Category Archives: gardening

Cool, cool rain

“April showers bring May flowers”, or so the old expression goes. A winter with very few major snow events left the Twin Cities area dry. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources issued burning bans and restrictions covering over 80% of the state. Grass fires along roadways courtesy of cigarette butts burned in the southwest corner of the state. Help is on the way with the latest round of cooler and wetter weather through the middle of next week. Some cool, cool rain has already kick started spring bulbs, greened up yellow and brown lawns, and opened leaf buds on trees. Hennepin County is finally in the low fire danger category; last Thursday the fire danger was extreme.

April Fool’s day saw the first thunderstorm of the season. It dropped needed rain but came with unwelcome high winds. Cool, dry weather persisted until yesterday. Today’s rain is enough to ensure back yard firepits get a workout when the rain finally ends. Having friends sitting around a fire, talking and joking, and enjoying some barbecued food is a wonderful change from being trapped indoors for several months.

I created a new bulb garden around the Autumn Blaze maple in the front yard and planted the bulbs last week. The twenty hyacinth and twenty tulip bulbs will take a while to poke through because of their planting depth. The fifty grape hyacinths (muscari armeniacum) should pop up quickly since the planting depth is shallower. It took three trunk loads of rocks to complete the border. Lucy would be pleased with the result. She absolutely loved spring and fall.

One treat I had over Easter weekend was watching a pair of falcons build a nest in a large cottonwood tree. Southwestern Minnesota has a surprising variety of raptor species. There are a couple of breeding pairs in the area and the mourning dove and rock pigeon population in Luverne, MN is manageable again. Turkey vultures also soared in large lazy circles overhead. The prairie is still mostly brown, but there are signs of spring and new life. Prickly pear cactus plants are less shriveled and the trees are sporting small leaves or very fat leaf buds.

While the forecast for the next couple of days is cool, wet, breezy, and windy, nicer weather soon follows. Please take the time to enjoy a nice spring day with family and friends (or a nice autumn day for those of you in the Southern Hemisphere). Having a connection to the special people in your life helps get one though the dreary and dismal days.

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What a de-leaf it is!

One of the more spectacular autumn color displays in recent memory is closing. I can tell this by the piles of leaves dropping off the trees at night. The two apple trees still have most of their leaves on them, but the other trees in the yard are mostly to totally bare. Several hours of raking and shredding leaves yielded twenty heavy 30-gallon bags of yard waste. Within three hours, the wind direction shifted and the wind speed picked up. The really tall silver maples in my neighbor’s yards are shedding leaves and I am receiving most of them. Yard work has been daily since last Thursday and will remain a daily chore until next weekend.

Losing leaves exposes all the bird nests built this year. The small Autumn Blaze maple hosted three goldfinch nests, the ash in the back yard had an oriole nest and several robin nests, and the burning bush had a cardinal nest tucked away. If this year is like previous years, the forsythia should have several chickadee and wren nests in it.

There are still a few flowers in the garden, mostly hardy chrysanthemums. The dahlias that I thought had died in the first frost rebounded and still have blooms on them. A pot of petunias and some rejuvenated pansies add some color, and the blanket flowers around the mailbox are blooming strong. One addition I am planning for next year’s garden is a New England aster. It will add some purple to go with all the yellow flowers common this time of year.

Even the weather has cooperated so far. There have been several light frosts but the temperature quickly warms up. By this time last year, there was snow on the ground and it stuck around until May. This year has had temperatures at or slightly above normal. Any precipitation that will fall for the next week will be liquid and not solid.

Another round of raking, shredding and bagging awaits. Give your special someone a meaningful hug and try to get outside and play in the leaves. You might be moved to think “What a de-leaf it is!”

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Short summer’s journey into autumn

Eugene O’Neill is probably rolling in his grave with my reworking of the title of his classic play “Long Day’s Journey into Night”. The Twin Cities area shows signs of an early end to a late arriving summer. Grackle and starling flocks started forming a couple of weeks ago with mobs of hungry birds descending into yards and gardens. Some sumac bushes and maple trees have splotches of red or gold showing through the foliage. Juvenile robins display grown up feathers free of the leopard spots of their youth. Waterfowl babies are in full feathers and are the size of adults rather than waddling balls of fluff and fuzz. Hummingbirds are more frequent visitors at the feeders with an occasional quick and noisy kerfuffle breaking out. The migratory birds and butterflies are preparing for a several thousand mile trek to a place where “Snowmageddon” remains a folk tale rather than an annual six-month-long reality.

July and August have been drier and cooler than normal. Air conditioning units received a badly needed break from relentless usage in June. Road repair crews find it easier to work with hot asphalt when the heat index is not five degrees above the sun’s surface temperature and the roadways are not submerged. Cooler and drier air slowed grass growth. Mowing twice a month instead of twice a week allowed people to spend more time with loved ones and enjoy a quiet evening. Cool and dry evenings were a refreshing change to the stifling heat and oppressive humidity experienced during June’s monsoon.

With each passing day, morning and afternoon scurried a bit sooner from evening’s encroachment. Lower humidity and temperatures along with fewer severe storms directly result from this. Even though the weather this week has been more like mid-October rather than late August, the cicadas are still buzzing when the sun is out. At night, a few fireflies twinkle during their nightly journeys while the toads, tree frogs and crickets still have their evening talent shows without “sotto voce” subtlety. Listening to the cacophony without droning air conditioners is quite enjoyable.

Perhaps the late arrival of summer along with the cooler and dryer  period after June curtailed the annual Japanese beetle infestation. My rose bushes did not look like shotgun targets and there was no need to set out traps. I think I saw fewer than two dozen of the nasty little invaders this year. I will gladly take this as a win. This also ensured getting flowering red calla lilies, which the hummingbirds pay more attention to than the hummingbird feeder.

As I mentioned last week, the Minnesota State Fair is still underway. The last time I attended the Fair was around 2006 with Lucy. I have a friend who is insisting on taking me to the Fair on Saturday (OK, my arm did not need much twisting). If Saturday’s almost perfect weather forecast is accurate, and if attendance is typical for the second Saturday of the Fair, between 175,000 and 240,000 people will crowd into the Fairgrounds. The Fairgrounds itself is only 320 acres in size (one-half square mile or one-half section) so navigating through a sea of humanity is challenging. Saturday’s visit will take care of my Fair adventures until the mid-2020’s and blow my allotted junk food intake until 2375.

The State Fair ends on September 1, Labor Day. The United States considers Labor Day as the unofficial end to summer though the autumnal equinox does not occur until September 22. Families with cabins “up north” or “at the lake” enjoy on last long weekend and close it for the season. School is already in session in some districts with the remainder starting classes after Labor Day. The plaintive parental cry of “Go outside and play!” changes to “Do your homework!” Even humans adjust to the subtle season transition.

Try to enjoy some time outdoors with loved ones. Whether your transition is summer into autumn or winter into spring, notice the changes occurring. Being part of nature helps one re-energize and reduce stress. Give your special someone a meaningful hug and thank you for your time.

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Buried in berries? It’s a good thing.

June’s record-setting rainfall did not do much good for many of the garden plants. The roses have brown spots on the leaves from fungus, the prickly pear cacti rotted in place, the hardy hibiscus proved it was not and the apple trees lost most of their blossoms and some of their leaves during a rainfall that came down hard enough it sounded like hail hitting the roof. Once the rain tapered back to normal amounts and the temperature warmed up, the raspberries kicked into high gear. Now that August is here, the berry harvest is ending soon, probably by early next week. Thus far, there are ten pints picked, easily three pints lost due to drop offs, raccoons and birds, and probably two more pints ripening on the canes. It has been a very good year for raspberries and the lack of Japanese beetles helped quite a bit, too. The blackberries were disappointing with less than a handful for the total harvest while last year’s harvest was almost two pints. I managed to give a friend a pint of raspberries and received a pint of homemade tapioca pudding in return. That was a great trade, so I am trying it again!

Lucy and I enjoyed raspberries, even though I did most of the picking. I rarely suffered mosquito bites and barely reacted to them. Once I lost weight, I became attractive to mosquitoes, which are the only females that find me attractive. Lucy would have a quarter-sized welt from a single mosquito bite. The raspberry patch is next to the air conditioner, so I would put a large fan on top of the air conditioner when we were picking berries to keep the mosquitoes mostly at bay. The fan also helped on the oppressively humid days the Twin Cities sometimes gets in the summer. Fortunately, the mosquito population dramatically thinned out when the water in standing pools and puddles dried up. I can pick a pint or two of berries without needing a transfusion afterwards. It has been less humid, a bit cooler than normal, and there has usually been a breeze when I have picked this season.

Gardening teaches us that there are still many things outside of our control. The weather doesn’t cooperate, an insect or bird infestation wipes out a crop, winter kill decimating supposedly hardy plants, growing conditions are unfavorable and so on. Patience and perseverance are part of a gardener’s mantra along with some (OK, many) words unfit for a family friendly publication. A bumper crop of raspberries makes up for a shortfall of apples. The spot occupied by a dead clematis becomes the new home for a yucca. Tree branches removed either by the wind or by a chain saw become wood chips for composting and mulching. Acceptance of things beyond one’s control helps with coping and rebuilding.

The end of berry season is also brings an awareness that the days are noticeably shorter as summer slowly glides into autumn. Cicada, cricket, toad and tree frog sounds mix in with the bird songs. Juvenile birds feed alongside their parents. Monarch, sulphur, cabbage white, zebra swallowtail and mourning cloak butterflies float from flower to flower looking for a meal. Twinkling fireflies are always a bonus when watching this part of the world wind down for the evening. Fewer mosquitoes and other flying pests means a more enjoyable time around a bonfire or sitting out on a deck with friends. Being in touch with nature helps with stress reduction, even if the garden is just a couple of potted plants on an apartment balcony.

Take a few minutes to get in touch with nature, preferably with your special someone (chasing a lawn mower does not count). Enjoy the sights, sounds and smells, especially if you are not on a path frequented by geese. Treat yourself to a handful of freshly picked berries if they are available and your diet allows them. Most importantly, give your special someone a meaningful hug and enjoy that closeness. A hug is the best stress reliever of all.

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May showers bring June flowers?

The precipitation falling from the sky is not frozen, and this area needs the rain. Instead of hearing about red flag warnings and the ever incessant prattling about drought, the “weathertainment” spots mention the cool and wet weather. The calendar shows it is nearing the middle of May but the weather is reminiscent of late early April.

Spring seems to be staying even if it is acting like someone returning to work after a long vacation. It is easing into the swing of things, not putting out 100% effort and taking breaks whenever possible. Eventually the weather will cooperate, or we will jump directly into summer. Perhaps summer will have its bags packed and be ready to go.

Even though the temperature is cool, the plants are trying to make up for lost time. My ostrich fern went from a lump on the ground to over two feet tall in three days; ferns have been on Earth for over 700 million years and have a number of adaptations to stay competitive in a changing ecosystem. Green replaced brown as the predominate garden color in under a week. Rebirth is moving forward at a “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” pace.

Spring cleaning is also briskly moving forward. Birds are either refurbishing, re-purposing or dismantling last year’s nests. Amur maples and some varieties of oaks do not drop their dead leaves until spring. Several days of strong winds solved that problem quickly. We two-legged animals also spring clean. A number of cities, Bloomington, MN included, hold city-wide clean up events allowing the citizenry a chance to set out large items for pick up. Several days and nights of vehicles pulling trailers brimming with scrap ensue with most cast-offs disappearing before the garbage trucks arrive. One person’s trash is another person’s recycling bonanza.

It may still be cooler than normal, but the sun is radiating more energy and the longer days have caused avian and human wardrobe changes. Goldfinches are brilliant yellow rather than a rusty tan color. Humans shed heavier clothes and dress in flashier colors. Even the creatures that do not shed fur or feathers participate in a ritual of finding a mate. Vocalizations and dances carefully choreographed to attract maximum attention occasionally irritate the humans cohabitating in the region. Of course, if the creatures viewed human behavior in a nightclub, they would be irritated, too.

Enjoy the sights and the change of seasons. Give your special someone a meaningful hug. If you’re in a committed relationship, perhaps some song and dance is in your future? Just make sure you paid your health insurance premium first.

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April, we hardly knew ye

The weather in April was unusual. “April showers bring May flowers” is normally appropriate, but the first half of the month saw snow showers rather than rain showers. Colder than normal temperatures, more cloud cover than average, and more snow than average conspired to delay gardening chores by two to three weeks. April 2014 became the second wettest April since official records started in 1872. The calendar shows today as May 1 but the weather seems like March 1. However, the trend towards warmer weather starts the middle of next week, and the recent heavy rains and sloppy snow flurries eliminated soil frost with a minimum of flooding.

A two-week delay shortens the USDA Growing Zone 4 growing season by over 10%. Early spring bulbs are making up for lost time with surprising growth spurts during the few sunny and warm days available last month. Flowering shrubs are not as lucky. My forsythia bush is finally starting to bloom, three weeks late. This may mean it will not rebloom again in late September. Maple and pine tree pollen increased dramatically, but the rain helped keep the levels more tolerable to people suffering allergies. All the lilac bushes may bloom at the same time even though the normal bloom times of the three different varieties ensured continuous blooms from early April until mid July. It is still too early to tell what garden plants survived the winter, but it appears both of my prickly pear cacti may now be interesting composting material.

This area has also seen a bumper crop of potholes and orange construction barrels. Some of the potholes are deep enough to have a bumper crop of loose automobile parts and shredded tires strewn about them. A several inch deep pothole causes tire, wheel and steering component damage. When that pothole fills with water, it is well camouflaged. Another big worry is the extra moisture created more breeding grounds for mosquitoes. It has been too windy for the Mosquito Control District helicopters to drop the bacteria laced pellets that disrupts mosquito larvae development. Perhaps the cold weather delayed the hatching season accordingly.

Give your special someone a meaningful hug when you get a chance. A hug brightens up the darkest of times, and if your weather is as cold as it is here, it warms up a shivering person. To the recently departed month of April, I hope the door didn’t smack your backside too hard when you left, and try to avoid the potholes.

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Forty days and forty nights

Forty days and forty nights can seem an eternity. Many religious works have a number of “forty days and forty nights” events, with few of them pleasant; many centered on sacrifice, suffering, and destruction. The Twin Cities has endured slightly over forty days and forty nights of below zero (Fahrenheit) weather this winter, but we have not cracked the top ten for years with the most sub-zero temperatures. Today was day 43 and it is hopefully our last for at least the next ten days.

As a gardener, my worry is the severity and duration of our unseasonable weather will result in serious winter kill in the gardens. For all intents and purposes, my area went from USDA Growing Zone 4 to USDA Growing Zone 2. I have mulch in all the gardens and we had sufficient rainfall before the ground froze. That should help, but will it be enough?

As a homeowner, I worry that the frost line will get deep enough to cause frozen pipes. That is happening in other places, and I have a friend who mentioned on Facebook that the going rate to thaw pipes in her town is $200.00 per hour. I have been in my house for fifteen years, and I do not remember a winter with this many below zero days. A natural gas shortage is causing problems for some homeowners in rural parts of the Midwest even if they can afford the nearly 400% price increase. The National Weather Service tells us this is the coldest we have seen for over thirty years. We heard that the weather and climate have been steadily growing warmer for decades or centuries depending on which study one reads, so perhaps we got complacent. Maybe we solved Anthropogenic Catastrophic Climate Change and the earth is back to normal?

After our eighteen consecutive days of going below zero, we may finally start seeing temperatures approaching normal. When the temperature starts rising, people will emerge from their homes much like a creature emerging from its winter shelter, blinking because of the sunlight, smelling the fresh air rather than the mostly recirculated air in a sealed house, and shuffling off to forage and frolic. I hope these folks do not act like a bear in the woods.Valentine’s Day is Friday. It used to be known as St. Valentine’s Day, but the religious reference faded a number of years ago. Lucy’s ancestors came from Finland, where Valentine’s Day was known as “Ystävänpäivä”, or “Day of Friendship”. Lucy was my best and closest friend, so it made perfect sense. I’m fortunate to have some wonderful friends for my Day of Friendship.

If you are buying flowers for Valentine’s Day or Day of Friendship, buy them from a local florist rather than an online service. On top of getting  a superior product, you are supporting your community, and it shows you took the time to get the right bouquet. Take a moment to be thankful for your friends, whether they are near, distant, or departed. Friends help friends through forty day and forty night challenges, and can brighten even the darkest and stormiest of nights. As always, give your special someone a meaningful hug. Here’s hoping we get forty days and forty nights of warmer weather!

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