Small Miracles

Yesterday when I was walking the yard, I noted a huge number of tiny red bugs (only slightly larger than pinheads) hanging around in clumps on the ground around the cactus and milkweed. I’m pretty sure they’re tiny box elder bugs. I am not particularly fond of box elder bugs and thought of spraying them with vinegar, but decided to let it go. They don’t bite or sting, and so far the numbers have been manageable, so I decided to wait and see.

Today when I went to check, they were gone. But I noticed that only for a moment, because my attention was captured by a yellow flower. Flowers. My prickly pear cactus is blooming! There are four flowers. But I think there might be a lot more (maybe 20!) to come—holy guacamole, the cactus is really taking off! The transplants from last year have all taken hold, and the transplants from this year are holding their own.

These are the things we do in Minnesota for entertainment. (Okay, maybe just a few of us. A lot of Minnesotans don’t even know that Minnesota is home to three kinds of cactus.) It gets so melty droopy in the winter, I am certain it won’t come back, but then it does.

June seems to be full of little miracles like this. Before I had any expectations or had even done a trimming, the rosebush produced a brilliant flame, stopping me in my tracks on the way out the door.

The lemon balm is flourishing (excellent with catnip as a sleep aid) and I must pick soon so I will get a second crop. The lemongrass that I got from a neighbor is also taking hold nicely (another good sleep aid). In fact, all of the plants that I either potted or planted seem to be doing quite well.

Yesterday I got a package in the mail. Several weeks ago, I asked my California friend if she had any fresh sage on hand. I had used up my winter store, and my sage plants were barely starting to come back. She did indeed have sage, but had just sent off a package (which included eucalyptus, which is even better than sage since I can’t grow it here) but she said she would include it next time.

A bit of time goes by and my sage plants are growing and turning green. But then they aren’t. They have been decimated by tiny bugs. I am heartbroken (perhaps an overstatement; annoyed might be more accurate). And then I get a package from my friend, and it is filled with sage. An abundance of sage. An embarrassment of sage. Baskets of sage. She is wise, my friend. Good timing.

Merely another June miracle.

The butterfly weed is coming up in the front yard (it will attract both monarch and swallowtail butterflies when it flowers). But the swamp milkweed in that same plot shows no sign of return (it was pretty weak last year after two years of attacks by swamp milkweed beetles; yes, there is a beetle specifically targeted to the swamp milkweed—nature is amazing, no?). But on the other hand, I noticed today five common milkweed plants in the side yard that I swear weren’t there yesterday (of course they must have been). A pleasant surprise.

I’ve found two odd plants growing in the side yard—they are about to flower, and I’ve no idea what they are. Flowers? Weeds? Or, perhaps, medicinal herbs (which could be in either of the aforementioned categories)? I need to wait a few more days to find out.

The currants are just starting to turn red. The peonies are done—done in by a rainstorm that came through just as they were peaking. This is the risk with peonies. Happily, a mere day or two before the storm, I asked a friend if she wanted to take some home with her (I can’t have them in the house because they are poisonous to cats), and she was happy to take a few. I like to think that maybe they’re still blooming.

End of Birding Frenzy; On to the Garden

May has turned into June, and my attention finally turns to gardening. While I was in the throes of birding in May, I thought perhaps I wouldn’t get any plants this year and merely tend the perennials. But then I remembered rosemary, and how much rosemary I use in so many things (cooking, of course, and I also add rosemary to many of my herbal concoctions—primarily for its taste and smell, but it also has some fine medicinal properties).

And my feverfew didn’t come back this year, which surprised me mightily. It was growing like a weed last year, even in the sidewalk cracks. This year, both the front and back are missing their feverfew. Rabbits? I do have (at least) two rabbits that spend a goodly amount of time in the yard. Mostly they seem to eat grass, dandelion, plantain, and clover. I wonder if they also favor feverfew.

So yesterday I went to the neighborhood plant store, and I got the rosemary (3) and feverfew (2—hoping it spreads like a weed again). And then I ran across the chamomile. I had decided not to grow chamomile this year—a lot of harvesting of those tiny flowers in the end didn’t even fill a pint jar. But I saw it on the shelf and I did the dangerous thing; I picked it up and smelled it. I smelled it and was back to the wonderful feeling I had while I was harvesting the chamomile last year. Also, homegrown chamomile even dried—no, especially dried—smells so much better than any I’ve found at a co-op or herb store.

So I bought the chamomile. And then I ran across parsley, and parsley (especially curly parsley) is one of my favorite things to eat right from the garden. It has always tasted like bright freshness to me and I believe it has the power to completely change one’s mood or viewpoint around.

So I got two parsley plants (one curly, one traditional—for research on my mood/viewpoint hypothesis).

And then I realized I really needed thyme. Not a lot, but especially for cooking, it’s nice to have a thyme plant. A thyme plant is added to the cart.

I had not planned to buy calendula. I had specifically decided not to buy calendula, as I still have a goodly amount left from last year, plus my herbal friend in California sent me even more. But then I saw the plants, and they have such bright orangey flowers, and they are so happy-making in the backyard. (Also very good for soothing the skin.) I thought getting only two was a good compromise.

I also got a bright red geranium to sit by the back door (this was in my original plan, even before the rosemary was added to the list). There is something about a geranium that makes me smile. I’m not sure if it’s the color, the smell, or its splashy sassiness. But really, now I think about it, I think I love the red geranium because it’s my mom’s favorite flower. So add a bit of love and tradition to that splashy sassiness.

I’m happy to report that nearly all of the plants have been planted, with just three left for tomorrow. I’m even happier to report that I’m ever-so-glad I changed my mind about the plants. Getting my hands in the dirt, working with the plants, the smells, the textures—oh yes. Why did I think I didn’t want to do this? I get to water and harvest and talk to my plants all summer.

I haven’t given up birding, just to be clear. I still have the binoculars on the table beside me. It’s just that now, a few other things can take up more room inside my brain. And June is for the garden.

Early Summer Harvest

Summer officially arrived last week, and I’ve now had my first official harvest of summer, small though it may be. Yesterday the blueberries started to peak. Last year I got about three blueberries (first year of the plants). Yesterday I harvested 10, and several more today. I expect I may get at least 30 blueberries this year. I find this trend (can it be a trend with only two data points?) very encouraging and plan to add one or two more blueberry plants to the patch. Perhaps in a few years I’ll get a few pints of blueberries.

But I have to say this: Even bringing in just 10 blueberries, grown in my ownimgres yard, is a fine feeling.

I’ve also harvested my first round of yarrow, and maybe a dozen calendula flowers. The calendula are just starting to come in strong, and soon I’ll need a basket rather than my hand to hold the blossoms. (I always feel a little like Morticia Addams when I snip off the brightly blooming flower.)

The hops are finally starting to hop. They’ve been growing and spreading marvelously, and finally today I saw the first incipient hop flower. Yes! The hops are coming! I have grown quite enamoured of hops—primarily as a sleep aid. (Wake up at 2:30 in the morning and can’t get back to sleep? Try a wee bit of hops tincture.) Hops are also good for aiding digestion and queasy stomachs, and they can produce a calming effect in a highly anxious state. A lovely plant that I have found unbelievably easy to grow.

The currants are also in harvest mode. Happily, the birds have left me enough this year to enjoy (last year, they completely beat me to it). Currants fresh off the bush are exceptionally good with rye bread, cheese, and olives.

Slightly off the harvesting theme: My prickly pear cactus flowered last week! It has never flowered before (I’ve had it about five years)—they were beautiful yellow flowers. I saw two of them, but in the end I saw there had been five. This is a lesson to me: Pay attention when the cactus blossoms; it all happens within just a very few days. This is an exceptional and beautiful thing. You can’t put it off to the weekend.

But that’s the thing about this time of year. Everything is happening. An embarrassment of lushness, so much fecundity, it is impossible to appreciate it all. Every moment. Every moment something miraculous is happening.

Tonight I was watching the bees on the hydrangeas. First I saw the large bumblebees, then smaller bees, then other pollinators that looked more like flies. For most of my life I’ve been unreasonably freaky-afraid of bees. Tonight as I was watching the bees on the hydrangea, they clearly had no interest in me. They were all about the flower. And the patterns were so interesting, and I kept leaning in closer and closer, quite proud of myself for acknowledging how unconcerned these bees were about me. When one of the larger bees left the bush to fly around my head I took little notice, knowing it would shortly return to the flowers.

Except I was wrong. It did not return to the flowers. I stepped back a couple of feet, knowing it would return to the flowers then. Wrong again. I kept stepping back, it kept following me. Circling me. Possibly darting at me. My old fear returned, and I ran to the house.

But I’ll go back tomorrow. There were so many different bees, I want to pay more attention. I like to know what’s in my backyard.

April Reprise

The rhubarb is ready to pick. The lilacs are starting to bloom. The catnip is a major personality in the herb garden, and the lemon balm is most decidedly coming back this year (last year was pretty iffy). Both sage plants are in full green and growing, and the raspberries seem intent on marching through the yard. I confess I cannot stop them. I will happily take a detour to allow the rampant raspberry.

Bookishly, I read 10 books in April. Another month heavy on nonfiction (5 of 10; 3 fiction; 2 poetry). The book I loved most was Plant Dreaming Deep, by May Sarton (memoir). I’ve read several of Sarton’s journals in higgledy-piggledy order, but this is a memoir and a prelude to the journals. I’m hoping to read all of them (in order) in the next year or so. Sometimes things call, and these books are calling to me.

My major reading accomplishment, though, was finishing The Bully Pulpit, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Thank goodness I was reading this with a couple of friends, or I doubt I would have made it to the end. It’s about Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, as well as the journalists of the time (and most notably Ida Tarbell). I certainly learned a lot reading it, but I wasn’t as engaged as I have been with some of her earlier works (most notably Team of Rivals, featuring Abraham Lincoln). We all heaved a sigh of relief at our last discussion and decided to stay away from books with political themes for the foreseeable future.

One of the best things about April is the ongoing influx of migrating birds. I added 30 birds to my year list, including a variety of ducks, but also Eastern Bluebird, Golden Eagle, Pileated Woodpecker, Great-Horned Owl, and American Pelican. Of these, both the pileated and the pelican were seen from my yard, giving me a fairly respectable yard list this year. The pelicans were not new to my yard list, but this is the first time I have seen so many. They were kettling high in the sky—I only ran across them because I was scanning treetops with my binoculars and there they were. My other notable sighting for the month was a Belted Kingfisher. These are not uncommon in Minnesota, but I saw not a single one last year, so I was exceedingly pleased to see one a couple weeks ago, and not far from my house at that!

In the herb world, a few weeks ago my herbal friend in California sent me a hot rub that was so effective on the arthritis in my foot that I decided to have a go at making my own Minnesota version. It includes hops, chamomile, rosemary, cayenne, and turmeric. Half is macerating in grapeseed oil and half in canola oil. I am just starting to experiment with different carrier oils (up until now, I’ve used olive oil almost exclusively). It won’t be ready to decant for a couple of weeks, and in the meantime I decided to try another version, with minced ginger (along with chamomile, cayenne, and turmeric) and this went in olive oil. I will have much to compare and contrast in a month or so. Warning: If you make your own version of this, do wash your hands immediately after application and keep away from eyes and sensitive tissues. The cayenne can cause serious discomfort!

Cooking was not a high priority in April but I did have one quite excellent cooking experience. I was at a neighborhood restaurant and noticed orzo-tangelo-thyme salad on the menu. It looked delicious and I decided to try making it at home—it seemed so simple. And it was! Take some cooked orzo, add some zest from a tangelo (I couldn’t find a tangelo so I used a tangerine)—enough to add some pretty color but not to overwhelm. Add as much juice from the tangelo as you like to the salad, until it reaches a pleasing consistency. (I only used a cup of cooked orzo, and added the juice of half a tangerine—next time I will make a much larger batch!) Add fresh chopped thyme.

(Note: If chopping fresh herbs stymies you because the herbs always bend instead of getting cut by the knife, you probably need a sharper knife. I had completely given up on chopping fresh herbs with a knife and tore them up by hand for years, until a few months ago I invested in a fairly decent and small chef’s knife. The smaller knife fits better in my hand, and whether it’s the control or the sharpness of the knife, when I tried chopping the fresh thyme with this knife, it was like magic.)

Add enough thyme so the salad has a nice mix of orange and green. Taste, of course, and add more thyme as desired. Mix all together and serve with pretty much anything. It worked equally well with pork roast and sausages, and also makes a fine light lunch on a hot day.

My haiku postcard project continues. April highlights:

the nice sunny day
turns into a short blizzard
April’s lion side

not a house sparrow
skittering in the dogwoods
white-throated sparrow!

Plus the occasional tanka:

such a loud drumming
pileated woodpecker
I couldn’t find it
until it flew from the tree
so big yet so elusive

Happy reading, happy birding, happy spring. Is there a better time to be alive?

Garden Update with Cactus

We’re still having an early spring. Today I was in the back yard without a jacket, sometimes reading, sometimes watching birds, and sometimes poking at the garden.

I KNOW you are not supposed to do anything gardening related in March in Minnesota, but I did take the piled-up leaves off the rhubarb again (I had covered it back up a few days ago when we got a bit of a snowstorm). And I cut back the dead catnip from last year to clear it out, the better to let this year’s crop come in. And coming in it is—several little clumps already a couple of inches high. With a few more sunny days, they could double in size. This would make my cat very happy, my catnip-loving cat who doesn’t understand why I don’t have fresh catnip for him every time I walk in the door.

The other thing I did was an experimental cactus transplant. Parts of my (prickly pear) cactus are getting a bit overlappy with the sidewalk, never a good thing where a cactus is involved. I clipped two pads off, and set them down in the rocky soil a few feet away. Nothing I could find online indicated that this would work, but I wanted to try it since I had seen the cactus itself doing this (though it was still attached to the plant, which is kind of a major caveat). We will see. I’m not even sure why I’m propagating this cactus. I think it’s mostly just that I so much love the idea of a cactus that is native to Minnesota.

But wait. This cactus is edible. Both the flowers and the pads. Since I’ve never seen mine flower, I don’t think I’ll wait for that. But I do think I will try eating the pads. Even on the one plant I have, the pads can get quite large—a substantial contribution to a meal. They are supposed to taste like mild lemon. They have a sort of gel-like consistency (perhaps like aloe vera?). How would you use that in cooking? With potatoes? Carrots? Asparagus? Deep fried on a stick?

At any rate, there are very few year-round edibles in Minnesota (though these cacti do look quite puny and melted in winter), so the fact that they are edible, in addition to providing a potential barrier to the raccoons that seem to love that south wall as a latrine (plus the fact that I can’t get anything else to grow in this space) has convinced me to work towards a prickly pear cactus garden on the south side of the house.

Other garden notes: The dogwoods are just starting to bud and I think the lilacs are nearly leafing. The currant bush has buds, as does the rosebush. Tiny buds. The feverfew is back, and I was happy to see the bit I transplanted to the front (can’t allow the feverfew to encroach on the rhubarb!) has taken hold quite nicely. The coming weeks will tell if the transplanted comfrey is doing as well.

Is there anything to be heard outdoors these days over the singing of the cardinals? They are so loud and so numerous sometimes I’m surrounded by chorus (in a happy singing way, not in an Alfred Hitchcock The Birds way). But I did hear something other than the cardinals after all: the first mourning dove of the season. I haven’t seen one yet, but I know they’re here.

This is one of the most magical times of the year. You never know what will show up next.


I went to my precinct caucus last night—it was a lot of fun. (Mostly.) In Minnesota, both parties bucked the national trend: Democrats’ choice for president was Sanders (62% vs. 38% for Clinton) while the Republicans’ candidate of choice was Rubio (37%) over Trump (21%). I kind of like that we march to a different drum.

I was at the Democratic caucus. It was held at a nearby high school and each precinct met in a different room. Most people (including us) didn’t know our precinct number so that caused a bit of a jam at the door. Once we got inside, we found our room and took a seat. There were 32 desks and it looked to be maybe a third-grade classroom. We arrived about 15 minutes early and there were plenty of desks available. We were suprised by how uncrowded it was. All we had to do was wait.

It turned out 275 people showed up for our precinct. The first thing you do (after signing in) is vote for your presidential candidate of choice. A lot of people left right after voting, but a good number of us stayed around for the resolution portion and it was standing room only. I was glad we got there early!

I have been to caucuses where the resolutions go on and on (and sometimes verge on the silly) but the ones presented last night were pretty good, and many of them passed unanimously or nearly so: restore voting rights to felons once they’re released from prison; remove the Social Security tax ceiling; support urban agriculture; mandatory GMO labeling; reduce the use of toxic chemicals in our parks; a six-point plan to help struggling pollinator species; invest some of our environmental dollars to buy land preserving wild rice habitat; invest in policies and strategies to reduce homelessness; divest the state pension fund from investments in fossil fuels; and require all Democratic candidates to sign a pledge saying they will not accept campaign contributions from Monsanto (I personally would have added Syngenta and Cargill, but singling out Monsanto is not such a bad idea since they are so very keen on their neonicotinoids).

A not-quite contentious discussion arose around a resolution to increase funding for treatment of ash trees (we’re having emerald ash borer problems here). An amendment to not use systemic insecticides (which make the entire tree poisonous to critters that eat, live in, land on, or otherwise use ash trees) was introduced. I learned quite a bit about ash trees and their future, and also systemic insecticides. Eventually the insecticide amendment was added and the resolution passed.

The only resolution that I can remember not passing was for legalizing marijuana for recreational use and allowing people to grow their own. I am heartily in favor of this, as marijuana has great medicinal properties as an herb. A lot of people in the room were in favor of legalizing pot, but the rub was the method: an amendment to our state constitution. I asked if there wasn’t a better route (I hate amending the constitution willy nilly, and a few others had a similar concern). I think I voted for it, even with the constitutional amendment aspect, but I was a little relieved when it didn’t pass (it was close though).

We wrapped up a little after 9:00. It was a good way to spend an evening: I learned a lot, met some of my near neighbors, and got to see which issues we are pretty unanimous about and which are a little more contested. I forget how invigorating it can be to hear different viewpoints and sides. I signed up to be an alternate delegate (I did this once before, and it was a little bit scary and a little bit fun). We’ll see where it goes this time. I’m good with scary but fun.


Birds, Bees, and Bee Balm

Bee3I was out harvesting herbs today, and foraging in the bee balm (aka wild bergamot) was the largest bee I’ve ever seen. It was about the size of my thumb—bigger around, though not quite as long. It was at least 1.5 inches long, possibly closer to 2 inches. I looked in Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm and thought at first it might be a carpenter bee. But I went outside and took another look, and the abdomen was not black like the carpenter bee. I am stumped and have written to Ms. Holm to see if she can help me out. I hope to hear back! (She responded to a query once before, so there is precedent!)

I know we are facing a bee/pollinator shortage, but you couldn’t tell it from the bee balm. Or the hydrangeas, for that matter. Mostly bumblebees. Lots of bumblebees. Also lots of cabbage white butterflies. Honeybees, not so much. I’ve seen several monarch butterflies, and many many eastern tiger swallowtails, but only one mourning cloak butterfly. (I am just learning butterflies. I can identify perhaps 10 of them so far.)

TRKI_fullLast weekend I went birding at Murphy Hanrahan Park, my first visit. There had been sightings of a Tropical Kingbird for a couple of weeks, and I was hoping to add it to my lifelist. The location of the bird in the park was quite consistent (very helpful). I was with a couple of other birders in the Tropical Kingbird vicinity and we just sat at a picnic table and waited. Waited. Waited. A couple of false alarms (ooops, Eastern Kingbird, common in Minnesota in summer). And then, there it was! Way at the top of a cottonwood tree. This was quite a ways off, and so we started moving closer (you can hardly count it as a lifebird if you don’t see it well enough to identify it!), until finally we got some really good views, most especially of the bright yellow on the underparts. Beautiful. And so far out of range! Tropical Kingbirds mostly hang out in South America and Mexico and are occasionally seen in Texas and Arizona. Not a typical Minnesota sighting!

hummerThe other unusual thing of the day was the number of stationary hummingbirds that I saw. Almost always I see hummingbirds flying around, but on this day, they were mostly perched on the top branches of small trees, and a few on electrical wires. I saw nine of them. Not one of them was flying.

And loons! I did not see them, but I heard them. (That was odd too. We were sitting hoping for the kingbird, not a drop of water to be seen. And then we hear loons. I see loons much more often than I hear them, so the eerie but beautiful wail was an extra treat. But it was odd to hear them and look around and see only grass and trees!)

herbsThe garden harvest is in full swing. I’m picking chamomile almost every day. Today I harvested rosemary, sage, mullein, plantain, and thyme. These I will be drying for use over the winter. The raspberries are coming in, and most of them are going to the birds. But I usually find a few to eat while I’m picking the chamomile. I’ve got several tomatoes (though they are all still rather small and green) and lots of blossoms for future tomatoes.

July: I hate the heat but I love the harvest.