Strangers in a Strange Land

So there is more to holidays than food. We also had hikes to take, birds to watch, shells to collect.

As I mentioned before, we had rented a house on Edisto Island, near the town of Edisto Beach. The back of the house faced on to a tidal creek and salt marsh.

The dock on the tidal creek behind the house.
The dock on the tidal creek behind the house.

In the front, we had a vista of palmettos and dwarf palmettos, a dirt road, more salt marsh, the beach, and the Atlantic ocean.


It was a very unfamiliar landscape, and waterscape (though spellcheck indicates this is not a word), for us Midwesterners. We had heard that this was a great area for bird watching, and we were not disappointed, though our time for bird photography was rather limited due to Short Ones restlessness.  (I should explain here that the title Short Ones is ironic. Short One the Elder is about 6′ 1″, Short One the Younger is 6′ 3″. I am 5′ 11″. So we spend a good deal of time accusing each other of being short. One of our favorite songs is Randy Newman’s Short People.)

We were especially interested in all the aquatic  birds that we had never seen before. We saw plenty of Great Egrets, just as Les at A Tidewater Gardener had assured us that we would.


We also saw Great Blue Herons.

Great Blue Heron

It was fun watching the Brown Pelicans diving for fish.

Brown Pelicans

Then there were the Sanderlings, little shorebirds that were very comical to watch. Over and over, they would chase the surf as it receded, then run away as it flowed back again, each time with a kind of manic energy, as if in a panic. There were many ibis, with their odd curved beaks, but we couldn’t get a good picture.


We were most excited to see a Kingfisher, a handsome fellow that we had not expected to come across. Sadly, we did not get a picture, so I’m cheating by borrowing one from


In addition to the marshes and the beach, a great place to look for birds was the live oak behind our house, a very popular tree for winged creatures. We saw Northern Cardinals, many woodpeckers, and other birds I couldn’t identify.

Live Oak

We also went hiking at Edisto Beach State Park, which includes forests of live oak dripping with spanish moss. These don’t look like any woods back home.

Live Oaks, Edisto Beach State Park

Of course, we spent lots of time at the beach, though it was colder than normal and not exactly beach weather. Sadly, houses have been built all along the edge of the beach in town, which bodes ill for the future of both the beach and the houses. We spent most of our time walking at the beach closer to our rented house, which was about a mile away. There were no houses or other man-made structures, and often we were the only ones there.

Edisto Beach
The Short Ones and I walking on the beach. I am furthest left.

This area is one of the best in the world for collecting sea shells, and we especially liked the whelks and sand dollars. A couple of times Judy and Short One the Elder picked up whelk shells that were still inhabited, and these quickly though briefly became flying whelks.

Edisto Beach
Sea shells by the sea shore.
Whelk shell, still occupied.

In addition to all of the above, we had a good deal of time for sitting on the dock and watching the sunset. Next post: Savannah and Charleston.

Edisto Beach sunset

Have Yourself Another Little Helping (of BBQ)

We’re back! As I wrote a couple days before Christmas, Judy and I and the Short Ones stayed at a cabin in South Carolina for a holiday vacation. I’m glad to say we had a fine time, but more important, I obtained enough pictures and material for two or three posts.

Let’s start with the thing that lies at the heart of the Holidays, after you strip away all the commercialism, the presents, and the parties. Namely: food.

Banana Cream Pie
Banana Cream Pie

We ate well. The cabin (more of a vacation house, actually) had a well-equipped kitchen, so we did a lot of our own cooking, including Christmas dinner. In deference to our vacation location, we came up with the following menu: roast pork, biscuits, sweet potatoes, collard greens with bacon and garlic, and banana cream pie. The Short Ones helped with the cooking, both boys being pretty decent cooks especially given age and gender. Short One the Elder is a deft hand at biscuits.

Here’s a link to the banana cream pie recipe we used. It was delicious, as was the rest of the meal.

A primary goal of our vacation was to eat some good BBQ. Not that we are deprived at home. We actually have the world’s finest BBQ here in Evanston, Illinois, at a place called Hecky’s. However, this is more the thick, sweet, tomato-based sort of BBQ.

In South Carolina, it’s different. They have vinegar-based sauces. They have mustard-based sauces. We tried as many as we could, and loved them all.

Po' Pigs Bo-B-Q
Po’ Pigs Bo-B-Q

In my opinion, the best we had was at Po’ Pigs Bo-B-Q. Po’ Pigs is in Edisto Beach, where we stayed. It’s located in a gas station that also has a Domino’s Pizza for people with styrofoam palates. Po’ Pigs is a cafeteria. You can help yourself to pulled pork and chicken, various vegetables (although in South Carolina, macaroni and cheese counts as a vegetable), then head to your table. The BBQ sauces are on the table, so you can try them all.

Judy and the Short Ones favored Angel’s, a place we found in an alley during a day trip to Savannah, Georgia. Angel’s had a sweet Memphis-style sauce, as well as hot mustard and vinegar sauces. A truly tiny place, we called to ask when they were closing (it was a Sunday). Answer: when they run out of BBQ.

I have to mention the Hominy Grill in Charleston, South Carolina, even though it wasn’t a BBQ place and wasn’t located in a gas station or an alley.  It’s just a relaxed, comfortable place that serves incredibly delicious food, including shrimp and grits and the best meatloaf I have ever eaten in my life.

Oh yes, we were near the ocean, and there was sea food. One night we went to a nearby place and got a platter of crabs and shrimp to go. The crab was good and fresh, but as Midwesterners we were inexperienced at extracting the meat. We all agreed that crab was something we could eat just once a year.

Happy Holidays to Everyone

The last few years our family has started a new way of observing the holidays. We pretty much do without presents, and take a trip together instead. This year we’ve rented a cabin in South Carolina on a tidal creek, just a couple of miles from the ocean. Our two sons, both in their mid-twenties, will be with Judy and I. We intend to spend our time cooking, reading, eating, and bird watching, along with a bit of sight seeing. We’ll be back in Chicago for New Year’s Eve.

I'm hoping to see egrets while in South Carolina.
I’m hoping to see egrets while in South Carolina.

Judy and I are planning to take lots of pictures, and I expect to have fodder for several posts. There’s a chance I will write one post while we’re down there. There’s no internet access in the cabin, but there is a nearby bookstore with free wifi. I make no promises, however.

In the meantime, best wishes to all!

New Year’s Resolution: Start Annuals Indoors!

In recent years I’ve come to appreciate the value of mixing annuals in with the perennials in flower borders. Not just for maximizing color, but also for achieving that sense of fullness earlier and more consistently through the season.

I’m slightly ashamed to say that I have not started any of my own annuals from seed since I grew ‘Italian White’ sunflowers in my garden about ten years ago. I feel that this undermines my bona fides as a real gardener. Buying my annuals at the garden center (and occasionally at the Home Depot) also makes me feel like something of a spendthrift, squandering my children’s milk money on flats of pansies and sweet alyssum. Admittedly, they drink more beer than milk now, but you get the idea.

Zinnia 'Profusion Orange' fills in nicely between perennials and I like the simple orange flowers.
Zinnia ‘Profusion Orange’ fills in nicely between perennials and I like the simple orange flowers.

The price of annuals frequently does seem unreasonable, especially the one you can’t buy in flats. What’s more, I’ve often found the selection and quality to be lacking. This is especially true when it comes to zinnias, cosmos, and cleome – three of my favorites.

So I have resolved to get myself a grow light or two and start my own annuals indoors. Without a greenhouse, I’ll have to make do with the basement and our enclosed back porch. Here’s my preliminary list:

Zinnias: ‘Orange Profusion’ and ‘Cut and Come Again’ (or maybe ‘Park’s Picks Deep Red’?).

Cleome: ‘Sparkler White’.

Pansies: varieties to be determined.

Sunflowers: ‘Italian White’.

Wallflowers: ‘Scented Gold’. Saw these at Giverney last April and have been determined to grow them ever since.

Cleome 'Sparkler'.
Cleome ‘Sparkler’.

This may be a bit too ambitious, depending on the amount of capacity I get set up. But I can grow the pansies and wallflowers for April planting, followed by the others. It also seems that seed is not available for some annuals I must have, like Pentas, which I grow in containers.

So I’m soliciting advice here. What have been your best and worst annuals for starting indoors? And what about favorite seed sources? So far the on-line retailers I like best are Renee’s Garden and Park Seed. Finally, is there anybody out there who considers himself a serious gardener who doesn’t grow their own annuals from seed?

Book Review – Farm City: the Education of an Urban Farmer, by Novella Carpenter

This book is a fantastic read: funny, thoughtful, unpredictable, and engrossing. It is the author’s tale of urban farming on what started as a garbage-strewn lot (a lot she did not own) in inner-city Oakland, California. I read through the 267 pages not in a single sitting, but close to it.

farm city 2

Carpenter and her boyfriend raised all kinds of fruits and vegetables, as well as beehives for honey. However, it’s the farm animals that generate the best stories. The author started small with chickens, then moved on to turkeys, ducks, geese, and rabbits. Finally, she raises a pair of hogs, who definitely qualify as serious livestock:

When strangers at dinner parties questioned the legitimacy of the term ‘urban farmer,’ I only had to show them a photo of me scratching the pigs’ backs with a rake, the auto shop lurking in the background, and the debate was over.

At one point the male pig, Big Guy (200 lb. and growing at the time), makes a dash for freedom. Carpenter has to organize a posse of neighbors who cut Big Guy off with a cordon of trash containers.

The author’s version of urban farming is not for the squeamish or for those who desire the affluent urban professional lifestyle. She obtains food for the pigs and other animals by dumpster diving. The pigs have a special fondness for fish guts to be found behind certain Chinese restaurants.

This might not be the best book for vegetarians and people who are especially tender-hearted about animals. Carpenter describes slaughtering her chickens, rabbits, turkeys, and pigs in a sensitive but matter-of-fact manner. She doesn’t take these lives lightly, but she isn’t apologetic either.

Farm City talks about people and community as well as fruits and vegetables, eggs and meat. She gets to know the people in her neighborhood, from the homeless guy who sleeps in the abandoned car near her house to the kids who are so excited to see real rabbits. She also introduces us to a wider network of other people striving to raise good food in the city, who provide mutual assistance in a variety of ways.

Carpenter is still pursuing urban agriculture. You can read about it on her blog, Ghost Town Farm.

Novella Carpenter
Novella Carpenter

I certainly have no intention of becoming an urban farmer. However, Farm City makes the reader appreciate what Carpenter and like-minded folks are trying to do, and it is impossible not to enjoy the humor and honesty with which she tells her story.

Druping Under the Weight of Botanical Knowledge

I’m very glad I recently took an evening class in botany. For one thing, I now know what a drupe is.

A large berry.
A large berry.

You know when you are reading about some plant, say a serviceberry (Amelanchier), and the text says that the fruit is a small drupe? I no longer think that “drupe” is some random typo that sounds vaguely insulting. Now I know that serviceberries have drupes, not berries, and so should properly be called servicedrupes. This is an even worse name than serviceberry, but more accurate botanically, which is what is really important.

Drupes, you see, have a single seed. Berries have multiple seeds. Tomatoes are berries. Really. So are blueberries. To botanists, tomatoes and blueberries are practically indistinguishable, which is why I don’t visit when they are making spaghetti. (Tomatoes are berries botanically, but are vegetables legally as determined by the US Supreme Court in Nix v. Hedden.)

You know what else is a berry? A watermelon. Yup. If you don’t believe me, look it up. Watermelons and other melons are pepos, berries with a hard, thick rind. So on summer picnics we should be enjoying some juicy waterpepo, or waterberry. Oh, and an orange is a hesperidium, a berry with a leathery skin.

Strawberries have multiple seeds, so you might think they are berries. You’d be wrong. A strawberry is an aggregate fruit, because the fleshy part is derived from many ovaries. Each one of the seeds counts as  a single fruit called an achene, so the famous Ingmar Bergman movie should be called “Wild Aggregate Achenes.” When I say achene people often respond: “Bless you!”

Aggregate Straw-Achenes.
Aggregate Achenes.

Peaches and apricots are drupes. Cherries are drupes, so you could say that life is just a bowl of drupes, though that doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Almonds are drupes, not nuts, but hazelnuts are nuts. They just are, OK? Walnuts are a subject of some controversy. Some botanists think they are nuts, but others think they are drupey nuts, or nutty drupes. I am not kidding.

berry club
My thanks to JL Westover of for permission to use this cartoon.

So I am grateful to my botany instructor. I now know that some berries are not berries. I know that other things are berries even though the thought would be absurd to the uninitiated. And while some nuts are nuts, other nuts are  not nuts, while still other nuts might or might not be nuts.

And now I have shared this knowledge with you.

You’re welcome.

Annual Sunflowers in Perennial Borders

As Christmas nears, visions of annual sunflowers are dancing in my head. I’m thinking about what I want to change in my main flower border along the driveway.

Sunflower 'Italian White'
Sunflower ‘Italian White’.  Photo: California Horticultural Society

I’ve grown native perennial sunflowers, but they have been a disappointment. Surprisingly, western sunflower (Helianthus occidentalus) has been unable to compete with the other border plants, and has almost disappeared. Downy sunflower (Helianthus mollis) has grown to monstrous height, but the quantity and quality of flowers has been unimpressive.

So I’m thinking annual sunflowers. Specifically, I’m thinking of ‘Italian White’ a cream-colored, multi-branched annual that grows to 5-6′. I grew ‘Italian White’ at the house we lived in before temporarily moving to Wisconsin. It grew just in front of a south-facing picture window, which enabled us to watch the goldfinches up close as they fed on the seeds. That was in the first year of a new bed. Unfortunately, in the second year ‘Italian White’ did not grow well. While it self-sowed, the seedlings were shaded by the early perennials to the point that the stems were falling over.

Sunflowers at Giverney.Photo:
Sunflowers at Giverney.

But there must be a way to successfully include annual sunflowers in a perennial border without the sunflower seedlings getting excessive shade. I am inspired by how Money included sunflowers in his borders at Giverney. The only solution I can think of is starting the seeds indoors so that they get a head start on their perennial competition.

Have you tried growing annual sunflowers with perennials in your garden? How did you ensure the young plants got enough sun, and how did it work out?


LBJs Are Eating All The Bird Food

Not clones of the Texas-born President. Rather, the dull little birds that Judy calls LBJs, or Little Brown Jobbies.

Lately I’ve been re-filling the peanut feeder almost every day, and the bulk of its contents are going down the gullets of LBJs. I’d say they’re eating most of the sunflower seeds as well.

House sparrows gorging themselves on peanuts bought with my hard-earned dollars.
House sparrows gorging themselves on peanuts bought with my hard-earned dollars.

The real offenders are the house sparrows, also called English sparrows. Despite what they call themselves, they are actually finches, which gives you an idea of how unethical they are. These rather drab creatures, a European import, are voracious eating machines. They travel in flocks and tend to squeeze out other birds. There are larger nuisance birds like grackles and starlings, but they at least are somewhat easier to deter.

At times I consider putting an end to my backyard bird feeding because of the LBJs. But I always conclude that the pleasure of watching orioles, cardinals, grosbeaks, woodpeckers, nuthatches and others outweighs the irritation of watching LBJ devouring my peanuts, sunflowers, and money.

Besides, there’s no point in being a bird snob. We’re never going to get rid of the house sparrows, so we might as well get used to them. What’s more, if you look at them in the right way and squint a little you can see that they have a sort of understated charm. There’s that little black bib and the white patches on the cheeks … OK, the charm is very understated.

White-crowned sparrow
White-crowned sparrow

There are other LBJs which really are more appealing, especially if you look closely. It’s kind of like stamp collecting. White-throated sparrows and white-crowned sparrows have attractive head coloring. They are also mostly ground feeders, and so shouldn’t be blamed for emptying out the bird food.

White necked sparrow.
White-throated sparrow.

So how do you feel about the LBJs – frustrated, resigned, or ready to give up on the whole bird-feeding game?

Book Review: Home Ground, by Allen Lacy

I fear that garden writer Allen Lacy is simply no longer read as often as he should be. Lacy was a native Texan, a philosophy professor who gardened and wrote on the side. Living in southern New Jersey for most of his career, he was a garden columnist at the Wall Street Journal for five years and at the New York Times for seven.

home ground 2

Lacy wrote or edited ten books. Favorites of mine include Further Afield (1986), In a Green Shade (2000), and The Garden in Autumn (1995). If I had to pick just one, however, I would unhesitatingly go with Home Ground (1984). Except for The Garden in Autumn, all of these books are collections of short essays.

Cheerful, earthy, and erudite are three adjectives which all describe Lacy’s prose. His passion for gardening was heartfelt, and he was subject to serial and alternating obsessions: for daylilies, for daffodils, for hostas, for Oriental lilies. But he maintained a sense of perspective and a sense of humor.

My favorite passage from Home Ground concerns his attempt to camouflage his emerging daffodil obsession:

“I’ve got this daffodil catalog from Oregon,” I said, hoping my voice didn’t betray mania, obsession, or grave infatuation. “Did you know that a daffodil called Lyrebird costs $100 for just one bulb? What kind of damned fool would pay that kind of money for one bulb?”

“Be careful now,” she said. It was clear that she thought I might be precisely the sort of damn fool I referred to.

“What do you mean, ‘be careful’?” I asked.

She had me cold. I once bought the same shirt in eight different colors, and I had just shaken a mania for daylilies … I had no intention of buying Lyrebird, but by dwelling on its outrageous price I was perfectly capable of convincing myself that at only $50 Impressario was an outright steal.

In addition to abnormal gardener psychology, Lacy’s essays deal with the virtues and defects of a variety of plants, with what makes a garden inviting and beautiful, and with a variety of other subjects including the decline of decent watermelons since his childhood in Texas. I particularly liked his parody of certain garden advice columnists of the day and their tendency to deal in worst case scenarios.

allen lacey
Allen Lacy

Your diefenbachia is infested with artichoke mites … Unfortunately, they carry Herpes IX, a virus which spreads rapidly to apple trees, juniper, sedum, delphiniums, zinnias, and humans, where it causes impotence, a yearning to travel to places you can’t afford, and sometimes an untimely death. Burn your house to the ground immediately, see a physician, and make certain that you have a valid will.

Advice like this makes it clear that we all would benefit from reading a copy of Home Ground, or some of Lacy’s other books.

Chicago Botanic Garden’s Dixon Prairie

Here’s another post about a summer visit to the Chicago Botanic Garden. This time I want to write about Dixon Prairie, one of the less visited parts of CBG.

Dixon Prairie is a 15 acre restored prairie with six different ecological communities, from wet to dry, black earth to sand and gravel. In addition to the grasslands, there is burr oak savannah, wetlands, and lagoons. Wildlife – insect, bird, mammal –  is numerous and diverse.

We were there in July, when the wildflowers seemed to be at their peak. Fortunately, Judy brought her camera.

Blue Heron in the lagoon along the prairie. CBG is working to improve shoreline erosion.
Blue Heron in the lagoon along the prairie. CBG is working to improve shoreline erosion.
Heron in flight.
Heron in flight.
Doe in the grasses.
Doe in the grasses.
2009-07-19 13.55.13
Purple Martin House.
Culver's Root (Veronicastrum virginicum)
Culver’s Root (Veronicastrum virginicum)
Leadplant (Amorpha canescens)
Leadplant (Amorpha canescens)
Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
Purple Prairie Clover (Dalea purpurea)
Purple Prairie Clover (Dalea purpurea)

If you live in the Chicago area, go see the Dixon Prairie! Do you have a favorite local prairie, meadow, or “wild” garden?

Before concluding, I want to respond to the questions asked by Nadezda at Nadezda’s Northern Garden.

My favorite Christmas flower: Amaryllis.

Christmas preparation I never miss: Buying gifts.

What is the scent of Christmas: Judy’s baking.

Favorite Christmas song: Dropkick Murphys’ Christmas Song (with thanks to my friend Joanna).

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