted the blind, one of them froze, looked at me and bolted into the neighbor’s yard. The other two decided to go up instead. They candy-caned around the pin oak. One went up and up the tree, then rested on a low branch while watching the lower one getting a little confused, going in level circles. They were not communicating as one. The slower one finally caught on and headed up the trunk while that faster guy gave me the evil eye from the tree branch.

When the two met on the branch, they greeted each other with outstretched hands, and then rubbed noses. My whole darn day was complete. GOOD LORD HOW CUTE. I clicked away and they eyed me with suspicion, bouncing up the tree to a higher branch in a tumble of togetherness. They patted and combed each other, pink tongues out, slipping and sliding together.

I really couldn’t stand  how sweet it was.

They sat for a while, that faster one in front, up above, protecting its friend from the Woman Behind the Window. He gave me a look that clearly wished me ill, wary and apprehensive of my interest.

They soon disappeared up the tree and into one of the squirrel condos high above. Later, I saw that big brother crouching in my neighbor’s tree, huddled against the cold, enjoying the snowfall.

“Thank you,” I thought, “for that moment of bliss.”

Dirty snow, a dun-colored sky and no sunshine. Not exactly a cheerful day in the garden, but I get out there this morning nonetheless, offering up hope and good energy to the weather gods for a solid snowfall today.

The snow by our backdoor is stained yellow in more places than I can count. Griffey and Lucky are not making wide forays into the yard, and so a 10 foot swath is really gross with doggie byproducts. I won’t show a photograph of that. I can’t lift or push a shovel yet, so Dominic will have to take care of this.

Into the garden goes withering flowers from an arrangement Tony bought me a week or so – mums, lilies and daisies all brightening up the kitchen with a flash of sunshine and perfume. They’ll compost throughout the winter, right in the bed, but for now they lay on top of the ice like roses on a coffin. An apt analogy for the “dead” of winter, no?

The pond is rough, a miniature of a windswept, ruffled lake frozen in a moment. Isn’t that cool? Amazing? As the wind blew the water around, the cold was intense enough to catch it in motion and hold it still. Nature just blows me away.

I find a large hole tunneled next to the house, behind the hostas and on the side of the rain barrel. Interesting… I did not see this in the summer, but the monster hostas covered it up. I’m not seeing tracks going to this den, so perhaps this is a summer home. Under the hostas, fortified by a brick wall – what a smart place for someone or something to live. Unfortunately for them, now that I’ve found this, I am filling it with compost and shredded paper. Those hostas should be even bigger next year.

The patio is covered in footprints, both mine and the dogs, carved in the ice. The snow is saggy around tracks, soggy around the mounding of plants. Beauty is difficult to find right now. The sky is heavy with snow, grey and flat and solid. Absolutely not a glimmer of sun – depressing overall.

Now this is interesting. The boxwood is no longer a leaf green, but a deep forest green. The accidental Christmas tree is the same, deeper, more saturated, darker than it was before. The aloe plant is too. Is it the contrast of the snow, or is it their own chlorophyll changing? Seeing as the snow is grey and dirty, I’m thinking it’s their own coloring, shutting down for the winter in this below-freezing weather.

I need to refill the thistle seed feeder.

This is interesting too. There are Damn Rabbit droppings and Damn Rabbit pee darkly rust colored against the blanket. Now that the snow clearly shows the proliferation of Damn Rabbits and their coupe of the garden, it also shows me they follow the paths I’ve created for myself – bricks, tiles and mulch. That is funny, I think. They are not wanted, yet they are polite guests, mostly keeping to the boundaries and walkways I’ve laid out, hoping to gain favor and thereby an invitation to brunch. They will not get it.

Along the side of the house, I notice we’ve already made a severe dent in our firewood. I also notice a cacophony of tracks walking on the sidewalk. There are Damn Rabbits, there are those mysterious mice/bird tracks, there are tracks of what is definitely a bird, reminiscent of its prehistoric ancestors. And there is a track of what is most assuredly and chillingly some kind of canine. This is not made by either of my canines. These are made by long skinny legs, walking all in a row (Lucky dances in chaos, Griffey is sorely bowlegged), neatly and cleanly. This, I am nearly sure, is a coyote.

In the front, the lights in the lawn have melted caves in the snow, just big enough for a family of fairies – or mice, if you’re more literal-minded. The cave curves like a bowl with a lace-edged skylight. It is protected from wind, scooped into the drift. From 5 pm to 2 am, the bulb lights and warms this little lair in shades of green or blue, red or orange. For the discriminating mouse, the range of color choices is, I’m sure, a big selling point.

Steam blows into the air from our furnace outtake. Icicles hang on the gutters feeding into the rainbarrels and onto the rainbarrels themselves.

The side of the house is a time warp demonstration of the power of erosion. There is a big drift and then nothing – an almost harsh line that clearly demonstrations just where the wind whistles through our yard. The grass is then a mass of swirls, of sculptures, of shapes. It reminds me of natural formations all around this country – in deserts, in canyons, in glaciers. This little wind and snow and ice and rain in this little yard quickly accomplished with temporary materials what those exact same forces accomplished in stone over eons in many places around the world. What’s really mind-blowing is thinking of this in terms of one giant timeframe. These formations in my backyard will last for a few weeks, maybe just days, a blink in time. The formations carved from rock will present for eons, impressing us with their millions-of-year-old beauty. But they haven’t always been there and they won’t be there forever. In the ageless, timeless, vast and incomprehensible span of everlasting time, they too last just a blink, a nounce, a fraction of a moment.

Wow – I have to go take a deep breath about that.

Scaring The Neighbors

December 14, 2010

My aunt stopped by on Friday and gave me a birthday gift that included a Christmas ornament of a wheelbarrow full of gardening tools and a big apron. They were both simply charming, but until I was up and around a few days later, I didn’t notice how great the apron is really is.

It’s tough, made of canvas and has three big pockets along with a string that runs along the front. It will cover me from neck to knees and wrap around. There is a pocket for a digger and scissors and one for gardening gloves, with a pocket left over for plant tape or pruners. Maybe even for both.

This will save so many shirts and shorts for me. There are so many times when I think, “eh, I’ll just pull a few weeds real quick,” and, hours later, wind up with stained blouses and ruined shorts.

Several years ago, while I was standing in the garden wearing my big gardening hat (to shield my uncommonly fair and delicate skin from the sun), my brother-in-law looked out the window and commented, “Oh, look. It’s Katherine Hepburn.”

Combine that massive brown hat with my tattered athletic shoes, throw in this apron and that will complete the picture of a truly dorky gardener. I can see the Fitzgerald boys laughing now.

But here is my problem. It’s so pretty. It’s handpainted. It looks more like garden art than something functional. It’s really lovely So I have guilt about getting it dirty, stained with pollen and algae and compost slime.

But not enough not to use it.

From Aunt Marge