Sunday, November 30, 2008

December Muse Day: The First Snowfall

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

---Robert Frost

I have loved the poems of Robert Frost since I was first introduced to them in junior high, and this poem is my all-time favorite. The last four lines have always seemed to be the mantra of my life.
I hadn't planned on using this poem today, thinking it would be a good one to save for January or February when we were knee-deep in snow and opportunities for good snow pictures would be plentiful. But I awoke this morning to a surprising scene . . .
The first snow of the year fell during the night, creating a scene that was Christmas card perfect.

Despite the color camera, the landscape was a study of contrasts in black and white.

Just yesterday Husband mowed the lawn, and the helichrysum, left in the container for winter interest, was still alive.

Coneflowers now wear their winter hats.

The autumn pumpkins sport more than just frost.

No drinking from the birdbath for now.

Roco's memorial: A blanket of white keeps my dear
pet warm in his resting place.

While the living find the first snow the perfect playground.

The pine branches bow with the extra weight . . .

. . .covered with the perfect Christmas decoration.

The flowering crab is tinted pink today.

A dollop of whipped frosting on the berries for the birds.

A leaf frozen in time.

No need to worry about getting out of the lane, but on this day the house is a cozy retreat; the world can wait until another day.

Unlike the howling blizzards of January, this November snow fell silently and gently through the night, gilding the trees and the garden in shades of white on white.

No photo, no poem can re-create the magical beauty of this morning.

Garden Muse Day is brought to you the first of every month by Carolyn Gail; visit her for more poetry and thoughts on December.

Nancy Bond has sponsored the First Snowfall Project; to see more posts about the first snows across the world, visit here. (Wasn't I fortunate to combine both in one post:)? )

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

ABC Wednesday and Thanksgiving Eve

This week we have come to the letter S, which stands for . . .

The Saguaro Cactus

The Saguaro (pronounced sah-wah-roh) is the familiar symbol of the Southwest. A native of the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, its blossom is the state flower of Arizona. The Saguaro is an impressive specimen, growing as tall as 45 feet, but it takes a long time to reach that height. The cactus may live for more than 150 years. Because of its slow growth, it is protected by the state of Arizona: it is illegal to cut one down, and developers must transplant any that have to be moved during building projects.

The saguaro also has natural pests--rabbits like to chew holes near the bottom of the cactus, sometimes causing irreparable damage to the plant. In the photo you'll also notice holes near the top of the cactus, which are quite common. The Gila Woodpecker, the Gilded Flicker, and other birds dig these holes for their nests and then abandon them each year, leaving the holes for other occupants, such as owls and snakes.

I took this photo last January at the Desert Botanical Gardens in Phoenix, while visiting my daughter. Next Wednesday I am leaving for another visit with her in Phoenix, and I'm planning to take an afternoon to visit these gardens again. For a country girl used to tall oaks, green grass, and cornfields, the plant life and landscape of Arizona is a fascinating departure.

I do plan to post next Wednesday, however; I have a special guest who will provide his unique perspective on the letter T, so I hope you'll drop by then. To see other ABC posts please visit Mrs. Nesbitt or the ABC Anthology.

Since tomorrow is Thanksgiving, another great S word would be Stuffing or even Sweet Potato Casserole. But of course I don't have pictures of either of them because they won't be made until tomorrow morning. Today is the day for advance prep--salads, desserts, and anything else that can be made ahead. But tomorrow morning the cooking begins in earnest, including the centerpiece of our meal, the turkey. While I do almost all the cooking and baking myself, Husband is in charge of the turkey. Yes, Mr. I-Don't-Cook likes to make his one specialty--deep-fried turkey! For anyone who thinks this sounds strange, trust me, it produces a very moist, delicious meat, especially after soaking overnight in a citrus brine ala Martha Stewart.

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. It's the perfect day to spend precious time with family. There's no stress involved with buying presents or decorating the whole house. It's a day to relax and give thanks for all the blessings you have been given.

Whether you are spending the holiday with family or friends or with one special person, I wish you all a very . . .

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Food for Thought...and the Winter

The gardening season is officially over for me this year, aside from some leaf-raking IF I have time and if I can find a few hours of sunshine and warmth to finish it. This week, however, is going to be busy with preparations for Thanksgiving dinner. The house, neglected for far too long, definitely needs a good cleaning, more groceries need to be purchased, and baking must begin on Wednesday if I'm going to have everything ready by Thursday noon. This weekend, though, I took some time for another chore that couldn't be put off. A friend of my husband's brought over two sacks of pears from his trees, and they were ripening so fast I knew we would never be able to eat them all fresh.

I've really never preserved pears before, so I didn't know what to do with them other than to can them. I canned eight pints and put a few more pints in the freezer as an experiment. I still have about half the pears left to put up, but I ran out of canning jars, and I'm not sure if pears freeze well, so I'm going to check out one container before I decide how to put up the rest.

I've never had the time to can much before, but my mother has always canned and frozen every kind of fruit and vegetable imaginable. When I was younger, the fruits and vegetables we ate during the winter came from the cellar or the freezer in the garage, not the grocery store. Preserving any kind of food is a lot of work, but looking at the sealed jars I felt a certain sense of satisfaction. I realized that despite my disappointing vegetable garden I have managed to put up quite a bit of produce. On the shelves or in the freezer I have:
  • sliced strawberries (picked at a truck farm just up the road)
  • strawberry jam
  • green beans (from my garden--not many)
  • cherries (picked from the neighbor's)
  • apple slices (from my trees)
  • applesauce
  • unsweetened applesauce (for baking)
  • tomato juice (not as much as I would like, but at least there's some)
  • apple butter
  • pears

I certainly don't have enough to keep from making frequent trips to the grocery store, but it will help a little in cutting down my grocery bills. And these home-grown products are certainly the perfect example of "slow food," the movement to help our environment by eating more local produce. While my mother--and my grandmother before her--preserved food out of economic necessity, today preserving food is more of a way to avoid so much waste, to eat healthier, and to be more eco-conscious. This is a tradition that is worth preserving!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Veggie Garden Update: A Lament

Ever since August when Tina at In the Garden suggested that others might like to join her on the 20th of each month in posting an update on our vegetable gardens, I've wanted to join in. No, I don't have any vegetables growing in the garden right now; the last of the green tomatoes froze a few weeks ago. But I did have a post halfway completed before the September Veggie Day, and then my computer crashed with my photos and narrative (saved in my documents, not on Blogger). Finally, many weeks and $$$ later, I have my computer back--well, sort of, but that's another story. So I hope you don't mind a post that's not just a few hours late, but actually two months late.

I mentioned the dismal state of my vegetable garden several times this summer. I confess that I let the weeds get away from me, but the biggest disappointments in that garden were the tomatoes, which fell victim to mildew or blight. Perhaps I could have halted that with a fungicide, but I didn't, and though they did produce quite a few tomatoes for awhile, I didn't get the bounty I expected, as one by one the plants wilted and turned brown. I think I've learned some lessons this year, and next year I plan to take action as soon as I notice something amiss.

The above picture of tomatoes lined up on my front porch to finish ripening was taken on August 30, the last good harvest I had. Please indulge me in a silly little review of this past year, my one and only Veggie post for 2008; I plan to do much better in 2009.

Elegy for a Vegetable Garden

"When in April the sweet showers fall
That pierce March’s drought to the root and all"

Then Chaucer’s pilgrims on pilgrimages long to go,
But I think of gardening and vegetables to grow.

Visions of ripe, red tomatoes and firm zucchinis
Spinach, lettuce, squash and lots of green beanies.

Seeds were purchased, and a new tiller, too
Just waiting for warm days and skies of blue.

At last Spring arrived, and with tiller at the ready,
We turned up the black earth with strides slow and steady.

Two rows of green beans, seeds neatly placed east-west,
Kohlrabis planted at Husband's request.

Spinach, lettuce, and tomatoes--quite a slew
Planted along with squash and a pepper plant, too.

Only one pepper plant? Now that’s a good question—
But eating too many can cause me indigestion.

Then came the rains; the weeds grew out of sight.
The damp may have led to the tomato blight.

The hot summer sun added to the decline,
Towards weeding and hoeing I wasn't inclined.

The spinach and lettuce grew more than we need
After a few pickings I let them go to seed.

The squash blossomed and produced quite a bunch,
That is, till the beetles made them their lunch.

The pepper plant never really grew
Perhaps it was lonely--I should have planted two.

To be truthful, the green beans were quite a success;
Most eaten fresh; some frozen--a few pints, more or less.

But the rest of the garden was another story;
It didn't fulfill my dreams of veggie glory.

Tomato leaves began curling and slowly turned brown,
Eventually I had to cut them all down.

No sauce or juice in the freezer for winter,
It’ll be cans from the store in the chili for dinner.

I've learned from all this and will start over next year.
I must be more diligent; that's very clear.

I’ll mulch and I’ll weed and I’ll stake those tomatoes!
Who knows, I might even plant some potatoes!

I regret all my neglect, dear garden, really I do.
Next year I promise to take much better care of you.

(My apologies to Chaucer who must be turning over in his grave right now.)

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

This is for the Birds!

Have you ever wondered how this expression came about? I know I have used this comment frequently to express frustration and disgust, particularly in my teaching days. "This is for the birds!" was usually in reference to some state mandate or a project by an inept administrator requiring a mound of useless paperwork that somehow was supposed to improve student learning. But why would we compare something distasteful to birds? What have our feathered friends ever done to deserve such derogatory comments?

I know that you, my fellow bloggers, are all bird lovers, some to the point that you can identify the long-tailed whippersnapper or the orange-breasted grosamacallit, and some of you are photographers extraordinaire, posting amazing close-ups of a variety of birds in your posts. I am neither--I can't identify anything other than the most common species, and my camera doesn't have much zoom capability to capture them at close range--but I do enjoy watching the birds that flock to my yard and garden. And so, I ask you, in the true spirit of political correctness, to join with me in abolishing all negative epithets regarding birds, including "for the birds" or "birdbrain." I plan to eliminate all such expressions from my vocabulary, and I hope you will urge others to do the same. It's time we accord our avian friends the same respect and basic rights that we give to all other species, regardless of race, color, creed, or sexual preference.

In all seriousness, now that my garden is no longer blooming, the birds are providing me with much enjoyment. I wish I could identify the different species that have been visiting lately, but I do recognize the robins, sparrows, finches, cardinals, crows, starlings, and bluejays. There won't be any wonderful photos of them here, because of the aforementioned camera inadequacies, so unfortunately I can't ask for your help in identifying them either. And without photos you'll just have to trust me when I say I also saw a red-headed woodpecker the other day. (No, his name wasn't Woody, for those of you old enough to recognize that reference.)

The goldfinches have been residents here all summer long, and recently returned after what must have been a short vacation. They entertained me the other morning as they jockeyed for position on the finch feeder. Two of them even engaged in feather to feather combat in midair--I would have given anything to have my camera with me then! I'm not sure what they were fighting over, but I suspect it had something to do with territorial rights.

Besides the thistle seed in the feeder itself, the finches also enjoy the seedheads of the coneflower. This year I have decided to leave the dried flowers as they are. I'm not going to worry what passersby think of my roadside garden; the birds are enjoying it, and that's all that matters.

The cardinals have also kept me entertained, which gives me an excuse to show off my burning bushes again. They reached their peak of color in late September and kept this blazing red color for a month.

In the spring and early summer I am pretty sure a pair of cardinals had a nest here, because every time I worked in this flowerbed, a male would fly about, constantly scolding me. I tried to reassure him that I would work quietly and not disturb his family, but he kept a wary eye on me the whole time I was there.

Now the young ones have grown and moved away. The bushes, no longer needed to hide a nest of fledglings, have shed their leaves, creating a gorgeous red carpet on the ground.

But they will continue their usefulness to the birds by providing hundreds of berries for the winter.
By far the favorite attraction for the birds this fall, though, has been this flowering crabapple tree. Now completely denuded of its leaves, you can see the wealth of berries it holds.
This tree is situated directly in front of the porch swing, so that I have the perfect vantage point for bird-watching. In the time it takes me to drink my morning coffee, I can see 30 or more birds of different species settle in for a quick early-morning treat.

Yesterday morning I spied a pair of these little birds in the tree. I have no idea what type of bird they are . . . let's try to move in a little closer to see if we can get a better view.

Sorry, this is as close as I could get. When I first saw the flash of orange at their throat, I thought they were robins, but a closer inspection reveals they're not. Can anyone identify these little birds for me?

Here are two I can identify, though. If you click to enlarge this and look very closely, you will see a robin on the right and a cardinal to the left. I took several shots of the cardinal, but this was the best I could get--he just blended into the red berries in all the other photos. I really wish I could take good close-ups of the birds, but that would involve buying a new camera, and I'm not ready to spend money on a new one when mine is less than a year old. I do try to get as close as I can to the birds, but no matter how stealthily I approach them, they seem to notice the woman in the bright red jacket, camera in hand. And it doesn't help that my constant canine companion, Coconut, likes to run ahead of me to get in on the action.

And so I settle for these far-away photos and try not to disturb the birds too much. By the way, I am not doing an ABC Wednesday post tomorrow. The letter this week is R, so perhaps I could have included this fat Robin enjoying the view.

In September and early October I spent a great deal of time picking apples and preserving them for the winter. Climbing up and down a ladder causes very painful knees, so I decided just to pick the apples from the lowest branches and wait for the others to fall to the ground. Each day I collected the fallen apples before they could spoil, but time and the weather kept me from finishing the job. I noticed the other day that someone appreciated my neglect.

I guess I've unknowingly provided another treat for the birds this fall. Now I don't feel so guilty about not using up all those apples.

I'm going to continue to look out for my feathered friends this winter. I've asked for a new bird feeder for Christmas, but I may not wait to see if Santa brings me one. The long winter seems like the perfect time to check out some birding books to begin to learn the names of some of my visitors. And there's even a website I found with bird calls to help in identifying them. From now on, when you hear me say, "This is for the birds," I will be referring to apples or sunflower seeds or other treats. After all, birds have rights, too.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

GBBD November 2008

It's that time again--the 15th of the month when garden bloggers post what is blooming in their gardens right now. But it's also November, which means the "pickins' are pretty slim" here at the "Prairie." Ten days ago we were in the middle of Indian summer, and I was outside in short sleeves planting bulbs under a bright, sunny sky. The maple tree hit its peak of color and lit up the front yard.

Then . . .the cold set in and the rains came. The wind blew the leaves from the trees, one by one, until now the maple stands with only the hem remaining of her autumn ball gown.

The garden is in much the same state. It took some hunting to find any blooms at all yesterday.
And I apologize ahead of time for the quality of some of these photos. By the time I downloaded them and realized they were blurry, it was raining again and too late to re-take them.

Even the faithful autumn bloomer, the chrysanthemum seemed to shiver in the cold rain yesterday, refusing to pose for me.

A few stray petunia blooms in the porch planter valiantly hang on, but their days are numbered.

The verbena "Homestead Purple" that I showed in a recent post is still blooming, though, one reason it received such high marks from me this summer.

One plant that has had a second wind and is blooming once again, though, is the yarrow. I guess that it's appropriate that it should be on what is probably the last post of the season of real blooms, since it was the only plant on my first Bloom Day post last March.

Some of the salvia "Victoria Blue" have already shed their purple petals and turned silver for the winter, but a few hardy ones still refuse to give up the fight.

Also hanging on are a few galliardia blooms. These first year "Oranges and Lemons" impressed me all summer with their abundant blooms. Along with a few salvia, they are the last flowers standing in the roadside flowerbed.

Finally, a rather ordinary bloom I've never highlighted before--the sweet alyssum. I plant it as a border every year on the edge of my main flowerbed. This year it was the only annual there, and I didn't even have to plant all of it--some of last year's crop actually reseeded itself this year.

Do you spy a theme here in my November garden? That's right--the one thing that is really blooming right now is . . .


By tonight these may be the only blooms left in the garden. As I sit here typing this late Friday night, I am watching the forecast for Saturday carefully. "High's in the 30's with freezing rain or snow showers likely." Besides thinking that this may be the last day for the garden, I have another dilemma. It's the last home football game of the season for Illinois against tough rival Ohio State, a game my family has looked forward to for weeks. Should I be a true blue (and orange) fan and go to the game, walking a mile each way from our parking spot to sit in the stands, huddled in my parka and layers of clothes, cheering the team on while the cold wind and rain/snow whips through the stadium? Or should I be a fair-weather fan and stay home to watch the game on high-definition TV with instant replays and announcers who explain what just happened in the last play? Sigh. At least the garden doesn't expect me to go out in the cold.

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day is brought to you each month by Carol at May Dreams Gardens; be sure to visit her to find other Bloom Day posts from around the world.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

ABC Wednesday: Quite a Quercus

This week we have come to the letter Q, not an easy letter to illustrate. Once I thought about it, though, the choice was obvious, and I was so eager to post my entry for Q that I almost posted this last week by mistake. And so, the eagerly awaited Q is for . . .

Quercus Macrocarpa

. . .Otherwise known as the Bur Oak. Regular readers here will recognize this tree as one I've shown on this blog several times, including this past August when, on a lark, I entered it in the "Gardening Olympics" sponsored by Idaho Gardener. To my surprise, it won a gold medal! Medalwinner or not, this is indeed a stately tree that sits at the front of our large yard, shading those who enter our driveway. Its age is unknown, but judging from its size it must be over 100 years old, making it a symbol of the permanence of the land, existing generations before us.

Until recently, I wasn't sure what type of oak it was--I thought it might be a white oak, the state tree of Illinois. But with the help of my friend, a high school biology teacher, I now know that it is a Bur Oak. In trying to identify the trees on our property, I've discovered that studying the leaves alone is not conclusive--you must often also look at the bark, the shape of the twig, and the fruit of the tree.

The Bur Oak's leaves are distinctive from other oaks, with a wide top that narrows at the bottom. But this can still be confusing. The telltale identifier of the Bur Oak, though, is its acorn. The acorn is larger than most other oaks, and its cap extends at least halfway down with a "conspicuous fringe," which accounts for its other name, Mossycup Oak.

According to Wikipedia:
"The acorns are the largest of any North American oak, and are an important wildlife food; American Black Bears sometimes tear off branches to get them. However, heavy nut crops are borne only every few years. In this strategy, known as masting, the large seed crop every few years overwhelms the ability of seed predators to eat the acorns, thus ensuring the survival of some seeds. Other wildlife, such as deer and porcupine, eat the leaves, twigs and bark. Cattle are heavy browsers in some areas. The bur oak is the only known foodplant of Bucculatrix recognita caterpillars."

This must be the year for the large seed crop because it is impossible to walk anywhere in the vicinity of my oak without crunching on hundreds of acorns underfoot. As you can see, some type of wildlife has been eating a few of the acorns--I do hope it's squirrels, though, and not black bears!

The Bur Oak is a common tree in the Midwest, extending as far west as the Rockies and even as far south as Texas. It is billed as an excellent tree for urban planting because of its dense shade and resistance to air pollution and heat stress. Of course, it's not a tree you would plant for immediate shade--it is one of the slowest growing trees. But it makes up for this in size and in longevity. The Bur Oak can grow as tall as 70-80 feet, and as it ages it spreads horizontally, with a possible canopy of 80 feet or more in width. I have no idea how tall my tree is,
but I did measure its circumference 4 feet above its base--it is about 17 feet around, give or take a few inches due to my tripping on the acorns underfoot. Because it can live for 200-300 years or more, it is a tree to plant for posterity.

This oak is not as showy in the fall as some of its more colorful relatives like the Pin Oak or the Red Oak. But as I showed on last week's post, it did surprise me this year with its bronze foliage. And while my showy maple is slowly losing all its leaves, many of the oak leaves are clinging tenaciously to their branches. They may be the last leaves to fall this autumn.

I was excited when I learned my tree was a Bur Oak, because near the place where I grew up there is a small area of virgin woods that we called the Bur Oak. At one time a nearby one-room schoolhouse was named Bur Oak after these woods. I like to imagine my ancestors seeing these magnificent trees when they settled in the area in the 1870's. The Bur Oaks may have been old trees even then! But after I googled Bur Oak, I discovered we don't own the copyright to this name, sometimes spelled Burr Oak. There are towns in Kansas and Michigan called Bur Oak, not to mention schools, parks, and even bed and breakfasts. Other settlers, including the pioneers heading West, found the Bur Oak a useful tree not only for shade, but for its extremely strong wood. According to the Arbor Day Foundation, the tree "came to the rescue of unfortunate travelers who needed new wagon tongues, wheels hubs, or spokes." Another interesting bit of trivia from the same site is that Sioux City, Iowa is the "location of the Council Oak, so named because Lewis and Clark held council with the Native Americans under its already 150 year old branches."

I may not be able to claim the Quercus Macrocarpa as unique to Illinois--in fact, it is the state tree of Iowa--but I can admire its rich heritage and its quiet beauty. It has earned the name "Mighty Oak."

For in the true nature of things, if we rightly consider,
every green tree is far more glorious
than if it were made of gold and silver.
--Martin Luther

ABC Wednesday is brought to you by Mrs. Nesbitt; other posts can be found at the ABC Anthology.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

End of Season Annual Review

Brrrr, it's cold! It's been between 35-39 degrees (2-4 C) all weekend with a brisk wind and overcast skies. In January or February I will probably consider this a mild day, but after the last week of Indian Summer, this feels like winter to me! I still have a few bulbs to plant and some other gardening chores I'd like to finish this fall, but today is a day for staying inside, snuggling under warm blankets with a good book to read, not freezing my hands while digging in the dirt.*

It is a good day, however, for assessing some of the summer's successes and failures while they are still fresh in my mind. The gardening journal I dutifully started last spring has had sporadic entries once gardening season got into full swing. I'm hoping some of my blog posts will help me remember next year what I planted and when it bloomed. One of the topics I wanted to note in my journal were the annuals I planted and how they turned out this summer. So today it's final exam time for the annuals:

My favorite annual this year had to be the large zinnias I planted. I've shown you these several times before--with much better pictures--so I won't dwell on them too much. Originally, they were supposed to be a temporary border at the back of the new roadside garden expansion. I couldn't make up my mind what type of perennial to plant behind the gaillardia, and I had already spent so much money on plants this year that I thought they might work for a "filler" for this year. However, I was so pleased with their bright colors and long bloom time that I plan to plant them in the same spot next year. Besides, a couple dollars on seed vs. $40 or more on perennials sounds like a winner to me!
Final Grade: A+

The gaillardia "Oranges and Lemons" were the only perennials I knew I wanted to plant in this area, so everything else had to work around them. I decided again to use an annual this year for a front border for them, choosing these white Profusion zinnias. I bought these near the end of the spring season, and the only whites I could find looked like they were on their last legs. I planted them anyway, gave them a good drink of water, and to my surprise they did take off, spreading, as I had hoped, to form a mass of white blooms edging this part of the garden. I only wish I had a better picture--especially one without weeds--but I think I was focused on capturing a butterfly photo when I took this, not the flowers. These bloomed continuously until the first frost and will also be planted in this flowerbed next year, with a note to self to buy them earlier in the spring.
Final Grade: A

Here's an "oldie but goodie" that I have also shown many times here. The salvia "Victoria Blue" was planted once again in the original roadside flowerbed as well as beside the large landscaping rocks bordering our driveway. Placed behind the daylilies, they begin to bloom once the daylilies start to fade and make a nice complement to the pink of the coneflowers behind them. I took this photo just this past week, while cleaning up the dead zinnias from this area, so you can see that they bloom right up until a hard frost. Definitely a keeper.
Final Grade: A (Six years in a row...)

I also planted a double purple supertunia in the center of this flowerbed, but forgot to take a picture of it--oops. I planted it in front of a basket turned on its side, with the idea that it would look as if it was spilling out of the basket. The petunia did well and is, in fact, still blooming, but I need to remember to raise the soil a little more at this point so that it is more prominent and "spills" more from the basket.
Final Grade: A-

Our front porch--where I like to sit in the early morning with my coffee--has a built-in planter that I love. Every year I seem to plant the same flowers--geraniums and petunias in shades of pink and purple--and every year I am a little disappointed with the results and vow to change it the following year. But, of course, being a creature of habit, I found myself planting the same flowers this year with a couple new tweaks. These petunias were ordered from one of those cheaper mail order companies. They were called simply "waterfall petunias," and the photos in the catalog showed mounds of petunias cascading over a rock wall. I was a little skeptical, even more so when the plants arrived--tiny little 3" seedlings with no blooms. They certainly didn't produce the showy mounds that were pictured, and they were all violet instead of the three varieties promised, but this one plant especially did surprise me in how it grew. I'm sure this is some variety of Wave petunia, but it certainly cascaded more than any other Wave or Supertunia I've planted before. I'll try it again next year.
Final Grade: B+

The rest of the planter was filled with the pink zonal geraniums I just can't resist and double purple Supertunias. Both did much better than last year, which was a dismal failure, but that was probably due to better care than the plants themselves. This past spring I dug out all the dirt from this planter and replaced it with a good quality potting soil instead of the cheap bags sitting out in the Walmart parking lot--definitely worth the extra money! I also think in the past I didn't water this planter deeply enough. It sits under the roof overhang, so it rarely gets any rain water; this year I made sure to water it more frequently and more thoroughly.

Zonal Geranium's Final Grade: A (over protestations that it is teacher's pet)
Supertunia's Final Grade: B

As an afterthought, I also stuck in one sweet potato vine, "Marguerite." I miscalculated how many of these I needed for containers, so I thought I'd try the extra one in the porch planter. It grew and grew--almost too much. I liked the cascading effect over the wall, but it made the planter look off balance. I'll rethink this whole planting next year, perhaps using two of the variegated sweet potato vines instead and something other than the purple petunias which just kind of "sat there."
Final Grade: B+

Aside from the zinnias, the biggest pleasant surprise this year was this verbena "Homestead Purple." I have planted verbena next to my large rocks before, but never this variety. The Homestead spread outwards and upwards and tolerated drought and excessive rain. It is still blooming in this chilly weather. I have tried and tried to take a photo that showed the whole plant to its advantage, but no matter the time of day or the cloud cover, the flowers never show their true color. The blossoms are actually much darker than this, but not a deep purple.

For the past couple weeks, though, I've had some surprises here--blossoms of pink top part of the Homestead Purple.

And next to those are red blossoms! I have no idea what's going on here--a mutant plant? Whatever the color, this plant is a stalwart and will definitely be purchased again next year, if it doesn't survive the winter. I've seen it on other blog posts--is it a perennial in warmer zones?
Final Grade: A

(Just a note about the grading system--I had a reputation as being a tough "grader" when I was teaching. I didn't "hand out" A's easily, so these annuals have earned their high marks.)

As you can see, I didn't plant too many annuals this year outside of my containers, which will be the topic of another, later post. My original intention for most of my flowerbeds was to fill them with perennials so that one day, when I am really, really old and the knees are too bad to kneel down and plant flowers, I can look out at my garden and enjoy all the beauty without having to lift a finger. Yes, yes, I know that is wishful thinking, but the first flowerbed I planted here has already filled in with perennials to the point of overflowing, in fact. This was the first year I didn't need to add any annuals to fill in bare spots there. Well, actually I did plant some sweet alyssum as a border in this bed, as I usually do. I purposely left it out here because I wanted to save it for this Friday's Bloom Day post-- it may be the only flower I have left blooming!

*Late update: After writing most of this post this morning, I changed my mind this afternoon and did plant some extra bulbs at my son's house. It was the only time Granddaughter, age 5, could help. She's the one who admires Grandma's flowers and loves to hunt for baby toads and praying mantises in my garden. She's quite a little gardener and brought out her own pink trowel and rake to help me. With our hooded winter coats and gardening gloves on, we managed to avoid frostbite and were treated to hot chocolate by her Mommy afterwards!