Category Archives: Nature

The Promise of Spring

On this first day of spring, the fourth Nor’easter in three weeks is menacing the east coast.  It’s been dubbed Winter Storm Toby, apparently.  A cold rain falls here in northern Virginia, likely turning to snow later in the day.  March, we are told, has been colder than February for the second year in a row.  It sure feels that way.  Every morning, as I check the weather on my phone in preparation for walking with Kiko and our pack, I’m dismayed.  Another frigid day, often accompanied by biting winds.  I’d hoped to have packed away the long underwear by now.   

The famed Nation’s Capital cherry tree blossoms are on hold.  The forsythia is making only a half-hearted showing, as are the daffodils.  I’ve seen only one crocus.  It looked lonely, bedraggled, and full of regret.  Not a trace yet of the grape hyacinths I planted two falls ago that bloomed so beautifully last year.  Very few touches of green have appeared on winter’s gray-brown palette.  Spring remains in hibernation.

March really took to heart that old saying about coming in like a lion.  At the beginning of the month, our area, like many parts of the east coast, was besieged by fierce gale-force winds for two days.  Uprooted trees and branches, snapped like toothpicks, wreaked havoc on power lines, cars and some homes.  A huge pine sliced through the roof of a home in our neighborhood like a sharp knife through a birthday cake.  It narrowly missed the little daughter’s bed. 

We were lucky. We were spared any property damage, and no family members were trapped on roads or in airports.  Our daughter arrived safely home for spring break to a dark and rapidly cooling house, but we had no cause for complaint.  (Why, I wonder, must the week of spring break always be among the year’s coldest?  Some of the few snows I remember from my college days in Athens occurred during spring break.)  

When the winds at last died down and we ventured out to clean up the debris-scattered lawn, I gathered some of the branches blasted from our maple and cherry trees, brought them inside and put them in water.  Many of the buds have opened now.  Bright green maple seedlings and delicate white cherry blossoms attest to the promise of spring.  I have the evidence.  The season of new life may be biding its time, but it’s coming.     

Spring knew best to wait.  The rain here has turned to sleet.  Ice crystals weigh heavily on pine branches, and white patches are visible around the bases of trees.  May this spring storm be winter’s last. 

Front Yard Squash Gardens ’17

This past summer, we were treated to not just one, but two spontaneous squash gardens in our front yard.  The expected pumpkin patch popped up in the maple stump compost pile, as it has for the past two years.  (See posts from November 2016 and July 2015.)  Another, even larger, sprang up in the mulch bed nearby.  The hard-working, fast-moving vines claimed many square feet of ground, producing big fuzzy green leaves and bright yellow blossoms. 

 

Pale yellow pumpkins, elongated ovals, grew from some of the flowers.  Others produced dark green fruit of similar shape.  And still other buds grew into beautifully ornamental gourds of yellow and green, some warty, others with smoother skin.  In the photo above, a knobby-skinned gourd is partially visible just to the left of the pumpkin.  I found no discernible differences in the foliage, although two types of vines must have been present.   

Many small proto-pumpkins appeared, but most were claimed by squirrels or deer.  Our fall harvest consists of the three tall guys in front. 

The gourds were evidently much less popular with the critters.  A few succumbed to nibbles, but seven small long-necked gourds survived until fall.  

The spontaneous pumpkin patch is the lazy pseudo-gardener’s dream, as  it requires neither planning nor planting by human hands.  Simply compost pumpkins past their prime, and let nature take its course.  This year’s harvest could fill a sizeable Thanksgiving cornucopia to overflowing.  I wonder what our little patch of earth will bring forth next year?

All is safely gathered in, ‘ere the winter storms begin. 

Fall’s Last Blast

On today’s sunny afternoon walk, the colors were dazzling.  Seemed like we could feel it in the air:  fall’s final, fleeting burst of intensity.  I thought of a light bulb that glows suddenly brighter before it sputters out.  It won’t be long before icy winds whip these last flamboyantly hued leaves from the trees.  As November yields to December, nature’s grays and browns are mustering forces. 

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We’ll counter by filling our homes with twinkling lights and sparkly stuff, with evergreens and berries.  The Holiday Season will be upon us, ready or not. 

Front-Yard Pumpkin Patch, ’16

 

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For the second year in a row, the maple stump compost pile in our yard has become home to an unplanned pumpkin patch.  (Regarding last year’s patch, see here.)  In early summer, dark green leafy vines began to appear.   Each day they covered more ground, sending out wiry, pale green tendrils that grabbed hold and anchored firmly to blades of grass.  Bright yellow blossoms began to sprout from long, thin shoots on some of the vines.   

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Other vines near the ground began to form tiny green bulbs topped by buds that then developed into blossoms.  As I discovered last year, these are the female blossoms that bear fruit if pollinated by bees.  The blooms attached to thinner, longer shoots,  like the one shown below, are male blossoms, and not destined for pumpkin-hood.   

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Like last year, two types of squash vines flourished in our patch.  Those bearing larger, dark green sharply tri-lobed leaves produced pale yellow pumpkins.  Those with somewhat smaller, lighter-colored leaves brought forth acorn squash, like the one shown above.   

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Deer and squirrels claimed some of the bounty, naturally.  Our fall harvest yielded three pretty pumpkins in shades of pale yellow, and two acorn squash.  One of these remained green.  The other turned almost entirely orange after picking.   

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In recent weeks, as the vines became increasingly brown and dry, the deer seemed to find them more appetizing.  In short order, long after the last blossoms had withered, they nearly decimated the patch.  Every evening around dusk, they could be spotted gobbling determinedly at the bristly plants. 

I thought our pumpkin patch was over and done for the season.  But this morning, in the chilly gray light of November, I noticed that one short section of vine remains green and leafy.  And one small proto-pumpkin was there, too, sprouting a bright, healthy flower.  The days are short, the weather has turned cold, yet the vine still bears fruit.   The perseverance of life, its push to endure despite the odds, never ceases to amaze me.   

The Hydrangea: Summer’s Essence in a Flower

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No flower captures my idea of the essence of carefree summer quite like the hydrangea.  Once the hydrangeas are flourishing, the school year and its unforgiving routine have ended.  There is time once again for the leisurely enjoyment of a sunny morning. 

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The big, bobbing heads of hydrangeas feature prominently in childhood memories of my grandparents’ Kentucky farm, especially of July 4th family gatherings at the old house on the banks of the river.  And some of the most magnificent hydrangeas anywhere adorn the little cottage complex that becomes our home for a while every August in Cape Cod.  Hydrangeas mean summer, past and present.   

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Hydrangeas were among the first flowers we planted when we moved into our house eighteen years ago.  We added more when we undertook our backyard renovation.  The hydrangeas around our house remind me of the days when my daughter’s idea of a grand adventure was splashing in her little inflatable pool on the lawn.  Hydrangeas mean warm sunshine and happy, uncomplicated times. 

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I didn’t have much hope for our hydrangeas this year.  After the heavy snows of our frigid winter melted at last, much of the early foliage was black and shrunken.  The buds appeared stunted.  But as the weather warmed, the flowers rallied.  Right now, on this July 2, they are more beautiful, and more widely varied in color and depth of hue than I can remember. 

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Hydrangeas are likely to wilt soon after they’re cut unless given special treatment.  To prolong their freshness considerably, follow this method:

Immerse the stems in water immediately after cutting.  Heat a cup of water to boiling.  As you arrange the flowers, and just after you recut each stem to the chosen length, hold it in the hot water for thirty seconds.  Add the stem to your arrangement in a container filled with room temperature water.  The flowers should look beautiful for several days and perhaps up to a week.  

Could it be. . .Sunshine?

Rumors of sunshine today in the Northern Virginia rainforest prompted me to take a closer look.  Could they be true?  By all official weather reports, it’s been raining here forever.  Could it have actually stopped, however briefly? 

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Hallelujah!  Nothing wet is falling from the sky.  The gray world has color again.  Although much-delayed, our roses are in beautiful bloom.      011

Kiko managed to locate a sunny, less-sodden patch of grass for his morning squirrel and fox watch.  I think I’d better follow his lead and get out there. 

Thunderstorms are expected this afternoon. 

Spring’s New Box of Crayons

The onset of spring reminds me of one of childhood’s most satisfying pleasures:  a brand new box of crayons.  I picture a child, bored and frustrated because for months now only the most subdued colors remain usable: a few browns, some tans, a black, a white.  As for the happy, festive shades–they’re all broken, misplaced or eaten by the dog.  At last, a fresh new box of crayons arrives.  Time again to celebrate with color. 

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The greens are picked first.  Used with abandon, to color in a luxuriant foundation.  For lawns that will soon need cutting, for the first shoots of lemon balm that will grow to dominate the herb garden in a month or so.

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Even cracked gray pavement receives its ribbons of green.

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Next, pastels in Easter-egg shades.  For a redbud tree, delicate splotches of lavender-pink.  Palest yellow for the first dogwood blossoms. 

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Yellow-green for feathery sassafras blossoms.

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Bolder choices follow.  Unexpected tones of coral and red for new leaves on rose bushes and Japanese maples. Who said foliage has to be green? 

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Intense golden-yellow for forsythia. 

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For the Appalachian Red redbud at the corner of our house, how about a near-electric magenta?  040

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In the sudden sunshine following an afternoon thunderstorm, redbud blossoms take on an even greater depth and energy. 

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In that same light, the pines and maples framing our garage seem to glow from within. 

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And visible from our front lawn, that perfect gift of color and light:  a rainbow.  Isn’t it wonderful to have a new box of crayons? 

Spring Greening, Spring Nesting

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Despite fierce winds that brought wintry temperatures back to Northern Virginia over the weekend, the greening of spring continues unabated.  

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The vines of our climbing roses are lacy with delicate green-gold leaves sprouting from new shoots, reddish in color. 

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The bare winter vines atop the trellis, until recently a study in austere grays and browns, have become a mass of verdant green. 

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A determined pair of mourning doves has staked out a sheltered nesting spot under the eaves atop the trellis.  We watched, concerned, as they began to carry twigs and pine straw regularly through the treacherous vines.  My husband considered doing some strategic pruning to provide a more accessible entry point.  He decided against it, fearing that the doves might be alarmed and abandon the nest.  They seem to have an uncanny way of avoiding the thorns.  Or a strong drive to ignore pain in their instinct to further the species.  We’re pulling for them, hoping their valiant efforts will be rewarded.  As spring proves every year,  life goes on.