Mouse in the House

It’s turning cold outside, and with it comes that scratching sound that distracts me from my prayers. They’re running up the chimney wall and across the ceiling. With any luck the rodents will run under the bathroom sink and into the cheese-filled trap.

I’m conflicted. I really hate having to kill mice. They are funny little things. One late summer evening sitting in the yard, I watched a pair of them scurry, hop, and tumble with one another under the sunflowers, gathering fallen seeds from birds.

I remember from childhood sleeping on the floor in the back room and, having saved tiny pieces of bread or corn from dinner, would place it under the radiator. Soon enough my “pet” field mouse would run up and snatch my gift. It wasn’t long until the little rodent was waiting for me to feed it. It would tickle my finger tip with its tiny paws, eat, and eventually dart off. The mouse was always aware of any danger to its tiny being and would run for cover at the slightest threat.

Having grown up in Detroit in an area where personal threat was a very real thing, I am (still) uncomfortable and distracted in public. For the love of God, I set that fear aside. It is not just the opportunity for physical harm that keeps me mindful of my surroundings, but mental and spiritual peril as well.

I fret over what my responsibility is in public situations—of men being sarcastic and mean to women, mothers being verbally abusive to energetic and misbehaving children, cell phone users speaking inappropriately (ignoring their companions or children) in public spaces—and the general rudeness of people living under stress and the oppression of being without a sense of God. My confidence of being a good Christian often wanes in public.

To be some sort of a presence of Christ we all work at being attentive to people and their wants, confusions, challenges, and stories. It is in our silence that they reveal their needs. I attempt to be a source of calm, offering prayer so the Holy Spirit can work in them.

I sidestep sharing on the same level. The encounter is not about me. They needn’t know more than I am a gardener, Benedictine Oblate, and that I love to pray—the people I meet fuel my desire to do so.

I see myself as a mouse, scurrying about the perimeter of life to avoid detection, and at the same time aware of what is going on around me. I snatch up little morsels of food I find—those little bits and pieces of human sorrows, needs, and emptiness that are dropped—and carry them back to a place of safety for prayer.

Meanwhile, the devil prowls about ready to pounce, and sometimes I get caught in his claws. Wounded, I know where to find healing. And from the wounding I learn to be more vigilant, to circle sooner behind the Holy and wait.

It’s not about being perfect in our encounters, or praying more. It’s about doing and being our best no matter how small we are.

(Photo by Rama, Wikimedia)

Graces from Gleditsia

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It was one of those perfect fall days when the clear cerulean sky contrasted the vivid reds and yellows of the maples, poplars, and the honey locust in my yard.

Settling into this house in 1988 one of the first things I did on the property, after removing all the trash and debris, was add trees. It takes time for trees to fill in the landscape. So during the time of roof repairs, plumbing and furnace upgrades, and painting, the trees grew on.

Eventually the time came to develop the gardens, and then a few decades later it was time to tear them out. Through it all, the trees remained.

My favorite tree, now matured to over forty feet high, is the Skyline Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos f. inermis ‘Skycole’). It’s a thorn-less Locust variety (inermis in Latin means unarmed) and half the height of its native cousins.

The dark gray limbs are sturdy through storms, flexing without shattering in gusting winds or heavy snows, and have a lovely curve to them—an elegant feminine line. It leafs out in the spring in a neon chartreuse turning to a bright Kelly green by summer. Small pinnate leaves offer open dappled shade and raking is never an issue. This variety lacks seed pods. I’ve never had issues with any diseases or pests warned about in the literature. I’ve called it “that blessed tree”—for its shade, for its beauty, for its endurance.

The other day I gathered my lunch and a rosary, and went to sit under its boughs to rest.

The sky was clear and the sunlight crisp. A light and stirring breeze caused the poplar leaves to chatter and, as I walked under the locust, a cascade of shimmering yellow began to fall.

Each small leaf reflected the sunlight as it fell. Bits of gold danced around me and I was elated by the tiny leaves that landed on my head and arms.

I imagined the blessings of God to be much the same as those golden leaves—small and cumulative, bearing light. We may not take as much notice of God’s blessings when they come one by one. But looking back at all the mercies in life, the cascade of light is thrilling.

 

 

Fall Blooming Pansies, Practical Gardening

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In the Midwest, we’re all pretty familiar with fall mums, Russian sage, and flowering kale as the main staples of the late-season garden. These plants are tolerant of cold nights and less sunlight. But why not add pansies to your selection?

Until recently the general public was unaware that the pansy is not heat tolerant, dying out in the summer. It flowers best when night temperatures are in the 40s and day temps in the 60s. Many areas of the Pacific coast are blessed to grow them all year round! The pansy grows well in Zones 3-7. In the northern zones if you plant the little lovelies in late September it will bloom until covered in snow.

Image by loneangel at morguefile.com

Image morguefile.com

Things are a bit different for species violas (Johny Jump-up or Heartease). It is the small flowered parent of the bold faced pansy, and will winter over–usually for only two years–and bloom in the spring, being a tender perennial that reseeds. The pansy, a hybrid viola, is a biennial grown as an annual.

Agrilife Resources gives a bit of history of the pansy’s evolution from the wild viola:

Viola is a large genus containing 500 species…. and were familiar to people living in Greece in the 4th century B.C. The center of origin for the plant was continental Europe. The hardy but delicate viola was cultivated by the Greeks for herbal medicinal use and much later inspired William Shakespeare to write of romance.

Some time after the 4th century B.C. in Europe, an acute observer noticed a plant similar to a viola but growing in open areas with more sunlight. This plant thrived in alpine meadows and on rocky ledges. Someone named this plant a wild pansy. Possibly, it was a person living in France who noticed this plant because the word pansy is traced back to the French word pensee, meaning thought or remembrance….

In the last 50 years much of the innovative pansy breeding has been in Germany, the United States and Japan. New pansy colors such as shades of pink, rose or orange and unusual bicolor designs have expanded the variety of pansies available to gardeners in North America

Compact and low growing, pansies are not fussy plants, growing best in a loose, rich soil. They prefer full sun. If you want instant color in their garden, you will find packs and flats of pansies at local nurseries or garden centers. Select the flower colors that suit your garden design. Choose plants that are stocky with dark green leaves, with a few blooms showing but lots of buds.

With the short growing season, plant them closer together than what the tag instructs for a burst of color. They are lovely planted at the base of fall mums, replacing spent flowers in containers, or in a grouping filling in where more tender annuals were removed.

 

Forcing Bulbs for Preseason Color, Practical Gardening

file0002136272075When I plant containers of bulbs in the fall, I am thinking about the color they will bring indoors during late winter days or as outdoor focal points early next spring.

To force a bulb means that you are manipulating its environment so that it will bloom out of season. Before spring flowering bulbs can be forced to flower in a container, they require a cold period of 12-15 weeks at temperatures between 38°-48°. This allows production of a good root system. A spare refrigerator is excellent for chilling the potted bulbs.  I have even used my basement window wells and covered the pots with a heavy layer of straw…much to the delight of the field mice!

Paperwhite Narcissus and Amaryllis do not need to be cooled when you buy them. They have already been prepped for forcing by the supplier. Plant them as directed, set them in a sunny location, and let nature take its course. Paperwhites can also be grown in water, much like hyacinths.

Hyacinth bulbs are first chilled in a doubled paper bag for 13 weeks and then set in a special water vase to grow; the basal plate of the bulb must touch the water for the roots to start developing. To prevent diseases, Hyacinth bulbs are treated with an agent that will irritate skin. Be sure to wear thin plastic gloves and wash after handling.

Forcing spring bulbs in a container is simple. Select a container from 6-24” wide with good drainage. Fill 2/3rd full with a good potting mix; do not use garden soil or fertilizer. Plant the bulbs so they almost touch each other and cover with more potting mix, leaving about a half an inch from the top. Tag your pot with start date and cultivar. Water the container and place it in a cold (38°-48°) dark location for the duration. Check it periodically to be sure the mix has remained damp, but not wet. Too wet and the bulbs will rot.

If you have a beautiful container or basket you want to use when your bulbs start blooming, find a plastic pot that will fit inside it. Plant and chill the bulbs in this plastic pot. When the time is right, place the pot with a saucer inside the container and set in a sunny location

The number of bulbs for a 6” pot: narcissus, 3 large bulbs and up to 6 if smaller bulbs are being used; paperwhites or tulips, 5-6; hyacinths, 3; minor bulbs like muscari or crocus, 12-15.

For a 24” pot and using a single kind of bulb you will need up to 50 tulips or smaller narcissus, or 30 of the larger flowering narcissus, and possibly 80-100 of the minor bulbs.

When using one kind of bulb per container, create several containers with staggered blooming periods. You can also plant an assortment of bulbs in one larger container but be sure they have the same bloom period. When using an assortment of bulbs, plan on layering them in the container. Plant the larger bulbs deeper and first, add potting mix and then place the next layer of bulbs on top and add more mix. End with the minor bulbs planted closer to the edges, keeping mix a half inch from top.

As time draws near for removing your containers from the cold treatment, you may see pale whitish tips emerging. This is the start of your bulbs, and once placed in the light, they will soon begin photosynthesis and turn green. It won’t be much longer and your blooms will emerge for the long awaited color!

 

Big Difference in Naturalizing and Perennializing Bulbs, Practical Gardening

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Well, autumn is upon us and it’s nearly time for planting spring bulbs.

Let’s start this column with definitions that will help you get a handle on nomenclature: True bulbs contain their leaves and flowering parts inside. These include tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths. Corms carry their leaf parts on the outside to support interior bud development and include crocuses and gladiolas. Rhizomes like Canna lilies and iris form leaves and buds from a growing end or tip. Tubers, like potatoes, have “eyes” that develop roots, leaves, and flowers and include dahlias, anemones and ranunculus.

For the purpose of brevity, I will group all of these together and call them bulbs. From last week’s column, you learned about tender bulbs that are not winter hardy in our Zone 5. This second column on bulbs (with a third one next week) discusses hardy bulbs that spread.

There is a difference between naturalizing bulbs and perennializing bulbs—especially when talking about tulips. A naturalizing bulb will return year after year and multiplies, spreading out into the garden. A perennializing bulb grows and blooms for a few years with the bulb possibly increasing in size but not spreading.

Most hybrid tulips are perennializers—note that, perennializers. They look amazing for maybe two of years and then you are left with only leaves.

Species or botanical tulips, including Tulipa bakeri (aka saxatillis), T. batalinii, T. clusiana, T. fosteriana, T. greigii, T. humilis (adorabvle!), T. kaufmanniana are excellent candidates for naturalizing as are Darwin Hybrids. Some cultivars have mottled or variegated leaves, others have bi-colored blooms, and range in height from a demure 12” greigii to the sturdy 24” Darwins. I’m partial to the spreading T. greigii because of their adorable leaves and their ability to hold their petals longer on wide flowering faces.

Nearly all cultivars of Narcissus are naturalizers. Dwarf and species daffodils are excellent for rock garden because they are often more petite; Tete-a-Tete looks like its larger yellow cousins, and Minnow, my favorite of the dwarfs, is a dainty multi-blossom white with a yellow corolla.

Another good bulb for use in rock gardens is the species crocus. It and the Dutch crocus will both naturalize easily. Other smaller bulbs that will spread, and sometimes quickly, are: Glory-of-the-snow, Chinodoxa; Snowdrops, Galanthus; Summer Snowflake, Leaucojum; Grape Hyacinth, Muscari, and Wood Hyacinth, Scillia; and the precious Star-of-Bethlehem, Ornithogalum.

I love the looks of a grassy area dappled in these smaller spring bulbs. My grandmother’s front lawn was planted this way. If you have a lawn that you do not treat with weed-and-feed, try growing these harbingers of spring. Mow your lawn really short late in the autumn, and then plant groups of bulbs according to directions. After they have flowered in the spring, wait as long as possible to mow again, or do as grandpa use to—mow around the small clumps for a while so the leaves have a chance to nourish the bulbs.

Van Bloem Gardens, a Dutch supplier, recommends that naturalized plantings should blend in with the existing landscape and mimic nature. To achieve this, lay out your planting areas so they follow the contours of your land and be generous with the size of the areas to be planted. The impact of your planting will be much greater if you have several large areas of naturalized bulbs than if you have lots of small areas. Naturalized plantings look best when they are planted densely in the center then feather out to fewer bulbs at the edges of the planting. And finally, swaths of one solid color generally have greater visual appeal than drifts of mixed colors.