Sunday, September 30, 2007

Unhand That Cat!

You would think I would have caught on by now, but it seems every fall there is a day when I'm out working in the garden, and I hear what I think is our little cat P.J., meowing plaintively... so I start calling "here kitty, kitty", only to then realize it is a loon on the pond, stopping off on its migration from the northland to the Gulf Coast. I always hope our neighbors aren't laughing at me across the pond (not that it would be the first time).
I purposely don't have a picture of the loons, as they are very easily frightened off, and I don't want to bother them on their brief stopover from their long trip south. Their wild and forlorn call echoing up our quiet little valley is truly one of the real treats of spring and fall, and I am happy I heard it today... I'm also pleased the kitty is alright.

Friday, September 28, 2007

The Three Brothers

Asiatic dayflower is a persistent and pedestrian weed, but I have a soft spot for it; it asks for nothing, and tags along from garden to garden, where it creeps and seeds about in a fairly shy and unobtrusive way (unless it finds a really wet spot, where it explodes). It is one of the most distinctive weeds remembered from my childhood. Imported from Asia, it has naturalized to almost the whole country except for desert areas. Its flowers are a true, gentian blue and I suspect this little plant would be sought after if its flowers were only larger (they are the size of the tip of my little finger) and if they only lasted longer (calling them dayflowers is being generous). The Asiatic dayflower is classified as Commelina communis, and is in the same family as the spiderworts. Interestingly the genus Commelina was named for the Commelin brothers; Kaspar and Johan were famous Dutch botanists, but their brother died young and so the dayflowers have two beautiful, larger blue petals, and a third small, barely formed white petal.
If you don't have dayflowers in your garden, I don't know whether to pity you or envy you... they are that kind of weed.
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Thursday, September 27, 2007


I've found that it's a rare person around here who knows that hops is native to Iowa and grows commonly in open areas. Humulus lupulus is a species native from the midwest to New England; it is the same species as European hops used in beer making (though a different variety). The female plant that fruits, and the fruits themselves are called hops, with the fruits consisting of overlapping bracts as shown above. Hops is a rapidly growing, twining vine (technically a bine), and I see them frequently this time of year, absolutely covered with fruits; they are usually found at the edge of woods, or in brushy meadows, where they are mostly in sun but have small trees or large bushes to cling to.
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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

What Is It You WANT?

We grow a number of hardy cyclamens, including the species coum, hederifolium, cilicium, mirabile, and purpurascens. I wouldn't say we have the perfect climate for these little plants; we're too hot and humid in the summer, and our frigid, yet sometimes snowless winters aren't overly appreciated by cyclamens either. Some of the cyclamens we've planted have thrived, some have persisted, and some have abruptly disappeared; it seems as if one minute they're there and suddenly they're not... perhaps another case of alien plant abduction (a problem that horticultural science has unaccountably NOT taken seriously).
At any rate, something else that needs an explanation, is why the cyclamens keep seeding out into our bark pathways (like the little purpurascens above), and proceed to grow twice as well there as in the flower beds that I've labored so hard to set up for them; is it better drainage, dryer soil, less competition, a different level of sun... or do they just like being stepped on?
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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Hard Knowledge

Our woods lies on the southern slope of a modest hill, with a dammed pond at the bottom; a benificent and benign spot for gardening as far as the climate goes... but then there is the soil. Iowa is known for its rich, loamy black soil, but the riches are not universal. When I started digging on our land, I found a peculiar and frustrating phenomenon: there is a layer of sticky clay on top (which hardens in dry weather to something akin to asphalt); below the clay is about a foot of sand, and below that is a layer of black, finely grained soil. Since we are near the top of a hill, I couldn't figure out where all the sand came from, but was suspicious, since this is the only undeveloped land and it's at the end of a dead end street, that when all the home construction was taking place around here that this was the dumping area. This idea was bolstered by the presence of a large "puddle" of hardened concrete that was dumped on the parking at the end of the street by someone. This so-called topsoil was not what I had in mind for growing delicate, moisture-loving plants, so I've laboriously dug out this sand and clay to a depth of two feet wherever I wanted a flower bed, and refilled the hole with my own soil mix... I suppose I've hand-dug a couple of basements by now. For years I've complained to anybody who'd listen (basically Liz) about the mysterious people who dumped all this sand and clay on top of our hillside.
Yesterday, came enlightenment: at a meeting of the Johnson County Heritage Trust, the natural habitat preservation society that I belong to, a geologist was showing us some small wetlands that he'd discovered in this area that needed to be protected, and he showed us the geology that created them. Iowa's ancient geology was formed by this area being at the bottom of shallow, inland seas, but most of what we see at the surface was created by a series of glaciers that covered much of the state. The most recent glacier was the Wisconsin, which finally completely retreated only about 13,000 years ago. Most of eastern central Iowa geologically is what's called the Iowa surface; an area intensely eroded by the glaciers, leaving a region of gently rolling land, with long, low hills (called pahas) that consist of glacial till covered by wind-blown, fine glacial dust (called loess). It happens that our property is at the very southern edge of this Iowa surface, and sand blew or was washed off the higher hills to our north, forming a large arc akin to an underground beach; the sand is under clay since in the last post-glacial 13,000 years, topsoil formed on top of the sand. Water runs off the Iowa surface and seeps out in low spots in this sandy band, so the pond below us is formed from damming a couple of these seeps.
So, I was right, after all, that sand was dumped on our land; I was just wrong about who did it, and I was off a little bit on the time scale...
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Monday, September 24, 2007

The Cost of Development

Our garden is, of course, laid out in a woodland... not a pristine virgin forest, to be sure, but rather a very brushy second growth scrub woods. Still, it provides a dense, leafy, cool oasis, with a rolling contour and a nice pond all along one side. When I first started the garden, it was just a few little patches of flowers, and otherwise basically a walk in the woods. Over the years the cultivated parts have become more extensive, so that its now almost a cohesive garden in the woods. I just finished converting one of the last sections of meandering dirt path into a bark-chipped walkway... this part of the garden is little developed otherwise, being mainly woods, but the path winds along the pond, then down into a ravine and across a bridge.
On the one hand it's nice to be able to now walk all around the garden without spilling your drink by having to bend over to get under branches, but on the other hand, you always lose something by development; I've lost some of the sene of mystery in the garden, by clearing brush... I wonder if people will still get lost out there. Of course I also worry about destroying bird habitat (though only an acre of our woods is garden). I comfort myself by the knowledge that if we hadn't bought this land, it would be all houses now, with the hooting of the barred owls replaced by the roar of riding mowers and the whine of air conditioners.
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Sunday, September 23, 2007


When the colchicums start popping up everywhere in the garden it is a bittersweet moment, for there is no other way to cut it; it signals the beginning of the end of the gardening year. The geese are starting to practice formation flying, the white pelicans are already migrating through on their way to the Gulf, and every breeze brings a few leaves fluttering down. However, it's not a bad way to go out.
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Saturday, September 22, 2007

A Bigger Stink: Ravenel's Stinkhorn

Well, I'm glad nothing died in the garden this morning; it's just Ravenel's stinkhorns opening up. A few weeks ago I talked about the dog stinkhorns which were bestowing their malevolent perfume on us at that time, but they are pikers when it comes to odiferousness; Ravenel's stinkhorn is bigger and definitely stinkier, with its white stalk and large, olive brown slime head. The mushrooms arise quickly from pink sacs that are popping up in the decaying wood chips on the paths and flowers beds... these sacs look for all the world like a flower bulb that a squirrel unearthed and abandoned; you will only pick one up once.
When the stinkhorn lofts its slimy head, it's like ringing the dinner bell for every fly and beetle in the garden, and the sticky brown goo quickly disappears, smearing the diners with spores in the process, which they carry to other stinkhorns. It is easy to envy certain attributes of other species; who wouldn't like to have the eye of an eagle or the hearing of a white tailed deer... however I'll definitely pass on the stinkhorn's clever method of reproduction!
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Friday, September 21, 2007

King Of The Snakes

Last night, a three foot long prairie kingsnake (Lampropeltis caligaster) was secreting itself along our front walkway, undoubtedly waiting for a hopping cheeseburger (toad) to come along. These are beautiful snakes, with smooth scales and a grey-tan background, with rich, dark brown blotches. Two linear blotches just behind the head, and one or two rows of smaller, roughly diamond-shaped blotches along the sides, make it pretty distinctive.
Later, when I went back out he was gone, but I knew it was still around, because I heard a plaintive meow and looked up to see P.J. the cat on top of the garage, peeking down. When she finally came down she was, from a distance, keeping an eye on a pile of flattened cardboard boxes laying on the garage floor, so I know the snake went under there. The boxes held our new kitchen cabinets for our remodeling that's just about done, and the contractor mentioned he'd probably take the cardboard to be recycled today. I know Roger isn't keen on spiders; I don't know how he feels about snakes, so I'll have to warn him, as I wouldn't want the snake harmed... I may be moving some cardboard today.
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Thursday, September 20, 2007

Fullness Of Autumn

In the fall, when the goldenrod and giant sunflowers seem almost to reach the blue bowl of the sky, it takes me back to childhood when the world was a bigger, wilder, and more mysterious place... but a place filled with the kindness of familiar faces and the promise of what seemed an endless, unwinding future.
As you grow older, the world becomes somewhat ghostly; crowded with memories and populated by family and friends passed. Yet, the cicadas still buzz lazily in the treetops, and the bees still hum busily in the warm afternoon sunshine, just as they did when I was a boy, and as they will for many years to come... if I close my eyes and listen, I am part of it all; and always will be.
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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Walking Sticks

One of the many advantages of being married to Liz, is that I get to see a fair number of walking sticks, for she has extremely sharp eyes for picking out odd little critters. Walking sticks belong to the insect order Phasmatodea (from the Greek phasma, meaning phantom, due to the unique ability of these insects to "disappear"). There are almost 3,000 species worldwide, with most being tropical or subtropical; the largest is over a foot long and is the longest insect.
Our specimen is Diapheromera femorata, the northern walking stick. I have been under the impression that they are much less common than when I was a boy, but was never completely sure whether that was true or whether I just don't pick them out as well now. However, I'm now convinced they have become scarcer, for I read that a hundred years ago in the midwest, they were so common that they were an important pest; the adults live primarily in the canopies of trees, eating the leaves, and the insects would become so thick that trees were denuded. The walking sticks lay their eggs just by dropping them to the forest floor, and apparently back then they were so numerous it would sound like it was raining. Alas, insecticides and mankind's general careless destructiveness has made the finding of a walking stick an occasion to grab the camera.
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Tuesday, September 18, 2007


Kirengeshomas, or yellow wax bells (there are two species available: palmata and koreana) are seldom seen around here... well, in fact I've never seen anyone else grow one, but I lead a sheltered life. I have to admit I'm somewhat ambivalent about this plant: on the plus side, any plant that blooms here in full shade in September with a nice, lemony shade of yellow has to be a plus... they remind me somewhat of squash blossoms. The leaves of kirengeshomas are maple like, though to me they are somewhat blah; slightly fuzzy and a dull, palish green. It is a very large plant (three feet tall, with another foot of flower spikes), and grows into a large clump. I think my main complaint is that there is an awful lot of foliage for the flowers; it looks very promising in early fall, with fat buds up and down the many tall flower spikes, but then the buds only open a few at a time, with the flowers quickly shattering, so that you have this huge plant with scattered flowers. Now part of this effect in my plants may be cultural: I give them no supplemental water, so they are growing dryer than they'd like: Iowa City is definitely not Honshu.
So, don't let me discourage anyone from trying this plant; maybe I'll go out and look at it again.
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Monday, September 17, 2007

Toad Blue

The subtropical, tender Taiwanese native Tricyrtis lasiocarpa, and it's hybrid offspring Tapei Silk (the latter of which I showed a few days ago), have that lovely amethyst blue color in the flowers that is so gorgeous in the clear fall light. Lasiocarpa is rated at zone 7 by most, and the winter hardiness of Tapei silk for me is still up in the air, but here's a proven survivor that has a touch of blue: this is the well-known Tricyrtis Togen (also spelled Tojen). I believe it gets its slight bluish tint from Tricyrtis formosana, not lasiocarpa; now formosana is only slightly hardier than lasiocarpa, and formosana hybrids overall are about 50-50 in surviving our Iowa winters, but Togen is totally rock hardy. It has large, lovely unspotted flowers that are orchid shading to white in the centers, with a yellow throat. The foliage is also striking in that the leaves are very large for a tricyrtis, and they are less prone to be damaged from hot summer weather (its heat tolerance probably comes from formosana). I could easily be convinced that Togen is one of the best, if not the very best, garden toadies.
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Sunday, September 16, 2007

Fireball Hibiscus: Simply The Best

All the hardy hibiscus have large and lovely flowers, but somebody has to be best, and Fireball gets my vote. It was bred by the late Fleming brothers from Nebraska; the most well known hybridizers of the giant hibiscus. Fireball is more floriferous than others in the group and seems more drought tolerant to me; it never gets watered in my garden, but every year is covered in these glowing burgundy red lanterns. One plant can light up a whole corner of the garden; it asks for nothing in return besides a fair amount of room and sun, though the plant at the top is blooming its head off in a fairly shady spot.
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Saturday, September 15, 2007

Global War(n)ing

We have gone from 80 degrees two days ago to a hard frost last night; the coldest temperature on record for here on this date, breaking the old record from 1929. Two of the last three years we have had freakish, devastating late spring freezes after warm early springs, and the last three years in a row we've had record setting early fall frosts (the current frost is a month early).
This would seem contradictory to the global warming predictions, but apparently it's not just that we're getting warmer, but also that the climate is becoming more unstable... in fact the current cold snap is directly due to a powerful tropical storm that plowed northward up into the Gulf of Alaska, bringing record warmth and torrential rains to coastal Alaska; this accentuated a buckling of the jet stream, pushing a large pool of cold air down on our heads.
So it was fifteen degrees warmer in Juneau, Alaska this morning than here in eastern Iowa. I'm thinking gardening may be the wrong hobby to pursue in the future... I may dust off my old stamp album.
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Friday, September 14, 2007

Things I've Learned

There are a couple of things I've learned this year: spiders, yellowjackets, and snapping turtles don't give a whit about your good intentions. Deer on the other hand, while they put up a big show of indifference, actually very much like being called "Sweetheart".
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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Busy As A...

It would be hard to not know that fall is coming in Iowa; being an agricultural state, the signs are everywhere, and it only adds to a sense of urgency to try and get everything done outside... I'm just working my way down a ridge in the woodland nature preserve, removing tangles of thorny multiflora rose, and have hopes of cleaning up another ten acres before the snow flies. The garden beckons with an ever-expanding list of things I thought I'd get done this year, which are still in the conceptual phase, so to speak.
Some things are inevitably neglected; I know that a number of interesting new garden blogs have linked mine, and I will sit down one day and update my links in return... but it will take a cold, rainy day to get it done.
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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Monarch Butterfly

The monarch is sort of the robin of the butterfly world; so commonplace it is easy to take for granted, but beloved by everyone, and it would be missed greatly if it were not here (which, if habitat destruction in Mexico continues, may happen). In August, the monarchs start packing their bags, and then slowly move south; they travel up to 2,000 miles to Mexico for the winter, congregating in huge numbers in certain wooded mountains in that country. It absolutely amazes me that any of them make it, when you consider the number of busy roads they must cross on their journey; I always feel badly when I'm driving along and one of them flutters helplessly in front of my car... it was on a two thousand mile journey, and I whapped it before it even got out of Iowa. I've tried to make up for it by having a couple of patches of milkweed.
You can tell the male and female apart (the butterfly above happens to be a male) by the female having thicker black lines on the upper wings... once you see the difference, it's easy to tell even from a distance.
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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A Minor Obsession

Toad lilies have been a minor obsession of mine for many years. When they first became available, I think perhaps two species were offered; now a broad array of varieties and species are listed, though this is another of those plants where the same thing may be offered under a couple of different names; apparently the taxonomy of tricyrtis is quite muddled, and it hybridizes so readily that many plants offered as pure species, are not. Most of the toad lilies will grow here, but two species from Taiwan (formosana and lasiocarpa) not surprisingly, usually fail to re-appear in the spring. Unfortunately these are two of the loveliest, most exotic-looking species; hybrids involving them are a mixed bag in terms of hardiness. Basically the more the hybrid resembles its tender parent, the less likely it is to grow here.
A newer hybrid of lasiocarpa is Tricyrtis Taipei Silk, pictured at the top, which carries that wonderful lasiocarpa violet color in the flowers, and the attractive deep green, upright foliage. It is (I hope) at least somewhat growable here. Tricyrtis Blue Wonder shown in the lower picture is said to have some lasiocrpa blood in it, and it grows like a champ here. However, there must not be a lot of lasiocarpa in it; it does have nice upright foliage and somewhat dark green leaves. The flower form doesn't look much like lasiocarpa and the true "blue" color of the flowers I have only seen in catalogues... besides, there is evidence that the heavy, irregular spotting of the flowers is caused by a transmissible virus.
At any rate, on these chilly, misty fall mornings the toad lilies, tucked into nooks and crannies all over the garden, make for a nice garden tour all by themselves.
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Monday, September 10, 2007

What Not To Do

From time to time in this blog I make suggestions about what people ought to do. Today let me tell you what not to do: when finding a large wolf spider web while cleaning out the greenhouse, don't stick your finger in it and wiggle it to see what happens... unless you relish having a spider the size of a small cat popping out with the intention of turning your finger into a salami sandwich.
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Sunday, September 09, 2007

Carmen Miranda In The Garden

I'm pretty easily amused and pleased... certainly finding this seed head on a jack in the pulpit was to me worth a walk in the woods today; it looks like one of the multi-colored fruit arrangements that used to sit on top of Carmen Miranda's head (you remember her... or, maybe you don't... the Brazilian Bombshell, she called herself, who used to sing and dance around in those old movies, while wearing an arrangement of tropical fruit on top of her head).
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Friday, September 07, 2007

Black Swallowtail

Following a fluttering butterfly about, through thistles and brambles trying to identify it, is not made any easier by the mimics. Butterflies don't mimic other species of butterflies out of admiration; it's a matter of survival. The two most well-known butterflies that are copied are the pipevine swallowtail and the monarch. Both of these butterflies protect themselves by having eaten toxic or distasteful plants when they were caterpillars. The mimics have realized they don't have to eat poisonous plants; they just have to look like they do... they copy the appearance of the monarch and pipevine butterflies, even though their caterpillars spent their days eating luscious clover and coreopsis. The monarch is copied by the viceroy, and the pipevine works so hard at being toxic that it has no less than five mimics: the spicebush swallowtail and the black swallowtail are two close copiers. The tiger swallowtail female is normally as yellow as a buttercup, but in geographic areas where its occurrence overlaps with the pipevine it exists in a dark form like its toxic cousin. The red spotted purple and diana fritillary aren't even swallowtails, but also hop on the bandwagon, minus the tails (the fritillary is dimorphic, where the male and female look quite unalike; the male looks rather like the previously pictured great spangled fritillary, and the female looks like a big, blue pipevine).
Well, I'm calling the above butterfly a male black swallowtail... I think.
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Thursday, September 06, 2007

Getting Out

"I don't do annuals" seems to be the anthem of the sophisticated gardener. Well, I don't do annuals but it's not, God knows, because of a surfeit of horticultural sophistication... I just forget to buy them. Our garden is very shady (and getting shadier as those cute little trees and shrubs I bought in gallon pots, turn into Godzilla with leaves). It's also a very crowded garden, and so in my defense, there aren't loads of bare, sunny areas crying out for petunias. However, I confess that the main problem is just that in May and June, when it's time to slip in a few flats of annuals, I have too many more pleasant distractions, and I forget about that trip I planned to the parking lot at WalMart.
This spring, though, I went to a garden roundup where everybody brings a bunch of plants to exchange. I don't really go for the plants, but rather to meet other folks, and to spend the afternoon eating the Snickerdoodles that somebody brings. I did, at the last minute pick out a bunch of coleus starts, which I popped in here and there in the garden. Well, they've now grown into clumps of bright color, rather like stained glass windows when the coleus catches rays of sun penetrating the high canopy of the trees. Shady perennial gardens like ours can get pretty dull in late summer, so the splashes of color from the coleus is a welcome addition. I guess I'm getting too set in my garden ways... I need to get out more.
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Wednesday, September 05, 2007


People from other parts of the country think Iowa is flat (that is, if they don't think Iowa is where they grow potatoes). Iowa is not in fact flat for the most part; it is instead a landscape of gently rolling hills. Not mountains, to be sure, and probably not even real hills in the eyes of New Englanders. The contours of our land have been smoothed and worn by eons of wind, water and ice. Iowa is underlain by an old sea bed, with outcroppings of the resulting limestone filled with the fossils of the creatures that lived in those ancient Cambrian waters 250 million years ago.
More recently, in a geologic sense, huge glaciers creaked and groaned down from the Canadian Shield, scouring the land and pushing up long piles of glacial till. When the ice melted, torrents of silt-laden water poured down what would be Iowa's river valleys. That such violent forces should leave us with the benign and quietly beautiful spot that we live in, is a testament to the healing abilities of long stretches of time.
In this last month of summer, with cornflower blue skies, and air that fairly vibrates with heat and sunlight, the undulating hills of Iowa glow with legions of bright yellow prairie flowers. As the sun westerns, this glow turns from yellow to gold, and finally fades reluctantly as the owls awaken from their slumber. It is a lovely time and place... it is September in Iowa.
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