Spring in the Midwest is a tempestuous time. The weather patterns are at their most active as warm and cold battle for dominance. Here in Iowa, we had mid 80s on Saturday. This morning, we woke up to snow. Ughhh.
Spring snow usually won’t hurt cool-season plants: bulbs, pansies, spring veggies like broccoli, onions and brussels sprouts. They’ll take a good bit of freezing weather with little or no damage. (Brussels sprouts are incredibly cold tolerant, I discovered this spring. I planted some in the ground just before we got a 23 degree night a couple of weeks ago. They took a hit, but didn’t die and they’re coming back.)
Unfortunately, stores sell warm-season annuals sooner than they should, and unwitting customers buy and plant them too soon, only to see them die in a late frost. Know your last frost date. You can find it here. Plant summer annuals and veggies about 2-3 weeks after the average last frost date. Cool-season annuals and veggies, perhaps 2-3 weeks before the average last frost date. (Unless you live in Zone 9 or 10, where cool season plants can live all winter.)
Who could possibly be drilling at this hour of the morning? I thought as I tossed and turned in the early spring morning darkness a few days ago. Just as I’d drift back off to sleep, the incessant hammering would start up again. For someone to be jackhammering at this hour, it must be an emergency! Not until I gave in to the fact that I wouldn’t get back to sleep, I pulled on my jeans and leashed my two good dogs to attend to our early morning ablutions in the front yard. There, astride the roof vent atop my two-story bungalow, was a Northern Flicker—handsome black-scalloped plumage and bright red chevron at the nape of the neck—methodically drumming away for all the world to hear. I should have known. After all, the Northern Flicker’s wicka-wicka-wicka calls from high up the contorted branched of the Bur Oaks that dominate my turn-of-the-century neighborhood have been the soundtrack to my evening dog walks as of late. The House Finches are singing their sweet twittering song, the striking male Northern Cardinals’ are defending their turf with their constant metallic chips, and the red-breasted American Robins are whistling their melodic cheerily, cheer up, cheer up, cheerily, cheer up. And, right on schedule, the majestic Turkey Vultures have returned from their winter vacations from as far away as South America, their distinctive two-toned white and black undersides and pinkish red unfeathered heads visible as they glide the thermals and fill the evening sky. Groups of vultures spiral upward to gain altitude in groups called “kettles” and last night—to my rapture-loving delight—I counted more then 60 soaring with their V-shaped wings making swooping, wobbly circles above me. The sensation was literally vertigo-inducing. My snowdrops are finally blooming, my witch hazel is showing promise, and spring has officially arrived in Iowa.
Bible gardening—cultivating plant species (or their close relatives) that are mentioned in the bible—is a fairly common garden theme. Also fairly common are books about plants of the bible. But I just received a review copy of an actual bible for gardeners: God’s Word for Gardeners Bible, edited by Shelley Cramm. It’s the first one like it that I’ve seen (there could be others in print, for all I know, but try Googling “gardener’s bible” and you’ll see why I gave up the search!). It’s no textbook, although it does contain a lot of interesting horticultural knowledge about plants and their cultivation. Rather, it’s the full bible, liberally supplemented with spiritual and personal reflections, garden quotes and anecdotes from various sources, and historical background that helps bring context to biblical plant references. For those who think of gardening as a spiritual exercise, it’s definitely worth a look. As a bonus, it’s nicely printed and bound, too, with a beautiful cover shot. Amazon shows a release date of March 25. It’s $25.98 for the hardcover.
Here’s a Cooper’s hawk, which I photographed today from out the back door of my house. It wasn’t eating anything that I could see, just warming itself next to a south-facing wall, apparently. I see hawks in the back yard once in a while, as well as the evidence they leave behind in the form of body parts from the feeder birds the devour. Pretty cool to see nature in the suburbs like this. I suppose it’s back around because the robins and other birds seem to have showed up this week in large numbers. Despite the rotten weather and snow, spring is trying to break through!
When it comes to the symbolism of the heart, I defer to my dear friend Felder Rushing, author of Garden Hearts (St. Lynn’s Press): “In my garden wanderings,” he writes, “I have discovered many plants with naturally heart-shaped leaves and flowers. I have also found heart shapes painted on walls, cut into fences, fashioned into gates, made out of bet metal, and pottery bits impressed in concrete. There’s even a cool blue stained glass heart overlooking the grave of Elvis.” We’ll satisfy ourselves this Valentine’s Day with the russet-tinged leaves of barrenwort (Epimedium sp.).
Once upon a time, I didn’t even know the difference between a landscape designer and a landscape architect. Oh, how naïve I was. And while I’m still by no means a Master Gardener (which is a real title, by the way), I have come pretty far in my gardening knowledge over the past few months.
You see, this year, I’ve been granted the stellar opportunity to work as an apprentice with the Meredith Corporation Garden Group. And although being an “apprentice” sounds like I’m working for a blacksmith or Donald Trump, what it really means is that while still attending Drake University, I get a chance to work part-time, learn about the world of magazines, and contribute to various gardening publications.
Although I just started in September, I’ve already had some amazing experiences here. Not only do I get to work with a really great, fun, and kind group of people, but I also get to have a few adventures along the way. In fact, one perk of the job is that I even got to chat it up with a celebrity earlier this year. His name is Bill Christopher and he played Father Mulcahy on MASH. Now Bill and his wife Barbara have a home in Pasadena with an incredible corner lot garden. I got to speak with Bill and Barbara about their garden and write a story about it for the upcoming issue of Gardens Ideas magazine. It was a pretty great experience, and I only got a little bit star struck.
In another pretty crazy twist of events, this apprenticeship also marks my modeling debut. Garden Ideas includes a story about how to build your own backyard compost bin…and guess who stood in as the model? It turns out that showing off a homemade compost bin on a frosty Des Moines morning was not the kind of glamorous Spanish Rivera photo shoots Tyra Banks gets to do, but it was still an absolute blast. That’s me, above, with art director Nick Crow.
But it’s not all glamorous celebrity chats and photo shoots around here. I’m picking up some real knowledge about writing, editing, shooting, and producing magazines. And while the major thing I’ve learned is that so much work goes into creating these publications, my apprenticeship has also changed the way I look at the world around me. I can now talk hardscaping with the cashier at Home Depot and advise my mom that combining different textures of greens in the front yard would add a new lushness to the space. But moreover I recognize that’s there’s a beauty to nature and to writing about nature. As and English major, I’ve always been a huge fan of people like Keats and Wordsworth who wax on the wonder and power of the natural world, but I don’t know that I fully understood what they meant until I started working here. Now I see that the garden really is a beautiful thing and it’s a pretty rare privilege to be able to bring that beauty to others through magazines.