Gardening

Spring Fling Blog Hop!

Happy Spring! Today, fellow writers (links below) and I are participating in a blog hop to celebrate the vernal equinox. We’ll each be talking about spring-y things.

As an avid container gardener (my only option for gardening, as we live on property that’s mostly deck), spring for me starts in January, when the seed catalogs start rolling in. They are a welcome sight, I have to say, and help me dream of greenery in the midst of the gray-brown backyard. Usually I start seeds–cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, and vining flowers such as morning glory and cardinal climber–in mid-March:

Cukes, tomatoes, and peppers in this pic. Notice the capillary wicking mats, which is the best way to water seedlings.

Recently we had a week or so of 70-degree days that lulled me into a false sense of security, and I direct-planted sweet peas, scallions, and lettuce seeds outside. Um, well, that turned out to be ill-advised, as you can see by this pic of my lettuce pot (taken three days ago):

 

uh oh…I may have to replant….

But the false starts and hard work are worth it, in the end. Here’s a photo montage of how things look by mid summer:

 

So, what are your favorite things to do in the spring? I’d love to hear from you.

Be sure to check out the rest of the blog-hopper sites, and see how these gals ring in the vernal equinox:

Allyson Charles

Connie diMarco

Gilian Baker

Layla Reyne

Kirsten Weiss

Mona Karel

Misterio Press

Shannon Esposito

Victoria De La O

 

Until next time,

Kathy

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I’ll have a helping of spring, hold the allergies

I’ll have a helping of spring, hold the allergies

 

 

 

Who doesn’t love spring?  The Northern Hemisphere is slipping off her shroud of brown and gray and picking out her bright party dress:  hues of pink, white, yellow, and soft green.  It’s a welcome sight to the winter-weary.  We turn our faces up to the warmth of extended sunlight and feel renewed.
Ah, but many of us pay a price for all this beauty and joie de vie:  Allergies.

The term “allergy” has only been around for about a century (you knew you wouldn’t escape this post without a little history lesson, right?).  Two pediatricians, Clemens von Pirquet and Bela Schick, came up with the term in 1906.  They combined the Greek words Allos (“other”) and Ergon (“reaction”) to create a term that would describe the hypersensitive response of the body’s immune system to something other than a bacteria or virus.

Charles Harrison Blackley, date and photographer unknown. Via wikimedia commons.

Charles Harrison Blackley, date and photographer unknown. Via wikimedia commons.

As recently as the mid-19th century, doctors and scientists considered heat the cause of these symptoms (hence the term “hay fever”).  Allergies were also widely viewed as a “nervous disease” during this time.  In 1859, however, Dr. Charles Blackley made the connection between pollen and hay fever.  Most of the experimenting he did was upon himself, including a crude form of today’s “scratch tests” now commonly done for allergy screenings.  Other physicians were using anecdotal evidence to come to similar conclusions about several other common types of allergies, including cats and feathers.  To read more about Blackley and others, check this site.

Unless you live in Antartica (and they just found 12 million year-old pollen fossils there, so look out), you’re dealing with pollen.  Lots of it.  Tree pollen in the spring, grass pollen in the summer, ragweed pollen in the fall.

Around here, the tree pollen is the worst.  Every morning, cars, sidewalks, and slow-moving mammals all have that greenish-yellow coating.  Pollen is boss.  People vs. pollen couldn’t be any less mismatched than the 300 Spartans facing down the 100,000 Persians in the Battle of Thermopylae.  Our noses are running for dear life.

In the spirit of “know thy enemy” (and perhaps morbid curiosity), I looked up what U.S. cities were the worst for allergies in 2015. Here’s the top ten “countdown”:

10. Buffalo, NY

9. Knoxville, TN

8. Providence, RI

7. Oklahoma City, OK

6. Wichita, KS (ever watch The Dick Van Dyke Show? The episode “Big Max Calvada” makes this city particularly ironic)

5. McAllen, TX

4. Louisville, KY

3.  Syracuse, NY

2. Memphis, TN

…and the #1 worst U.S. city for allergies: Jackson, MI.

 

Want to read more?

Top 25 worst cities for spring allergies

U.S. allergy forecast map (updated daily)

 

So, why am I writing about allergies today?  Oh, I don’t know – **sniff** – it seemed to resonate with me, somehow.

At least we can take solace in the view. Here are some of my favorite pollen-laden pics from my yard and neighborhood:

pollen composite

Hydrangeas from my garden. More a summer flower, but so lovely!

Hydrangeas from my garden. More of a summer flower, but so lovely!

 

 

 

Do you suffer from allergies? Do you consider the beauty of spring a fair trade for your suffering? I’d love to hear from you.

Someone pass me a Kleenex!

~Kathy

 

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Gardening for the Mystery Lover: a mash-up

Gardening for the Mystery Lover: a mash-up
Hydrangeas from my garden.

Hydrangeas from my garden.

Happy Monday, everyone! Those of us north of latitude 32 or so have been longing for the end to the snow/sleet/freezing rain and the dreary gray-brown landscape. The gardeners among us have been deluged with seed catalogs and Pinterest prompts that have us dreaming of the lush backyards we delude ourselves each year into thinking we will achieve. *wink*

So today I thought I would provide a few links to entertain both gardeners and mystery lovers, because yes, there is a way to have it all!

Garden fun:

Below is a slideshow of pictures from my garden. Not professional by any means, but isn’t it great to see something green this time of year?

Garden Slideshow

Here’s a post from a couple of years ago about the benefits of gardening, including why dirt is good for you!

Life is a box of seeds

Mystery-style gardening:

Gardening and murder can be connected in so many ways: the heavy spade, the razor-sharp pruning shears, the deadly foxglove growing by the fence….

  • Mystery author Margot Kinberg discusses the role of gardening in several classic Christie novels (among others). Click on her banner below:

 

confessions

  • The Cozy Mystery List Blog is an excellent resource for finding themed mysteries, and there are plenty of garden-themed stories out there.

Gardening Cozy Mysteries…

  • How about something more interactive? Shot in the Dark Mysteries has created Mystery Party kits for kids and adults, including something sure to chase away the winter blues: Garden Party Murder – Mystery Party Game.

Do you enjoy gardening? Ever been to a garden party? I’d love to hear from you.

Until next time,

Kathy

 

Concordia logo FINAL small

 

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The Spy Who Stole Tea from China

The Spy Who Stole Tea from China

tea2

With stories in the news lately about hackers from China breaking into corporate computers and stealing proprietary software and information (for example, this 60 Minutes’ feature: The Great Brain Robbery), here’s a little historical gem about Robert Fortune (1812-1880) who accomplished the reverse. The low-tech version.

Image via Wikipedia Commons.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

From 1845-1848, this Scottish botanist managed to acquire China’s closely-guarded tea-growing and production secrets, along with actual plants to transplant in India. For the tea-drinking world, this was a game-changer. Within a short time, China no longer had a monopoly on tea, and Brits had control over the production of their favorite beverage.

Background:

Robert Fortune was working for the Horticultural Society of London and had already traveled to China and learned a great deal about tea production, along with some surprises:
Chinese merchants had been telling their customers for decades that green and black teas came from different plant varieties. Fortune learned that the difference between black and green teas wasn’t the variety of plant, but the method of drying the leaves. He also discovered that the Chinese were dyeing the green tea purchased by the English.

from Three Years Wanderings in the Provinces of Northern China, by Robert Fortune.

He published his discoveries in book entitled Three Years’ Wanderings in the Provinces of China. It drew the attention of the East India Company, which commissioned him to return to China and acquire tea plants for them. In Fortune’s own words:

I was deputed by the Honourable the Court of the Directors (sic) to proceed to China for the purpose of obtaining the finest varieties of the Tea-plant, as well as native manufacturers and implements, for the Government Tea plantations in the Himalayas.

Fortune had no ethical problem with such a request. In his view, plants belonged to the world for everyone’s use.

The Caper:

The Chinese were incredibly secretive (and rightly so, given what did happen) about how their tea was produced. Fortune spent two and half years in China, shaving his head and adopting the attire of a Chinese merchant (read Sarah Rose’s fascinating book, listed below, for more details). It was sometimes a challenge to evade China’s in-port restrictions, which only allowed foreigners to travel one day’s distance from the ports allowed to Europeans by treaty. But Fortune managed to travel to areas few Europeans ever saw.

Here is Fortune’s own account of how he transported the tea plants he collected, using what was called a glazed case, first devised by Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward:

fortune tea2

 

The mission was a rousing success:

Upwards of twenty thousand tea-plants, eight first-rate manufacturers, and a large supply of implements were procured from the finest tea-districts of China, and conveyed in safety to the Himalayas.

Wow, 20,00! And the equipment and experts to successfully start a tea-growing operation in India. Can you imagine?

 

Want to read more?

Fortune, Robert. Three Years Wanderings in the Provinces of China. London: Spottiswoode and Shaw, 1847.

Fortune, Robert. A Journey to the Tea Countries of China; Including Sung-Lo and the Bohea Hills. London: W. Clowes and Sons, 1852.

Rose, Sarah. For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History. New York: Viking Press, 2010.  Click here for Amazon link.

NPR: Tea Tuesdays: The Scottish Spy Who Stole China’s Tea Empire

 

Happy tea drinking,

Kathy

P.S. – Be sure to check out the following post for my giveaway and flash fiction fun! Entry deadline is January 31.

You tell the story!

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It’s National Pollinator Week!

It’s National Pollinator Week!
Image from USDA.gov

Those agriculture folks know how to party…image from USDA.gov

I know, we almost missed it! If you think about it, though, we here in the northern hemisphere have the rest of the summer and early autumn to appreciate all of the birds, bats, bees, butterflies, small mammals, and other insects who pollinate our flowers and crops.

Some facts about pollinators:

  • There are more than 200,000 species of pollinators.
  • 75% of flowering plants rely upon pollinators for the fertilization necessary to produce fruit and seeds.
  • Pollinators make possible some of our favorite foods, spices, and flavorings, such as blueberries, strawberries, tomatoes, chocolate, vanilla, and almonds.
  • Bats are the only ones who pollinate the agave plant, which is used to make tequila.
  • A teeny fly called a midge is the only species that pollinates the cacao tree, which gives us the cacao beans to make chocolate.
  • Honey bees alone are responsible for pollinating 15 billion dollars’ worth of crops every year.
  • Pollinator populations are dwindling because of exposure to pesticides, the decline of their habitats, and various pathogenic stressors.

What can you do to help pollinators?

  • If you have a yard, plant pollinator-friendly flowers, staggering the time the flowers bloom, if possible. Here’s a great guide, Selecting Plants for Pollinators, from Pollinator Partnership. You type in your zip code, and it compiles a list of beneficial plants that work well in your ecoregion. There’s even a free app on this page that you can download to your smartphone. Here are a few pics of my backyard, where plants, bird feeders and bird houses are crammed in a small space:

mid-June 2015 021mid-June 2015 023mid-June 2015 011

  • Reduce your use of pesticides.
  • Install a bat house on your property. Some species eat a lot of mosquitoes. A bonus!
  • Supply fresh water for birds, bees, and other pollinators.
  • Attend a National Pollinator Week event in your area. There’s something going on nearly everywhere. Check out this page for details.
Image via pollinator.org

Image via pollinator.org

  • Support your local beekeepers. Many sell their honey at farmer’s markets. Also, I found this cool Indiegogo invention that’s being crowd-funded right now. You have to check out this awesome device, whether or not you would ever do beekeeping. While the conventional harvesting of honey is a difficult process and stressful on the bees, this method is as simple as turning a spigot!

Source: Flow Hive: Honey on Tap Directly From Your Beehive | Indiegogo

Isn’t that amazing? There’s no way we could keep bees in our townhouse backyard, but it looks so cool.

How will you celebrate National Pollinator Week? Plant a flowering shrub? Eat some honey or chocolate? I’d love to hear from you.

Starting next week, I will be on a summer blogging hiatus, so that I can spend more time working on edits to the fourth book in the Concordia Wells Mysteries, and finish the first draft of the sequel to Never Sleep. I’ll also be spending time roasting marshmallows, star-gazing, listening to the crickets, playing boardgames, and hanging out with my family. I hope you enjoy your summer, too!

~Kathy

 

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Taxes and hummingbirds

Taxes and hummingbirds

Happy Spring! Here’s a re-post (with tweaks) from a couple of years ago. May the hummers and refunds be with you. 😉

~Kathy

Welcome to April 15th, that time in the U.S. where adults pore over forms, tax software, receipt scraps, and forgotten resolutions to keep better track this year.  Sitting in front of our computers is the last place we want to be, with the sunshine and cherry blossoms beckoning to us.  Sigh.

But April 15th makes me smile, and not just because it’s hubby who does the taxes. *waves to my honey*

In our neck of the woods (mid-Atlantic states), it’s time to put out the hummingbird feeders.  

Yep, they’re ba-a-ack!

hummer composite2

For those of you who’ve followed my posts for a year (or more…thank you!), you KNOW how excited I get about the hummingbirds returning.  If not, you can check out my post here, where I share pics and cool facts about hummers.  And, by the way, I actually took the pictures above.  Neat, huh?

There’s only one species of hummingbird that lives east of the Rocky Mountains – the Ruby-Throated.  Still, one species is enough, when you consider the effort these little guys are making in their twice-a-year migration between Mexico (winter home) and the United States (breeding area).  You have to admit that’s quite a trek for a summer visit, especially the part of the journey that involves a 500-mile non-stop flight across the Gulf of Mexico.

Have I mentioned how much I love hummers?  Oh, right, I did.  😉

To attract hummers to your garden, there’s just a bit more involved than filling the feeders with sugar water.  You have to set things up with a “hummer’s view” in mind.  I like to think of it as preparing a landing strip.  Instead of blinking lights, I use flowers, and I make the flowers visible above the fence line at both corners of the backyard.  Since Zone 7 in April is still a bit of a frost-risk, I put out only a couple of hanging flower baskets and place them near the feeders to get the hummers’ attention.  I’ll go back and fill in my garden later, in May.  (That’s why things look really bare in the pics below).

Here's the basket by the side fence...

Here’s the basket by the side fence…

Nice and close to the feeder.

Nice and close to the feeder.

This basket can be seen from outside the back fence.

This basket can be seen from outside the back fence.

Hummers are attracted to more than red; purple and pink are good colors to lure them, too.  They like the deep-throated flower shape – a good match for those long beaks – but they’ll try to sip nectar from any kind of flower, really.  And wow, are they parched after a long migration!  Can you imagine how welcome the sight of some nice bright flowers would be to a hummer?  Once they get that territory thing sorted out (which can be fun to watch, too), you’ll have regulars at your feeder all summer long.  As you can see from the pictures, I like to use both red and purple in my garden.  Hummers seem to especially like dipping into the petunias.  One of these days, I’m going to get a picture of a hummer doing that.

I typically don’t see one of these flying jewels for the first couple of weeks after I put out the sugar water, but who knows?  Maybe this year, they’ll surprise me.

For anyone who’s interested, here’s a link to a Spring 2015 Ruby-throated hummingbird Migration Map, with info on how to report first sightings to add to the map. Wow, they are in my area already! Better get my feeder up.

What spring ritual do you look forward to every year?  I’d love to hear from you!

Until next time,

Kathy

 

 

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Hummingbirds!

I am on a mission: to photograph hummingbirds.

Every summer, I try my hand at it, with mixed (mostly blurry) results.  Those critters are FAST!  But I make the attempt, just the same.  Here are some of my best pics so far (only from the last two summers; the earlier ones weren’t worth putting up, LOL):

2011:

This year (so far):

Yeah, I know – don’t quit my day job, right?

I’ve always been fascinated by hummingbirds.  I saw my first one when I was a kid, at the Philadelphia Zoo’s aviary.  It perched on a branch right over my shoulder, and blinked his tiny, beady black eyes.  He was small, fast, and fearless, and pooped on me before taking off.  I was in love.

For those of us living east of the Rockies, we have only one species of hummer to lure to our feeders: the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird.  (You California folks are sooo lucky).  But hey, we’ll take it!

Feeding hummingbirds:

It such fun to coax these “flying jewels” to visit your garden.  No matter how many times I see them up-close, I have to stop whatever I’m doing when one comes by, and watch.  (My writing gets interrupted a lot).

Interested in trying it yourself?  All you’ll need is a hummingbird feeder (pick one with a built in ant-moat; you’ll be glad you did) and sugar-water.  The fancy food mixes aren’t necessary: a quarter-cup of plain white table sugar, dissolved in 8 ounces of boiling water, will do the trick.  Let it cool before using it, and store any leftovers in the fridge.

Change the water frequently, and keep the feeder clean.  If it gets moldy, the hummers will stay away.  Never use honey as a sweetener; it ferments quickly in the heat, and can kill the bird.  Same with molasses, agave nectar, and corn syrup.  Stick with sugar.

Of course, sometimes patience is required to wheedle a hummer into finding, much less visiting, your feeder (to which my dad can attest – it’s been a long-running joke in our family).  It helps to position their favorite flowers near the feeder, especially red or purple ones:  petunia, fuschia, salvia, and cardinal climber, to name a few.  Once they’ve found your feeder, they’ll be very territorial, and chase each other away (the females are especially ferocious in this regard).  The aerobatic displays are fun to watch, as are the male courtship aerial displays.

Cool facts about hummingbirds:

photo by D. Eickhoff, via Creative Commons

1.  Hummingbirds are only found in the Western Hemisphere.  There are 350 species of hummingbirds, about 15 of which breed in the United States.

2.  Hummers are the only birds who can fly backwards and upside down.  Their wings beat an average of 60 times per second.  By contrast, hummers can’t walk; their feet are little stubs, only good for perching.  When a female sitting on a nest wants to change position, she briefly hovers up in the air and comes back down to resettle herself.

3.  25-30% of their muscle weight in is their pectoral (shoulder) muscles.  Pectoral muscle mass in humans is only 5%.

4.  Females do all the nest building and are the sole caregiver of their young.  She produces a clutch of two eggs, each the size of a jelly bean.  The average lifespan of a hummingbird is 3 to 5 years, although many die in their first year.

5.  Hummers have a rapid metabolism.  Their hearts can beat up to 1,200 times per minute when active, and 250  times per minute at rest.  No wonder they have to consume half their body weight in nectar/sugar water each day!  When they are fattening up for migration, they can consume as much as eight times their body weight per day.

6.  The Ruby-Throated Hummingbird makes a twice-a-year migration between Mexico (its winter home) and the United States (its breeding area), which involves a 500-mile non-stop flight across the Gulf of Mexico.  The duration of that flight has been estimated at 20 hours.

Aren’t they amazing?

Sites for more info:

About.com – hummingbirds

World of Hummingbirds

 

My other hummer-related “some day” goals:

1. Hand-feed a hummer

2. Discover a hummingbird nest

photo by Steve Berardi, via Creative Commons

Here’s a sweet video of a guy who rescued a baby hummingbird after she was attacked.  He fed her, helped with flying “practice,” and got her ready to go back into the wild (his comments about what he did and how she’s doing follow the video):

Have you lured hummingbirds to your garden?  Do you like to feed birds generally?  I’d love to hear from you!

Until next time,

Kathy

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Top of the Food Chain? pt 2 – Raccoons

Welcome to Tuesday Terrific, where we celebrate getting over the Monday hump and picking up speed for the rest of the week.

We humans walk around this planet with a bit of a swagger, don’t you think?  After all, we’re the big-shot, top-of-the-food-chain, opposible-thumbed bi-pedals with more brain capacity than we actually use.

But there are times when we’re reminded that it’s not always easy at the top.  Some other critter is poised to topple us from that perch.   Stink bugs, crickets, rodents, racoons, bats, squirrels…they all want a piece of what we’ve got.  If they can’t get opposible thumbs, they’ll have the next best thing: food and shelter from the work of our hands.

I'm cute, clever, and poised for world domination. (Photo by Paul Stein JC, via Creative Commons).

Today’s post features the next installment of pesky critters: raccoons.  It’s a follow-up to an earlier post about the evil squirrel race.  Perhaps I should thank the big ol’ coon that tipped over our recycling bin last night to get at the peanut butter jar, and pooped in one of the flower pots.  I was having trouble coming up with an idea for today’s post, until he showed up.

Nah.

Even if you live on an alien planet and never heard of raccoons, you’d find out plenty fast if you had a Facebook account.  (Yeah, I know, Zuckerberg hasn’t gotten Facebook’s tentacles out that far into the ether – yet).  Here’s a little interchange among neighbors on our street Sunday night.  You’ll notice we’re not actually outside talking; it’s via Facebook, which is where most interactions take place these days.  Some see that as a sad testament to modern civilization, but hey, it was raining cats and dogs (and coons, apparently, LOL), so I’m over it.

As you can see, the neighborhood raccoons are a force to be reckoned with.  Heck, I have trouble with bungee cords – always snapping them back on myself, ouch – but they are obviously no problem for these critters.

The raccoons in our area have grown in number and frequency of visits over the years, and I feel a disturbance in the Force.  Because it’s not just garbage cans and recycling bins that raccoons are after, no no.  They want the good stuff.  Once summer is here, what are they going to do to our raspberry shrubs, tomatoes, peppers, etc?  And what attics are they going to break into to give birth to their babies?

image via humanesociety.org

Speaking of raccoons in the attic, here’s a funny AllState “Mayhem” commercial you’ll enjoy:

These critters have been enormously successful at adapting to the loss of their original wooded habitat.  Now they’re getting back at us.

How did this happen?  What evil genius is at work here?

Raccoons have certain traits that uniquely qualify them to wreak havoc with our habitat.  Allow me to elaborate, with evidence from actual Facebook friends who have encountered a raccoon and lived to tell the tale.

Top Five raccoon traits designed to out-maneuver humans:

1. They are persistent.  But Julie Glover knows how to deal with the tenacious ones that keep coming to her backyard:

It doesn’t keep them from coming back, though, does it, Julie?  Even now, they are planning their next nightly raid, bwahaha.

2. They aren’t picky about what they eat, or where they raise their family.  Diane Capri had some unwelcome houseguests once:

Diane, I’d call them – well, this is a family-oriented blog, LOL.  Strictly PG.  I believe the technical term, though, is “kits.”

3. They are clever, have a great sense of smell, and nimble little paws.  And yes, they are really cute.  Stacy Green has a funny story about that:

LOL, Stacy!  You got guilted!  Oldest trick in the book. 🙂

4. They aren’t scared of us.  Oh, sure, they’ll go away when we come outside, but they don’t hurry.  They just sort of saunter, with that I’ll-be-back-later attitude.  Some folks have even kept them as pets, including Ellie Soderstrom:

I don’t know, Ellie, that eating-doughnuts-from-the-fridge story sounds like my teenagers, LOL.  We’d love to hear more sometime about having raccoons as pets!  Sort of an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” attitude.

5. They all wear that bandit-mask, so you can’t i.d. the exact culprit in a line-up.

Which one is NOT guilty?

So, is that it?  Will raccoons come to rule the world?  There’s advice all over the internet about repelling/thwarting raccoons, from more tightly-fitting trash can lids to water sprinklers to wolf urine (eww).  I haven’t tried them all, but here’s a list of sites, if you’re interested:

Biology 101 – but don’t try the electrified fence!

How to Get Raccoons Out of Your Yard (ehow)

Raccoons in the Attic

Garden Desk

The Survive and Thrive Boomer Guide

What do you think of raccoons?  Adorable, pesky, dangerous?  All three?  Have you had any experiences of them that you’d like to share?  I’d love to hear from you!

Until next time,

Kathy

 

 

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