Tuesday, June 11, 2013

A Tweet Retreat

Our little House Wren

Outside our dining room window thrives a small nature preserve.  All things wild flourish there.  My attempt at growing domesticated plants in the same soil and microclimate requires considerably more effort: fertilizing, watering, mulching, pruning, dividing and weeding.  Shwew…I’m tuckered out just making the list.

Shielding Brownie's eyes from the sun,
Ryan 'The Parasol' Uftring
Domestic creatures can be so demanding.  Inside our home, roosting in a bed of pine shavings, lays Brownie, our elderly guinea pig.  For four years, she has relied utterly on our care.  This refined rodent exhibits the discerning palate common to many species of domestics.  Any diversion from her preferences results in a chorus of loud, squeaky oinks.  Serving her from the bargain 8-pound-bag of hay pellets is considered treason.  If she can’t detect a dehydrated carrot or corn kernel in her food dish, she sounds the alarm.  And all those carrots and corn kernels create a lot of output, which must then be cleaned up, which brings me to my favorite low-maintenance pets: wild birds. 

I’m not sure which of my personality defects is most inclined to bird-watching: laziness or frugality.  There are no cages to clean.  No pine shavings to purchase.  If I forget to feed them, they simply fly somewhere else for lunch.  They don’t berate me with squawks and pecks.  And the view!  We literally have a rainbow of birds in our yard throughout the year.  Red Cardinals and purple Finches, orange-bellied Robins and flaming Baltimore Orioles, yellow Gold-finches, green iridescent Hummingbirds, bossy Blue Jays and sweet Indigo Buntings.

A few years ago, I couldn’t tell a chickadee from a sparrow.  My children would ask me to identify birds in the garden, and I was at a loss.  So, I purchased a small bird book.  You may have a similar manual in your house, just your run-of-the-mill bird field guide.  But yours isn’t the same as ours; not exactly.  Ours has been ‘accentuated’.  If you turn to our Eastern Bluebird page, you’ll find a picture of a dutiful mother, bringing breakfast to her young.  The bubble extending from her bug-bearing beak says, “This tastes gross.”  

The 2nd grade handwriting is one of several glaring clues that this commentary is not original to the book, but it does add a certain something to it.  On the Osprey’s page, a predatory bird glares down with the eyes of a skilled killer.  A curly mustache extends from either side of his beak, granting a little comic relief in the face of his clearly homicidal intentions.  But just to make sure you don’t take him too lightly, the mustachio-maker scrawled “I will eat you” beside his head.  If you’re now feeling a little underwhelmed with your lackluster ‘conventional’ bird book, I’m sure my adolescent artist would be willing to embellish it for a nominal fee. 

Aside from giving your children graffiti-prone material, why would you want birds around?  First and foremost, they’re fun to watch.  Hollywood’s red carpets don’t have anything on these flashy personalities. Decked in beautiful colors, they bear vivacious attitudes to boot. There are cowards and daredevils, lovebirds and bullies, selfless parents and selfish seed stealers.  A set of binoculars reveals miniature soap operas unfolding throughout our nature preserve.  Place feeders close to windows so you can watch the drama unfold all year long.

Secondly, they eat bugs!  Summertime in Illinois is the ideal environment to throw a BBQ party for bug-eaters (Bring Birdseed Quick).  Blue Indigos, barn swallows and purple martins will feast on the #1 summer pest: mosquitoes.  Also on the bird menu: grasshoppers, beetles, flies, grubs and aphids.  They won’t eradicate them completely from your yard, but they lend a threatening atmosphere that encourages pests to go elsewhere. 

Third, they educate.  This self-proclaimed birding blockhead can now differentiate between a Brown Thrasher and a House Wren.  My 92-year-old grandma stays sharp by trying to learn something new everyday.  Keeping our minds engaged and involved in the environment benefits us as well as the wild world we live in.  

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Glove Love

My gloves are shot.  The seasons have not been kind to them.  Nor have I.  They’ve sloshed through mud in May and scraped up clay in July.  After countless fencing matches with thistle, barberry and roses, they’ve succumbed to a well-deserved retirement.  If there were such a thing as a spa resort for gardening equipment, I would give them an all-expenses paid trip.  They’ve earned it.

Hand-eye coordination not being one of my strengths, these gloves have saved 10 precious appendages from many a misdirected slice of the soil knife.  They braved interior demolition zones as well.  As if they had a choice.  My wardrobe doesn’t differentiate between gardening and remodeling; overachieving accessories do double duty.  They’ve kept my hands splinter and tetanus shot free after hours of hauling lath, plaster, glass and drywall. 

I’m not sure which job is more treacherous, frankly.  This isn’t, as I’ve said before, a botanical oasis.  Our garden dirt surrounds a 95-year-old home.  An afternoon cultivating vegetables is synonymous with ‘archeological dig’.  Apparently, burying your garbage was the thing to do some years ago.  Every pull of the tiller, dig of the shovel and spring thaw unearths new treasures: mostly broken glass and slate, but we do stumble upon the occasional vintage pop can, rusted metal tool, and broken ceramic bowl.  Gloves and boots earn their keep around here in a hurry.  One of these days I’ll dig up an old Folgers can with a fortune in it and buy 10 unblemished acres.  In the meantime, I’ll just keep my safety gear handy.

When I first received these - my favorite gardening gloves in the universe - I set them aside in a drawer.  Compared to my heavy-duty leather and canvas sets, they seemed ridiculously thin and impractical.  Smooth, white goat leather with a flimsy woven green hem.  They looked like something Martha Stewart might display on a shelf.  I don’t know how long they languished in the drawer.  I can’t remember the first time I decided to use them, but I do know that no glove ever matched up afterwards.  Like a person who needs bifocals, I needed two sets of hand protection.  I was constantly taking my bulky gloves off to handle the intricate plucking necessary in weeding.  The au natural manicure was staining my fingers and clogging my nails with Illinois topsoil.  I’m no princess, but I can do without the green fingers.  These gloves changed all that.  The thin goatskin allowed me to pinch and needle into the dirt like I’d never been able to do before. 

Years of watching nature videos and visiting petting zoos have taught me that goats are tough old biddies, even the young ones.  However, I mistakenly thought their brawn was concentrated in their rock-hard craniums.  Apparently other goat parts are tough too.  Their leather may be thin, but it’s like a forcefield for fingers.  It stood up to the aforementioned thorns, sharp tools and hazardous ‘discoveries’ like a champ.  When the seams finally started popping, I doctored them with duct tape sutures.  No way was I tossing these on account of a few holes.  They were irreplaceable. 

Last week, we were killing time at Menards while our gallon of satin latex was tinted ‘Sheet Metal’ gray (old houses = endless projects).  On a whim, I swung past the glove department to contemplate the next generation of hand protection.  The duct tape was beginning to give up and I knew the inevitable end was in sight.  Hanging beneath a $10 price tag was a glowing white pair of goat gloves with a flimsy green woven hem.  I blinked.  Was I dreaming?  The sound of my children arguing over cart-pushing privileges confirmed that this was indeed reality.  I swooped my ten dollar prize into the cart and broke up the squabbling offspring.  There was no time for arguing.  There was barely enough time to pick up the paint.  The archeological dig was calling and I was ready for it.  

Monday, June 3, 2013

This Week in Our Garden

Cilantro seeds sprouted.

Basil babies went from cotyledons...

...to true leaves.  I can almost taste the pesto.

Tall, dark and handsome edged

 Along with his canine sidekick...

Mama sported her mohawk.  
Nothing like a crimson tinge to show it off.

I rolled back a carpet of Creeping Charlie.

And the mulching is almost done.
Thanks to Snider's nursery!

A few happy bloomers
Carolina Lupine

Pink Lemonade Honeysuckle,
Siberian Iris and Catmint


And the hummingbirds FINALLY discovered our Centranthus. 

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