Friday, November 27, 2015

Everything looks better with a little snow on it

Even a much-neglected garden takes on new charm when graced with a coating of snow.

Like the red-twigged dogwood, which was made for this time of year. I love how the switchgrass, behind it, looks in winter too. I have seen juncos when there was lots of snow, hopping up to peck at those grass seeds, shaking many of them free in the process, and then eating them off of the surface of the snow.

I've also seen chickadees eating the seeds from old-fashioned garden phlox, which I never would have thought of as a wildlife-friendly plant.

Here's my one lone rose hip. A few had formed, but I only spotted one now.

And the crabapples, which will dwindle over the winter, as they feed the squirrels and robins and even, if we're lucky again this year, a flock of cedar waxwings.

I planted the dogwood in part so that I could gather my own twigs for decorative displays, and it is now plentiful enough to need pruning in the fall anyway. The crabapple also needs pruning, so I combined cuttings from those, plus a few sprigs of juniper and some black-eyed Susan, and took advantage of the recent thaw to push them into the two urns in the front. I wrapped the still-green ivy and other trailing plants around the bottom. I don't know how those will look when it gets cold enough to finish them off, but for now, anyway, I like it.

I also took the extra chance that Mother Nature gave me to get my 40 tulips and 40 daffodils all planted. With a generous mulch of leaves to cover them, they should be able to get in a little root growth before the ground freezes. Even more to look forward to in the spring!

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Early October Garden Tour

Mums with licorice vine (Dichondra) and English ivy
I could say that I've been neglecting this blog because I've been busy taking care of my garden. But I haven't. Fortunately, my garden mostly thrives on benign neglect. Unfortunately, so do the weeds. (Blogs, on the other hand, don't seem to care one way or the other.)

Despite that, I've got some lovely things happening all around my neglected garden. Here are a few highlights, starting with the front.

The yellow-orange mums in the little concrete urn that sits atop the steps at the sidewalk have perked up nicely a day after I discovered them all droopy because I hadn't been watering them. (A hazard when you've had abundant rainfall all season -- you forget to water things when it stops!)

And now that the coralberry is starting to change color, I see that the leaves are a perfect match for the potted mum. I may have to move the pot to the other side so they don't get lost in the matching background, but I do rather like the hints of harmonious color at this stage.

Native coralberry (Symphoricarpos), with potted mums in the background

My hardy mums, planted in the ground near a dwarf Korean spruce, are a handsome bold red. Now there's some contrast for you.

Hardy mums in front of a dwarf spruce

Meanwhile in the backyard, the Prairie Fire crabapple is looking fabulous, and a few of the leaves are starting to turn, offering a hint of the show to come. The fruit generally lasts through the winter, depending on how hungry the squirrels are. A couple of years ago I had a delightful surprise when a flock of cedar waxwings filled the branches one spring afternoon and pretty much picked it clean. What a show that was! 

Prairie Fire flowering crabapple
Under this tree is a fairly large concrete birdbath, next to which I planted annual white salvia, which the bees have been enjoying this summer. 

Annual salvia, with lady's mantle in the upper left and the base of my birdbath in the upper right

And over in the corner by the garage and a "rocket" juniper, is the English lavender that has proven to be quite hardy in Minneapolis (USDA zone 4a). 

It even survived the polar vortex winter of a couple of years ago. We rake leaves on top of all the gardens but otherwise don't do anything extra to protect it. 

I've found that it's best to cut it back pretty severely in the spring and it'll send up lots of new growth. It starts blooming about midsummer and keeps going into fall. 

 This is Lavandula angustifolia, I'm pretty sure.

Over by the "kitchen garden," which is enclosed by a blue picket fence, are some bright marigolds mingling with the yarrow I transplanted to this spot after removing a diseased aster. I kind of figured that the disease, which looked like some sort of bacterial leaf spot, was in the soil in that spot, so I figured the yarrow and the marigold are unrelated enough to not be susceptible to the same disease. Neither appears to have been affected.

And when I was photographing the marigolds, I made the happy discovery of what I believe to be a sunflower bee (Svastra obliqua) -- it looks much like a large honeybee or small bumblebee, and is often mistaken for one or the other. But its size is in between those two, and its abdomen is more distinctly striped than the bumblebees that frequent my yard (Bombus impatiens, which have mostly black abdomens without stripes).

A closer look at the bee on the marigold

And just beyond that, the cosmos tumbling over the fence is hosting a Bombus impatiens.

Oh, and I mustn't forget the Henry Hudson roses, which are loving the cool fall weather. In fact, they retain a little more of the hint of pink now that the sun isn't shining so intensely on them.

And since I stopped deadheading it after early August, it has started to form the cherry red hips that Rugosa roses are known for. 

So there's your garden tour for early October. I'll take you on a little tour again later this fall  after the leaves are showier. 

And in the meantime, I'll have to get out and do some weeding, and planting --  I've got bulbs to plant! I ordered a whole bunch of them from John Scheeper's and they just arrived a few days ago. Time to get busy.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

A wild rose is a welcome volunteer in my garden

 Last year, a mystery rose plant showed up in one of my gardens. It wasn't far from the last spot where I had transplanted my ill-fated Apothecary's rose (Rosa gallica officinalis), which had managed to produce a blossom or two before it died, and I thought had set hips (seed capsules). The mystery rose was also near the downspout where the local chipmunk often hides, and not far from the bird feeder. This combination of factors led me to wonder -- and hope -- that it was my Apothecary's rose come back, with a little help from some hungry critter. 

I transplanted the volunteer to a better spot and put a support around it and waited for blossoms to form so I could confirm its identity. Not surprisingly, it did not bloom in its first year. I did occasionally wonder if I was mistaken and perhaps it wasn't a rose at all, mainly because of an absence of thorns on much of the plant; but a closer look confirmed that it had thorns on the central stem, and I was sure that ruled out members of the pea family that might have similar-looking leaves.

So when several buds formed in early June this year, I was watching. When the first one opened up it was a pale pink single flower with just five petals. Apothecary's rose is described as semi-double, meaning it has more than five petals, and is a dark pink/light red color. This flower made me think of a wild rose, so I did a little research.

As it turns out, my volunteer is a native wild rose, Rosa blanda, called variously meadow rose, smooth wild rose (for its lack of thorns), and several regionally specific names like Hudson's Bay or Labrador rose, which may give you a sense of its hardiness. In fact, it is native to nearly all of northeastern North America.

Its sweet simple blossoms are very pollinator friendly, and seem to be especially popular with these hover flies, which are beneficial not only as pollinators, but also as predators of aphids and other soft-boded garden pests. I noticed a few different bees on the blossoms, as well.

And when it's done blooming, it's still an attractive ornamental plant, forming bright cherry red hips in late summer and colorful foliage in fall. The birds like the hips, and some people do, too, although I've never tried them. Perhaps this will be the year I try rose hip tea or jelly.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Useful Calendar Part 2: Dragons and Robbers

I wrote about the origins of the Useful Calendar, and why I call it that, in this post yesterday. Today I'll finish the story.

The Useful Calendar Goes International

Once I started selling the calendar on Etsy, I shifted from a hyper-local focus and made it into an international calendar. It now includes all US federal holidays and many international observances, as well as important holidays of the world’s major religions. 

Each year it seems that I discover some holiday or observance I haven't included before that I feel I should add, either because it's from a country that I see as on an equal footing with others I've chosen to include (if the Belgian National Day, why not the Swiss?), or because I find it to be a delightful occasion and think others will too (such as the Japanese Doll Festival). Depending on when these occur, I may drop something else to fit it in (July and August almost always have room; February and March are always crowded). 

2012: The Year of the Dragon and a Bigger Calendar

A few years ago, my husband suggested that I make the one-page poster version larger, so I made it tabloid-size (11 x 17 inches) in 2012. 

It was the year of the dragon, and with our own bankruptcy and foreclosure still fresh in my mind—stemming from the failure of the Observer in 2006— and knowing that so many others had been through a similar experience what with the recent real estate bust, I drew my dragon as a (mortgage) banker in a blue suit. It was sort of my own little inside joke.

The 2012 calendar—the year of the dragon—at twice the size of the 2011 edition

And since I had a little extra space in January, I added a quote from Patricia Wrede's book, Talking to Dragons: "Always be polite to dragons."

Design Innovations Spurred by a Robbery

My approach to designing these has been pretty much haphazard and jury-rigged, using Adobe's Illustrator program when InDesign is better suited to the task. But in 2012, when I was nearly finished with the 2013 edition, I got an opportunity to start fresh with an InDesign template created by my friend, Marsha Micek, a professional graphic designer. 

The impetus for this improvement was the theft of my computer (and my husband's) along with our backup drive in October 2012. I had to start all over again, including re-entering all of the data and text, at a point when I should have been printing it out for a craft show that weekend. I cancelled my part in the show and spent the next couple of weeks scrambling to reconstruct the calendar with Marsha's excellent (and patient) guidance, in order to get it ready for another craft show in early November.

The 2013 not-quite-so-useful calendar, with July starting a day late and ending a dollar short!

The new template worked great, but in my haste, and being more than a little flustered, I completely messed up the month of July, starting it a day late and giving it only 30 days (the second mistake kept me from screwing up the months that followed, however). My husband discovered the error a few months into the year. He thought it was amusing, but I was mortified. How can I call it the "useful" calendar when a mistake like that?

In this year, I stopped circling and naming the full moons and instead did some drawings of the moon phases to use across the bottom of each month. I did this to add another graphic element to the design, as well as to provide a little more moon phase information for those who were looking for that sort of thing.  

I obsessively checked and double-checked the 2014 edition, and discovered no embarrassing errors in that one, though I do recall some minor errors I found and fixed after I thought it was done.

After my daughter graduated from college and completed a 6-month internship at Experience Life magazine, I realized that I had access to a skilled proofreader, and asked her to read the 2015 edition. She was very thorough and caught some spelling irregularities and inconsistencies that had existed for a few years, plus my placing of Cinco de Mayo in March. I like to think I would have caught that one myself before printing it. 

I had been doing a few sketches of sheep for this year's calendar when I learned that some people called it the year of the goat. That led me to do a little more research, and some goat drawings, and to then work this dichotomy into the calendar design, along with a brief explanation about it, because, you know—Arty Didact. 

I wrote about the goat/sheep year confusion here earlier this year.

Calendrical Curiosities and Serendipities

Among the things I enjoy about creating this calendar each year are the serendipitous discoveries I make during the research phase, such as the Japanese Doll Festival that I mentioned above. So many of these holidays have interesting stories behind them that I wish I had room to say something more about them without sacrificing the functionality of the calendar.

A few years ago, I started putting notes on the backs of the cards to offer a little bit of explanation, especially for those holidays that I thought most of my audience would be unfamiliar with. Then I realized that the stories behind even familiar holidays are often forgotten, so I mixed it up a bit, changing some of the occasions for which I offer explanatory notes from one year to the next, and introducing some calendrical trivia where I had room (August, mostly). 

The 2015 calendar cards, showing the notes on the backs of March and September

This has become my way of sharing the serendipitous pleasure of learning something new and interesting as you make your way through the year.

Of course, these little trading-card size calendar pages don't allow for much in the way of telling the stories behind holidays, and so I have often thought about introducing a third version of the calendar that would be a sort of zine, or an almanac, with short informative articles about calendar-related topics. And while I'm at it, why not provide space for people's own notes, like a planner? I played around with a prototype of this last year, but didn't have time to develop it further.

And so now, while my updated list of dates and events for the 2016 Useful Calendar is in the hands of my capable fact-checker, I am in the process of developing the new Useful Calendar-planner-almanac. And playing around with what to call it. Because Useful Almanac sounds even sillier than Useful Calendar. On the other hand, there's branding. 

So my current working prototype (really a couple of prototypes, this journal made with scratch paper being one) has multiple names. Or maybe one name followed by an explanatory subtitle.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Beginnings of the Useful Calendar. But, wait: Aren't All Calendars "Useful"?

I was getting ready to do a little show-and-tell about some design innovations I'm working on for the 2016 edition of the Useful Calendar, when it occurred to me that I should probably first give you a little background on this annual project of mine—the story behind it, and why I call it the "Useful Calendar."  It has changed quite a lot since I began it 10 years ago. 

The first Useful Calendar in 2006, and a few other early editions, on letter-size card stock (cartridge paper)

Introducing the Useful Calendar

I've been compiling the Useful Calendar since 2006, when it was a free promotional item for readers of the Minneapolis Observer, a monthly newspaper my husband and I used to publish. I had seen promotional calendars from other businesses, and felt that they weren't informative enough or convenient enough in format to be truly useful.

I included dates that I thought would affect planning, and put it all on one page, so that a person could glance at this calendar and quickly see not only the date of Easter, or day of the week for the 4th of July, but also major local events that can obstruct traffic and parking, and cultural events that a considerate person might want to know about so they don't plan a community potluck luncheon in the middle of Ramadan, for example.

At the same time, I did not want to clutter it with what I considered to be frivolous or promotional events, even those that promote worthy causes. So, no Coffee Day or cancer awareness, or even Black History Month. Because I wanted it to fit on a page and still be a readable font size.

And that's why I called it the Useful Calendar.

How a Calendar Led to an Etsy Shop 

Soon after I created the first Useful Calendar, the Observer went out of business. We then launched a much smaller publication called MOQ (Minneapolis Observer Quarterly), a literary zine about "exploring the bucolic city," and I continued to create the Useful Calendar under this new moniker and give it away to subscribers and others to promote the publication. Really, though, I made it because I found the calendar useful and I hoped others would too. It was too much work to create it only for myself.

In 2009, I also made it into a set of cards, because I really liked the idea of having a smaller, pocket-sized version of the calendar that I could keep in my purse. I made them the size of Artists' Trading Cards (ATCs, 2-1/2 x 3-1/2 inches), because I was into those at the time. I then designed and made a paper pocket to hold it, and laminated it with packing tape for durability. 

An assortment of pockets with the 2014 calendar cards
This innovation was, in truth, also all about me, and what I found useful and pleasing. But I truly hoped that others would think so, too.

So I launched an Etsy shop, which I called Arty Didact, reflecting the way I like to combine art and information (i.e., didactic art), the calendar being a primary example of that. I have steadily added many different products to my shop, to the point of it becoming rather too eclectic, but that's another story.

The 2011 version introduced the Chinese zodiac animal as a theme, and included a few planetary notes, plus made-up names for the full moon dates, which are circled.

When working on the 2011 edition, I was pondering what to illustrate the calendar with, when I hit upon the idea of using the Chinese zodiac animal. It was the year of the rabbit, and the drawing I did for that year's calendar soon became the iconic image for my Etsy shop.  

Just as selling the calendars led me to open an Etsy shop,  opening an Etsy shop changed who I was making the calendars for, which led to further changes in the focus and format.

Read the rest of the story here.

Friday, May 1, 2015

A fading tulip and a crying baby at Dogwood Coffee

I'm sitting at Dogwood Coffee on Lake Street admiring the fading orange tulip that's still standing tall exuding good-natured cheerfulness. A woman walks in holding a baby dressed in striped leggings and a brimmed hat, with a pacifier in its mouth that's not doing the job.

Unhappy baby is crying and fussing as Mom props him on her hip while standing at the counter. A man at a nearby table makes a face at the baby in an apparent attempt to cheer him up.

Baby screams and out drops the pacifier onto the floor.

Mom laughs as she picks up the pacifier and the man apologizes as the baby continues to cry loudly.

Mom explains that some people just set Baby off. Even her father has that affect.

Man offers to babysit some day. Mom laughs. Man laughs. Baby calms down.

Mom and now quiet baby go on their way.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Cabbages and deviled eggs

I wanted to play around with a bit of natural egg dyeing for Easter, but since I planned to make the whole batch into deviled eggs, it didn't really make sense to color the shells. Besides, the eggs I buy come with already colored shells.

Recalling how my Grandma Parker would dye the egg whites for the deviled eggs she served on Easter, I thought I would try that, using red cabbage, which is supposed to produce a robin's-egg blue color. I shelled the eggs after cooking, putting the whites in one bowl and setting the yolks aside in another.

Then I chopped up half a head of red cabbage, which filled a six-cup bowl, and added that to about 6 cups of water, brought it all to a boil and simmered it for about 15 minutes, until it made a dark purple liquid.

There's no need to add vinegar, because that's just to make the dye adhere to the shells. The whites will readily absorb the color without it. So I poured the liquid, chopped cabbage and all, over the whites, just enough to cover them, and put the leftover (there was quite a bit) in the refrigerator.

You can see one of the whites peaking up in the lower left
I left them in for about two hours. During that time I mixed up the yolks with mustard, mayonnaise and some chopped onions and spinach for the filling. When I removed the whites from the cabbage dye bath I found they had turned a rather deep denim blue. I probably could have left them for a shorter time. I placed them on paper towels to dry off a bit, then stored them in the fridge overnight to fill in the morning, just because that was more convenient for me. I thought they smelled a little bit like cooked cabbage the next morning, but that dissipated quickly once they were sitting on the platter uncovered.

I plan to experiment some with the leftover liquid. I immersed a few yards of natural (off-white) linen thread used for bookbinding, and got this silvery lavender color after about 3 or 4 hours .(I should do a better job of record keeping if I'm going to be doing experiments!)

I rinsed it thoroughly with cold water to set the dye, but won't worry about that too much, since nobody puts a handbound journal in the wash! But before I play around with this homemade dye and fabric, I'll be sure to do a little more research about mordants and such.

And I hope to have no waste — the leftover cooked cabbage is quite edible!

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Equinox sunset walk

Finally rousting myself from my winter sedentariness this past week, I started going for a walk in the morning before breakfast. This is not so ambitious as it probably sounds—I seldom eat breakfast before 10 a.m., and I seldom rise earlier than 8:30.

Nine-ish in the morning is really an excellent time for a walk this time of year, when the sun is fairly high and the air is warming up. The school buses have finished their rounds and the commuters have driven away and it's really pretty quiet around here.

I enjoy listening to the chatter of birds and observing the gradual greening of my neighborhood. It helps that my neighborhood borders on the Mississippi River and Minnehaha Falls.

Minnehaha Falls on March 16
But, I have arthritic knees, I'm overweight, and I'm out of practice—yes, walking is a practice, and subject to both good and bad habits, like everything else. So these walks have resulted in my knees hurting all day long, relieved only partially by the yoga I do afterwards, and the bike rides I take later on each day. They always recover by the next morning, so I figure it's a problem that will gradually get better as I continue to do it; especially as I start practicing Feldenkrais again, which I wrote about some time ago here. When I stopped my one-on-one lessons, I bought a set of CDs by Feldenkrais guru Russell Delman for practicing on my own, but until this week they sat largely untouched.

On Friday I decided I was tired of the day-long pain and skipped the morning walk. I did some yoga and had my usual bike ride of about 5 or 6 miles, with a stop at a coffee shop, of course (because bike riding is about the journey and the destination, for me). At suppertime I was commenting about how pleasant it was to not have pain all day.

But as I sat at the supper table looking out our west-facing windows, I was totally enchanted by the beautiful colors that were playing across the western sky. And then I remembered that it was the vernal equinox. So I decided to take a walk at sunset—an old-fashioned "evening constitutional," I told my husband—reasoning that I would only have pain for the evening and be recovered as usual by morning.

Looking west on East 46th Street at 7:11 p.m., Friday, March 20, 2015

I stopped while crossing East 46th Street to admire the perfect symmetry of the equinox sunset, and then continued on to the falls to take in the beauty and watch several Somali immigrants enjoying this stunning natural feature in the midst of our urban neighborhood.

Afterwards, I did a little yoga and then had a bath, massaging my knee a bit while it was immersed in the warm water. My knees didn't feel too bad after this, and, as usual, they were just fine in the morning.

Minnehaha Falls, about 7:20 p.m., March 20, 2015
I think I'll continue with the evening walks, and make time for my Feldenkrais "awareness through movement" lessons more regularly, and eventually resume the morning walks as well.

And when I go for a walk after supper, hubby washes the dishes. Maybe I should start doing the cooking more often.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Coffee and Virtuosity

Recently I became very curious about the word virtuoso.

I've always thought it had only one meaning—a gifted artist, usually a musician. But then I was reading a book about the history of coffeehouses, and in it, the author makes the argument that the reason coffeehouses caught on in 17th century England was because of the English virtuosi.

What? I could tell immediately that he wasn't talking about a bunch of really good violinists. 

In the introduction to The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse, author Brian Cowan, a professor of British history at McGill University in Montreal, Qu├ębec, writes:

"The crucial social legitimacy for both the coffee commodity and the coffeehouse was provided by the unique combination of a genteel virtuoso 'culture of curiosity' and a rapidly growing commercial world centered in London. ... Coffee culture began with virtuosity and quickly became an integral part of urban living."

Well. I wondered if that was some obscure meaning only known to scholars of 17th century English history.

As I continued to read the book, I was able to infer a sense of who these virtuosi were: men who liked to dabble in scientific experiments, but were not necessarily scientists themselves; who collected art and antiquities and exotic things and arranged them for display in cabinets of curiosities (a cabinet being, at that time, a small room); and who liked to hang out at coffeehouses to read newspapers, observe demonstrations, and engage in learned discussions, or at least make a pretense of doing so.  

Too bad there was no espresso in the 17th century. Imagine what they would have thought of latte art.

I have a few dictionaries

So I got to wondering if any of this was in my haphazard collection of dictionaries.  

Consider my dad's 1929 dictionary—the entry for virtuoso reads:
"1. one with a special knowledge of, or taste for, objects of art, curios, or the like; a collector; 2. one skilled in the technique of an art, esp. the art of music" (The Winston Simplified Dictionary. The John C. Winston Company, 1929)

virtuoso in The Winston Simplified Dictionary, 1929

I found some variation on that first meaning in seven or eight other dictionaries, dating from 1935 to the 1960s, with some adding a third meaning that included an interest in science. But notice this 1964 entry, which includes the science bit, but labels it obsolete:

"... 3. [obs.] a person learned in the arts and sciences; scholar; savant —SYN. see aesthete" (Webster's New World Dictionary. The World Publishing Company, 1964)

Webster's New World Dictionary, 1964

And then there's this simple, single meaning offered in a 1992 dictionary that I would not consider to be more abridged than the others (judging by its size):

"Someone very highly skilled in the technique of a fine art, esp. in the playing of a musical instrument" (New Webster's Dictionary and Thesaurus. Lexicon Publications, 1992)
And that made me think that perhaps the sense of the word as meaning a science dabbler and art collector, etc., had fallen out of use by the 1990s. Until I looked up virtuoso in an online dictionary,  which included the older definitions once again, even while labeling one of them obsolete.
Which leads me to a hypothesis: Perhaps the older meaning of virtuoso is making a comeback because of the renewed interest in the quirky obsessions of those virtuosi, with their cabinets of curiosities and their fascination with antiquities and art objects, as well as the aesthetically similar iconography of steampunk.
And coffeehouses. Which are almost as popular today as they were in 17th century London. 

Virtuosic latte art at Dogwood Coffee