Written on November 30, 2012 at 3:19 pm , by James A. Baggett
Too often we think of nature as something we have to seek out, a remote place far from the city limits. But nature is, in fact, much closer than we realize. Check out these recently published titles that encourage us to pause for a moment and recognize the natural world that is truly teeming all around us, even in our most urban spaces. And by doing so, perhaps we’ll all realize that ecology is not just the domain of scientists but something we can all practice and enjoy.
• A Nature Lover’s Almanac: Kinky Bugs, Stealthy Critters, Prosperous Plants & Celestial Wonders by Diane Olson (Gibbs Smith, $12.99)
• Kaufman Field Guide to Nature of New England by Kenn Kaufman and Kimberly Kaufman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $20)
• Nature’s Notes: Bite-Sized Learning & Projects for All Ages by Judy Burris and Wayne Richards (Willow Creek Press, $$19.95)
• Nature All Around Us: A Guide to Urban Ecology edited by Beatrix Beisner, Christian Messier, and Luc-Alain Giraldeau (The University of Chicago Press, $18)
• The Nature Connection: An Outdoor Workbook for Kids, Families, and Classrooms by Clare Walker Leslie (Storey, $14.95)
Written on October 25, 2012 at 1:56 pm , by James A. Baggett
A marsupial transient has taken up residence on my front porch. Mind you, I was not the first to take notice of the young opossum (about the size of a large guinea pig) curled up in a ball inside one of the many vintage watering cans that line my front porch—my good terriers Scout and Finch did. As soon as I let them out the front door they were all over that watering can. I put the dogs back in the house and grabbed my camera.
Our young visitor is properly known as a Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana), North America’s only marsupial (mammals with a pouch in which they carry their young, like a kangaroo or a koala or a wombat). The opossum has been around for at least 70 million years and is one of the world’s oldest surviving mammals. Solitary animals, opossums are nocturnal and spend the day in dens or protected spots like my watering can. They do not hibernate in winter.
I knew opossums were nomads, so I couldn’t figure out why this one wasn’t moving on. After digging around on the internet, I discovered that, in order to avoid predators, opossums move to a different den every few days. Sure enough, by yesterday there was no sign of our pointy-nosed houseguest with a prehensile tail. Considered loathsome by some, I find these shy creatures quite curious. Opossums are by no means stupid. In fact, results from learning and discrimination tests rank opossums above dogs and more or less on a par with pigs in intelligence.
Written on October 12, 2012 at 10:26 am , by James A. Baggett
My friend and neighbor Amy Worthen dropped by the other night to share the catalog for her new exhibit at the Des Moines Art Center because she knew I would like it. She’s the Curator of Prints and Drawings and the new exhibit is Iowa Artists 2012: Print and she selected this piece, I Love It When You Talk Dirt to Me! (2012) by Rick von Holdt of Minburn, Iowa, as the cover of the catalog. The exhibit is up until January 13th, so if you’re in our neck of the woods, the Des Moines Arts Center is definitely worth a visit.
Written on September 20, 2012 at 2:37 pm , by James A. Baggett
Just spent a delightful weekend right next-door in Nebraska exploring horticultural destinations large and small. Included on my itinerary were stops at Lauritzen Gardens in Omaha, the impressive National Arbor Day Foundation in Nebraska City, and the historic Sunken Gardens in Lincoln. Built in 1930, the Sunken Gardens was a Depression-era project for unemployed men to earn wages to support their families. Waiting to show me around was Steven J. Nosal, the horticulturist in charge of this 1.5-acre gem. That’s the two of us in the garden, below.
Lincoln’s “Rock Garden” (as it was originally called) reflected the popular 1930s trend for rock gardening in general. Rocks were used for the garden’s skeleton. Structures like water fountains and retaining walls at different heights to create terraced levels. The original design aimed to evoke mountain scenery with rocks on the terraced walls creating the garden’s edge. But the plantings were executed by the city’s horticultural department and concentrates more on cheerful floral displays than on the use of alpine plants. The centerpiece of the garden was a cascading waterfall surrounding Rebecca at the Well, a sculpture of a woman holding a water jug by Ellis Burman. There were also two reflecting pools.
After nearly 73 years without a major renovation, the Sunken Gardens was overhauled in 2004. While maintaining many design elements of the original garden, several new features were added, making the garden easier to maintain and access. A new parking lot, public restrooms, underground sprinklers, renovated lily ponds, retaining walls and new walkways were built. More than 100 trees and 1,000 shrubs were added as well as 18,000 square feet of additional space for annual flowers, which are showcased in a theme that changes from year to year. Steven and his group of dedicated volunteers have created a show-stopper of a garden definitely worthy of your next botanical road trip.
Written on August 29, 2012 at 11:13 am , by James A. Baggett
What would possess a person to creep into my garden under the cover of darkness and steal a single miniature hosta? That’s what happened a couple of weeks ago and I’m still fascinated by what I discovered when I awoke at 6 a.m to let my good dogs Scout and Finch out to do their early-morning business. The scene of the crime was self-evident, even in the first morning light. At the base of my front steps sits a handsome homemade hypertufa trough filled with miniature Solomon’s seal, miniature astilbe, and a handful of miniature hostas. These were hostas I admired and purchased from Flying Frog Farm in Indianola, Iowa, after a photo shoot for Country Gardens a couple of years ago. Guests to my garden seem to gravitate to this diminutive display and are charmed by the less-than-large versions of their favorite shade-loving garden plants. As I maneuvered my terriers down the crowded steps, I spied the hypertufa container, obviously disturbed from its base and slightly damaged, with a tidy pile of potting soil on the ground beside the pot and a mysterious blue metallic flashlight left behind—and an obvious hole in the container where miniature Hosta ‘Little Jay’ was thriving and blooming just hours before when I turned in for the night. Who on earth would creep into my yard, flashlight in hand, and remove a single miniature hosta that is easily attainable for less than $10 from a local hosta farm? Mind you, there are all kinds of much more desirable (and expensive) plants—cllvias, aspidestras, sanseverias, stapelias—and handsome containers filled with all kinds of new, rare, and unusual plants scattered around my front yard and porch in containers that could be easily snatched in less time than it would take to disengage that single miniature hosta from the root-bound confines of its hypertufa home. What’s more, anyone who knows me or has ever visited my garden or who lives in my neighborhood or walks by my garden knows very well that if you asked me, I would share any plant with anyone who ever bothered to ask to me. In fact, I particularly pride myself on my plant-sharing personality (after all, I’m bombarded with more new plants each spring than I could ever successfully tend in the not-so-big garden that surrounds my turn-of-the-century Arts and Crafts bungalow and the plants I’ve passed along now punctuate my street…so that when I take my good dogs on their daily walks, I am able to admire the habits and virtues—as well as the disappointments—of many more plants than I could ever experience in just my own over-planted garden). It seems the selfish gardener knew very well what he or she was looking for. Most disconcerting to me, the culprit seems to have been someone—a friend? a visitor from a garden tour?—who had visited me and knew their way around my front-yard garden and what specifically they intended to take and make their own. Most disturbingly, within 24 hours of the crime, the left-behind flashlight mysteriously disappeared from the scene of the crime. If anyone has any information about these hosta hijinks it would be most appreciated. I’ll keep you posted.
Written on August 20, 2012 at 4:00 pm , by James A. Baggett
While in Virginia recently, Marty Ross, Rob Cardillo, and I spent a delightful afternoon catching up with our friends at River Farm, headquarters of the American Horticultural Society in Alexandria. David Ellis, editor of The American Gardener, and associate editor Viveka Neveln showed us around the André Bluemel Meadow (that’s David, me, Viveka, and Rob, above). The last time I visited, the meadow was a vast expanse of lawn overlooking the Potomac River. Between 2004 and 2008, however, the site was transformed into a meadow filled with more than 100,000 native plants. This beautiful and sustainable alternative to the traditional lawn has quickly become a haven for wildlife and a popular attraction for visitors to River Farm, the northernmost of George Washington’s five farms. I especially enjoyed visiting the oldest tree standing on River farm: the largest Osage orange tree in the country. Located in the shade garden to the north of the main house, it is believed to have been a gift from Thomas Jefferson to the Washington family. It is known that Jefferson received seedlings of Osage orange from the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-06. So the next time you’re in the D.C. area, leave some time to visit with this impressive champion tree in Alexandria.