Everyday Gardeners

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nature

Nature-themed books (along with positive outdoor experiences) can initiate a child’s life-long appreciation of nature. Whether employing alluring illustrations or placing wildlife in humorous situations, books can take the outdoors from the mundane into the magical.

 

Here a few of the titles, some old, some new, that appealed to my three elementary-school aged sons and helped them gain a new consciousness of what lies outside.

I Am a Bunny

By Ole Rissom, illustrated by Richard Scarry

(Random House, 1963)

All three of my boys dearly loved this book when they were toddlers and still regard it with tenderness. The story follows a small brown rabbit in red overalls as he experiences a year in nature. He picks daffodils in spring, reclines in the summer sun to watch the birds, and curls up in his hole in the tree while snow cascades outside. The book sets a charming rhythm to the seasons and the illustrations by Richard Scarry make this book timeless. My sons always lingered on the back of the book, where the bunny is depicted laying in green grass and gazing at a cricket while a variety of other insects gaze down on the bunny.

Children of the Forest

By Elsa Beskow

(Floris Books, 2001)

Though first published in Sweden in 1910, Children of the Forest seems very contemporary (especially considering the popularity of fairy gardens). The sweetly illustrated forest floor hosts a tiny family who live under the curling roots of an old pine tree.  The father sports a pinecone cap and mother and children wear white-speckled red caps (so they can pretend to be mushrooms if in danger). This story follows the family through the seasons, richly illustrated with flowers and mosses and ferns. Drama occurs as the children taunt ants (and get stung) and the father battles a snake – the boys loved that scene.  But mostly the family as they interact peacefully with the squirrels, bats, frogs, and owls who share their world.

Stinky Cecil

By Paige Braddock

(Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015)

Cecil the toad spends his days with his amphibian friends (and a reincarnating fly) at the pond until he discovers a freeway construction project aimed right at their homes. The creatures band together to try and thwart the project and save their pond in hilariously doomed attempts. My kids laughed out loud when the toad released his stinky self-defense mechanism and when the hawk swooped and dropped pebbles on the bulldozer. All three boys were thoroughly entertained by this comic book-style comedy of endangered wildlife who ultimately win.

Flowers Are Calling

By Rita Gray, Illustrated by Kenard Pak

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015)

Gorgeous watercolors depict the symbiotic relationship between flower design and the insects, birds, and bats that collect pollen. It invites appreciation for how plants lure their pollinators with a gentle rhyming text that gave my boys the “Aha!” moment, opening their minds to understanding why flowers look the way they do to attract certain insects and birds. The blooms on the cardon cactus, which are pollinated by nectar bats, particularly intrigued my boys, as did the moonflowers that “called” to the sphinx moths at night.

 

 

 

 


The long days of summer are great for getting outdoors and enjoying nature. Most mornings I take time to survey my garden, perhaps doing a little watering, weeding, or capturing Japanese beetles. Last week while friends and family suffered through heat and humidity here in Des Moines, I was enjoying the beauty and comfortable coolness of Door County, WI, as a guest of the Door County Visitor Bureau.

With more than 300 miles of shoreline, Door County provides easy access to water-related fun. A group of us kayaked with a guide from Bay Shore Outdoor Store putting in at Garret Bay and paddling around the cliffs of Door Bluff Headlands County Park. The trip back through whitecaps proved a thrilling experience! Cana Island Lighthouse, one of the most accessible of the dozen or so lighthouses in the county, provides a bird’s-eye view of the Lake Michigan side of peninsula. Also on the quieter eastern shore (that is, fewer shops and tourists) is The Ridges Sanctuary, which provides guided wildflower walks showcasing the amazing diversity of flora native to the alternating swales and sand dune ridges found in the park. Just down the coast is Whitefish Dunes State Park, home to the threatened dune thistle, and a lovely sandy beach.

Outdoor activities in Door County include cultural events as well as natural ones. The American Folklore Theatre performs under the stars at Peninsula State Park. And the Peninsula Players Theatre is a state-of-the-art, open-air performing venue with a green roof.

After days full of outdoor adventure, I rested up in well-appointed suites at the Ashbrooke Hotel in Egg Harbor, and at the Eagle Harbor Inn in Ephraim. There’s nothing like a soak in the jacuzzi to wash away the grime of the day and soothe overexerted muscles!

The Cana Island Lighthouse is accessible by a causeway from the mainland. Most of the time the Lake Michigan cooperates, but during severe storms, the road can become submerged, returning the lighthouse to its island status.

This swallowtail butterfly used the large maple-shaped leaves of thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus) as a landing pad. Thimbleberry, a raspberry relative, bears red fruits prized for jams and jellies.

Wood lily (Lilium philadelphicum) has bright orange-red petals with deep purple splotches. The bulbs were used as a food source by Native Americans.

Dune thistle (Cirsium pitcheri) grows only in the sand dunes around the Great Lakes. Whitefish Dunes State Park has the largest remaining population of this threatened species.

False solomon's seal (Maianthemum racemosum, syn. Smilacena racemosa) is able to grow in lightly shaded areas of the sand dunes near Lake Michigan.


On a recent press tour of the Mobile Bay area as a guest of the Mobile Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau, I had the opportunity to visit Mobile Botanical Gardens, a 100-acre site with collections of hollies, rhododendrons, magnolias, and perennials. One of the highlights at this time of year is the camellia winter garden honoring horticulturist and plant breeder, Kosaku Sawada. He developed numerous varieties of camellias adapted to the Alabama Gulf Coast. Here are images of some of the color I spotted on my tour.

Top row (l. to r.) - Camellia japonica 'Kiku Toji', Camellia japonica 'Alba Plena', Camellia sasanqua 'Sarrel's Favorite'; middle row: Camellia hiemalis 'Chansonette', loquat (Eriobotrya japonica), fried egg plant (Gordonia axillaris); bottom row: Confederate rose (Hibiscus mutabilis), white ginger (Hedychium coronarium), calamondin orange (XCitrofortunella)

The open canopy of longleaf pine encourages the growth of dozens of species of wildflowers.

The garden is also known for its work in longleaf pine forest restoration. Much of the site is devoted to this important Lower South habitat, home to dozens of species of wildlife and wildflowers.

Other sites nearby to experience nature include the 5 Rivers Delta Center, an educational center and starting point for nature tours in the delta, The Estuarium at Dauphin Island Sea Lab, with its boardwalk, aquariums and exhibits, and the Audubon Bird Sanctuary part of the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail. The latter two are located on Dauphin Island, a barrier island at the mouth of Mobile Bay.

For a more formal garden experience in the Mobile Bay area, be sure to visit Bellingrath Gardens and Home. I wrote about it several weeks ago. Here’s a link to that post.


Dogwoods are nature’s underdogs. So are the many other understory trees native to our woodlands, including serviceberry, wild plum, redbud, hawthorn, wahoo, and sassafras. The sheer size of cottonwood, sycamore, hickory, oak, and maple helps the towering giants win The Most Colorful contest in October. But shorter species offer big blessings, too. In the wild, their individual beauty often is disguised by the hovering limbs of tall neighbors, like schoolyard bullies showing little respect for personal space. By now, though, the big boys have reached their peak and bared their branches, allowing the small-fries of the forest and fencerows to show what they’re made of. They win me over, not just for the cute factor, but for their value in home landscaping. After all, smaller trees are a better fit for most backyards. Plus, many of these space-saving natives offer sweet spring blossoms, glorious fall foliage, and colorful fruits that wildlife can’t resist. The underdogs, in this case, have the last “bark.”

Pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia)

Pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia)

Serviceberry (Amelanchier)

Serviceberry (Amelanchier)

Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

Redbud (Cercis canadensis)


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