Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Happy New Year

We gather around the table, give thanks for the plentiful food, and talk about the weather.

Beyond the sheltered circle of house and barns the world is a bleak and dangerous place for birds. Food is buried and the winds are bitter.

Here are a few Celtic New Year traditions to bring you luck and keep you out of trouble in 2009.

Do open the front door at the stroke of midnight to let the old year out and the new year in.
Do hold a silver coin to bring you wealth in the new year.

Do give your spouse a kiss to welcome in the new year.

Don’t wear shoes which have a hole in them or financial problems will stay with you the whole year long.
Don’t wear new clothes on this day.
Don’t sweep the floor, else you’ll sweep a friend away.
Don’t do any washing, as throwing out water on this day is considered unlucky.
Don’t remove the ashes from the fire or take a burning ember from one house to another.
Don’t let the fire go out.
Don't make any money deals as money made on New Years Day will only bring bad luck.
Don’t carry any debts over into the New Year.
Don’t pay out any money on the first Monday of the New Year.

Wishing you all a Happy New Year. May 2009 see an end to these troubling times.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas lights

A drive around my town on Christmas Eve.

Click on any photo to see lots of detail.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Driving home last night, listening to Christmas songs, I thought about how timeless the lyrics are and how they paint such beautiful word pictures of our collective Christmas memories.

The lyrics to White Christmas were written in 1940 by Irving Berlin and introduced by Bing Crosby in the movie Holiday Inn (1942). It became very popular with WWII soldiers and their families because it expressed their longing to be home with family at Christmas.

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the treetops glisten
and children listen
To hear sleigh bells in the snow.

I'll Be Home for Christmas is one of my all time favorites. It was written the year after White Christmas by Kim Gannon and Walter Kent. It too touched the hearts of soldiers and their families alike. When you listen, it's easy to picture a soldier writing these words to loved ones back home.

I'll be home for Christmas
You can count on me
Please have snow and mistletoe
And presents on the tree
I'll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams

Silver Bells paints a vivid image of busy city streets. Shoppers bundled in coats and mittens hurrying past window displays. Colored lights everywhere reflecting off falling snow. Written in 1951 by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans it was first sung in the Bob Hope movie The Lemon Drop Kid.

Strings of street lights
Even stop lights
Blink a bright red and green
As the shoppers rush home
With their treasures

Christmas carols celebrating the birth of Christ date back to 760AD. They never became popular because they were all written in Latin. Not until 1223 when St. Francis of Assisi started his Nativity Plays in Italy were carols sung in the language of the people listening to the plays. Minstrels traveling through Europe spread the songs, changing the language with each country they visited.

In 1647 Oliver Cromwell came into power and banned carols. People continued to sing them in secret thus keeping them alive until in Victorian times they became popular again.

It would be hard to choose a favorite Christmas carol, there are so many lovely ones. Certainly one of the most beautiful is Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem, written in 1865 by an Episcopal clergyman, Philip Brooks. His visit to the town of Bethlehem inspired him to write a poem. I love this line. No one could ever say it more beautifully.

The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight

It Came Upon a Midnight Clear was a poem written by Edmund Sears, the pastor of the Unitarian Church in Wayland, Massachusetts. Ten years later, Richard Willis, an American composer, created the melody.

Peace on the earth, goodwill to men
From heaven's all gracious King
The world in solemn stillness lay
To hear the angels sing.

Friday, December 19, 2008

You could get a lot of counseling for that much money

One of my 16-year old cats, Hocus Pocus, was running a fever a couple days ago. He felt better the next day, but I decided to take him in for a checkup and maybe some lab work. The vet did routine blood work and decided to x-ray the lungs. An hour later, X-rays back, the vet went off on a new tangent. "The heart doesn't have distinctive edges," said Dr Harbach pointing at the x-ray film with her pen. "We need to do a cardiac sonogram," she advises. I scheduled one for the following afternoon. Well, as it turned out, there was nothing wrong with the cat's heart. (BTW, I changed veterinarians shortly thereafter). The point isn't actually the illness, but the opinions of other people about my spending money on veterinary procedures.

Back at work the next day I told our receptionist about the veterinary visit. Another worker overheard and retold the story to yet more people. Most of them felt it was their job to put me straight about spending money on cats. These were some of their comments:

"You don't spend money like that on cats. You can get another cat for free."

"You're nuts, you need a shrink. You can get some serious counseling for that much money."

"When they get old/sick best to just let them go."

"Cats are not people. It's wrong to spend that money on cats when there are so many people who need help."

These viewpoints made me a little queasy, but mostly they made me mad. Is it just cats that illicit deep resentment or is it all pets? I suspect the sarcasm was directed at me because I gave value to a non-human creature. I'm not exactly shy about expressing myself so I told everyone what I thought about their advise: On the subject of helping people vs animals. My co-workers are driving brand new, ginormous SUV's and telling me to give my vet budget to people. So, I asked why didn't they drive their last SUV for another 10-years and donate those car payments to a good cause? Can anyone, in good conscience, eat lunch and dinner at a restaurant when some poor folks need the meals much more. Why aren't they brown-bagging it and sending the money to the Salvation Army? Nobody agreed with those arguments. It isn't the same thing at all. A new Lexus is a necessity, a cat is a liability. Fancy stuff is important, cats, on the other hand, damage fancy stuff. On and on in that vein. I wanted to ask them to detail their last donations to our Rescue Mission for the homeless, but I bit my tongue.

I've heard the same ideas from pseudo-psychiatry personalities on TV. Pet owners substitute animals for children or human relationships. Isn't it possible to have both? As a child we had pets. I don't think my parents loved me less because we had a couple cats and a collie (altho I was certainly more trouble than all the pets combined;)

I know many of you have pets. What do you think about these arguments? Do you believe people are confused and think their pets are children? Or have they raised their children and now have some additional time and money to enjoy a pet? Or maybe they find raising children with pets helps the children learn empathy and responsibility? Is spending money on those pets somehow taking food from the mouths of hungry children? Do you think people with pets shun their friends and stay at home to interact with animals as a recent publication suggested? I'd be interested in your comments.

I hope everyone has a nice weekend. Stay warm and enjoy your pets--if you have 'em.
See you all next Monday.

Monday, December 15, 2008

If you enjoy hosting birds in your garden

Some wild friends dropping by for lunch this week.

Ms Belle the red bellied woodpecker.

The chickadees are always the first to try a new feeder.

I have found suet dough is one of the best ways to attract wild birds to my garden. Woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees, blue jays, wrens, and others all come to the suet feeder. There is a lot of nutrition and calories in suet so it really helps the birds get through a difficult winter.

I have had really bad luck with the suet dough brands sold in box stores. My birds will not eat the WalMart or box store suet dough. I watch for Kaytee, to go on sale for $.99 a block, it is a favorite. Even raw suet from the butcher will attract woodpeckers but it is usually more expensive than commercial blocks. In places where squirrels are a serious problem, meat suet is the best alternative.

You can also make a peanut butter mixture that will attract birds... and squirrels. There are dozens of recipes starting with an inexpensive peanut butter and adding cornmeal or oatmeal and various things like raisins, lard, a little sugar, nuts, etc. I freeze it in an icecube tray and set cubes outside.

I have two downey females. One is on a mission to drive the other away. Too bad they won't get along, there is plenty for everyone. This is the shy one keeping an eye out for her troublesome rival.

This nuthatch stops for some suet before going back to her job of hiding seeds in my shingles.

The aggressive downey pauses for a snack before continuing the pursuit of her rival.

Enjoy your visitors.

Friday, December 12, 2008

A winter garden

Frozen toes and fingers are forgotten in the magic of a winter garden. Fanciful shapes and sculpture created at the whim of whirling winds. Diamonds dusted atop pristine white. Prisms of ice reflecting color back into the light.

Most of last season is covered and hidden. Only the occasional blackened, withered foliage left to hold a place against the coming of spring.

Mary Oliver's words capture a little of the eerie silence and unnatural light of a snowfall.

The First Snow
~ Mary Oliver

The snow
began here
this morning and all day
continued, it's white
rhetoric everywhere
calling us back to why, how,
whence such beauty and what
the meaning; Such
an oracular fever? Flowing
past windows, an energy it seemed
would never ebb, never settle.
Less than lovely? And only now,
deep into night,
it has finally ended.
The silence
is immense,
and the heavens still hold
a million candles; nowhere
the familiar things;
Stars, the moon,
the darkness we expect
and nightly turn from. Trees
glitter like castles of ribbons, the broad fields
smolder with light, a passing
creekbed lies
heaped with shining hills;
and through the questions
that have assailed us all day
remain--not a single
answer has been found--
walking out now
into the silence and the light
under the trees,
and through the fields,
feels like one.

A tiny snowbird suns himself on the russet stalks of Autumn Joy.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Last summer's garden walks

Last summer we had several garden walks in our area. The gardens were neat and colorful, but none of the plantings really caught my eye. I saw the same Knockout roses, daylilies, and acres of Impatiens. Not that there is anything wrong with these hard working plants. They are just very common and show up on every single garden walk. On the upside, you can't go into anybody's garden and not learn something. I snapped a few pictures of things that were a little unusual. Maybe you will pick up an idea you like from one of the photos.

This first trellis-entry into a back yard is not unusual but very nice. Garden designers go on and on about creating 'outdoor rooms'. This seemed a very good way to define an area and separate it. There is another trellis farther back leading into another 'outdoor room'. I think the rose on this trellis is Ramblin' Red, an excellent climber which is hardy to zone 4 and I believe bred by William Radler, the same man who gave us Knockouts.

The last three photos are of unusual birdbaths. The first one is made from terracotta pots. A few tall, moisture loving plants around it might have softened the look.

This birdbath is cast from a large leaf. I haven't tried this hypertuffa technique yet but I plan to. My rhubarb leaves should make excellent 'molds'. I think I would like this birdbath better if it were set on a concrete post, a tree stump or even sitting on the ground. The aluminum stand looks out of place.

This last birdbath is a little different. It is just a large glass bowl sent into the seat of a chair. I'm looking for the right chair and plan to shamelessly steal this idea. On the ground is a big shell with hen and chicks growing in it. That was cute.

I have more garden walk pictures for a later post.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Gardening Book

The Well-Tended Perennial Garden: Planting and Pruning Techniques
by Tracy DiSabato-Aust

This is one of my favorite gardening books. Not a coffee table book with lots of beautiful photos, but a practical book about perennial care. All the usual perennial information is here. Soil--moist or well drained? Is sun or shade best? Which plants resent transplanting? How often should you divide?

The book also covers things like how to prune your tall perennials to avoid staking. How to prolong bloom time or how to delay bloom. How to extend the life of biennials. When and how to shape your plants for fuller foliage and more flowers.

Ever wonder why some plants open up in the center and how to avoid it? Ever try cutting half your monardas back to get longer bloom at staggered heights? Ready to pull up your floppy Autumn Joy? Tired of staking large plants? Uncertain about which plants can be cut down in fall and which should not? What pruning techniques will cause early flowering perennials to rebloom later in the summer. Tracy has the answers to these and more.

It would make a great gift for any gardener on your Christmas list;)

Monday, December 1, 2008

Peanuts for the blue jays

Had a chance to do some birding over the long holiday. The blue jays have a special table in the garden. Peanuts are their favorite but they eat suet, cat kibble and sunflower seed too. The jays always visit in a group of three. I can hear their calls from far away as they approach the garden.

Grab a peanut and hurry away to hide it. Then come back for more.

They always try to stuff more than one peanut in their mouth. Eventually they settle for one at a time.

They like the shelled peanuts but not as well as the ones in the shell.

Sly sneaks in for some cat kibble while the jays are off hiding their loot.