Category Archives: Winter

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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New To Me: Winter Aconite

Three days in the 40s, three days in the 50s, and spring has burst onto the scene in Philadelphia. (Can’t you just hear the Halleluiah Chorus? C’mon, sing it with me – hal-lejuiah, hal-leluiah!)

I spent the afternoon with my two little guys at Morris Arboretum. I basked in the sun and took pictures; the 4-year-old and 5-year-old threw rocks in the creek and ran and ran and ran.  It was a visit enjoyed by all.  The photo ops started at the parking lot, where I had to squeeze in next to a left0ver snow drift because it was so darn crowded. Under a pine tree were loads of these sunny little buttercupish flowers.  They were crocus sized and fabulous. And incredibly intoxicating to the first bees I’ve seen in months.

Winter Aconite (eranthis hyemalis) is a native of Asia Minor and Europe ranging from southern France to Bosnia (southern france?!?! – no wonder they exude sunshine.) They show up in the very very early spring – around the same time as the snowdrops and before the crocuses. They’re blooming here now with the crocuses because of all the snow we’ve  had.  They bloom for a couple of weeks, welcome in the spring, and then disappear until next year. They like lots of water.  I read quite a few rants about their invasiveness, although because they bloom and go dormant so early, they don’t make too much of a nuisance of themselves. Highly poisonous though – I guess that’s a downside. The University of Wisconsin warns that the tuber can “cause nausea, vomiting, colic attacks and visual disturbances.” Visual disturbances? Are we talking hallucinations? Blurred vision? Near sitedness? Not to take the warning lightly: don’t eat winter aconite.

Don’t eat them, but do admire them when they drift:

And if you want them in your garden, sow seeds in the fall or divide clumps in the spring. I’ll be doing it. They’re too good to resist. I guess I’ll only have to have one child vomit, contract colic and experience visual disturbances once before they learn that lesson.

Besides the Winter Aconite, here’s why today was a perfect day out of doors. A few weeks from now, Morris Arboretum will be so chock full of blooming beauties that I won’t know where to look . It will be stimulating. It will be overwhelming. It will be wonderful. But in a few weeks, will I be stopping the horticulturalist to ask about a buttercup the size of a quarter? Will I look it up and learn about its habits and identify its native growing area? I must admit probably not. Winter (and yes, it is still winter),  gives me a wonderful excuse to focus. To focus on the five things that were blooming today, to appreciate them for their special attributes, to plan to add them to my garden.  Someone remind me of this in the fall when I’m exhausted by all the stimulation, the overwhelming, the wonderful.

Here are today’s other beauties:

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Winter Light

My front garden is still buried in at least 18″ of snow. And that’s the yard. I won’t even try to describe the 4 foot mountains (plural)  by the sidewalk and driveway where we shoveled loads of it. Those I shall have until May, I’m sure.

crepe myrtle showing off at sunset

I went to take some pictures this afternoon to show some before and after shots. Before = spring,  when my garden was lush and green and my shrubs & perennials sported hundreds of blooms. After = now, when my shrubs and perennials look like avalanche victims who desperately and futilely stick one arm out of the snow in the hopes that someone, anyone, will notice and come to their rescue.  Too depressing. Plus, the sun wasn’t shining in my front garden, which makes everything look gray. And depressing.

coast luecothoe: "Where are my 4 brothers? Wait, where is the rest of ME?"

azalea screaming "save me!"

goldflame spirea says "mercy!"

My back garden, on the other hand, faces southwest and was filled with the most lovely late afternoon light. I grabbed these shots during the last moments before I lost the rays for the day – and decided that all was not lost.  True, we’ve had many feet of snow on the ground for two full weeks (unusual in Philadelphia). Also true that there is absolutely no street parking in the entire Delaware Valley. If someone has made the time and effort to dig out their car and clear their space, you can be darn sure that they’ve filled said spot with outdoor furniture of some kind. “Mine!” those aluminum lawn chairs scream. “Don’t you dare park here!”

Last year's garden phlox

virginia sweetspire

A third truth, though. We’ve had the most beautiful blue skies almost every day since the second big dump a week and a half ago. The snow is on the ground, but the sun is in the sky. And when snow is on the ground, the sun is brighter, the sky is bluer, the shadows are sharper.

swamp milkweed

So I guess I’ll turn a blind eye for the time being to the casualties that certainly lie beneath. I could rework my budget for the spring to include replacements for a bunch of azaleas and leucothoe and boxwoods which didn’t survive the sheer weight of the snow. But who wants to do that? I’ve got a few more weeks of ignorance before these 40 degree days melt enough snow for me to take inventory. I’ll keep hoping that they all made it through (couldn’t possibly be true) and that I can spend my budget on all the fun new things I’ve been wanting to add to my garden all winter (helebores, clematis, witch hazel). I’ll turn a blind eye and enjoy the show the light provides on a daily basis.

I take a risk in saying the following, as I know that quoting John Denver may cause you to label me forever as a complete cheeseball. But here goes: Sunshine almost always makes me smile.

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The Thrill of Victory; The Agony of Defeat

Snowpacolypse. Snowmageddon. Snownormous. snOMG. Whatever you call it, we got it. But as a result, yesterday morning I slept till 8:00. Just in that I would have cause to celebrate the day. But it got better. This is what greeted me when I looked out my window:

With no school to attend, no lunches to make, no windshield to scrape, I took a long walk in the fresh snow. Neighbors filled the streets and sidewalks with their shovels. Everyone said hi, which I must say is pretty unusual in these parts. Trees glistened in the early morning (well, early for me anyway) sun.

I got home, made myself some breakfast, sat with my coffee and finished my book. This day was getting better and better. Finally, I dragged myself off my coffee-sipping, book- reading rump and headed back out to dig us out. Although hard work, even this task proved joyful. My neighbor on the right had shoveled his sidewalk three feet past our property line –a kind and selfless gesture. My neighbor on the left was shoveling at the same time and we had a nice talk. (Free of our collective 6 kids, who were all happily watching tv inside, we actually achieved conversation). Harvey, our 5 foot snowman, smiled down on the whole affair:

I hummed and smiled as I jumped in the shower and changed my clothes. And I said to myself, what a wonderful world.

Then I got out of the shower. My four year old was screaming and crying in the dining room. “What’s wrong?” I asked. He responded despairingly and with many tears, “Those guys wrecked our snowman.” The enterprising young men with snow shovels I had lauded in my last post had just decapitated Harvey!

After long conversations with the 4 & 5 year olds in the house about forgiveness and grace, we hoofed it over to the park for a little sledding. Turns out our local evergreens did not fare so well under the wet, heavy snow. Suddenly, the mysterious, loud cracking sounds we heard the day before made more sense.

To top my day off, I was betrayed by the sledding run that had delighted my family and me the previous day. Down goes one kid, down goes another, down goes a third. All sail straight ahead, missing by yards the ominous metal pole that holds up the baseball backstop. I help my 4 year old into the sled. (Remember, this is the one who witnessed the snowman beheading.) He sleds down, straight as an arrow. Suddenly, a rogue snowball jumps into his path causing him to careen directly into, you guessed it, the ominous metal pole. A nasty bloody nose and a trip to the e.r. later, we determine that he is just fine, but boy does the kid look like a prize fighter.

Here’s the thing. Life has tastes of paradise, but we are clearly not there yet. We jump for joy when our perennials emerge from what seems like death, but we curse the weeds that do the same thing. We marvel at the beauty of a rose, but what gardener does not bear the scars of a thorn or two? The snow that created such a wonderland in our neighborhood is, honestly, kind of a pain. People are sometimes  mean; trees fall; kids crash. We make our gardens. We toil and tend. We delight in the bounty of the harvest. But I must admit, despite my optimism (my husband would call it my “polly-anna tendencies,”) my garden is no Eden.

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48″ of snow? Why to love it.

Pink Dogwood

I have two choices today as I watch inches 28 through 48 fall outside my window here in Philadelphia.  I could whine and complain and lament the fact that I’m stuck inside with my four kids out of school.  I could wish I were digging in my garden.  I could wish tulips were blooming. I could wish my toes were warm.

But instead, I will choose to love the snow. Here are my reasons.

My 4 year old arctic explorer

#1 If it were 32 degrees and sunny on this February day, no one would be outside. But, on this 32 degree snowy day, I see neighbors talking and laughing as they shovel and shovel and shovel. I see children playing, sledding, building forts. I see enterprising young men walking the streets with their snow shovels, looking to make some extra money. Even though the snow approaches waist high – my children happily don their gear and head out to look for adventure.

#2 Snow shows off my garden’s architecture. Snow paints the trees, tops the dried flower heads, perches atop bird feeders and fence posts. I knew there was a reason I didn’t trim back those coneflowers in the fall.

Goldflame Spirea


Pink Coneflowers

#3 After the snow stops, the sun will come out. They sky will turn blue. The icicles will shimmer.  Then the real show begins. (I took these photos between the storm on Saturday and the one today, on my lovely hike in knee-high snow).

See what all you deep south, west coast and desert gardeners are missing? I know your sun is shinning and your tropicals are blooming. But eat your heart out: we’ve got snow.

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Roses in January? Outside?

Roses in bloom in January? (taken 1/21/2010, Philadelphia)

Rose petals should not still be clinging to the plant now, should they? It’s January for goodness sake. There’s nothing out there that remotely resembles a flower, and yet, these rose petals hang on.  And it’s not just one either – it’s all the flowers on the whole darn plant.

And buds too!

I have to admit I was a bit surprised to find these in my neighbor’s yard. All my roses are dried up, thorny stick bushes. Without color. What did this fellow gardener do right (or wrong) when preparing this rose for the winter? Surely some trick exists to replicate these freeze dried roses in real life.

So I did a bit of cursory research on how to prepare roses for winter including a quick primer on deadheading. Turns out that everything I was ever taught about roses was wrong.

I grew up in the shade. My mom has no roses in her garden. I probably wouldn’t have listened to her advice if she did have roses (I’m kind of a pain that way). My first introduction to roses came when I got married. We were young and poor and homeless, and a lovely couple took us in as caretakers for their turn-of-the-century mansion in St. Louis. I do not exaggerate when I say mansion:

May I present the "John A. Holmes Mansion". Newlywed suite: 3rd floor.

12,000 square feet of house takes a long time to vacuum, I assure you. Part of our job was to help take care of the yard, which included a nice little rose garden. Mrs. G loved those roses and taught me everything she knew. Ever year since then, I’ve applied these lessons to the roses that have grown in my own garden around my exponentially smaller house.  Only water them in the morning. Take care not to wet the leaves. Water them every day. Deadhead them by pruning at an angle above the first healthy five-leaflet leaf. Prune the canes down to about a foot tall and mulch them for winter.

Okay, except it turns out you’re not supposed to cut them down for the winter.  And you’re not supposed to dead head them after September.  (And some say you should deadhead them right below the bloom, not at the five-leaflet leaf, but that really has nothing to do with this story. See Frances Ballentine’s intriguing article on this subject for more detail.)

According to the University of Illinois extension (seems like a reliable source, right?), the right thing to do is coax them into complete dormancy. This means no fertilizing after August 15. No deadheading after September – which should cause the rose to form hips. Then there’s a whole process of mounding and mulching and covering that seems like a lot of work to me. But they are very clear: “Pruning, however, at this point should be kept to a minimum. The majority of the pruning will be done in the spring to remove dead and diseased canes.”

So my neighbor did it right. He or she did not prune the canes prior to winter. But, I think my neighbor might also have done it wrong. Instead of letting the hips form, my guess is that this avid rosarian kept deadheading, so the plant kept producing more flowers. And in some twisted confluence of rose production and winter’s onset, the first hard freeze came when this rose was in full bloom. Hah! And the result was freeze dried roses for his garden all winter long.

Should we try to duplicate these very cool results despite the risky methods hypothesized above? I suppose only time will tell if this rose survived it’s beautiful winter.

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Contain your Cabbage, Make a Friend

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a gardener in possession of a lovely plant will not be in want of a friend. (Forgive me, Jane Austen).

Courtney's Cabbage

Okay, here’s the story. I promised myself when I started this blog that I would never post an ugly picture. In my quest to find blooms around me even in January in Philadelphia, I knew I would want to address the ornamental cabbage. The problem lies in the fact that I, as rule, find ornamental cabbages quite unattractive.  To me, they look faded and dirty and wilted. Especially the white ones. I kept my eyes peeled for said cabbages, anyway, tending to find them only in roadside beds in front of WholeFoods, the high rise condos, the cabinet company, the reformed temple, the outdoor mall. No pretty pictures to be had here. Never mind the fact that I would have to risk life and limb to park, get out of the car, and take a picture on the major thoroughfares of the Delaware Valley. I guess these establishments contract with landscaping companies to rip out the faded vincas or impatiens at the end of the growing season and plant up row upon row of ornamental cabbage. Winter color, hey, I love it. But these guys are just ugly.

Or, so I thought until I took a nice, sunny walk around my neighborhood the other day. I had been searching for these cabbages (officially a kale species, fyi) in residential landscapes, but was coming up woefully short. They seemed resigned to their destiny as strip mall accessories. But there they were in front of a neighbor’s home, just two of them, thriving in pots perfectly sized and suited to their particular mounding growth habit. The containers lifted them off the ground and highlighted them as  specimens, rather than trying to make them work as mass plantings.  They flanked the front porch and actually looked pretty. Pretty enough to photograph, even.

Cabage contained.

The car was in the driveway and the front door was ajar, so I figured I’d knock and ask permission to take a picture. I didn’t want any startled homeowner calling the cops because of the strange woman trapsing about the yard. A cute toddler came to the door and tried valiantly to let me in. Soon came the mom, who very graciously agreed to my request and then said, “Hey! Don’t our kids go to the same preschool?” Indeed they do. We’d been at the same school for a few years, but in different classes, so our paths had never crossed directly. We needed a cabbage to bring us together! Now I have a pretty picture of a cabbage and a new friend. Gardens are so great.

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To do in September: Plant Snowdrops

The problem with the winter garden is that there is precious little you can do to improve it in the winter. Gardening in general takes forward thinking and faith.  The 2 foot sapling that you might trip over on the way out for a jog today will shade your home years from now. But spring, summer and fall give us wiggle room. If we forgot to plan for blooms or foliage in one corner of the garden, a quick trip to the garden center for a flat of annuals can fix us right up. We can even move containers of lush tropicals around to pretty up those problem spots.

Not so in winter. Any beauty that shows up in the winter gardens was arranged for months or years ago. Plant a flowering shrub that holds its dried flowers ‘till spring – you’ve got winter interest. Add a berry bearer – there’s your winter color. Bury early blooming bulbs – you’ve got flowers in January! Check out what’s BLOOMING in my garden:

Snowdrops (galanthus), 1-21-2010

Again, I have my neighbors to thank for planning ahead. (Remember, I’ve psychologically annexed all the yards within walking distance of my home as “my garden.”) I know you have to plant bulbs in the fall. I plant bulbs in the fall. Why oh why have I never thought to plant super early blooming bulbs in the fall? These beauties are snowdrops (galanthus). According to various internet sources, there are over 75 species of these little gems that originated in Europe and Asia minor. They are thought to have been introduced to England by the Romans in the 16th century, and I guess they made their way across the pond to Pennsylvania with some colonial gardeners who had that forward thinking down.  They bloom really early in the winter – in warmer zones they can bloom from fall all the way through. They don’t like warm winters, though. Ha – they’re one thing those southern California gardeners will have to envy in our gardens. They multiply well, especially if you help them along by dividing clumps after the flowers have faded but while the foliage still looks happy. And, did I mention, they bloom in January?!?!?!

So – another resolution. I will plant snowdrops in September. Apparently, the bulbs don’t store well, so they’re only on shelves for a short time. I will seek them out. I will plant them. I will have blooms in my garden (my real garden) next January!

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Why we should love January

Birch Tree in January

I knew that sooner or later I would have to start talking about bark. I was hoping that I would find at least a few more colorful specimens to raise my winter spirits before I had to resort to bark, but alas, bark it is.  But maybe it’s not such a consolation prize after all. Look at this photo of the birch tree in the woods near my house. I think surely this should count as winter color. White is what happens when all the colors blend together, right? I’d be thrilled with a white rose in my garden in May. A dogwood blanketed in white blossoms defines spring in my opinion. All the gardening books tell you to plant white flowers in your “night garden” because they reflect whatever light is around and brighten up the space. Okay, I’m convinced. The white bark of this towering birch is as beautiful as a blooming rose.

Here’s the thing though. This tree is this beautiful all year round. I’m sure that if I stumbled upon it during a summer hike through the same woods, I would appreciate it. Its leaves would shade, its bark shimmer, its grandeur impress.  But I might not single it out as the one plant that wins the prize as most beautiful of the day. In the spring and summer, this birch would compete with scores of other plants and flowers, all claiming their own share of my fascination. In winter, the birch gets to be the star. Especially set, as it is, among its gray-barked brethren, it stands out. Washed in the low light of the winter sun, which makes pictures shot at 2pm as beautiful as those shot at dawn, it shines. If not for January, I would have missed the scope of its beauty. Thank God for January.

Do I really mean that? I guess I do.

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3 remedies: Winterberry, Beautyberry, Wendell Berry

The quest: to find naturally occurring color outside in the middle of January.
The location: my little neighborhood near Philadelphia.
The result: berries!

Certainly, I enjoy paging through glossy gardening magazines to see lush fields of lavender that bloomed in France in some long-passed August.  Sure, I score a bit of a color fix with my annual attempt at orchids. (Here’s a quick rundown of my orchid calendar. Jan & Feb: enjoy delightful blooms. March thru May: try to remember to water. June thru August: remove leaves that died because I forgot to water. September thru November: remove more leaves that died because I over-watered. December: neglect completely, hide behind poinsettia. January: start again).

But magazines don’t quite do it, and my house plant casualty list keeps growing. This all begs the question: is anything alive out there? Anything at all? Given my new resolve not to be brought low by winter this year, I took the only logical first step. I went outside and started looking. I know in my head that life is teeming under the surface – tulip bulbs put down roots, lilacs gather their energy in tiny branch-tip buds, giant oaks rest before shooting out an army of leaves. In my heart, though, I’d rather have some immediate gratification, thank you very much. So I looked. I looked as I drove my kids to school. I looked as I walked to the library. I looked, and amazingly, I found!

Winterberry, a deciduous holly wins double points for being a native plant, as does beautyberry. Not only do they cheer up a dreary winter day, they were made to grow in this soil and to feed the birds and insects that just happen to live near by. Both drop their leaves in the fall to show off their lovely little berries, encouraging birds to eat and deposit their seed far and wide (and encouraging me with bright color in January!) And they’re both growing in right around the corner and they’re both gorgeous! I’ll add “plant winterberry and beautyberry shrubs” to the long list entitled, “Things I would do if I had a bigger yard.” Oh well – at least my neighbors have seen fit to help me out.

What to do, however, if your fellow gardeners don’t take care of you quite so well as mine do? Read a book by Wendell Berry. This man is an artist. His books define life out-of-doors. He loves the land. His characters are real and deep and humble and loving. He will make you want to move to a farm. I bet even January is warmer in Port William.

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