Praying Mantis Explosion

One of our babies

My four children try weekly to chip away at the “no pets” policy in force in my home. For goodness sake, I have four children.  For how many more living things am I to be held responsible? I admit that I allowed a chink in my armor when the  fish came home from 1st grade. These free guppies have exhibited true resilience given that my now nine-year-old is responsible for cleaning the water weekly (more like monthly) and given that we tend to forget to make other arrangements when we go out of town. They’re survivors. Still I hold firm: no pets.

But what would you do in the following situation? Friday night, I was rearranging the furniture in my living room. (Wow. I just reread that sentence. Please give me a moment.) I glanced at the wall next to Jorge the ficus tree. It was covered with bugs. Fifty bugs? One hundred? Over a hundred bugs on my living room wall? My husband joined me in looking more closely and we realized that our living room had recently seen the delivery of a whole mess of baby praying mantises. They were about a quarter of an inch long and perfectly formed. The triangular head, the long stick body, the praying arms. Sure enough, I rifled through Jorge’s leaves and there it was, an empty praying mantis egg sack. Jorge summers in the garden and passes his winter cozy and warm inside with us. Cozy and warm + praying mantis egg sack = hatched praying mantis egg sack. Instead of incubating through the winter outside as nature intended, our babies were forced to hatch in January instead of May.

The hitchhiking egg sack

My husband and I had the same reaction. We can’t kill them, can we? It had been ingrained from both of our childhoods: praying mantises are precious. Let them be.   I rejoice to find a full fledged mama chowing down on the insects in my garden. The babies won’t survive outside now, in January. Can we keep them alive for four months until it’s warm enough? We can’t keep all of them, surely, but could we try for a small litter?

And so, we two anti-pet activists collected 8 of them and vacuumed up the rest. We put them in a jar with some celery and some ficus leaves. Then we got online to figure out how to keep them. (This all before we called the kids to take a look. Problematic, to be sure). Live bugs is what they need. Aphids, preferably, when they are in the infant stage. Where am I going to get aphids in January? We took the advice of a blogger in our  same predicament: we hung raw hamburger meat from a string and encountered no opposition. Reading further, other advice criticized the raw meat approach, pointing out that praying mantises are hunters and must practice their hunting skills if they are ever to survive in the wild. Oh boy, this is getting complicated.

Two trips to the pet store and a borrowed 10-gallon tank later, we have 10 (the kids caught two who were in hiding during the vacuum scourge) quickly growing, active miniature mantises. I finally found a meal that appealed. Flightless fruit flies. My four year old and I just spent 30 minutes watching the hunt.   Choosing entomological observation over television – a triumph. I’m afraid we might have to apply a rating system if we get these guys to the mating stage. Decapitation as a necessary part of the act. Brutal. And probably rated R for violence and some sexual content.

My friend from Germany says that praying mantis adults are sold as pets there for one hundred euros. I just found them online for the bargain basement price of $10 each. But even at that rate,  the praying mantises in my tank are worth $100. And the ones in my vacuum bag?? A grand, easy.

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On starting my fortieth year, and fall color.

I turned 39 yesterday. It was not terribly traumatic. I got my very own key lime pie, my very own Great Harvest Bread Company baguette, and a new Barefoot Contessa cookbook. (Remember last week when I said the end of daylight savings time was making me hungry? Someone around here was listening.)  I got to go out to dinner and the movies with friends, and I received hundreds of e-mails via Facebook . A good day all around.

An old high school friend asked, in his e-mail via Facebook, if this was indeed the “big one.” I thought about what my response should be.  Should I build myself up by putting him down? (No way, I’m WAY younger than you). Should I joke about the impending doom of turning forty?  (Not yet.  I have a year’s stay of execution). Should I bury my head in the sand and pretend it will never happen? (The big one? What’s that? I intend to be 39 forever.) And then I decided to borrow some words of wisdom from my younger brother. Why don’t I just copy and paste the email HE sent me for my birthday. “Happy Birthday, old bag.
You have a BIG one next year…but don’t forget that you’re now in your 40th year of life!”

Overlooking the “old bag” comment (David, all I have to say to that is:  59-28), I do like his inadvertent positive message. Today is the first day of my 40th year on this planet. Today should be the first day of one big celebration. Next year’s “big one” could be a depressing passage into middle age, or it could be the culmination of a great year of reflection and achievement and joy. This is what I choose.

Okay – so why all the fall foliage pictures? Decidedly NOT as a metaphor for entering the autumn of my years. That really would be depressing. No, they are there because they make me happy. The foliage has been gorgeous in Philadelphia this fall. Is it the angle of the sun this time of year that makes the sky bluer, the greens greener and the trees phenomenally gorgeous?   My kids and neighbors think I’ve truly gone round the bend as I frequently park my car in the middle of the street to jump out with my camera.

I even love it when the leaves fall. They paper the streets with beauty and uncover the bones of the trees. It’s like having new sculptures installed in my neighborhood every day. And the trees unveil themselves in such perfect succession – some have been bare for weeks, others  still hang on to every leaf, waiting to make a grand entrance right before Thanksgiving.

So, I will celebrate the transition from fall to winter and I will celebrate the transition from 39 to 40.  I think I’ll start right now by making some dinner from my new cookbook. Yum.

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Book Review: “52 Loaves” by William Alexander

I’ve been cooking up a storm lately. Beet and carrot salad last night, a new pasta sauce tonight, homemade pizza for tomorrow. I blame it on the end of daylight savings time. All this darkness makes me hungry. What better time than now to read a book all about baking bread?

Before I start talking about Bill Alexander’s new book, 52 Loaves: One Man’s Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning and a Perfect Crust, I must stop and ask if you’ve read his first book, The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden. Have you read it? If your answer is no, stop right now, open a new tab on your internet browser, go to Amazon or Barnes and Noble or your favorite indie book store and order it. It’s a fabulously funny and well written memoir on the trials and joys of building a new garden, from negotiating with the gorgeous young landscape designer to battling a devious woodchuck to harvesting, finally, that precious, perfect brandywine tomato.

Okay, now assuming that you’ve either read this first memoir or that it is on its way to you via UPS, I will move on to his second book, 52 Loaves. (Forgive me. No subtitle this time). Not being much of a baker myself, I picked this book up on the strength of his gardening memoir. Now, I want to be a baker. Alexander decides to spend a year trying to recreate the perfect loaf of “peasant bread” that he tasted in a she-she New York restaurant. As year progresses, he grows, harvests and grinds his own wheat. He mines the expertise of well known bakers around the world. He bakes bread in a monastery in France and a communal oven in Morocco. He builds his own wood-fire clay oven. He educates about the history of bread, the chemistry of bread, the cultural significance of bread, the love of bread.

I spent about a week reading this book, and my quality of life experienced a boost during that time. I felt, as much as learning tons about bread, that I looked through a window into another life. It’s a pretty normal life, just with ambitious interests and a great writing voice. Alexander writes, but also has a real job, a family, a house to take care of, a garden to tend. And he responds to e-mail! I know that facebook and e-mail and twitter have made the world small and connections easy, but it is still pretty amazing to look up an address on a website, send an e-mail (Hi Bill, Liked your book), and then get a response the next day (Hi Kelly, Glad you enjoyed it.). There is still something for me about a published author that seems mysterious and distant and beyond my reach. I’m not going to lie: that personal interaction thrilled me. My kids thought it was cool too, and made them thinking about actually sending those “letter to the author” book reports to their favorites.

So, I highly recommend spending a week or so with my friend Bill (We’ve emailed. Doesn’t that make us friends?). You’ll enjoy it. And I bet you’ll be inspired by one of his lessons learned: “Choose one thing you care about and resolve to do it well. Whether you succeed or not, you will be better for the effort.”

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Superstars in the Background

Years ago, we ripped out a poison ivy-riddled forsythia hedge that separated the back garden from the neighbor’s back yard. The poison ivy clearly added no charm, and the five foot wide hedge cramped the style of the 20 foot deep garden. So – out came the hedge and in went the four-foot picket fence. Now the question: what would be the perfect vine to climb the fence, soften the boundary and create some privacy?

After a year of the annual hyacinth bean vine (which proved gorgeous but slightly ill-behaved and slightly poisonous), I chose coral honeysuckle (lonicera sempervirens). This native beauty remains, as its Latin name indicates, semi-evergreen here in zone 6b, so it continues to provide some privacy even when everything else bares its bones. So, quite adequate for winter. But boy, does it satisfy the other three seasons. It greens up in early spring, then, around April, sends out a waterfall of coral blossoms that colors my spring garden and sings its siren song to the neighborhood hummingbirds. It continues to bloom all season long – even now in November, I have some blossoms. This year, I’ve noticed a bonus fall feature – beautiful red berries which I assume will last for the next few months.

As if the blooms and the berries weren’t enough, the foliage is two toned: warm green on the front of the leaf, silvery on the back. The effect is a variegated look that adds depth and texture to what is, underneath, a boring wood fence.

Oh, and it’s native to the eastern U.S., so it grows to a nice 20 feet but doesn’t take over the world like it’s yellow cousin, lonicera japonica.

All this perfection and I use it as a background plant? Afraid it’s true. What a luxury, though, to have a true superstar in the background. What decadence to have a plant you can count on to tie your garden together, to bloom without coddling, to fill in the holes when other specimens prove finicky. It’s like having a true friend who you talk to sporadically and see rarely, but who you know is there nonetheless.

I am blessed to have a few such friends, but one has been on my mind of late. We met during our first week of college when we both turned up to watch Simon and Garfunkel’s Concert in Central Park in a hallmate’s dorm room. We ended up living together for the next three years, years that saw changes in majors, changes in boyfriends, and two young women finishing their growing up. Since college we enjoyed just a few years of living in the same town, but most of the time has been spent a half-day’s car ride, a cross-country plane ride, or a transatlantic flight apart. With two husbands, seven children, one and a half jobs, loads of responsibilities and the entire continental United States between us, our talks are rare and our visits rarer. And yet, we remain close friends.  A quick phone call last week reminded me of the important role she plays in my life. Because of 20 years of friendship, 15 minutes on the phone was enough to get to real things, not just the surface stuff we’re stuck with a lot of the time.

I appreciate the superstars who sometimes live in the background – of my garden and of my life. They add beauty, depth and stability. My world wouldn’t be the same without them.

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A Native Bouquet

In August, I spent a weekend at a resort in the Poconos of Pennsylvania which hosts loads of family reunions and destination weddings. As our own family reunion drew to a close on a rainy Sunday, we huddled in the game room and spied on a lovely bride and groom saying their I do’s on the covered terrace. Okay, to be honest, the women and girls spied on the wedding, the boys were playing Wii. (Am I gender stereotyping?? Only reporting what I witnessed).

On our way to the car, we passed by the florist who was relocating the bridal bouquets from wedding to reception. There she stood in the rain with a card board box full of  nosegays made up of goldenrod and queen anne’s lace.  “How perfect,” I thought! “How weedy,” my husband thought. I know he thought that because his response to my effusing over the fabulous use of seasonal and native plants in a formal setting was, ” Don’t you find those flowers on the side of the road??”

Well, yes you do.

To be fair, I think my husband harbors an irrational aversion towards goldenrod. When I brought some in for a nice fall centerpiece, he asked me, “Aren’t you just putting allergens in a vase?” No appreciation of native beauty.

I first knew Queen Anne’s Lace at summer camp in Virginia where they grew like crazy in hot August next to the drainage ditches where the tractors couldn’t mow.  Goldenrod entered my lexicon when given me by a master gardener in my neighborhood. It now fills a lonely corner of my back garden, but I also now notice it lining Pennsylvania country roads in September, again, where mowing is impossible. But who cares that goldenrod grow on the roadside? It’s lovely!

So let me officially applaud that bold bride who got married in the rain carrying two of our most beautiful native plants.  Sometimes nature does know best.

Perfection, c’est impossible.

One thing I love about gardening is that you, the gardener, cannot be held fully responsible for the finished product. Sure, you can prep and plant and prune to your heart’s delight, but ultimately, it is the plant, the weather, the soil, the angle of the sun that determines the final outcome. I conclude that it is impossible to be a perfectionist in the garden.

Which works just fine for me, because perfectionism and I just don’t jive. Take my latest home improvement project.  I decided to paint my son’s bedroom. This was no ordinary paint job. An industrious previous owner of my home decided, I’m guessing sometime in the ’50s, to convert said bedroom into wood paneled den, complete with a wall of custom built book shelves, a built-in desk, and  tv / record player cabinets., all in natural pine.  I removed half of the built-ins, but was left with two walls of knotty pine, one wall of shelving and one wall full of holes where the tv cabinet used to be. Oh, and water damage on the ceiling. So I sanded. I caulked. I mudded. I spackled.  I learned how to patch large holes in drywall.  (Check it out. Brilliant. ) And then, after a violent rain uncovered a serious masonry problem in our chimney, I mudded and sanded some more.


Finally it was time to paint. I realized, as I was rushing through this step, that I was rushing through this step. All that prep work was essential, but would be for naught if I rushed the final steps.  I always start out with the greatest of intentions, but fade when the project drags on longer than my energy burst.  And then it hit me:  this is why I love to garden.  I start out all jazzed up.  I add compost, I dig all the rocks out of the soil, and then toss in  a bulb or some seeds.  But then magic happens. All that prep is just right for the living organism that will turn itself into art.  Heck, I didn’t even plant the grape tomatoes that have graced my table for the last few months. They volunteered in my neglected but very well prepared raised vegetable bed.

When you come to visit, you will stay in the nice looking but decidedly imperfect green bedroom with white trim. You will eat, however, fabulous grape tomatoes. It really is great to share the responsibility. Try this Pico de Gallo recipe from Emiril Lagase. It will make your perfect tomatoes even better.


  • 1  1/2 cups seeded, diced tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup diced red onion
  • 1 tablespoon diced jalapenos
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • Juice of 2 limes
  • 2 tablespoons cilantro, plus extra for garnish
  • Salt and pepper

In a bowl combine all ingredients.


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Cut and color, or spring bulb order?

Thanks to for the pic!

I’ve been a terrible blogger. Not one post since July at least. Wowie wow wow. First, some excuses.

Excuse #1 – Four children home from school for 10 weeks this summer, three boys among them. Which leads me to a little story. I thought, last summer, when Philadelphia received a nice sprinkling of rain just about everyday and average temps were in the 80s, that I was a fabulous gardener. Every little last perennial, annual, bulb and weed thrived under my loving care. This summer, not so much. No rain, temperatures in the 90s daily. Everything in my garden is nice and crispy and barely hanging on.

To make the connection, I my first child was a girl. I thought I was a FABULOUS parent. She sat and colored for hours, we worked on puzzles, we read books, she played dress up. Life was full, but peaceful. And quiet. Then I had three boys in 4 years. Life is full and loud, so very loud. If they’re not yelling at each other, then I’m yelling at them. Stop hitting your brother. Stop pulling that giant cabinet down on yourself. Stop using that tomato stake as a light saber to hit your brother. Stop breaking my house. And for the love of pete, would you please STOP YELLING? Fabulous parent? Fabulous gardener? Let’s call it doing the best I can.

Excuse #2 My hard drive is full. Multiple photos of multiple flowers taken multiple times a week add up. The last time I downloaded my photos from my camera, we almost had a serious computer emergency. While blogging is a fun and worthwhile pursuit, it is not the only task performed by this old Dell laptop. It watches Glee on Hulu, it checks the baseball standings daily, it cranks out monthly book reports, and oh, it handles all the books for my family’s company. I know an external hard drive would solve all my problems, but honestly, who has the time?

Excuse #3 – Life in of doors. After 4 years of living in my house and hating most of the rooms (tired-looking cream colored paint everywhere, 1950s wood paneling, crumbling stone foundation walls in the basement, etc. etc), I have decided to take action. Kids are back in school, I have some room to breath, the crispy flowers are not inspiring right at the moment. By golly, I’m going to paint something. Unfortunately, when you decide to paint a child’s room, that child and all his worldly possession need somewhere else to stay. After two weeks of a homeless 6 year old living in my bedroom and messing with my stuff, I dedicate every free moment to that darn room.

Which brings me to my original question. The time has come to deal with the unpleasant amount of gray that surreptitiously appeared sometime during the last 5 years. The time has also come to beef up my bulb collection. This is the time to do it – I know this is the time. If I order those snow drops and winter aconite NOW, I will be a much happier person come March. The new patio is dying for some daffodils, and I will not be complaining about too many hyacinths. But boy, it would be nice to look in the mirror without a fright every morning. Thus the question: Big bill at the salon, or big bill at the mail-order bulb store??

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Summer Casualties: Milkweed and the Mother Vine

This is a story about perspective.

I’ve lost a swamp milkweed. I clearly did not swamp it sufficiently during the latest record heat wave here in Philadelphia. I planted it in the spring of 2009, and it thrived last year, fooling me into thinking it was established and did not need babying. Whoops. I’m a little sad about the loss. I paid $15 for that guy and I am cheap, so that hurts. Plus, I’ve got a bit of a hole in my back yard border now – about 1 foot around, and four feet tall.

So, by all means, feel sorry for me. But did anyone else hear the report on NPR the other day about the mother vine? This grape vine lives on Roanoke Island in the outer banks of North Carolina and is thought to be over 400 years old. Experts aren’t sure whether it was planted by the first English colonists in the 1500s or by the Croatans who lived there when the English arrived. But either way, it’s way old. John Wilson spoke with Melissa Block on All Things Considered (listen here) and described its bulk. It covers a quarter of an acre. Two adults can barely touch hands when they reach around the trunk. Remember we’re talking grape vine here, not oak tree.

Not only it this vine massive, it is apparently badly behaved. One tendril, it seems, was out of order and had started working its way up a power pole. A contractor employed by Dominion power had been charged with clearing all vegetation off the power poles and lines and sprayed that little sucker with weed killer. Systemic weed killer. Mr. Wilson’s father, who tends the vine, came out one morning in May to find his beloved vine browning at the tips. He cut off the dead sections. The next morning presented more dead sections, and the next morning, and the next morning. As if the dead were growing backward from the tips toward the roots. Just what systemic weed killer is designed to do. Enter through the foliage, poison the roots, and thus kill the plant.

Oh mercy. I would have cried. I’m whining over a 1 foot hole left by a one year old plant that cost me $15. Imagine a quarter acre hole. Left by a plant that may have survived when the Lost Colony did not.

The power company feels badly. They’ve apologized and hired numerous experts are implementing a fertilizing / watering / pruning regimen. Fortunately, it seems to be working. The Wilsons are optimistic that the mother vine will survive, even if this year’s grapes will be a loss. (More info here from WSOC Tv)

Perspective is essential. I will try to remember the mother vine when I feel like whining. Maybe that hole in the back garden is an opportunity. An opportunity that will require only one plant to fill, not a quarter acre’s worth.

Opposites attract. Or do they?

In 1989, when my husband and I met , we assumed that we came from different worlds. He grew up in the north, raised by a Jewish mom from the Bronx. I grew up in the south, raised by an Episcopal mom from New Mexico. His family drove into Manhattan to go to Broadway shows. My family drove to southern Virginia to eat my grandmother’s fried apples and bacon and brown sugar pie.

My new beau poked fun at my occasional southern accent. I don’t know – I still think “y’all” is an immensely functional word. It conveys the plural, it’s friendly, and I much prefer it to the “yous” (as in yous guys) heard around Philly every once in a while. But “y’all” amused him. He poked fun at my hometown, the “Capitol of the Confederacy.” True, there is a boulevard in Richmond, Virginia dotted with life sized monuments of confederate generals who face north if they died in battle and face south if they came home from the war. I can see now how the monuments might seem odd to the outsider, not to mention that when I just said “the war,” I meant the Civil War. But it all seemed pretty normal to me. I also recall a joke or two about me marrying my cousin. I’m from Virginia, I would remind him, not West Virginia. (All you Mountaineers out there, please forgive me. I was young.)

All this lead me to believe that two opposites had attracted.

Now I must mention the odd fact that his dad was born and raised in West Virginia. But he had long since become a New Yorker in spirit and those mountains are really tall and as you may have inferred from the snooty comment above, I considered West Virginia about as foreign as New York City. So nothing there disabused the notion that we were from different worlds.

Until this weekend. We, now 17 years married, went to visit his parents at their cottage in the Pocono mountains. This lovely home serves to catch breezes off the lake, to host family reunions and as a repository for family heirlooms. Imagine my shock when I climbed the stairs to our bedroom and found this blanket chest in the hallway:

Why shocked? Well, because I just inherited this blanket chest:

I don’t know anything about antiques. But is it a stretch to think that these two pieces might have been manufactured by the same carpenter? Perhaps bought at the same furniture store? At least in the same area of the country. Certainly at the same time. Turns out that his blanket chest had been his great grandmother’s just as mine had been my great grandmother’s. Turns out that his great grandmother lived in Chatham, Virginia until she moved to West Virginia to be married. My great grandmother lived in Martinsville, Virginia. Turns out that his great grandmother was a Goode, and my grandmother’s best friend was a Goode. That great distance I had imagined between our two families had just shrunk dramatically. No longer were we talking New Mexico to the Bronx. We weren’t even talking Virginia to Pennsylvania. We were talking 25 miles of country road in Southwestern Virginia. How many generations would we have to go back until that 25 miles shrunk even further??

In 1989, when I brought my husband (then boyfriend) home to Richmond to meet my friends and family for the first time, I considered myself a bit of a rebel. I was proposing to marry a yankee. Turns out I might just have gone and married my cousin.

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9 ways my garden made me happy this week (GBBD June ’10)

I have been a neglectful gardener. I have been extremely neglectful garden blogger. My excuse is the Great Chefs Event, a huge fundraiser that benefits Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation and the research that will hopefully end childhood cancer someday. Huge success – 1000 people, 30+ famous chefs cooking and chatting, hundreds of thousands of dollars raised. My tiny little piece of that puzzle seemed to take over my life for the last few weeks, and my garden suffered. Probably my family suffered too, but fortunately, that is not the subject of this post. But that was last night. I’ve got the blisters on my toes to prove it (Somehow, I just couldn’t justify garden clogs with that great dress. Darned high heeled sandals!)

Today, I got to work in my garden. Ahhhhhhhh. And as I was puttering and watering and weeding, I realized that in the midst of my craziness, the garden has given me things to smile about. It continues to work, even when I can’t. So here are the ways my garden made me happy this week.

1. The monarda attracted the year’s first hummingbird. He joined us at dinner tonight. Bee balm? Maybe. Hummingbird balm? Definitely.

2. The lavender and the evening primrose bloomed simultaneously. Direct opposites on the color wheel, these complimentary beauties are textbook.

3. The salad I made to take to a friend’s this weekend called for fresh basil. I walked out the back door with a pair of scissors and had fresh basil.

4. A pair of goldfinches decided to make my feeder their home. They’ve been to visit daily.  Haven’t seen these guys since they were gray and gloomy in February.

5. I weeded the whole garden today in the time in took to roast a chicken. I know my yard’s not big, but 90 minutes is definitely a record for a whole garden weed. Hot weather? Lack of rain? Excessive mulching? I don’t know what’s keeping them down, but I’m smiling about it.

7. My sticks are blooming!!! Remember the bare root roses that I put in the ground while trying to muster the faith to believe that something would actually come of them? They’re showing off now boy.

8. The jackmanii clematis that I planted last month shriveled up and died.  Here’s to nurseries with guarantees! The new one is bigger and better. Whereas before I had one shoot that had made it 2 feet up the arbor, now I have three.

9. Hydrangeas. They ask so little, they give so much. (Mine are all real, by the way)

Clearly, my garden can live without me for a few weeks. True, it is the hours I spent last month, last year, three years ago that have set it up to produce without me, but I’m loving the return on my investment.

To see what’s blooming in other bloggers gardens this month, check out May Dreams Garden.

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