Thursday, May 31, 2012

Creature Comforts

Yes, this is yet another post about the wonderful things that I discovered on a trip to Chicago.  I'd bet that you never knew half of these things were tucked into that great big city, did you?  Today's post will NOT be about gardens.  It is going to be about things that you may find in a garden: butterflies.

Yep, butterflies.  After touring the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool, someone (my mom) desperately needed a potty break.  So we wandered across the street to the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum to assist her in her hour of need.  I people watched in the lobby, happy to enjoy the air conditioning for a minute or three, and caught the booming announcement of an imminent butterfly release in the special indoor butterfly habitat.  Once my mom emerged from the water closet, up the stairs we went and into the humid and lush butterfly house.

It was as if we had wandered into a handy rainforest.  Butterflies of every size and color floated about, wandering from feeding station to plant to hanging vines like little colored bits of feathery papers.  At one point, a massive black and brilliant blue butterfly perched on my hat.  Two little girls had multiple lacey black and white creatures land on their heads, making them look as though they had been bedecked with victorian hairbows.

Capturing them on film was a challenge, simply because they would not stay still.  They were joyous in flight, floating from one resting spot to another.  They seemed to enjoy interacting with the visitors as well, dancing around them and making the youngest squeal with delight.  (I came pretty close to squealing myself.)  After a while, the crowded conditions and high humidity drove us out in search of the cool breezes off the lake, so we left the butterflies behind. 

After all, I'll see some of their cousins in my own garden.  A beer and a Chicago-style hotdog at the lakeshore are a little harder to come by back at home.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Tranquility in the City


 Never doubt your ability to find a kindred spirit anywhere. 

 This was never more true than when I wandered through the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool gardens on a warm, sunny Saturday afternoon in Chicago.  While heading to the beach, my mom and I discovered the entrance to this lovely greenspace, just east of the Lincoln Park Zoo.  Waiting for us with a dashing pink ballcap perched on her head was a very friendly docent named Jean.  She must have been in her 70s, sharp as a tack and just keen to talk about her favorite garden to an appreciative audience.  She told us she has been a volunteer at the Lily Pool gardens for more than 20 years, and set out to show us everything about her favorite place in her hometown.

As we were more than appreciative, we got a whole walking tour of the gardens.  Originally, the lily pond was built in the late 1890s and was used to cultivate rare and exotic lilies from the far corners of the globe that enhanced the displays in the Conservatory.   Redesigned in the late 1920s to create a zen-like public outdoor space, the Lily Pool is a monument to the Prairie Style architectural movement.  The lines between the industrial components (hard stone, wood and steel pavillions) are artfully blurred by the softening elements of nature (draping willows, still water and native grasses).  While it had deteriorated past the point of recognition (according to Ms. Jean) during the years it was used as a summer rookery by the Lincoln Park Zoo, through the efforts of several wealthy donors and dedicated volunteers it has been restored to its former glory.

From either end of the pond, you cannot see the other.  Little spaces of hidden beauty greet you, and give you the sense of being alone at the side of a flowing stream.  There were birds everywhere, singing their little hearts out into the heat of the afternoon.  Their voices helped to mask the sound of traffic whizzing by on adjacent Lakeshore Drive and the calls of visitors to the zoo behind the rising hill.  The lilies hadn't yet opened, but the yellow buds thrust themselves above the water with the promise of soon-to-open blooms.  Rising high above the pond is the council ring, designed to mimic the meeting spaces favored by Native Americans indiginous to Illinois and surrounding environs.  Redbuds and hawthorne trees are spaced throughout, layering the understory garden with their entertwined branches.  Classic red-orange columbines nod their bell shaped heads in the gentle breeze that drifts over the still pond and ruffles the tranquil dark waters.  

As a testimony to the perseverence of the human spirit to embrace nature in the heart of the city, this small garden is a hidden jewel in the park district central to Chicago.  Built on the labor of the men and women employed by the Work Program Administration (WPA) during the Great Depression, I hope that they and their descendants have been able to revisit this space and enjoy it in all its beauty.  Well worth the walk, this free public space is a place to visit when taking in the sites of the Windy City.

If Jean is there, tell her I sent you.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

ChiTown Gardens

I just had a most wonderful weekend! It all started with a phone call to my mother back in January, to discuss what a hypothetical 65-year-old young woman would perhaps like to do to celebrate that auspicious milestone: a trip to the Bahamas? A plane ticket to visit grandchildren in Hawaii? A week in Vegas? Turns out, she wanted to go on a weekend to Chicago.

As it turns out that Chicago is one of my favorite cities to visit, I had to join in as chaperone.  Well, partner in crime may be more appropriate, but no matter.  It was a fun time had by all, from the people I rode in with on the train to the insane cab drivers who whipped us from place to place at Mach 1, expert waitresses serving us drinks and dinner, to the people sitting near us in the audience at the shows we attended each night.

 We were a hoot and a half, people.  Chicago may never be the same without us.

Since we had already ridden to the top of the Sears Tower and spent our meager wads of cash on Magnificent Mile a few years ago on a previous trip to the Windy City, this time we did "other" things.  On Saturday, we spent the whole day wandering around Lincoln Park, home to the zoo, the Lincoln Conservatory and the Alfred Cadwell Lily Pond garden.  Yes, I know:  I am a garden-dork and I am proud of it.  I think I'll put that on a bumper sticker.

Wandering through the Conservatory was like stepping into a tropical oasis.  All the textures of the plants, and the colors--it was better than any art museum could ever try to be, with all the loveliest paintings of flora and still life by the greatest masters of the world.  There is something about wandering in a garden, lush and damp, that makes me feel at home in even the busiest of metropolitan cities.


Thursday, May 24, 2012

Happening Now...

courtesy of

Today, we are making up for weeks of little rainfall.  As you can see, there are a whole bunch of thunderstorms traveling through our humble environs.  If you look at the map, and follow the county line under Osceola, just about 1/8th of an inch in to the next county square is where my house is.  Well, where Prairie Farm is, anyway.  I think Max & Phoebe are probably hiding under the sofa with all the rumblings going on.  Since around 8 AM, it's been storm after monsoon rain after lightning bolt and thunder roll.  It sure looks to me like it may be much of the same for the rest of the afternoon.

Good thing the chickens are fairly water-repellent.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

I've Got a Plan

When it comes to gardening, I've tried all different ways of keeping track of what I've planted where, and when things came up, and what eventually died or did extremely well.  I've tried notebooks.  I've tried fancy shmancy garden journals.  I've tried keeping an Excel file on my computer.  There was a time that I even tried keeping a time-lapse photo-journal, which started off great (if very snap-happy) and wound up going the way of all the rest:  never finished, never updated, never looked at again until I came across it three years later and chucked it in the bin.

Not any more.  I am breaking the cycle, dang it.

This year, I've started a binder filled with all sorts of goodies to pique my interest, and hopefully keep me motivated to actually track the garden's progress.  I invested in some nifty colorful dividers, that have pockets on them --pockets!-- where I can cram everything from copies of my seed order sheets to tags from various plants or cut-out informational blurbs from gardening catalogs. There's even a write-on tab on each divider, where I can label them by year.  In each yearly section, there is a wodge of graph paper, where I can keep notes, or draw out my nefarious planting schemes, like on this plan:

Pretty neat, huh?  I have to say that sometimes, I even impress myself.

I have a whole series of these "maps" to my gardens, which is really helping me to remember which plants/seeds go where, into which garden, and beside whatever else will live in that particular bed.  I'm penciling in any changes as they go into the ground, which is something I have been fairly lacksidaisical about in the past.  Now, when stuff sprouts, I can look back and say "oh yeah, that's the Munchenweisen radish" instead of scratching my head and wondering what the heck it might be.  While having a mystery until harvest can be entertaining, it is nice to know a beet versus a turnip from time to time.

Now, to only have time and energy to get out there and put this plan into action...

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Winter in Spring

This has been a wonderful, wonderful day!  In the morning, I picked up my friend Gretchen and we headed out on a Grown-Up Field Trip: we were on the road to the Winter Greenhouse, in Winter, Wisconsin.

Put all images of frost and snow out of your head, because this lovely place was dripping with the jewels of spring.  See for yourself:

Gorgeous, aren't they?  The most inspirational part of the visit was wandering the various gardens and seeing how the plants (available for purchase in the greenhouses) would look after they had grown a bit.  It was very hard to not walk away with everything in the place...but I restrained myself admirably.  I came home with some water plants for my little pond (water hyacinth, blue flag iris, and this lovely variegated reed), a bright yellow perennial yarrow, some replacement herbs for the transplants that didn't make it, only one gnome, and a really pretty crystal & bell windchime that I have already hung in the tree.  I was on a mission to find unusual hostas for a friend, as well, which was more of a challenge than I had thought it would be.  There were about a hundred different varieties, all unique and lovely, so I broke down and called her up and got some pointers on what "unique" really meant.  I eventually picked a couple that are yellow all season, and boy do they pop in the shade!  Hopefully, my friend Trudy will think they are exactly what her gardens needed once I deliver them.

I think I may have found yet another garden project I need to undertake.  I know, another one??  This one is pretty irresistable, though.  It involves miniature plants, little tiny furnishings, and fairy houses.

See what I mean?  It is too, too cute.

A teeny tiny rabbit in a teeny tiny garden, with teeny tiny birdhouse gourds for teeny orioles.

And cats, napping on little gnomish twig chairs.

It is cuteness overload, and more than a little bit silly, but oh, how I want to cultivate a tiny fairy garden of my own.  This one had a little river flowing down into a teeny lake.  There was even a teeny tiny canoe...I think I may be in trouble here.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Friday Night...Finally.

It has been a longish week here in the wilds of Wisconsin.  I feel as though I spent the entire week either driving the truck, making phone calls, running around fussing in the garden, or working on the computer into the wee hours.  I am looking forward to relaxing this evening, with some pizza, a friend to visit with, and a movie to watch.  Between all that and the AC turned on full blast (it has gotten hot again, and today the house finally heated up...ooof), I am one happy woman.  Get me a glass with some ice cubes rattling around in it and call this week D-O-N-E!!!

The rabbits tolerated today's heat pretty well.  They really aren't designed for hot weather, with that permanent dense fur coat they wear 24/7, but with the misting system making a fine spray all day it actually was cooler in the bunny barn than it was outside.  Because of the rainforest-like conditions and the bad effect water has on rabbit kibble, I have to delay their dinner until the heat of the day passes, but when it is so hot they don't want to eat anything, anyway.  All the babies are doing okay; Little Mama's brood of four hopped out of their nest this afternoon, mostly because I think they got too hot to stay in there.  They looked a little surprised to be out and about.  Cute as little sausages, I just can't get enough of their little button eyes and teeny tiny paws and weeny-wooney wittle ears...sorry.  I digress.

Aside from looking exhausted and wan, the chickens are happy as well.  The chicklets in the big shed have mastered the great outdoors, and have a great time wandering around in the shade under the box elders.  The older girls in the little fancy coop spend their day clucking and crooning and digging into the depths of their runs in search of worms and other delicious bugs.  Still two broody hens, but yesterday and today I got four eggs.  Maybe they aren't such freeloaders, after all.

All the new plantings are holding their own.  Nothing has dried up completely, or frizzled away from sunburn, so I think maybe (just maybe) all the transplants are going to live.  I am pretty excited about that--I just parked some lovage in the herb bed, and I can't wait to see if it really will work as wild celery stuff to add to soups and salads.  It smells pretty good, so hopefully it will taste good, too.  I've been watering daily, since we haven't gotten any rain in days and days.  Starting the watering routine always takes a bit of finessing, as I seem to lose my hose wrangling abilities over the long winter months.  Speaking of hoses, the dang water line is still leaking.  My handyman Jack has been by a couple times to mutter incantations over it, but no luck.  He's supposed to be "figuring out what might work for it" and coming back soon to fix it.  For now, I have a little river of a drip that works as a supplemental watering station for the cats on the porch.  See?  There's always a silver lining in any cloud of woe...or leaking pipe.

Tomorrow is Saturday, which will be a Field Trip for Grown-ups Day.  I can hardly wait!  Details (and pictures) will come after the adventure.  Until then, you'll just have to live in a state of suspense.  But trust me, it is going to be a good, good day!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Just Because the Excitement Never Ends...

Here's a little pink cart to brighten your Tuesday.

Tah dah!

Babies' Day Out

Today was a red-letter day in the life and times of the chicklets:  The Big Coop is done!

The fence panels are up and reinforced.  A little chicken door was built, and a ramp installed.  A soft breeze blew in, coaxing them out to explore.  The chicklets wasted no time in hopping out down the ramp to check out the great world that had been waiting for them.

Not everyone was quite as enthusiastic, however.

"Yaaaaaaghh!  The sky is so BIG!!!"

A few jitters aside, all the explorers seemed to agree that life outside the shed was something pretty great.  Wads of grass were devoured, dandelions chomped, small creatures chased through the leafy wilderness.  It was like watching a herd of velociraptors swarm over Lost Island, I tell you! 

Well, if velociraptors were feathered, weighed about a half pound, and peeped.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Sunday Update

There's no photograph to document the results, but today was a day full of sunshine, sweat, and dirt.  I slept in (really really slept in) and woke up with a bit of a hang-over.  Word to the wise, dearies:  If you work all day outside, drink WATER, not two hearty gin and gingers with a slice of lime.  It's delicious, but you will get more than a bit tipsy.  Nothing that a little time outside won't cure, but still...the wake up headache is not very friendly.

After a restorative breakfast of pancakes and hot coffee, it was off for the races!  Here's what I did today, before I crapped out, took a shower, and now sit reclining in state in a tatty old bathrobe.

1.  Tilled the new front garden, added peat moss, and tilled some more until the tiller ran out of gas.
2.  Planted the new front garden, with assorted squash and a mix of sunflowers, as well as perimeter yellow onions.
3.  Laid out some more cypress mulch, to pretty up the edges of the front garden.
4.  Ripped copious amounts of quack grass, nettles, and bindweed (oh how I HATE bindweed) from the perennial garden in front of the house.
5.  Dug out a huge mat of something that I think is called False Dragon's Beard.  It is horribly invasive, and I think has choked out several asiatic lillies, blackeyed susan, and some other stuff that I can't remember what it was, but it isn't there anymore.
6.  Rehung the sun, moon, and stars to their summer glory.
7.  Planted two pincushion plants, which have cute purpley puffball flowers, in the perennial beds.
8.  Planted all the front raised beds, with things like carrots and spinach and parsnips and radishes.  Oh, and some cute speckled lettuce with a german name like "Fortenschluesssen"...or something like that.
9.  Watered everything I had planted, and filled two bird baths.
10.  Moved some crap that had been lying around for a while, making my place look a little like the aftermath of a tornado...random piles of debris and all.
11.  Heaved all the weeds into the chicken run, to the delight of the girls.  The girls, incidentally, only laid ONE egg today.


I also got a wonderful mix of suntan, sunburn and reamplified freckles, all while avoiding getting bitten by bees, flies, or too many mosquitoes.  There were, as always, the usual chores of hosing down assorted plants/trees/animals, feeding all sorts of creatures, and wandering about with things that needed to be stowed away/thrown away/cooked/fed.   All in all, it was a wonderful, wonderful day.

P.S.  I used my solar oven, AND it baked three potatoes!!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Working With The Sun

Ahhh, another sunny Saturday!  Just made for adventures and projects galore.
This morning, I joined a group of very nice folks in the elementary cafeterium up at the school and made a solar oven.  Fashioned from corrugated plastic (I picked orange) and shiny aluminum duct tape, it is a work of art.  Functional art, as well.  While it won't get to extremely high temperatures, in the sun it should get to be 250 degrees.  That's plenty hot to cook up some beans and rice, or stew, or a nice cake.  I can hardly wait to try it out.

After class, I came home and discovered my handyman Jack and his stepson hard at work installing the fence panels for the new chicken run.  It isn't quite finished, but I am really excited about how it is turning out.  In another day or so, the new chicklets should be able to get out, stretch their scaly legs, and explore the great outdoors.  They are terribly curious about what is outside their door, and stage random pummelings against the door and window in an effort to get outside.

It was such a lovely afternoon, so I spent it outside.  I transplanted some herbs, checked on the rabbits (Magda had her kits this morning, initial count is TEN little babies!), and whacked at a few more weeds before the battery crapped out on the whipper.  I got a great start on my little pond project, as you can see:

It started off as a stock tank that had been used for chick brooding (I need a new one, as this one got burned in the infamous heat lamp versus cat skirmish and I didn't want future chicks to nibble on the charred plastic bits that keep shedding), that I cleaned out and filled with water.  A bit of gravel on the bottom and it is ready for some water plants.  I'll get the plants soon, whenever I track down a good source for them, but for now, there are four fantail goldfish swimming around in the depths.  To better hide the stock-tank-ness of the pond, a few pots of flowers and trailing vines add a bit of kitchy cuteness.  I simply love the fountain that I made out of a copper rainchain and a simple pump.  It makes such a lovely noise, and the birds are so happy to have flowing water nearby.

A couple of badass gnomes seem to like it, too.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Day Dreaming

Somedays at work are filled with a lot of computer face time, and there are days (like today) where I have been at the computer for hours and I am about ready to run screaming for the hills.  Unfortunately, paperwork awaits.  So I spend some of my coffee break time pondering the more-fun-projects that I have planned for this gardening season.  I thought I would share my 2012 Gardening To-Do List with you.  Get ready, it's a doozy!

The Chicken Lady's Insane 2012 To-Do List
1. Build a hoophouse.
2.  Plant items in the hoophouse.
3.  Install minidrip or minisprinkler watering system in the hoophouse.
4. Find a bunch of bins to grow potatoes in.
5. Plant potatoes.
6.  Refill with dirt AND weed out the front raised bed garden.
7. Get a lot of shredded bark.  And that means A LOT.
8.  Spread shredded bark all over the slowly eroding bare yard before it washes away completely.
9.  Clean out the rabbit barn, and install more worms for vermicomposting under the cages.
10.  Build many sturdy yet inexpensive chicken tractors, enough to house 200 chickens.
11.  Seriously redo the front perennial garden, which has become all weeds and rougue invasives.
12.  Till back garden.  Many times.
13.  Put something in the cold frames, so they have a purpose instead of being decorative.
14.  Rebuild the fire pit in the back yard.
15.  Till up new gardens against the back fence and install trellises to support the zuchinni.
16.  Decide where the heck the cucumbers will grow this year.
17.  Install fencing panels for the new chicken yard, and install a chicken door on the big pink shed.
18.  Buy more paint in Phlox and Pigeon.
19.  Buy hot pink spray paint in quantity.
20.  Make two old decrepit garden carts into cute planters, meaning a visit to the greenhouse!
21.  Don't forget to buy a whole lot of potting soil, like you did last year.
22.  Establish a third compost heap.
23.  Plant new trees in the back orchard.
24.  Weed the strawberry bed.
25.  Dig out the blueberries, that aren't alive or growing at all. 
26.  Decide what small fruit may survive better than the blueberries did (umm, more strawberries?)
27.  Clean out the chicken run, and build them a dust bath corner.
28.  Dig a dust bath area for the new chickens by the big shed.
29.  Plant the vegetable garden on time, so things actually have enough time to grow.
30.  Fertilize things so they actually grow and are healthy.
31.  Research and implement fly control measures for the chickens and rabbits.
32.  Build a "pond garden" in front, complete with fish and fountain. 
33.  Figure out how the black water trough that is the "pond" will be disguised (faux rock?)
34.  Reblack the inside of the solar dehydrator with oven-proof spray paint.
35.  Find a source of small hay bales and small straw bales, to avoid overusing the current suppliers.
36.  Design a cat run...which may just be wishful thinking.
37.  Research lawn options that don't grow above four inches.
38.  Win the lottery so I can afford to rip up the current lawn and replant the no-mow option.
39.  Restring the clothesline.
40.  Fill in all the remaining dog-dug holes.
41.  Invest in another weed whipper, one that has a better charging capacity so it doesn't punk out.
42.  Find a local source for garden strength vinegar.
43.  Buy some more hot pepper wax spray to deter the wild rabbits.
44.  Come up with a weeding schedule, which may be the only way I actually weed as I should.
45.  Round up some chicken crates for transportation purposes.
46.  Trim the weedy starts from around the box elder trees.
47.  Don't forget to plant the new raspberry bushes.
48.  If the grapevine really is dead, plant another one somewhere else.
49.  More support for the climbing roses!
50.  Mow the lawn regularly, until the lottery is won and the lawn is no more.

I think there is more stuff I am forgetting, but you get the idea.  Somehow, I will get the majority of all this done before the end of the season.  (I always have a list like this, and I do somehow always get it done.  I have no idea how.)

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Potatoes, Planted.

One of the best things about having mild weather combined with long evening light is that I actually can get a thing or two done in the garden, after a long day of work.  Yesterday, I broke out the tiller and turfed up the back garden for the first time.  I think I may need to do it a few more times, before I break up all the mats of Creeping Charlie and can rake them out of there, but it is nice to see black garden dirt instead of a blooming purple haze from corner to corner.  I thought about doing it again today, but decided to give my overworked muscles a break and tackled another couple projects.

In addition to cleaning out the chicken coops and giving all of the girls, young and old, new bedding to fluff around in, I planted my potatoes.  During last weekend's 100 Mile Garage Sale, I found three old, beat-up galvanized garbage cans complete with dinged up lids.  I added them to my previous stash of bins, giving me a glorious total of six potato bins to play with.  After a bit of a bleach rinse to kill off any residual critters, I drilled holes in the bottoms for drainage and added 3 or 4 inches of composted rabbit manure.  Toss in the seed potatoes, add a little more compost on top, and there you have it:  Season 2012 potatoes are in.  I wound up with three bins each of Kennebec and German Butterball, two excellent varieties that are delicious and good keepers.

As the potato plants grow, all I will need to do is add more layers of compost or rotten straw and the plant will continue to grow up to the top.  All along the plant, under that lovely layer of growing material, it will shoot out little roots that will eventually fatten into potatoes.  I've used this method in the past, and it is really effective.  One year, I planted one, just one teeny seed potato, and I got 67 potatoes from it.

 Sixty. Seven. 


 I also find that I hardly ever have issues with Colorado Potato beetles.  I'm not sure if it is growing them "up", off the ground, or growing them in containers that confuses them, but at most I have found one bug and squashed it flat promptly.  It is a vastly different story than when I have grown my potatoes in ground, and wound up spending days on end hunting and destroying those striped pests.  Bleah.

Pest issues aside, I find that since my garden space is very limited, I am best served by growing my potatoes in containers.  With these bins, my plan is to haul them down into the root cellar (which has yet to be remodeled) and store them with the lids on, for winter goodness.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A Large Cart is a Girl's Best Friend.

I have a thing for carts.  Wheeled vehicles that you can push or pull along bring me such joy.  A few years ago, I acquired a two wheeled wire cart a la old lady grocery shopping that I love.  It is the best thing ever for hauling around loads of stuff at the farmers market.  And I have this amazing foldable-positional-becomes whatever you need Transformer of a cart that I use to haul my hundred-plus pounds of work gear in and out of the buildings that I visit.  I think I could simply not survive work-life without that particular beautiful item of mobility.

Today, I have finally gotten the Mac Daddy of Garden Carts:  Rubbermaid's Big Wheel Cart.

This thing is seriously huge.  I think I could haul four small children around in it...or one large adult body.  Not that I am planning to move people (or corpses), by any means, but it should work well to move a corresponding amount of "stuff" around the yard.

Yes, by "stuff" I mean the happy by-products of living creatures that eventually goes back to the Earth and supplements my veg-growing operations.  You would be amazed at how much some chickens and a whole bunch of rabbits can produce.  More than enough to fill this cart a dozen times over, I promise you.  All that doesn't include the mulch, dirt, and plant-related materials that I move around the corners of my farmlette.

I have plans for my old wheelbarrow, too:

Isn't that just cute?  You can find the best ideas at!

I may spray paint my old workhorse bright pink first, though.