Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Christmas Traditions

Christmas Tree Tradition: Dedicated to Sherry, 
Christmas Decorating Queen of Northeastern Colorado

The Year of the Cardinal

I can’t say that I have been putting off writing the last few weeks because I have been busy finishing up the semester at the University of Northern Colorado. My work is done now. I can turn off my mind for a few weeks. Let the decorating begin. Let the celebrations follow. It seems that once I have grades posted I spend the days up until Christmas getting ready for Christmas and once the day has passed I spend the days undoing Christmas and getting ready for the next semester.

Today’s post is inspired by Katty’s Cosy Cove and her beautiful pink Christmas tree and her article on the history of the Christmas Tree.

I dedicate today’s post to my dear friend Sherry, the Christmas decorating queen of Northeastern Colorado and her Christmas tradition: A new theme each year.

My dear friend Sherry does a different Christmas theme every year.  Sherry, a retired nurse, began her twenty years of Christmas over 20 years ago. Each year she created a new theme: angels, teddy bears, gingerbread men, crystal, cardinals. I can’t remember them all. Each year she would go all out starting from scratch. I was always amazed at her creative, imaginative ability to do really beautiful Christmas design, new and fresh every year. She always said that she would start to repeat her themes once she retired from nursing. For her sadly that retirement came much too soon and most unplanned. Troubled with back problems since she was 18, one day she stooped over to pick up a sack of dog food and life for her would never be the same. After dozens of surgeries on her back, she now has a quality of life that allows her to do pretty much anything that she enjoys: gardening, scrap booking, cooking, decorating. She has to take her time, rest, and not over do, but she always gets things done. Sherry surely is an amazing woman-- steadfast in her faith, creative in thought, loving, nurturing, inspirational, and the best friend. She is not particularly as sentimental about her decorations as I am; she is more in tune with her creative side and being different, always looking for new, more interesting ways decorate to make her home a peaceful, beautiful sanctuary. I, on the other hand, stick to the same stuff year after year.

A couple of years ago we made gingerbread houses. 

She had enough stuff to make a village.

Sherry's finished gingerbread house (made out of graham crackers)

Mine -:(

We have spent Thanksgiving week-end the last 8 or 9 years with our good friends since they moved from Northern Colorado to Northeastern Colorado, about 90 miles away. Her husband's family farms over 10,000 acres of wheat and corn. On Black Friday, my husband and I drive to their home, taking the dog. G and the dog may do some pheasant looking or  G. and Dave may take a trip to  Cabella's (a huge sporting goods store in Sidney, NB), while Sherry and I shop Sterling, CO when I make my annual trip to Walmart,  Barb's, a great little gift shop, Ace Hardware, any other little shops that call to us. 
And we have lunch. There aren't many little shops left in Sterling; the recession has taken its toll on the America's main streets, especially those lovely little speciality shops. 

Some years we help her put up her tree, and we end the week-end with her prime rib roast. We leave our friends having eaten too much, shopped just enough, laughed a lot, and in the spirit to enjoy the holidays.

Next year: The Year of the Teddy Bear. 

Merry Christmas, Dear Friend. 

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Hark the Harold Angel

Carolyn over at Christmas Past and Present  and Aiken House Garden is putting me in the Christmas spirit, a bit early for me, since I cannot really focus on decorating, baking, or even serious shopping until I have graded my last final exam and posted grades. Then I am in high gear. I have always loved to bake and decorate Christmas cookies, though I have slowed down some. Last year I did try a new goodie for the grandkids. Each Christmas we have a Christmas party for the little ones when Santa makes a special pre-Christmas visit. The kids get so excited. We have 4 grandchildren. The boys are 7 and 19 months and the girls are 4 and 2. We also invite children of friends with sometimes as many 13 children to share the joy. I arrange with the parents to drop off gifts before Santa arrives so that each child has a little toy to unwrap. We have had the same Santa for years. He is the real deal.

I always try to have a little goodie bag for the kids, too. Last year I made these little ice cream cone angles. They were just so cute. I love Sandra Lee’s “Semi-Homemade” TV show on the food network. I saw her making these little angles and decided that I had to try them. They are very simple: ice cream cones covered with melted white chocolate (I used Toll House white chocolate chips), vanilla wafers for the halos, pretzels for the wings, marzipan for the little heads, shredded coconut for the hair, plus some other simple ingredients. . You should be able to find the marzipan at your local super market in the baking aisle shelved with the pie fillings. You can find the complete instructions for the angels on the food network web site.

I finished the angels by placing them in clear cellophane bags tied with a bit of ribbon. The kids loved them. They make nice, sweet little favors and pretty table decorations. One final note, if you decide to make the angels, read the comments that have been posted to avoid some of the mistakes that others have made. While some complain that the angels aren’t as easy as Sandra makes it look, it is a do-able project. Look, if I can make them, they cannot be too hard.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Lady Bug, Lady Bug Fly Away Home

The Russian Olive in our backyard has been so annoying. We have lived here in The Garden Spot for nearly two years, all the while mulling over whether or not we should cut it down. In Colorado these trees have been declared nuisance trees and are no longer sold. This one seems to have sprouted volunteer at the base of the patio, displacing the stones that form the patio. Previous owners just let it sprout and grow. Now it is a fully mature tree. It is a dirty tree. The leaves clutter the patio and blanket the flowerbeds, while the olives drop all over the place too. I go from being quite annoyed with it and begging my husband to cut it down to enjoying it’s fragrance as it blooms, until the blooms fall, cluttering the patio.

On a positive note, the blossoms perfume the air, the bees pack away the pollen, and it provides the only shade for the patio. It provides a resting spot and smorgasbord for a plethora of birds, from the robins that nested in it this summer—giving it a reprieve from the chain saw—to the tiny warblers that migrate through that pick the bugs from it. Last winter I hung my suet cakes from its branches, which the chickadees and downy woodpeckers enjoyed. I promised that when spring came, it would be cut down. But no, not until the robins had fledged.

And now this week, the Russian Olive is full of ladybugs. Dozens. Hundreds. My aborist/horticulturetist daughter says they may be getting ready to hibernate or they may be laying eggs. We will know next spring, I suppose.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Getting Organized

It’s a quiet Sunday here in the Garden Spot. The grandsons were here for the weekend, and we celebrated the little granddaughter’s 4th birthday yesterday. Today the Denver Broncos are playing the San Francisco Forty-niners in London. Now, I am not an obsessive football fan, but the game is usually on as part of our Sunday ritual. So far the Broncos are playing much better than the whipping they took from the Raiders last week—59-14. What a humiliation. Caught up on school work for the moment, I decided to start a project that I have had in the back of mind for a while, just waiting for a time to actually do it.

I wanted to come up with a better way to organize all of those tags, labels and markers that come with the potted perennials. In the past, I put them in a notebook, most often just throwing them between the covers and not really organizing. So this morning I began copying the tags by using the copier on my old HP scanner/copier/printer. I am pleased with the results and now will have a smartly organized garden notebook.

First sort your tags. Wipe off any dirt or girt before you lay them on the scanner bed. You can organize according to the garden bed, date planted, species, color—whatever works for you. Many tags have plant statistics and planting instructions on the reverse side, so I copy the backside as well. I turn the tags over, reinsert the printed page so that it prints on the back and I have preserved both sides of the tag on one sheet. It takes some practice with the printer if you want to line the back of the tag up with the front of the tag on the printout, but as far as I am concerned, it really isn’t necessary. I am envisioning a well-organized plant inventory in a nice notebook where I can keep good records of what grows in the Garden Spot. Happy Halloween.

Saturday, October 23, 2010


I hadn’t had my camera in hand all week, so after grading a set of student essays on my free day, I headed to the front circle garden to see if there if anything was going on. Indeed there was. These late fall days have been warm and dry, and while many of the flowers have faded the Russian sage, rudebekia, marigolds, and blanket flowers still offer a profusion of color and nectar, especially for one stunning young monarch that seemed to have a voracious appetite. I surmised that perhaps it was tanking up for its migratory trip to Mexico perhaps.

I love my Cannon Rebel. I can shoot dozens of shots without worry of how much film I might shoot. To photograph the butterflies, I use my 75-300mm telephoto lens. I find that lens perfect because I can get fairly close and yet not disturb them, shooting as many pictures as I want. Sometimes I use the automatic advance shutter. I also turn of the auto focus because the lens seems to have a mind of its own, focusing on anything but what I want. Quite by accident, I have been able to catch some butterflies in flight.

I download my pictures to my MacBook into iPhoto where I do some editing and cropping. I like to crop the photos as closely a possible to get as much detail as possible. The yellow sulphurs—shot in the late, bright afternoon sun—need the exposure adjusted in order to enhance their already pale yellow color. While the bright orange blanket flowers and rudbekias may see a bit hot, the butterfly’s color warms up nicely. From iPhoto, I open the photo in Piacasa to export it in just the right size for the blog. 

On this venture to the Garden Spot, I shot dozens of pictures of the monarch, sulphurs, and the little blue butterfly. These shots are my best.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The fall days are finally cooler after record heat for September--in the 90s. The first snow of year has dusted the high peaks of the Rocky Mountains, but here on the prairie it is still very dry, having had no rain for six weeks or more. We are hoping for rain, but more than likely we will get snow instead, for it is in the forecast for next week. (Then again the snow— or any moisture—could skip right over us and land somewhere in Nebraska.). My lovely red rose has a half dozen beautifully perfect buds slowly opening. I’d rather leave them on the stem, but if there is a hard frost in the forecast, I will cut them so that they can open inside, or perhaps I will take them work to give to the office secretaries to enjoy—and anyone else who visits the English office.

The green spotted cucumber beetle is probably my last insect photo of the year. Thankfully not as plentiful as the ambush bug, it is, according to the Central Coast Gardening web site, a nasty vermin not to be messed with, for it does a lot of damage. Fortunately I have found only one or two, and hopefully they haven’t laid eggs. I will surely be on the lookout for them next year. The article did mention soapy water as a spray. I wonder if that will work on the ambush bugs?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

After spending all day in the office conferencing with students, when I got home, camera in hand, I walked around the gardens. It was a lovely fall afternoon and plenty of activity and drama in the flower beds. Look closely here and you will see those nasty ambush bugs ready to attack the butterfly.

The Russian sage was alive with bees of several varieties and lovely butterflies. But lurking in the petals were those nasty ambush bugs. I managed to rescue one painted lady from the death hold of the bug; later I discovered three butterflies that were not so lucky. Breaks my heart to see the beautiful, peaceful creatures fall prey to the nasty attack bugs.

As common as these cabbage butterflies are and plain as they are, they still make a pretty picture. I managed to catch this one in flight.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Winter Treats for the Birds:Peanut Butter/Lard Suet Cake

Your backyard avian visitors will devour this mock suet cake. It doesn’t actually contain suet; instead I use lard as the fat. Our feathered friends require more than just their customary diet for the winter. They require fresh water for bathing, not just to stay hydrated. It is important for them maintain clean feathers to insulate them from winter’s cold. We have an electrically heated birdbath that will be installed soon. Birds also require some sort of oil or fat to stay warm and well fed over the winter. I don’t remember where I found this recipe, but the birds go nuts for it. To the basic recipe, I will add whatever I think birds might enjoy: stale nuts (unsalted, of course), dried out raisins, outdated wheat germ, whatever the pantry serves up that might make the cake tasty and healthy. This time, I added the black thistle seeds.

You must be patient, for it may take several weeks for your feathered friends to discover such a treat. Once they discover the cakes, you will be making them weekly, so make plenty. Chickadees, nuthatches, and downy and hairy woodpeckers will become frequent diners, as well as house finches, sparrows, pine siskins, and other seedeaters.

I buy the cheapest, generic ingredients. You will find the lard in the baking aisle shelved
with the shortenings and cooking oils.

2 cups quick cooking oats
2 cups corn meal
1 cup flour

1 cup sugar
1 cup lard
1 cup crunchy peanut butter
Optional: any bird feed mixes

Microwave lard and peanut butter until they are totally melted, stir, add dry ingredients, stir. Pat into a plastic container; press down firmly, cover and refrigerate until cake is hard. Cut, bag, and freeze.  Hang them in trees around the yard, especially close to windows so that you take great close-up photos. I put the cakes in the wire suet holder. I have found the my backyard visitors will prefer the homemade cakes to the commercial seed cakes.

On a final note: While I used my good Tupperware today, I much prefer the Glad plastic storage just because if you slice the container while cutting the cakes, you can just throw away the container. 

Although the vegetable garden has died back, the late summer flowers continue to inspire and there is abundant life in the Garden Spot. The Rudbeckia and black-eyed Susans, both seeded from last summer, still have huge blooms—and those wretched ambush bugs. The roses continue produce strong and luscious blossoms. With the cooler weather (nights at least), the roses seem less stressed. The purple pincushion, the most photographed flower in the yard, now forces one bloom at a time, seeming each the last of the season. I love taking its picture because of the amazing detail in the blossom. I wish I had planted more mums; they must go on the list for next summer, for they provide a rainbow of fall colors. I have ordered my bulbs from White Flower Farms (check out their wonderful web site) and probably not enough. Can a garden ever too many daffodils? Never. Of course, I still have abundant space that needs spring color. My husband did get the 7 sand cherry bushes that the previous owner planted in the middle of the flowerbed moved to the far side of the hay field. We are trying to create more bird habitat at the back of the property. Next, he will remove the 7 junipers that were planted for privacy along the patio. They, too, will move east to join the sand cherries.

Even as summer dies down, there are still plenty of photo opportunities in the Garden Spot. Last Sunday broke with heavy fog and dew, making the various spider webs look like finely crocheted and jeweled lace draped in the blue spruce. I have managed to get pictures of the yellow warblers that are passing through. The warblers are especially hard to photograph because they don’t come to the feeder; instead they flit through the tree leaves, rarely perching making it hard to spot them, let alone get their picture. I listen for them first then using the 300mm telephoto and getting as close as I can, if I am lucky, I will get a decent photo. I love the digital SLR camera with automatic shutter advance so that I can shoot until I get the best picture. Then I use iPhoto to crop and enhance and Picasa to size the photos for the blog.

Next project: Peanut butter/lard cakes for the winter residence. 

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Quiet Gardening Days

It's pretty quiet in the Garden Spot these days with school work and the end of the growing season. The local farmers are beginning to harvest here in Northern Colorado. The pinto beans have been cut, onions harvested, the cabbages and lettuces are coming in. Soon the corn cutters will shave the corn fields clean, and the last cuttings of grass hay and alfalfa are complete. With the lack of gardening projects to report on, I have brought out a couple of last year's lady bug photos to share.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

As Summer Wanes

The long, hot days of summer are growing shorter, but it is still very warm and painfully dry. The leaves have not yet stared to turn, though there are reports that the aspen in the mountains are beginning to turn golden.  The garden is going dormant, winding itself down. The pumpkin, squash, and cucumber vines have died back. The zinnas are fading fast. The cosomos got a late start and I am hoping that they seed before the first frost. I always combine them with dill, for the two make a lovely combination for the pollin collecting critters. The new Garden Spot had some successes: huge pumpkins that the grandkids will love, a plethora of the sweet butter nut squash, acorn, and summer squash, an over abundance of cucumbers. We got the rhubarb and raspberries started. There were failures as well. The tomatoes are just plain dismal. They are very slow to ripen and while there are about 20 vines, the production just didn't happen. There is always next year, and over the winter we will reevaluate and decide what we need to do to have better soil prep and devise a new irrigation system to move from expensive city water to using the well water. Raised beds might be in order to help combat the hideous goat head stickers and Canadian thistle and to give the garden some shape and order. Lots of Round-up, I guess, next spring. Now I need to order the bulbs, for it is getting late and I must have my spring color.

My blog has been accepted to Blotanical. I am quite excited to see how I will rank and to see if I gather any followers along the way. So the pressure is on now to meet the standards set by so many fabulous gardeners, bloggers, storytellers, writers, photographers. While I have lofty creative goals to meet, I must exercise self discipline and not become obsessive in the medium; I do have papers to grade and lectures to plan. None-the-less, I am quite excited to become apart of a wonderful community of those who garden with a passion. Welcome to my Garden Spot.

Monday, September 6, 2010


I left my Garden Spot last Thursday for La Grange, Texas, to attend my niece's wedding held at my brother's and wife's beautiful Texas Ranch in the Texas Hill Country. While it is still quite hot in Texas (our northern Colorado home is just as hot--high 90s--, we just don't have the humidity), the countryside is beautiful to visit. My daughter and four year old granddaughter traveled with me. We stayed at a working quarter horse ranch that also doubles as a bed and breakfast. It was there at the B & B that I took the pictures of the beautiful butterflies. While we do have the black swallowtail butterfly here in Colorado--I plant dill and zinnas to attract them--they are half the size of the one I photographed in Texas. Even the yellow swallowtail looked a bit different than ours, deep color, I'd say. I was particularly put out at myself. In June when we visited my brother's ranch, my goal was to photograph the cardinals that are plentiful in his woods, but they are nearly impossible the photograph in the wild. I left my camera at my brother's since we were only sleeping at the horse ranch. The next morning at breakfast my daughter called my attention to the cardinal at the bird feeder! And no camera. There are several nesting pairs at the horse ranch that regularly visit the feeder. Rule one: always take your camera to the garden with you, and now I guess even to breakfast if there is a near-by bird feeder! Well, I will just have to return to Texas. Our B & B hosts were wonderful, the accomodations classic western decor, and a lovely garden in which to photograph flowers, insects, and those beautiful red birds. Now it is time to return to the classroom an daydream of the next vacation to Texas.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Survivor: The Dark Rose

If I were to hold a contest inviting all of my lovelies to enter various categories—hardiest, most neglected, best tended, most beautiful, most perfect, and best survivor—,
the  winner would come from the last category, Survivor, and it would have to be this dark red rose, whose name has been lost and forgotten. She is a either a Weeks cultivar or a Jackson and Perkins purchased probably 4 years ago at Bath Nursery in Ft. Collins. Looking rather tattered because of the leaf cutter bees and the aged bloom whose weakened stem droops under the weight from the lawn sprinkler, Dark Rose has proven to be a survivor. In order, however, to hold the title, Dark Rose must survive the harsh, dry Colorado winter. We tend to get very early fall frosts and late spring frosts, and very cold temperatures, especially right after the first of the year. Some years we have scant snow; other years we will have blizzards and snow that will stay on the ground for months. Perhaps the worst winter condition here are the very dry winter days. Hard on our skin, hard on our garden plants, hard on newly planted trees, the dryness takes its toll. While we can moisturize our skin and drink plenty of water, we often forget to do important winter watering, which is a real pain. The automatic sprinkler system has been winterized, the hoses drained and rolled up, and we have devoted our spare time to in door winter projects.

But I digress. I wanted to tell Dark Rose’s brief little story. She is a transplant. We moved to this Garden Spot about 18 months ago, leaving behind a well established and well tended garden that included about a dozen roses collected, nurtured, loved, and admired for years. My favorites were the David Austins for their prolific bloom and sweet, sweet perfume. The last rose that I added was Dark Red, a hybrid Tea Rose, costly, not a Walmart special. We had a nice collections of iris and great collection of Oaks’ day lilies. We also had a small assortment of hand-me-downs, plants starts given to us by friends and bits and pieces of green that I collected my dad’s garden before we sold his home. The hens and chicks we transplanted from the old house remind us of  a dear friend who suddenly died. He had proudly dug the clump from the parent group at his front door. I had to have piece of Mike’s hens and chicks here, too. We dug most of the iris and all of the day lilies. All survived the winter and bloomed in abundance this summer.

But the roses. Oh my lovely roses. I decided to leave them for the new owners to enjoy, mostly because they were so large and so well established and planted rather closely together, but we dug Dark Rose because she was young and small.

I told my husband “Get a healthy root ball. They don’t like their roots exposed.”  As he dug and then lifted the plant from the ground, the dry soil around the roots just crumbled away, exposing not just tender shoots, but the main roots as well. None-the-less, we planted Dark Rose at the edge of the back patio. We watered and fed and watched all spring and most of the summer. Looking for the tiny bit of new life that had just broken through the bark before we dug her up in early spring, we kept waiting, but the sprout never matured. I gave up. I told my husband that we might as well dig her up, but he cautioned that we should give her some time. And then she sprouted a new bud, which grabbed onto life and ran with it. Dark Rose had lived.

She has had her trials. Just as she was about to display her first bloom, I knocked the delicate branch with the hose, breaking it off at the base. Another branch sprouted and Dark Rose has bloomed all summer, one gorgeous dark red bloom after another.

Her garden companions did not fare as well. We listed the house the end of May and closed the end of June. We were quite lucky to sell so quickly in a horrible housing market and in a very small town. The roses were at their height of bloom, and I was sure the new owners would tend them and love them as I did.

I dove by the old house the other day. The rose garden was gone. No more to be said, except to say, if you do sell a home and have the opportunity, strip it clean of your cherished and loved plants, for seldom do new owners share our desire and need to nurture a garden. I am glad that the new owners will take good care of the home and they will make it theirs; they paid for it, they can do what they want. I have to keep telling myself that and then I see Dark Rose and I smile.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Learning to Blog

After my first day back in the classroom, I am relaxing tonight and playing with the blog. I have had problems with sizing my photos. I found an article on Gardening Gone Wild Blog on sizing photos with instructions on how to use Picasa to resize photos for the web. So I am trying it to see if it works. And it does seem to work.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Nature Walk

We took a nature hike this morning at the old gravel pits east of Ft. Collins that have been preserved as nature areas. Rich with wildlife from dragonflies to frogs, from Great Blue Heron to Canada geese, the area gives nature lovers a place to go for a nice hike without dogs, bicycles, or fishermen.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Backyard Bullies

As summer winds down, we are finishing up gardening projects and planning new ones for spring.  On Monday I will return to the classroom where my duties there will take most of my energy—good energy. I have solved one garden mystery: identifying a bug that has inundated my flowerbeds. Over the summer I have found dead insects on my zinnia heads. It seems as though the little critters just went to sleep on the spot and never woke up. I wasn’t too distressed to see dead miller moths, but then I began to see dead little bees, and finally a dead painted lady butterfly and then another dead one. Thinking the first butterfly had just reached the end of her life’s cycle, I brought her in the house to perhaps preserve, but then I found another. On a walk through the vegetable garden one afternoon, I watched one painted lady furtively flapping her wings and then fall to the ground dead.

There are many varieties of assassin bugs. Essentially, they are lethal predators in the flowerbeds Not harmful to the flower, they are deadly to other insects—both the good and the bad. After a bit of research on how to control them, I realized that I would just have to live with them. One entomologist wrote that a garden has its own ecosystem and once we tamper with that ecosystem with chemicals, we upset that balance and could end up with worse problems. So I will live with the assassin bugs. Over all the years of gardening I have resisted using any insecticides because I never wanted to destroy the good guys—bees, butterflies, lady bugs, the rare praying mantis (here, anyway)--, so now in this new garden spot I will just have learn to tolerate the assassin bug, the backyard bully the gangster.  In Colorado (and in my garden) we have the Ambush bug (Phymata), a deadly preditor, that lives especially on yellow flowers, where it waits in ambush, or it patrols the petals looking for victims. They kill their prey by pouncing on them or grabbing them with their front legs and then piercing them with a sharp, pointed mouth. Like or not, I guess I will just have to tolerate them.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

In the Beginning

I have just entered the blogging genera. I am sure that it will take me a while to get things figured out. I have been inspired by the wonderful garden blogs that I discovered while researching the care and feeding of captured toads for my 7 year old grandson. The toad photo popped up in Robin's Nesting Place. I was so impressed with her photography and her narrative that I decided that I must start a blog as well. Then I begin exploring the blogs that she follows, and I was hooked. Still concerned with privacy issues in the blog, I decided anyway to migrate from Face Book to a blog where I can really do some good writing. I teach college freshmen English: basic composition, college research paper, and intro to literature. I teach writing; therefore, I should write, but I have needed an audience. So here I am.

Hoping to write about gardening and life in Northern Colorado, I will also be able to share my garden photography. I have seen many wonderful blogs that serve as role models and examples for me to emulate. I am excited about this new adventure. Now I need an audience.

A Rose by Any Other Name

Jackson and Perkins roses have been in the garden for at least 10-12 years. This year they have been spectacular. The bushes were taller and...