Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Must See Film: The Future of Food

When I was a kid in grade school and we sang the "Iowa Tall Corn Song" every day (right after reciting the Pledge of Allegiance), I had more than one teacher who constantly drummed into our heads that Iowa was the "breadbasket" of the nation, indeed the world, not just for its corn, but for its other agricultural products as well. The object lesson was, of course, to build up our state pride to provide us with "ammunition" against those who would inevitably denigrate our humble state, since as a state we have had our share of self-esteem issues over the years, deserved or undeserved. But we played a big role in feeding this country and the rest of the world ... or so we were told, and part of me has continued to believe this even as I've grown into the cynical adult I now am.

It was our claim to that quiet nobility of purpose to produce grains and cattle that would help feed people far beyond our borders. That is, until the family farms started to fail and disappear en masse in the great 'Farm Crisis' of the 80's, when corporate agribusiness interests began (much like Wal-Mart did to small retailers) to gobble everything up and where they couldn't gobble their way in, they squeezed the small family farmer to the point of extinction.

A bit of personal history ... I grew up in a small farming community (pop. 1200), and quite frankly hated it for the first 18 years of my life and couldn't wait to graduate from High School and flee to college where I could finally be the person I knew I always was. I've prided myself (perhaps wrongly) over the years for leaving and never looking back, but deep inside me, the agricultural roots were always strong (thank you Dad), even if I didn't liberate them until I was in my 30's and began gardening in earnest, they were part of me and ultimately who I am. I willfully and deliberately "took the Iowan out of Iowa" but I never succeeded in "taking Iowa out of the Iowan," so when I grew disgusted with living in Florida and decided to make a clean break, it only seemed normal to come back to my roots here.

All that as prélude to a film I just watched on Hulu over the weekend ... I have to admit I've become a bit of a Hulu addict over the past few months, due to its incredibly rich selection of TV series and feature films, presented with limited interruptions. (I just recently devoured all 53 episodes of Arrested Development there, much to my delight.) But Hulu has a growing treasure trove of documentary films as well, and just recently added The Future of Food to their listings.

The subject of genetically modified organisms (often called GMOs) has interested me for years due to my innate fears that somehow we were opening Pandora's Agricultural Box in some regards by unleashing genetically modified crops ("Roundup Ready" seeds anyone?). There's just enough of the old hippie idealist left in me that I've always harbored a deep distrust of the huge chemical corporations like Monsanto and DuPont (who bought out the Iowa legacy mainstay Pioneer a few years back) who have now come to dominate American Agribusiness and literally enslave the struggling family farmers who still try to practice their time honored vocation.

That, in a nutshell, is what this film is all about: How, from time immemorial farmers used classical agricultural practices centered around preserving the genetic heritage of plants from generation to generation, with careful selection over the years made to improve varieties of crops naturally without artificial manipulation. Then something rather frightening occurred in (roughly) the 1970's when the technology developed that would allow scientists in the labs to splice genetic code (thanks, Watson and Crick) into plants (and animals) to make them resistant --and even some cases, toxic-- to insects and diseases.

The Future of Food
is another classic case of "follow the money," where these courageous filmmakers have done precisely that and brought to light the ugly underbelly of contemporary agribusiness. From highlighting the saga of a North Dakota farmer sued for patent infringement by Monsanto because "Roundup Ready" soybeans strayed (quite naturally on the wind) into his fields contaminating his crops, to traditional Mexican farmers who are striving against all odds to preserve their corn's genetic heritage from contamination by American seeds, this film documents (quite clinically and calmly) all these disturbing developments caused by GMOs now entrenched in our National (and International) food chain.

This is an important film and really deserves to be seen by a much wider audience. The fact that Hulu makes it available online for free (you don't even need to register for an account to watch this film) is truly a service to the public, and you should take advantage of it, no matter what your take is on the whole issue of genetically modified food and whether we deserve greater transparency about how the foods we buy to eat are produced. It's quite sobering and often scary in its revelations about just how much we don't know about what we are consuming on a daily basis and how these choices may ultimately affect us. Is it worth spending 1 hour and 28 minutes of your time to watch? Definitely. That's about how much time I spent writing this post, so when you have the time to spare, click the link (image) and educate yourselves on this crucial issue. It may change the way you think about your everyday choices when you go to the grocery store....

This film was produced by Catherine Lynn Butler and written by Deborah Koons Garcia (yes, she was Jerry's third wife), two very engaged and aware filmmakers to whom we owe our gratitude for bringing this documentary to fruition.

Here's Hulu's description of the film:
"The Future Of Food offers an in-depth investigation into the disturbing truth behind the unlabeled, patented, genetically engineered foods that have quietly filled U.S. grocery store shelves for the past decade."
I'll step down from the soapbox now and leave it up to you. And, if you've read this far, thanks again for indulging me in one of my occasional tirades. I just thought that this was too important not to write about, especially for those who are inclined to gardening in the first place....

Flowers and puppy pictures will resume soon. I promise!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Of Eyeglasses and Orchids

A while back, I noted that I had just gotten a new pair of glasses after a long wait. What I didn't mention was that they were a "loaner" pair from the store due to all the problems they had successfully filling my prescription. The whole saga was long and drawn out, involving a lot of waiting, frustration and false starts ... when the "loaner" pair finally came in, they were not up to their quality control in terms of how they were fitted to the frames (optically they were fine) due to the thickness of the lenses. In short, I ended up needing to get a slightly larger frame style to accommodate the lenses correctly, but in order to help me out, they gave me the "loaner" pair to wear until the permanent ones came back from the lab. Yesterday I got a call from the wonderful woman who has helped me through this whole lengthy ordeal, letting me know the "real" ones were finally in and I could stop by today to pick them up and get them fitted.

So, on yet another rainy and stormy Sunday afternoon, we headed out today to get my new specs. While I was waiting for my representative to finish up with another customer, both Fernymoss and I had noticed all sorts of people walking by in the mall with really pretty flowers. Of course when you get two gardeners out on a rainy day and they see flowers parading by, there will have to be an investigation. So, while I waited, Fernymoss took off in the mall to seek out where these flowers were coming from ... what he discovered was that an orchid society was having a flower show and sale off in another part of the mall. While I got my new glasses fitted and took care of the last of this epic transaction, he was off slavering over orchids, unbeknownst to me!

I was waiting outside the store, having no idea where he was off to and wasn't about to go wandering off to find him (I know better than to do that now), I grabbed a nearby seat and kept an eye out, until I saw him coming my way with a box with a lot of something purple in it, two new orchids. Quite a few years ago we had a relatively successful try at growing orchids for about two years before we got sloppy and they died (a Dendrobium and a Phalanopsis). This time, however, we vow to do much better with them, because these two specimens are just drop dead gorgeous ones!

This one is an Oncidium (I'll be researching this one) and has about 10 blooms going right now, and with any luck they should last at least another month or so. Both of us have always been bowled over by the diversity of color and "design" of orchids and this one really struck his fancy chord hard, so it was soon Casa IVG bound....

Here's a slightly wider shot of the bloom stalk revealing even more flowers ...Fernymoss didn't get a whole plant shot that he was happy with, so these will have to do for now, but he's going to keep experimenting with shooting these new beauties.

This one is a Paphiopedilum (I'll have to look it up) or "Lady's Slipper Orchid," unfortunately not one of those native to Iowa, but it will make a lovely house plant. Apparently this one on puts on one flower at a time about every six months, but wow, no wonder, when it's as complex as this bloom is! (As always, click through to the large version.)

Here's a wider shot of the whole Paphiopedilum plant and the base of the Oncidium next to it ... they both appear to be incredibly healthy plants, so we'll be giving them extra pampering and give them a place of honor in the north windows of the dining room (where we have a plant ledge). I'll probably have some more photos as Fernymoss experiments with shooting them in different light (these had to be flash due to the lack of light on a late rainy afternoon), so stay tuned!

Puppy cuteness overload time again! Stop and sniff the flowers ...

After the eyeglass and orchid extravaganza, I needed to pick up a few things at the grocery store, where one of my weaknesses took over as I gazed around in the floral department, landing on a couple of different bouquets of one of my favorite flowers, Alstroemeria (aka: "Peruvian Lilies"). Since they were reasonably priced and last an incredibly long time in the house (over 3 weeks usually for us!), I sprang for those in a heartbeat. So we decided, since we were getting flower pictures tonight, to give Hanna a chance to check them out ... and since she loves to sniff absolutely everything, these were no exception! We'll get some better shots of these, because they are truly gorgeous ... all my favorite fiery colors rolled into two bouquets ... what more could one ask for, but MORE???!

Totally unrelated to gardening in any way, but still very relevant to this blog:
I was surprised to see this headline on my USA Today module on Yahoo tonight, but very pleasantly surprised. Check it out:

No plans here just yet, but nice to know that finally, plans can be made!!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Weekend Cinema: Dinner at Eight (1933)

I haven't done a Weekend Cinema post in quite a while, but I'm inspired to do so after watching Dinner At Eight again tonight, not because I don't have the flowers to post (I do!), but because it's such a great example of that elusive Depression-Era genre, the big ensemble social tragicomedy. (Think Grand Hotel, its most immediate predecessor and winner of the 1932 Best Picture Academy Award.)

They just don't make them like this anymore (well, at least since Robert Altman died, and maybe Paul-Thomas Anderson will one day fill those shoes) ... and this one has become one of our favorites, especially because it was such a fun role for Jean Harlow, our favorite of all the sultry early 30's divas. So, whenever it shows up on Turner Classic Movies (TCM), I have to record it and watch it again, and after tonight, I think I'm going to leave it on the DVR for a while, because I want to go back a few more times to savor its multi-layered cinematic pleasures. This film has a lot to say about American society during the Great Depression, although it is firmly couched in the then emerging screwball comedy genre ... which is perhaps an unfair label to pin on this film because it is so much more than just a 30's genre film. If you've never seen this gem, keep an eye out for it (for reasons I'll explain below), but for now, take a look at the original trailer (it's about 3 minutes long).

Original Trailer (1933) -- Click image to play

It's obvious that MGM clearly thought they had the sure-fire successor to Grand Hotel here, given this kind of treatment in the trailer (don't even try to count the superlatives!), but I'd argue that ultimately it is a much better film, at least in terms of how it depicts its contemporary society in the first years of the Great Depression. In many respects, it's a classical comedy of manners with many of its "stock" characters: We have the once rich business family on the verge of bankruptcy, a couple of penniless has been actors, (one of whom still carries on delusionally), a hopelessly philandering physician, a frustrated socialite hostess and a brash, coarse and colorful couple of Nouveaux riches. All the elements are clearly in place for an epic culture clash during a high society dinner honoring some foreign socialites who never show up, thus throwing the whole elaborately constructed party into chaos.

Yes, it was certainly an "all star cast" of its time, with Marie Dressler, Jean Harlow, two Barrymores, Wallace Beery and perhaps the most recognizable voice of any actress of her time, Billie Burke, the future Glinda, the Good Witch of the North from The Wizard of Oz. Though much of the film is devoted to the exposition of the characters' backstories leading up to the climactic dinner, that's where the true interest and richness of the comedy emerges with its subtly delivered barbs and wry social commentary ... as we learn more about each of these characters, we gradually realize that they are all (in today's term) losers for one reason or another, cast adrift in an uncertain economic time where they are struggling to survive.

Inevitable comparisons with our own contemporary economic situation come to mind ... we have a long established family businessman on the verge of being bought out in a stock sale manipulation, two past their prime actors bereft of their previous celebrity (and wealth), and most of all, a predatory business shark (who in today's terms would be a venture capitalist or M&A specialist). What keeps this film's serio-comic depictions relevant is the fact that we all clearly recognize these types, and whether or not we find them particularly engaging or sympathetic characters, we find them entirely believable. And that's what gives this film great resonance for our own times, some 76 years later, as we face an equally uncertain economic future.

I think there are still important lessons here that we can learn: unbridled greed and avarice are not good things, overly affected pretension is a waste of time and effort, humility and staying true to one's own self are much more important concepts, whether we realize it or not, and perhaps most saliently, self-reliance is crucial to survival. There are definitely winners and losers here (and one ends in a suicide), there are survivors as well as those who will eventually adapt to their circumstances and perhaps emerge as better persons. For me, part of this film's brilliance is in its non-judgmental attitude toward all of the characters ... it's left up to the viewer to make these decisions, just as it is in "real life." And that's what makes great comedies of manners (think back as far as Moliere) speak to us across the divide of time: recognition and perhaps identification as useful social correctives.

Lest I make this film appear way too serious in its intent, there are a multitude of comic moments throughout, and if one pays particular attention to the clever script, there are many "zingers" sprinkled throughout its albeit madcap preparations for the big "dinner at eight." All the fun is getting there, as we learn these lessons along the way, all the while we are prompted to think about our own personal situations in the particular moment in which we live. These may be characters frozen in time from 1933, but they still speak to us in our times and have a lot of important things to say.

This final clip contains what may well be one of the all time great one-liners delivered on the screen (in this instance by the inimitable Marie Dressler) with the joyful participation by Jean Harlow. Its ironies are rich and still speak to us today as clearly as they did way back in 1933, during the first term of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Make of that comment as you will....

Click on image to play video.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Pup Pose du Jour

In case anyone has been wondering what Hanna does during the day when I am working in my office, here are a couple of typical shots (at least on days when I can have the window open) of how she satisfies her insatiable natural curiosity....

Usually, in the morning after she's been out and had her breakfast, she nests down in the blanket on the old futon couch I have in here and snoozes off and on, occasionally getting up to see what's going on outside the window....

Later in the afternoon (usually around 3:00-3:30 or so) she stakes out a position at the window, watching some skateboard kids play in the intersection (yes, they really do that!) on their way home from school. So far, she's not impressed with noisy skateboards, and often barks at them until I call her off ... then she grumbles and mutters at me for scolding her about the barking. Then she begins bringing me her toys (spiny bone, Kongs, etc.) to play for a while ... I take little breaks to play tug of war with the bone, toss the Kongs around a bit and then go back to work ... she then settles down and waits patiently until I can quit for the day and she gets her dinner. It's remarkable how patient she is about me being stuck in a chair working all day long as she watches ... I really think she's become aware that this is Daddy working and does her best to be a good girl ... which of course she is! Every day we marvel at how easy she has fit in and thank Pepa for sending her our way ... we know made the right decision at just the right time!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Pearls of Minimal Price

What a difference a Spring day makes in April in Iowa! Yesterday we had mild temperatures in the low 60's and a fair amount of cloud cover most of the day, but today we had plentiful sunshine and a high of 75F, one of those days that gives office bound folks the itch to get outside and enjoy the long awaited warmth.... Fortunately the nice weather lasted until I was done working so Hanna and I could get out for a little bit late this afternoon (around 6:00) to take in the fresh air.... And though tonight's featured flower Tulipa humilis v. 'Persian Pearl' had closed up shop for the day, fortunately Fernymoss had the closing shift today, so he got some sunny shots for us this morning before he left for work, so direct any accolades his way for the photos!

We've been eagerly anticipating these blooms for a couple of weeks now since the foliage first emerged in the boulder bed out by the front steps of our house, and now we're fully enjoying their (albeit brief) spectacular show, which serves as a prélude to the blooms of our larger tulips. These tiny tulips tiptoe into the garden to dazzle us every year, and since I first planted these in 2005, they have been gradually naturalizing into a nice colony among the hyacinths we also have planted in this area. That's one thing I really appreciate about Tulipa humilis ...unlike its larger cousins, if happy, it will naturalize for you and provide even more color each successive year. We have two clumps of these that came from an original planting of 10 bulbs, and they have easily doubled over the past four years, even during times when our Darwins perished in late spring cold snaps (think 2007). They're hardy over a wide range of North America (from Zones 3-8), even though they are native to the rocky slopes of Central Asia. Fortunately for us, we don't have to travel far to procure them for our gardens, and though 'Persian Pearl' is a bit harder to find than other varieties, a quick internet search will turn up at least several nurseries who offer them. (I originally got these from Park Seed, but curiously, they aren't on their website anymore ... maybe in the fall, when they concentrate more on bulbs?)

This shot was taken late afternoon on April 21, by an excited Fernymoss who was looking for them to pop this morning, and pop they did!

Every grouping of flowers always starts with a single bloom, and this lovely example shows just how much Persian Pearl loves basking in the morning sun .... their rich hues of magenta-pink just positively pop when offset by the brilliant yellow centers of these blooms ... and if you enlarge the photo (always click through for a larger version!), you can even see the shadows of the stamens against the center, it was that sunny this morning.

As I mentioned earlier, they like company, and I suspect that these two "twins" represent an older bulb that has produced another, smaller offset that is just blooming for the first time this year. These dwarf or "wild tulips" are sometimes referred to as "crocus tulips" and it's easy to see how they got that nickname, since they seem to naturalize much like crocus do, with smaller progeny appearing very close to the parent bulb....

Here we can see a slightly larger "family" has emerged to join the larger party forming around the Hyacinth (Peter Stuyvesant ... more on him in a later post) nearby. Their bright hues provide a beautiful contrast to the deeper shades of violet-purple of the Hyacinths (see the first shot in this post) and are just what I was aiming for when I originally planted these here. It may have just been a "color hunch" at the time, but it has worked out well over the ensuing years....

This spot is apparently the focal point of the party, at least at this point in time! This is where I concentrated the bulk of the bulbs when I first planted them and used the rest a bit further afar to punctuate the Hyacinths. These are bulbs you definitely want to plant in groups so they don't get lonely ... that's the essential lesson we learned early on with planting tulips: planting one or two here and there just doesn't do them justice --they need the company of their relatives to really shine! (The same "rule" seems to apply to many of the other spring bulbs such as crocus and daffodils.) So if you decide to add these (reasonably priced) jewels to your garden, keep in mind that they do best when surrounded by their peers....

This view features the largest concentration of these beauties near one of the foundation boulders of the bed at the edge of the sidewalk where our steps begin, so they're on full display to anyone passing by. And that's something to keep in consideration should you decide to plant 'Persian Pearl' (or any of its cousins) ... they really deserve a position where they will be seen, and relegating them to a position further back in the perennial border really does them, yourself (and potential admirers of your flowers) a huge disservice. With a flower this small (they max out at about 6 inches tops), they positively demand prime eyeball real estate to perform at their best.

To my mind, these are indeed Pearls of Great Beauty at a Minimal Price (American Meadows is currently offering them at $6.73 for a bag of 15) ... and what's even nicer, they only need to be planted about 4-6" deep (unlike the 6-8" their larger cousins demand), so like crocus and other smaller bulbs, you could potentially plant a good number easily in a small amount of time. If you liked what you saw here, consider adding some Tulipa humilis varieties to your garden this coming Fall!

We'll be seeing the other variety we have planted here a bit later (they're not as early), so stay tuned for the début of 'Little Beauty!'

And speaking of little beauties ...here's the puppy fix of the day (taken on 21 April) ... lil Princess Hanna relaxing after a long walk (25 min + !) last night.....

I call this one "Full Stretch Mode"

"I'm trying hard to stay awake, but the snoozies are hitting me right now!"

Monday, April 20, 2009

Happy Birthday Hanna!

Animated image courtesy of Bull Creek Jack Russells

Today is a special day for Hanna and both of us ... she'll be celebrating her very first birthday! (And her 3+ month tenure as the reigning pup of the house!) On the (albeit) sketchy vet records we got from her Foster Mom (which date from 10/20/08), their best estimate of her age at that time was 6 months, so counting back, that means she was probably born around April 20, 2008 ... so lacking a more precise (or verifiable) date, we decided to adopt that as her "official" birthday. So today, we're going to make her day all about her as much as possible ... when Fernymoss gets home from work, he'll take her on a nice, long walkie and when she gets back, she'll have a special dinner to celebrate ... no cake, of course, but I did stock up on the treats today and we'll likely spoil her rotten tomorrow night and stuff the Kong at least once (if not twice) and give her (even) more cuddles and love than we usually do, so she knows that something special is going on....

Sunday night I realized we hadn't taken any recent "cuteness" pictures of her so I commissioned Fernymoss to come up with something I could post ... We decided to see what we could get by giving her one of her favorite (non-meaty) treats to play with ... a couple of ice cubes! These three shots are the best we could come up with (Hanna didn't seem to want to do "cute on command" tonight!) ... Here she is getting ready to pounce again on the ice cube.

For some reason, here she seems a bit perplexed ... again, one of those moments when we wish we could read what she was thinking at that particular instant....

And here's the inevitable "chomp!" as she's done playing with the ice cube and gets serious about devouring it. I know it's a kind of paltry advance on a birthday treat, but hey, we were trying to force cuteness, and this seemed the quickest way. We just need to be more consistent about having the camera handy downstairs to capture the more spontaneous moments we see every day....

Sunday marked the two week waiting period after the end of her course of medicine for the Giardia parasite she was positive for on her last fecal exam, so we had to collect another sample to take in for analysis. With any luck, I won't hear from the vet's clinic on Tuesday, which means she's clear of the parasite and we can stay away from the vet's until Fall when she gets her rabies vaccine renewed. We really like Dr. B, but the fewer visits we can make out there, the better! She's now totally current on all her vaccinations and has a 6 month supply of her heartworm preventative and we'll be starting the Frontline (flea and tick preventative) as soon as we can get back to Petco and they actually have the one appropriate for her size in stock (last time they were out of the <20 pound formulation).

We also had them scan her microchip today just to make sure it was reporting the correct number (and yay! it did!), because her Foster Mom called me last week to tell me that the clinic where she has her rescue dogs microchipped had contacted her saying that some of them apparently weren't scanning correctly and she wanted us to check, just to make sure that Hanna was registered correctly. So that was a relief ... so if ever she should get lost, she'll be registered with the microchip service, as well as the city (via her license) so she won't ever end up in a pound or a shelter again. It seems like these past 3 months since she came to live with us have just flown by and we feel like she has been with us much longer because she has adapted so well to her new environment. We were just talking last night about how easy the transition has been for all of us ... none of the typical "Marley style" puppy trauma and drama (except for those two "acting out" episodes that happened while I was gone) one usually expects with a new pup. For a little girl who is just hitting the one year old mark, she's remarkably well adjusted and mature and seems to love her new life here with us ... she knows the routines now and is so quick to learn (and loves) new things. We're really looking forward to the summer months when we can be outside with her more and work on some of those agility activities we're planning for her (and get video of that!).....

Once again, we can only consider ourselves truly fortunate that she came into our lives when she did, because she has brought nothing but joy and energy to help fill the void left by the departures of Pepa and Rolly. Of course, I remain convinced that they and my previous dog Coco had their paws in the whole adoption ... if there's such a thing as doggie Guardian Angels, they are certainly watching over her and helping her chart a great and very happy path....

In my previous post, I had mentioned that on Friday I had started to get some shots of the gardens after work, but didn't get very far before Fernymoss got home from work ... so here's a couple of pictures of just how floriferous the Daffodils have become over the past few days ... after taking what seemed forever, they now seem to be popping all at once! The Tulips and Hyacinths aren't too far behind, and I've been seeing some Tulip buds setting on, and the Species Tulips (the dwarf varieties) should be blooming in just a few days, so you can expect to see those beauties soon!

This time of the year is what makes the whole effort of planting bulbs worth it ... seeing our old friends return in force to spread their color around the garden areas ... of course, like any of the flowers we have, it's fleeting, but these are the times to savor as the real gardening season gets going in earnest. On Saturday, we saw that our favorite garden center (located at a local grocery store where we shop) had opened up with their first stock of the season. They don't have a whole lot yet, but they did have some exquisite Pansies and organic peppers and herbs, so we picked up some Serrano peppers (which are hard to find around here for some odd reason) and a new "giant" variety of Italian Flat Leaf Parsley (the only kind to plant) that we're going to get planted very soon. Given the pathetic performance of our peppers the last few years, I think I'm just going to plant these in large pots this year and see what happens. The Parsley will go in the ground in the herb bed next to the patch I got started from seed last year. Pretty soon it will be time to plant the Cilantro and Basil, once we're more confident that there will be no further frosts (never a sure thing here in Zone 5a until well into May).

Yes, FARfetched, things are really revving up here around Urban Oasis, so there's going to be plenty more to report on in the coming months.....

Friday, April 17, 2009

Sunny Friday Bulbular Delights

Finally, Friday arrived ... with abundant sunshine and a balmy high of 72F, perfect for bringing more Spring bulbs forth to join the colorful parade around Casa IVG, and here I was, stuck inside working furiously at finishing a report for work. Hanna and I were both antsy to get outside to enjoy some of the first truly warm weather we've had (except that anomaly of the first day of Spring), yet trapped inside (albeit with heat off and windows open!) until 6:00 p.m.....

Just as we eventually managed to get out to survey the progress of the bulbular show (I was walking Hanna on my tour around the gardens), Fernymoss came home from work and interrupted my attempts to get some shots of what's currently blooming ... but never worry, tonight I'm pleased to present some of his work from late yesterday afternoon, when he got home earlier, so any comments on the photos are all for Fernymoss.

Alas, the Crocuses are starting to wind down for the season now, ceding the stage to the Daffodils, imminent Tulips, Hyacinths and others yet to arrive (Wood Hyacinths, Camassia, Alliums, Fritillarias). Though it's a bittersweet transition for me, I take comfort in the fact that many of last year's planting are still coming up here and there, especially in the Woodland Garden, so their time is not yet over, though their most dramatic plantings in the front are quickly fading to clumps of foliage.

This shot is, of course, another planting of 'Pickwick' (Giant Crocus), and if you look closely (click through, as always, to the larger version), you'll see that we're not the only Crocus admirers in the garden ... you can spot small leaf hoppers and flies on the flowers here, and down at the bottom left, it appears that someone has been munching on the blooms, probably a rabbit. Whoever it was, at least they didn't devour the entire stand of flowers!

This shot is yet another planting of 'Pickwick' ... as I promised in an earlier post, we have a lot of these charmers planted in various spots around the front Boulder Bed and in random spots in the Woodland Garden. In the background you can see a rather tardive yellow Snow Crocus coming up, undoubtedly another of last Fall's planting. I can only imagine how this spot will look in a few years when both varieties have had a chance to colonize a bit ... it should be quite impressive!

This is another one of the "new" plantings from last Fall ... and I really like the pairing we got here, with the delicately purple veined white trying to compete with the flashier 'Pickwick,' by no means failing in the attempt, but providing a subtle, yet complementary contrast with its showier cousin. Again, I'll be delighted to see how they increase over time, amplifying this pleasing effect!

And now, for something totally different! These are, of course, perhaps our favorite early Spring blue flower, Scilla siberica, which has been gradually colonizing areas of the parking at the front of our property. This year, it has definitely increased its coverage of the area, but has yet to achieve the true "drifts" that we see in others' yards around the city ... but it's steadily getting there! It's often difficult to get a "head on" shot of this flower, but the rear ends are equally lovely ... and note the luscious purple stems leading up to these exquisite blue flowers....

Here's another view of our growing "Squill Colony" in the parking by the sidewalk....

And this shot is of the "surprise" colony emerging by one of our (sadly diminished) plantings of Tulips in the corner Boulder Bed ... I think this was Fernymoss' handiwork from a couple of years ago when he was "Squilly Seeding" the bulblets produced from those planted elsewhere, but no matter where their origin, they're certainly welcome here! And curiously, we have yet to see the Grape Hyacinths (Muscari armeniaca) coming up here ... there are a lot planted around the Tulips, but we have yet to see any signs from them so far ... more winter casualties? We'll see what happens....

And finally, here's a Daffodil bud that just screams out "Feed Me!" for some reason ... it's one of the many we have planted in a sunnier area of the Woodland Garden and they're rapidly advancing into bloom by the hour, it would seem. When I went out today, there were at least 20-30 in full bloom, so they're just beginning to announce to the world that Spring has truly arrived! I'm glad to see them providing such a big splash of color, and just hope that this year no one decides to "poach" them ... We never cut them to bring inside because we feel they should complete their cycle as Nature intended, and think that in a small way we are helping the neighborhood celebrate Spring with us. Maybe when we have them in the hundreds (if I live that long!), we'll use them as cut flowers, but until then, they're part of the gardenscape!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Here Comes the Sun ...

The sun finally made a welcome return to Casa IVG today, along with a high of 65 (!), and proceeded to bring about a few minor miracles in the garden, among which was the opening of our first two Daffodils (at long last)! I can't decide whether I get more excited about seeing the first crocus or daffodils or tulips (okay, I'll fess up, the crocuses rule my world), but somehow for me Daffodils signal the true arrival of Spring and the promise of all the flowers to come over the growing season....

These are the first two blooms of many yet to come ... years ago I planted some of our first Daffodils in a "tree ring bed" in the parking of the northeast corner of our lot and though they've been faithful bloomers for us (though once they did skip a year) ever since. Until this year, that is. Where there used to be about 25-30 bulbs, there are now only two remaining. Now, whether this is due to "natural" causes or something more nefarious, I have no idea. I've mentioned in previous posts (from last year) that there was a huge Daffodil die-off in Des Moines last year, though ours appeared to be spared, so perhaps this year it was our turn to take our lumps. Fortunately the 150 or so naturalizing daffodils we planted in 2005 in the Woodland Garden are thriving and multiplying and currently budding out, so you'll be seeing those soon. In any case, these first two are the "Dutch Masters" variety I planted back in 2000 (yes, they were Martha Stewart bulbs, lol) and I think they're one of the prettiest varieties ... real classics of their kind.

Let's move in for a closer look, shall we? I took these shots in the late afternoon sun, and I love capturing the glow and shadows this particular lighting gives these blooms....

I also revisited the Chionodoxa today, hoping to get a better shot that would capture a more accurate blue hue ... well, this is definitely an improvement over the one from Sunday, but still doesn't quite render the correct shade (they should be a bit darker). I guess I'm going to have to pull out the manual and read up on setting things manually as FARfetched so helpfully suggested in the comments of my previous post. (Thanks, FAR! You're a pal!) I'll keep at it until I get a shot I'm happy with, or else resort to some tinkering with the image with my photo editor. (Of course, my preference is to get the most "natural" shots I can.) One thing I neglected to say about this particular bulb is that it also comes in shades of pink and white, for those so inclined to those colors ... we're fans of anything blue in the garden, so we only planted the blue variety ... so stay tuned for many more shades of blue to come....

This lonely white crocus appears to be one of our Van Bourgondien Snow Crocus Mix that was planted last fall, because I don't recall seeing it in this particular spot before this year, but am happy to welcome it to the party! You can see the remnants of some Snow Crocus 'Dorothy' petals at its base, but apparently Fernymoss just popped one white into this particular planting. I guess that's a sign of things to come, because as the yellow crocuses are the first to appear, they also are the first to depart the scene ... farewell, my fiery lovelies, I'll be glad to welcome you back again next Spring and make sure to bring lots of your friends and relatives along with you!

As you can see, we still have a lot of raking and clean up to do in the Woodland Garden, but weekend weather just hasn't permitted much work the past few weeks (cold, rainy and even snow) and since Saturday is supposed to be rainy (again!), we may not get to this area until Sunday at the earliest. Still, this hasn't impeded the emergence of one of our favorite Columbines, the 'Alpine Blue.' There are a couple of others still to show themselves, but I'm sure once we get the leaves cleared out, they'll show up (I suspect they're still lurking underneath). In a way, it's probably just as well we didn't get to this area back on that great sunny weekend a while back, because we have had several cold snaps since then, but those now seem less likely as April slithers to a close....

Here's another 'Pickwick' crocus planted last fall ... now I'm beginning to see what Fernymoss did that day I was sick and couldn't help plant them ... I'm seeing the lone one or two crocus popping up in all sorts of odd spots around the place! Though I would have preferred planting at least 3-4 at a time, I'm sure that given a few years, we'll have some nice little colonies developing, so I just need to temper my impatient Leo ways and be patient until that happens....

While I was out taking these shots, I left Hanna on the porch so she could at least see what I was doing and keep tabs on the neighborhood goings on while I was occupied. The next two shots were impulse photos I took as I opened the porch door to go back inside ... there was such an adorable puppy waiting for me that I just had to give her her due. I've found that since Hanna is such an energetic dog who moves all the time, the best way to capture her is to put the camera in continuous shooting mode and just snap away ... so here are two of the results.

Why can't I go out and run around out front with you Daddy? I'll be good!

That was not the answer I wanted to hear! Remember, I'll be one year old on April 20! I think I'm a big enough girl!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Cloudy Spring Potpourri

We've definitely been pretty sun starved the past several days and yesterday (Easter) and today were no exceptions ... but still, I had to try to get out for a little while yesterday, as the temperature dropped and the winds whipped up, just to try my hand at getting a few shots of what was valiantly blooming. Some of the Giant Crocus are now done and gone, thanks in no small part to the gusty winds ... but others are rising to the occasion to replace them, as are our other early spring bloomers, such as this Chionodoxa forbessi ('Glory of the Snow') that I showed a glimpse of in my previous Crocus post from last week.

It may be the 'Glory of the Snow,' but for the amateur flower photographer, it might as well be nicknamed Le désespoir des photographes ('Photographer's Despair') because of its stubborn refusal to be captured accurately (color wise) by the camera in most situations! As I mentioned in my previous post, for some reason I have a terrible time getting the right shade of true blue from this gorgeous little ephemeral that graces the front boulder bed every spring. Of course, yesterday was insufferably cloudy and it was late afternoon before we got home and I could get out with the camera, but still ... to my eye, it was its usual glorious blue! So I said what the heck, these won't be the best photos I'll get, but I need to get things chronicled one way or another, so here's one of the shots I got of the several colonies we have established out in the front boulder bed. As you can see, it looks a little bleached out and more lavender than blue, but this was in natural light with no flash (which would have made them look even worse!) ... so go figure. I'll try again later this week when the sun is supposed to return at least briefly and maybe I'll inadvertently discover the holy grail....

I'll just mention one more time that this is a great early spring bulb -- gorgeous, inexpensive, very hardy (Zones 3-6), and a great naturalizer that multiplies very quickly. (These were planted in clumps of 5-6 back in 2005 and at this point have almost tripled in number.) If you don't have this little beauty in your garden currently, you'd do well to consider a few mass plantings with your spring bulbs ... they're small, about the size of snow crocus, don't have to go down too deep and you can plant a good number in a short amount of time. I've been thinking about getting 50-60 more of these in the Fall and doing a couple of big plantings with assorted crocuses, since finding a real blue in crocus is a challenge ... think how lovely a 2-3 foot space filled with all of these would be ... a real spirit booster after a long winter!

Here we have another one of our very favorite early spring ephemerals, Scilla siberica 'Spring Beauty,' commonly known as Siberian Squill. It's another of the truly blue spring bulbs you can plant, with lots of great features: it's incredibly hardy (Zones 3-9), it naturalizes freely over time (though not as fast as we would like) and is just a joy to behold for the brief time it is on the stage. This particular clump was not intentionally planted here amongst the tulips ... well, I mean we didn't purchase these bulbs and put them there deliberately, though I suspect that Fernymoss had a hand in this particular planting. (I think he plucked some mature bulblets from other plants and tossed them over here a few years ago ... à la Fernymoss Squilly Bulb.) You see, Scilla siberica has a great naturalizing strategy ... after the blooms have faded, they turn into litlle "bulblets" that eventually weigh down the stem and fall to the ground and work their way into the soil (well, usually we give them a bit of an assist by digging a little hole for them) where they can advance out from the parent plant.and come up the following year. That's how you sometimes see, in fortunate gardeners' yards and gardens, huge drifts of blue appear when they bloom. That's what we have been aspiring to since we first planted them, and at present, we do have a pretty good colony going out in the front parking. Right now, they are just starting to bloom, but I'll feature them soon when they are a bit more prominent ... but we've had to be patient, because the soil in the parking is very poor and hard, so I think it has slowed them down a bit. They're an outstanding spring bulb to introduce to your garden if you don't already have some planted ... we also have over 100 of their larger cousins Hyacinthoides hispanica (formerly known as Scilla Hispanica or 'Spanish Bluebells') planted around the garden and they are starting to come up in droves right now, though they probably won't bloom until early May. I spotted some substantial clumps coming up yesterday and was thrilled to see that they have yet again multiplied their numbers over those we had last year, so you'll be seeing those when they burst into bloom....

Finally, here's another planting of Crocus 'Pickwick' (which I've featured previously), which though obviously not happy with yesterday's weather, was hanging in there despite the cold and wind. I think this clump was planted about 2-3 years ago, due to its placement and the number that have come up this year ... we're seeing more and more of the crocus on the northern exposures blooming now (where it stays colder and less sunny than elsewhere in the front), so the season's show is far from over at this point! Consider this post just a snapshot from some very cloudy days, looking forward to more sunshine that will bring the rest of our spring friends into bloom ... I guess we're just having to be ultra patient this year, given Winter's stubborness about leaving. Patience is just one of those traits that the gardener has to cultivate, otherwise we just set ourselves up for infinite frustrations!

And speaking of patience on another front ... I finally (after a 1 month+ wait) got my new glasses late last week (first pair in 10 years) and I'm having to really be patient adjusting to them. I had to get bifocals (my first pair since 2nd grade) again and though it's great to see clearly at distances again, the up close work has been challenging so far, but give me a few weeks to adjust and I hope I'll be back to as good as I can be (with my complicated prescription). I know one thing: it's going to be less of a crap shoot when I take pictures now! I'm looking forward to that....

Friday, April 10, 2009

Much Ado About Teabagging

WARNING AND DISCLAIMER: Though there is no nudity shown in these video clips, the subject material may skirt the boundaries of some people's conceptions of "polite company" and is a bit on the risqué side. However, if you're a fan of the clever use of double entendre, you'll likely find the following video segment from tonight's Rachel Maddow Show positively hilarious. We saw it in real time and we both laughed so hard that I was in tears by the end....

If you're not familiar with Rachel Maddow or her nightly news and commentary show on MSNBC, let me tell you, she's probably the smartest and funniest woman you'll ever see commenting on current events and politics. We watch her program religiously (she follows my other media idol, Keith Olbermann every weeknight on MSNBC) and tonight, she just totally broadsided her audience with this segment called "Insanitea." Watch it and let her explain about the current Wingnut obsession being promoted by such esteemed arbiters of political thinking as FAUX NEWS, Glenn Beck, Michelle Malkin and others of their ilk. If you've never heard the term "teabagging" before, don't despair, because although Rachel never explains what she's really talking about, I'll do it for you after the segment. (Click on the image to play the video.)

Honestly, I don't know how Rachel managed to keep from totally cracking up while she did this piece, and her guest Ana Marie Cox did an excellent job of providing wry and knowing counterpoint to the whole segment. I couldn't have restrained my laughter had I been doing this commentary, so kudos to both these smart and sassy women!

Of course, Rachel's whole point here is to expose the sheer insanity of the "teabagging" and "going Galt" mini-movements sweeping the ultra-fringey "conservative" movement, and her basic argument is (as it often is when she comments on such matters) that they just have no idea what they're talking about. And doing this commentary tonight is a perfect example of how much fun it can be to shoot proverbial fish in a barrel. Ever since I read about these "Teabag Parties" and FAUX, Beck and Malkin's encouraging their followers to "Teabag Obama" or "Teabag the Democrats Before They Teabag You," I've chuckled many times thinking: Do they have any clue what they're saying and promoting? Thank you, Rachel, for bringing this to a wider audience and delighting your fans. In fact, when I decided to write this post tonight, I immediately tried to go to MSNBC to see if they had the video posted. It appears that they are being totally slammed (or having some other kind of outage) and I couldn't get the site to load. So I Googled "Rachel Maddow Teabagging," got a lot of returns that had the video posted, but none of them would load either. Finally, out of desperation, I tried YouTube, and voilà, someone had the whole segment posted already. (Thank you, heathr456!)

So ... what's the big joke all about? "Teabagging" is a slang term for a certain sexual practice. Without going into detail, here's what
Wikipedia has to say about "Teabagging." Go read it (it's brief) ... now aren't you glad that I didn't explain that in less clinical terms on the pages of this (usually) g-rated blog? I have to admit, I had never heard the term before I saw John Water's 1998 film Pecker, in which there's a brief scene depicting the practice (rather tastefully for Waters), which I was also lucky enough to find on YouTube (click image below for video if you dare). A bit of context before we proceed ... the main character, Pecker (so named because he "pecks at his food") is just an ordinary young Baltimore man who obsessively photographs everything around him and hurtles to sudden fame with his photography, inadvertently becoming the darling of the New York artsy-fartsy crowd. In this scene, he ventures out to a gay bar where his sister works so he can photograph some of the underground Baltimore bar night life.... (The "Teabagging" begins at about the 1:23 point in the clip.)

So there you have it. This is what those of us in the know interpret as "Teabagging." Like Rachel, I wonder how long it's going to take the ultra-fringe "Teabagger" proponents to figure this one out. Personally, I find this irony so rich and delicious that I hope they never do. That just gives the rest of us more time to enjoy their antics in these admittedly depressing times. It all reminds me of that old saying: Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and prove it.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The Crocus Parade Continues ...

Today we finally had some sun again, which pretty much finished off the rest of the snow lingering from Sunday's "storm," so the crocus were able to show their faces again to the world after spending two days closed up and shivering. The temperatures have also begun to moderate slowly and with any luck, we'll be seeing the upper 50s by the end of the week, with partly sunny days in store. That's a Spring I can start to believe in, but it's still too chilly at night to begin putting anything into the ground (other than early planted seeds).

My goal for this weekend is to get at least one afternoon spent cleaning up the back yard because it's a mess! If you recall, after the tree came crashing down last October, the weather turned cold very quickly and there's still a lot of branches and stuff that need to be picked up and disposed of, and then there's the matter of getting the tree taken out. Fernymoss finally got a lead on a reasonably priced tree service, so we'd like to get that taken care of before too much longer, not only to get rid of the unsightly mess, but also to ensure a sunnier back yard this summer. I can see my tax refund disappearing already ... but it has to be done soon!

Now we return to our regularly scheduled Crocus coverage, already in progress...

Note: the shots in this post are also from my most recent session on April 3, 2009.
(Be sure to click through to see the larger, more detailed versions.)

I'm a bit baffled as to exactly what variety of Giant Crocus this one is ... it definitely came from one of our Van Bourgondien mixes and I thought it might be Blue Pearl, but after looking at that one in the catalogue again, I'm not so sure. It's definitely not Pickwick (shown below) because it doesn't display the prominent purple striping that characterizes that variety. But whatever this one turns out to be, it's another reliable bloomer and has been multiplying quite happily over the past 3 years or so out in the front boulder bed, and at this point has grown into a respectable, showy clump that stands out in the bare ground of the central bed.

This is one of our small clumps of Pickwick that we have scattered around the front beds ... I suspect this is one of the more recently planted groupings because it doesn't show signs of having multiplied just yet. Though this variety doesn't seem to colonize as quickly as the other Crocus do, it's definitely one of the more dramatic cultivars with its white tipped petals striped with deep purple hiding the brilliant orange stamens. We should be seeing more of these soon, and though this shot doesn't really do it justice, it's the best I have for the moment. The only drawback I can find for this variety is that, like Jeanne d'Arc, it's really prone to lose its petals in a heavy rain or strong wind, and its bloom period is somewhat shorter than most of our other Giant and Snow Crocuses. Still, it's a very worthy crocus to have in your garden and would make a nice planting companion to others like Jeanne d'Arc and Golden Yellow. Have I sold you on the virtues of the Giant Crocuses yet?

I have no clue what variety of yellow snow crocus this is because it was in a grab bag mix I got from Park Seed several years ago ... this little clump is one of many I planted along the line of the sidewalk on the Woodland side of the house (on the north). When I planted them, I just mixed up a bunch of crocus and Muscari (Grape Hyacinth) and planted them in groups of 5 or 6 every foot or so down the sidewalk line. This year, this is one of the first ones to show up, and there are still quite a few more that should be appearing sometime soon, so consider this a sneak peek at more to come....

I was really happy to see these little guys coming up in profusion last weekend when I was out with the camera! Though at first glance one might mistake them for Squill (Scilla siberica), they are actually Chionodoxa forbessi, aka 'Glory of the Snow.' These cheery little star shaped blue flowers with white centers and yellow stamens are really a great naturalizer that can go just about anywhere you want a splash of blue among the early spring bloomers and would look good with snow crocus, because they start (at least here) blooming just about the time the snow crocus are on the way out (but while their foliage remains). I think we have about 3-4 clumps of these near the edge of the front boulder bed, where they have been happily colonizing for the last several years. I think I started with about 5 bulbs in each planting and I've definitely noticed that every year more and more return in the spring ... they're definitely a bulb you need to plant in masses, because the sight of one or two lone flowers just wouldn't do them justice ... they need to be seen in groups for the full effect! I'll also note that getting good photos of these flowers is a real challenge for some reason ... if there's not enough sun, they look muddy blue, too much sun and they end up looking bleached out. I hope I have better luck capturing them this year than I have in the past few years. You'll see soon enough....

Now these are a bit of a mystery so far, but one thing's for sure, they're something that Fernymoss planted that day last fall when I was sick, so I don't know where anything he planted is (and he can't remember what went where). My best guess is that these are either Nectaroscordum ('Sicilian Honey Garlic') or Fritillaria 'Fox's Grape.' Now that I think more about it, I think they might indeed be the Fritillarias because they are up so early and are supposed to bloom in April or May, while Nectaroscordum doesn't bloom until May or June ... so time will tell what they really are! If anyone can positively ID these just from the initial foliage, please let me know what you think it is, otherwise we'll just have to wait until they bloom....

This is a bit of a wider view of one of our mass plantings of Daffodils, Tulips, Hyacinths and Crocus we have on the Woodland side of the house (where, as you can see, we haven't gotten much cleaning up done yet!). I'm cautiously optimistic that some of the tulips we had there that didn't return last year may be back this year, because it seems that I'm seeing more there than last year. These 'Yellow Trumpet Daffodils' are a very basic version of the flower bred primarily for naturalizing, which is exactly why we bought a whole half bushel back in 2005 to plant all around the garden. We have experimented with some of the fancier varieties in the past and been disappointed that, like the fancy tulips, after several years they either disappear entirely or revert to some kind of unattractive mutant Narcissus resembling the stinky Paper Whites we made the mistake of forcing one winter. That's an experience we won't repeat again because those pestiferous things stunk up the entire house and we ended up sticking them on the porch to kill them!

Fortunately, these Daffodils come back true every year (so far) and have been multiplying nicely in the 3 years they have been blooming for us. And they even escaped the great Des Moines Daffodil holocaust that hit so many gardeners last year, who lost entire long-established beds of them for some as yet unknown reason. Our neighbors across the street used to have masses of lovely Daffodils next to their house and their bed was decimated last year and only a few still remain ... yet ours were seemingly untouched and actually thrived last year. It looks like they're gearing up for a good show again this year, so we're looking forward to their appearance soon!

And for those of you who need a puppy fix, here's Lil Miss Hanna ...
I call this shot "Inscrutable"

What dog owner hasn't wanted to peek into the mind of their dog when s/he gives them one of these kinds of looks? Of course, Terriers are notorious for their staring capacity and can stare the best of us down (Pepa was a pro at this too) ... actually this shot kind of reminded me of that old Frasier episode that had a section called "Stare Master" where Eddie got the best of Frasier, despite the latter's best efforts to out-stare Eddie. Hanna definitely has the talent, so when you combine that with her incredibly expressive face and her frequent brow wrinkling and you get truly inscrutable looks. How do you interpret this gaze? Is it Hanna concocting some devious plan? Is she merely expressing concern? What wheels are spinning inside her head at this moment? Let me know if you have any good ideas....