About Me

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I'm a woman entering "the third chapter" and fascinated by the journey.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Year in Review

2014 was the year of slackery on this blog. It got off to a good start during the polar vortex and the following much-welcomed spring, but a busy semester and general brain fog led to a slowing down once the fall term began. A review of what did find its way into writing, however, reveals that life did indeed happen.
  • The year began with the horror of the Elk River chemical spill, but the end of the year brought good news: the (insert your favorite insulting noun) officers of the company responsible for the disaster have been indicted on a variety of criminal charges, with one of them facing nearly seventy years in prison if convicted. While my less-than-charitable side objects to public funds being used to support the being whose negligence has already cost millions of taxpayer dollars and who knows how many non-human lives (couldn't we just submerge him in the Elk River in, say, late January, and leave him there?), I am gratified to think that he is likely never again to enjoy his ill-gotten gains.
  • At least one fairydiddle found its way to Parkersburg.
  • I learned what baby mourning doves look like.
  • I finally got to experience Magee Marsh during the spring warbler migration.
  • The grass garden came into its own, as documented in a variety of posts.
And life continues to happen as we prepare to leave Chipmunk Ridge and head to downtown (if a location overlooking the arboretum can honestly be described as "downtown living"). Looking forward to the view from a new window later in 2015.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

They're here

The juncos, that is. The appearance of little white-bellied ground-feeders is a sure sign that winter is here, even though the calendar gives us a few more days until the solstice. Accompanying the slate-colored winter residents are white-crowned sparrows and what I think may have been a pine siskin, along with the usual suspects: chickadees, cardinals, titmice, doves, and the no-longer-very-golden goldfinches.
While I know that brown is indeed a color, I am already tired of it. Sigh. Daffodil season is a long time away.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Am I the only one?

Am I the only person distressed at the sight of bags of leaves lining nearly every street on trash day? I get that cleanliness is next to godliness and that wet leaves pose a hazard when walking, but--every leaf rounded up, encased in black plastic, and sent to a landfill? Do most people know what is in those bags?

  • Leaves are the providers of fertility. That wonderful deep soil of the world's great forests was provided by millennia of fallen leaves, broken down by thousands of generations of all the tiny organisms that provide decomposition services and keep the planet from becoming one great reeking mass of corpses. Few of us live in cabins in forest clearings anymore, but that fertility can be shared with our own gardens, just by finding a place where those leaves can break down naturally.
  • Leaves are habitat. Millions of small creatures live in leaf litter, including salamanders, toads, and baby bumblebee queens, who get only one shot at surviving the winter and establishing a new colony in the spring. If we freeze or landfill all the new queens, there will be no bumblebees for next year's pollination. In addition, many of the birds that so many people love to watch rummage through leaf litter in search of insects and spiders. Birds need protein, not just the seeds we put in our feeders when we remember to do so.
  • Leaves are the nurseries of life. Entomologist Doug Tallamy notes in Bringing Nature Home that oaks alone support 534 species of lepidoptera (that's butterflies and moths, folks). Eggs are laid on leaves, overwinter, and in the spring hatch into caterpillars that sometimes become butterflies and sometimes become bird food. Baby chickadees are 100% dependent on caterpillars for food. When we trash our leaves, we are ending millions of lives before they even get to start.
Something to think about.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Endings and Beginnings

Yet another fall is bringing yet more endings. A colleague's spouse died last week--just in her sixties, but after a long struggle with Alzheimer's. Another colleague, still in her fifties, died a few days later from a stroke, her youngest grandchild only three weeks old. At today's funeral home visitation, everyone still looked shell-shocked, not having expected that the bubbly woman we had left planning the college's fall craft show would be hit that night with major brain trauma from which she would never recover. A dear friend lost her father to heart failure earlier in the month, while a church friend and yet another coworker are battling cancer. Too much loss. Too much grief.

But this is a time of beginnings, too. Besides the aforementioned grandchild, who today was being doted on by a variety of people, a pair of former students announced yesterday that they are expecting a child. Even the long-suffering spouse and I are starting over, preparing to leave Chipmunk Ridge for a flat in a downtown duplex. As much as we would love to transplant our entire block, we are ready to abandon what has come to feel too much like suburban living: I had not realized the degree to which I would miss streets with wide planting strips between the sidewalks and the cars, and the option of walking anywhere I need to go (with the exception of work, the college being where it is). Downsizing and heading back to the town where I had lived for a quarter-century feels right.

But transplanting is happening. While our move won't take place until the new year, our lawn strips are already home to some favorite plants. This particular new beginning is our first pollinator bed, which next summer should add a little color and life to an old neighborhood.

Stay tuned to see who shows up for the seed and nectar feast.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Winter ys icumen in

I won't follow up with Ezra Pound's profane comment on the return of cold weather, but we, like everyone else, it seems, have been suffering through a bout of what seems unseasonable cold. If we had any pumpkins, the frost would definitely be on them. But there are compensations for the cold:
  • Outside work slows down. If the plants aren't growing, they don't need to be mowed, deadheaded, or weeded.
  • The birds put on a show, feasting on the seedheads of the now-dead perennials and coming to the feeders in greater numbers.
  • A few trees keep their leaves after most of the others have gone, extending the fall show and making us appreciate them more than when everyone is showing off.
  • Sycamores come into their own when we can see their elegant bark.
  • The juncos come back from the boreal forest to spend their winters with us.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Fall color

We all ooh and ah over the look-at-me color changes trees go through, but this fall has brought color changes much closer to the ground to my awareness. This was the first year that I had noticed that liatris leaves turn red (lousy photo, but this one shows the truest color).

Aromatic aster and muhlenbergia capillaris put on quite a show

though the muhly does all right by itself.

Aromatic aster, by the way, is a great favorite with late bees, and clump-forming grasses like the muhlenbergia make good hideaways for young bumblebee queens, who need someplace warm to spend the winter.

My favorite outdoor chair faces the savannah garden, a late-afternoon view that would inspire me to Impressionist-style painting if I had any artistic talent.

It's amazing what a little sunlight does for a few fading perennials.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The little late ones

It has been way too long since I last found my way to this blog. Much has been happening that may or may not get written about someday, but it is worth noting that many things are generally happening in any given ecosystem, in this case, the planting bed along our driveway.

Our New England aster and "Fireworks" goldenrod started blooming well before fall flowers are supposed to bloom, and the cold snap we had did in most of the blossoms, including all the "Autumn Joy" sedum. But a few have hung on, and a few plants that had gone dormant seem to have been revived by the cold. We have rudbeckia flowering again and will have a few obedient plant spikes in bloom if the frost waits a while.

More interesting than the late plants are the insects that are hanging on into the fall. Bumblebees are still active, and I get a little sad each time I see one of the fuzzy girls going about her business. Worker bumbles live only a single season, so the bees buzzing around right now have only a few more weeks to live. They probably don't know this fact of insect life, so they keep doing what they do up until the end. There is probably a message there.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

No pictures, but...

my short sit in the garden last evening was most satisfying, so much so that I didn't bother to go inside for the camera. (My phone is not one of the fancy varieties with internet access, and I probably didn't have it, either.)

The New England aster behind my head was starting to bloom, giving off its faint sweet scent, and the caryopteris divided and transplanted just this spring has put out the almost-unbelievably-blue flowers that only appear when the temperatures get a little warm for human comfort. (The blossoms are one of the best things about August, IMHO.) The Indian grass, big bluestem, and purple lovegrass in the savanna garden were in full, glorious bloom. (Okay, a couple of pictures, even if these were taken a few days ago. Have I mentioned that I love our native grasses?)

The tall grasses are still being joined by the pink puffs of Joe Pye weed (next to the house), which was attracting butterflies in what count for hordes this summer, 2014 being a better year than 2013 but still not great.

We finally got around to putting out sunflower seed, so the chickadees and sparrows were having a fine old time flitting from the rhododendron to the feeder, even though I broke down and had someone take out the twelve-foot pokeweed they loved so well. (I was deliberately away from home the week the removal occurred; I don't think I could have watched, having a perhaps unreasonable fondness for our giant purple-stemmed thug.) The occasional cardinal flew in for a seed and then hid in the crabapple.

To perfect the interlude, a male goldfinch decided to dismember an echinacea while I watched the show. I do love August.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

If you feed them, they will come

I don't know if other people pay attention to such things, but plants go to a lot of trouble to attract pollinators and seed dispersers. Yes, the situation is a win-win for both the critter and the plant, but I cannot think of plants as inanimate, even if they are generally quiet.(Mine may sometimes whisper, "Water! Water!")

Some plants put out the herbaceous equivalent of neon signs. Look at this pair of jewelweed blossoms.

Those dots are markers, leading pollinating insects and hummingbirds into the center of the blossom, where the nectar and pollen are found. "Eat here" is the likely message. Successfully pollinated jewelweeds celebrate by turning each blossom into a seedpod that can explode its contents across a wide area for something so small (hence the other common name, "touch-me-not").

Other plants produce flowers in abundance. What we call the flowers of daisies (and their relatives, the asters, coreopsis, zinnias, sunflowers, and whatever I'm leaving out) are in fact not flowers; they're modified leaves. The little yellow things in the center of this "Wild Romance" blossom are the individual flowers.

That's a lot of baby asters waiting to happen.

An unsprayed planting attracts lots of pollinators. This patch of obedient plant frequently hosts so many bees that their buzzing can be heard several feet away.

A not-particularly-outdoorsy relative noted with some surprise that the bees express absolutely no interest in nearby humans--and why would they, with all those tubes of nectar and pollen attracting their attention?

The feathery tubes of liatris have been one of this year's more popular eateries, with the same stem often hosting multiple pollinators. There seems to be plenty for everyone.

And it's not only flowers that feed animal visitors. Once all that pollinating has resulted in seed formation, seed-eating creatures come in for the harvest. I've never been able to photograph a goldfinch in action, but this semi-denuded echinacea seedhead is the remnant of a goldfinch snack.

I sometimes wonder why we bother with bird feeders.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Wild things

This afternoon my spouse mentioned a video he'd seen on Facebook, of a man in Arizona who had the bright idea of putting a heating pad under his hummingbird feeder during a hard freeze and who eventually had hummingbirds perching on his hand and getting warm by letting him turn a blow-dryer on them. Our hummingbirds are not that tame.

True confession: as much as I enjoy watching hummingbirds, we do not have a hummingbird feeder. Instead, our hummingbirds make do with wild food, and we grow lots of the (more or less) wild food they like. One favorite this year was red monarda,

and even though it has finished for the year, the hummingbirds are finding plenty to keep them fed. This evening, a single glance revealed five outside the dining room window: two fighting over the liatris (which had more than enough stems to feed two quarter-ounce birds), two chasing each other off the red honeysuckle, and one tiny singlet who managed to duck under the dueling duos and sip daintily from the agastache. Nearly any day during gladiolus season finds hummers working their way up and down the blossoms. Today brought the first jewelweed bloom, and if last year is any indication, the jewelweed patch will be hummingbird heaven.

Some days, the hummingbirds buzz the humans as a warning to stay away from their favorite plants, although most days they ignore us. This evening, I was able to sit in my favorite outdoor chair and observe hummers resting on the rhododendrons and the eastern wahoo. (Even the most hyperactive of birds have to perch sometimes.)

Hand-feeding hummers would make an interesting retirement project, but I think I prefer them wild.

Saturday, August 2, 2014


This has been a lousy year for lepidoptera on Chipmunk Ridge--more cabbage whites than anything else, and that is probably the one butterfly we don't want, given the propensity of its caterpillars for devouring our baby broccoli leaves. (Yes, I kill the little green munchers.) But at last, butterflies are showing up, though not in their usual numbers.

Yesterday we saw the first (and so far only) monarch of 2014, although something ate the leaves of the side-yard milkweed last month. Today brought black and tiger swallowtails, and the liatris are attracting their fair share of skippers. We are hoping that more of everyone's favorite pollinators show up before the season is over.

At least our clethra are doing their thing. (And if you don't know what clethra is, here is last year's blog post praising my favorite summer-blooming shrub.) Today the "Ruby Spice" outside the dining room had bees and wasps quarreling over who got which luscious stem of blooms. (There were plenty for everyone. I even got to cut some to bring in the house.)

Monday, July 28, 2014

Ladies and Lepidoptera

Yesterday I had the good fortune to be in Montgomery County with my stepson's family as part of the extended celebration of a 95-year-old aunt's birthday. A remarkably cool July afternoon allowed us to spend some time at Cox Arboretum Metropark, where one of the highlights is an extensive butterfly garden with a butterfly house as a centerpiece. While some of our group relaxed near the pond, the three teenage granddaughters took me on a tour of the lepidoptera showcase.

It turns out the the butterfly garden attracts more than just butterflies, as these box elder bugs were not at all shy about engaging in the exchange of genetic material right along a public path.

The (possibly) most adventurous of the three granddaughters discovered this cute little spider lurking on the echinacea.

There were not a lot of adult butterflies out at the time of our visit, but they had obviously been in the area. A pipevine arbor was inhabited by a number of these fierce-looking (and toxic) pipevine swallowtail caterpillars. According to the volunteer staffing the butterfly house, sometimes the pipevine hosts so many cats that it is possible to hear them chewing. (Are these little guys the reason why black and orange are the Halloween colors?)

 Possibly my favorite butterfly house juveniles, though, were the enormous caterpillars of the cecropia moth. I have never seen one of the adults, not being prone to wandering around outdoors at night, but the cecropia is our largest native moth, with a wingspan roughly the size of a dollar bill. The cats were a good four inches long and as big around as my index finger.

Given the enthusiasm with which these adolescent invertebrates were demolishing maple leaves, I kept my fingers well away from their chewing parts, so you get no size comparison from me.

But aren't they cute? The human teenagers thought so.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A new favorite place

Where did July go? I last posted on the 4th, and here it is almost three weeks later. I'm not even sure what exactly kept me so busy--but there were house projects, and yard projects, and an absolutely magical week at Oberlin College for the Unitarian Universalist Ohio Meadville District Summer Institute: lots of learning, laughing, good music, and good people.

Oberlin the town and Oberlin the college are both pretty amazing places. The town was founded by a couple of idealistic Presbyterians who took their not getting eaten by a bear as a sign that they had found the right place for their new intentional community, and the college was multiracial at its founding in 1830-something and was the first college to admit women a decade or so later. The place manages to be quaint and historic and progressive and funky all at the same time, with some utterly gorgeous architecture (for those of us who like Collegiate Gothic)

and fascinating plantings. The ultramodern Oberlin Conservatory is hedged with carefully pruned staghorn sumac, a feature that would never have occurred to me.

This traditional-looking colonnade, part of an Italianate building

actually is home to a surprise: each column, and each face of each column, is different. Some of the carvings are totally medieval in feel

while others probably represent someone important in the history of the college. I particularly like this guy.

Oberlin is also home to a 90-acre arboretum that includes two lakes surrounded by raised gravel paths. My walking partner and I got there at what must have been the right time of day.

As if the sheer physical beauty of the place weren't enough to cap off a perfect afternoon, a cedar waxwing decided to hang out in a tree next to the trail for several minutes.

This first visit will not be my last.

Friday, July 4, 2014

A little piece of paradise

We all need a place where perfect relaxation is possible. My  place is in the chair on the right in this photo, tucked behind ridiculously red "Jacob Cline" monarda and "White Swan" echinacea.
 To my right, not visible in the picture above, is a streetside hedge of mixed physocarpus (and assorted other things), giving privacy without isolation in the unlikely event that I should ever need to summon help from the neighbors. (I read too many mysteries in the summer.)

Sometimes, hummingbirds decide to visit,

but even when they don't, one of my favorite things to do in the
yard these days is nothing.

With all the daisies and grasses in bloom right now, there is never
 a dull moment.

For instance, sitting with a cup of coffee this morning, I got to enjoy a pair of goldfinches nibbling the rudbeckia. The presence of darting golden birds is worth the sacrifice of a few petals. Before dinner, a pair of mourning doves was courting on the ground under the birdfeeder, while adolescent finches (still at the adorable fuzzy-eyebrows stage) sat on various perches and poles demanding food from their parents (despite the presence of food all around them).

This has not been a good butterfly year so far, but we do have our share of whites and sulfurs, not to mention LOTS of fireflies.

 But the honest truth is, my favorite summer non-activity 
is watching the feather grass wave in the breeze.
Who needs to visit the Low Country salt marshes when there's paradise in Parkersburg?

Saturday, June 28, 2014

One of the best things about Parkersburg

I love public amenities. Admittedly, public gardens and other green spaces are not (and probably cannot be) as individual as the private spaces featured on last week's garden tour, but--they are public. Open to everyone and, in many cases, free.

Such is the case with the Blomberg Arboretum adjacent to the main Parkersburg library. This is a small public greenspace, one that can be walked in just a few minutes if one is not ogling the plants and animals, but the variety and liveliness packed into this small area make it deserving of attention, particularly because most of the plantings are West Virginia native species. In spring the arboretum overwhelms with flowering trees and in late summer with prairie flowers and grasses in full bloom, but something interesting is happening all the time.

Right now, the water lilies in the entrance pond are putting on quite a show

while a past-peak oakleaf hydrangea still commands attention.

Some of the beds have a formal layout, demonstrating that native plant gardens need not be messy,

although some plants, like this silphium, do want to get a tad out of control.

Nearly everything in the arboretum is labeled, making this a teaching space. There is even a (more or less) formal space for lectures, shaded by several large native wisteria (not to be confused with the Asian wisteria currently devouring the South).

This wisteria attracts bees and other beneficial insects, though I wasn't able to get a decent picture of any of the little pollinators happily working this plant this morning.

All of this beauty and information are freely available to anyone who wanders over from the library parking lot, and it is nestled in what for us is a busy area. The upper-floor balconies of a senior citizens' apartment building overlook some of the arboretum's trees, the space backs onto back yards, and the gap in the fence leads to an unused alley that allows quick pedestrian access to the businesses on Emerson Avenue. The city arboretum demonstrates the relative ease of making room for nature in even small spaces in our human communities.

It has also made me change my opinion that most monarda is boring. The developing blossom of monarda fistulosa is a new favorite thing.


Thursday, June 26, 2014

Another new favorite

I have never been wild about monarda. The washed-out purple of the wild form is a perfectly good color mixed in with other things, and all monardas are good for pollinators. (There's a reason the plant is called "bee balm.") But the penchant for powdery mildew, need for water, and tendency to wander if happy has made the plant one on my "meh" list.

Until now. The summer before last, a gardening buddy gave me a start of "Jacob Cline," and this year it is perhaps the most glorious thing in the yard. Its bud is exquisite,

and while the flowers are in the process of opening, the plant hardly looks real.

Now that the blossoms are fully open, Jacob is attracting even more hummingbirds than lonicera sempervirens, the previous best hummingbird magnet. Even better, it pairs well with other flowers, like this echinacea "White Swan."

And its color may be the reddest red I've ever seen.

It's always good to make new friends.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The red and the gray

Taking one of my frequent looking-out-the-window breaks this afternoon, I was delighted to see that our resident fairydiddle had returned for more sunflower seed.

I was in my forties before ever seeing one of these mysterious creatures, and now one has taken up residence in the neighborhood.

By the time my husband arrived for a look at the return visitor, it had been joined by a standard gray squirrel. (For anyone unfamiliar with the fairydiddle, it is the rodent on the right.)

Had there been a third feeder hanging nearby, these two might have been joined by a Black Squirrel of North Parkersburg, as quite a few of them have been visiting lately. If fox squirrels would just migrate into the Mid-Ohio Valley, my squirrel-watching delight would be complete.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

A happy day

Today started out well and got even better. When a friend dropped by this morning, the pileated woodpecker decided to visit the sweet gum across the street and then wing its noisy way into another neighbor's yard. I will probably never get tired of that particular bird.

Then, today was the day of the Marietta Garden Tour, and it was a big hit. Workers at the four gardens reported that they were packed, those of us working the plant sale sold lots of plants, including lots of native plants good for birds and butterflies, and the musicians in the courtyard kept us all entertained. The final tally isn't in yet, but I suspect that the tour made quite a bit of money for the building maintenance fund.

2014 is proving to be a good year for fireflies. Being too tired to grade papers this evening, I took a glass of wine into the front yard and spent some quality time in the Adirondack chair, watching the fireflies that were putting on quite a show. It had been a long time since I had sat among the little bugs that blink off and on, speaking a signal language that I can't read.

I need to get out more.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Fundraising ideas

The yard is full of gift plants these days. Since I will be staffing the plant sale table at this weekend's garden tour fundraiser, I felt obliged to contribute some plants for sale (even though I could probably find homes for nearly every volunteer that shows up--with the exception of the dreaded Bradford pear.) 160-year-old Gothic Revival buildings require a lot of upkeep.

Among the babies being donated are red honeysuckle, little bluestem, aromatic aster, blue mist flower, obedient plant, "Fireworks" goldenrod, New England aster, and ruellia. There are also lots of brown-eyed Susans that can be donated. All of these native plants attract butterflies, hummingbirds, or both.

ruellia along the front walk

New England aster

"Fireworks" goldenrod and New England aster

blue mist flower

one of the naturally hybridized brown-eyed Susans seeding themselves about the yard.

Hmm... maybe we should sell pre-planned pollinator habitat gardens?