Zucchini, Tomatoes, Collards and Praying Mantis

With an inch of rain recently we have had a break in the drought.  It is a beautiful October day and here is what I saw when I looked around the garden today.


Male zucchini flower


Female zucchini flower.  We have had quite a few zucchini flowers over the past months, but without rain few of them developed into zucchini that I bothered to pick.  Now we might get a few if the weather stays warm.  I enjoy these magnificent but short-lived flowers.


I have been eating these yellow pear heirloom cherry tomatoes for a few months now.  The leaves of the plant are diseased, but I just keep getting enough cherry tomatoes to have a bunch in my salad each day.


These are tomato plants that my Arab lady friend left on the patio in my watering can, so I don’t know what kind they are, but they are finally producing the first red tomatoes.  On Thursday I made some delicious ratatouille…


We try to throw in 2 to 10 leaves of collards into recipes when we get a chance.  This plant near the lilac bush is looking healthy.


In the vegetable garden the inner portion of the collard plants have been eaten by cabbage moths.  We have more collards than we can eat, so I don’t worry too much about it.


Here come the brussel sprouts.  They have been pretty small, but I think the rain will help them get a bit bigger.


Backing up, here is what the brussel sprout plant looks like.


The pole beans are drying on the vines and will be shelled when I pull down the bean structure.


I looked for bugs on the bean leaves and found a grasshopper.


Parsley is one of the plants that look beautiful all the way into December.  I have not cooked much with it this year, but it makes a great ornamental plant.  It is an essential ingredient in my fabulous spaghetti sauce recipe.


I finally saw my first black swallowtail caterpillar for the year on one of the parsley plants.  For me, parsley is a much better host plant than dill for these caterpillars.


All the native and ornamental grasses have seed heads now.  This is miscanthus ‘morning light.’  I have been searching them the past months to see if I could see the first praying mantis.


This morning I found a female praying mantis in a clump of miscanthus.  Her abdomen is very  large and I wondered if she was getting ready to deposit her egg sack or if she just ate a very large grass hopper that she is digesting.  I was trying to get a better shot and she moved further into the grass, so I am no longer able to find her.  I find paying mantis egg sacks in the grasses every spring when I am doing clean up and try to put the egg sacs in a place where the ants will not get at them.


These little zinnias are finally blooming now.  They are called ‘summer solstice’ but seem to be best in the fall.  I plant them from seeds each year, and they are cute in the garden and attractive to pollinators.


Just to the right in the alyssum I found a little skipper resting.  I almost pulled up all the alyssum during the drought because it just looked like seed heads, but the flowers have returned after the rain and it is buzzing with small pollinators.


The coral mums are starting to bloom…


Some migrating warblers have been passing through.  I think this is a palm warbler, as they seem to visit every year, but not sure I can tell from this picture.


Then there is the usual bird bath ruckus to see how many starlings or sparrows can get in the bird bath at once!

Have a beautiful autumn day!

Thankful For Pleasant Autumn Days

It is a good time of year to be thankful for the growing season and the harvest.  The garden is ready for winter now.  We have had such a pleasant, warm autumn, but now I am looking forward to the quiet and rest of winter.


We mowed the lawn as short as possible.  The fothergilla bush still has red leaves, on the left.  These pictures of the whole yard are always interesting to me, when I compare how things look from season to season and year to year in these blog posts as trees and bushes grow.  It still looks pretty green today and I just watched some sparrows and dark-eyed juncos fighting for space at the bird bath, that is not frozen.


The fothergilla bush on 11/21.


The grass clippings and mulched leaves went into the compost pile, which it pretty hot today.  We have eaten almost all of the Brussel sprouts.  The rhubarb is winding down.  I pulled out a lot of the strawberry runners and babies, but they like the cool weather, and will be green for a while.


Last Sunday I went to the horse stables and brought back manure to spread around the garden and blend into the soil over the winter.  Still active at this time of year are kale, collards, garlic, parsley, mint, and oregano.


On 11/16 this common buckeye butterfly was warming itself on our driveway.


The green tomatoes are gradually ripening.


Sometimes while working in the garden I hear the sandhill cranes flying overhead on their way to an Indiana sandhill crane gathering.


At Lake Katherine the beaver has been getting ready for winter, too.  The lodge is well covered with mud and trees have been brought in close for easy access in cold weather.


Last weekend we took a walk at Pioneer Woods in the Palos Forest Preserve, where restoration work has been going on.  The green leaves are probably mostly on invasive honeysuckle bushes.  Winter is a good time to cut those down and build some big bon fires to clear out the forest undergrowth.


Harvest moon.

Golden-Crowned Kinglet and Moths

Birds are migrating.  Insects are slowing down.  The last flowers are blooming.  The last vegetables are being harvested.  Here are a few pictures.


Two weeks ago I saw this golden-crowned kinglet hopping around the crabapple tree.


I am not sure what kind of moth this was, but it let me get close as it gathered nectar from the marigolds today.


This little moth was taking shelter under a nasturtium leaf.


We still have a monarch butterfly hanging around the zinnias.  When the zinnias are covered with fall shade for a while in the afternoon the monarch moves to the pole beans.


Nearby a grasshopper was moving slowly.


I think this is a black cricket, also on the pole beans.


The coral mums have been blooming for a while, attracting a lot of bees and flies.


A closer look at the mums.  I think that is a hover fly, though it could be a bee…


The pineapple sage is blooming wonderfully, but the hummingbirds have left to fly south now.  I think there are still a variety of small pollinators enjoying these red tubular flowers.


Just a few gaillardia flowers are still blooming, but the bumble bees really love them.  The white flowers are alyssum.


The ‘morning light’ miscanthus grass is at its peak now and is at least 6 feet tall this year.


Seed heads of ‘little bunny’ pennisetum grass


Strawberry flower and little strawberry.  You never know what you will find around the garden.


We are gradually adding brussel sprouts to our soup each Sunday.


I took a look today and there are a lot of green tomatoes in the garden!  I don’t see frost in the forecast, but I will keep my eye on the weather report.


My Arab neighbor friend is back from Jordan and came to gather a bag full of collard leaves.  Quite a few of the collard leaves are chewed by worms, and she did not want those, because I think she uses them to roll up a spicy meat dish.  We totally welcome someone to share these greens with.


Last Saturday was my first day with a volunteer team of around 20 people that were cutting brush and burning.  We were almost exclusively cutting back Eurasian bush honeysuckle.  We had two big bonfires going.


Today Dan and I just took a wonderful early morning walk through the prairie and forest at Spears Woods in the Palos forest preserve.  We bumped into the volunteer crew as we were leaving. They were getting ready for another productive day.  By clearing the invasive shrubs they are opening up the ground for native plants to thrive, which in turn provides habitat for a greater variety of birds, insects, and other wildlife.  With habitats diminishing everywhere for so many species this is valuable work, in order to maintain healthy ecosystems.

Praying Mantis, Spider, and Forest Restoration

I have been looking around the yard for a praying mantis this summer and I finally found my first one.


Yesterday I noticed this praying mantis in the tall Miscanthus ornamental grass. Its head was following me as I tried to get a good photo.  I am not sure if this is a Chinese mantis or a praying mantis that is native to Illinois.


There are a lot of little grasshoppers like the one in this picture in our little unmowed meadow.  That was why I started looking for a hungry praying mantis.


While I was looking around in the meadow I saw this black and yellow garden spider.


Here is the view of the spider from the other side.  If you look closely you can see the spider web.


Today I went looking for the praying mantis again.  It was not in the miscanthus, but I found if in the mums that are  getting ready to bloom.


I will have to keep an eye out for her egg sac when I clean up the garden this fall.  I enjoy having these mostly beneficial insects around.


I have not seen any monarch caterpillars on the swamp milkweed, but the aphids are certainly invading.  I guess something will be interested in an aphid lunch…


Yesterday was such a rainy day.  It has been dark, cool and rainy all week.  I guess the house sparrow was able to sit out in the rain.


The rain seemed to benefit the nasturtium leaves that are gorgeously green.


This picture is taken through the screen on the office window.  I can watch the hummingbirds on the pineapple sage, though they are too fast to capture in a picture.  The tall plant in back is brussel sprouts.


Here is a little closer look at the brussel sprouts plant.  The zinnias continue to attract the hummingbird and butterflies.


Painted lady butterfly on pink zinnia


A century old oak tree was but down across the street from us this week, as it was too close to their house.  There will be fewer leaves to rake, but fewer leaves for the compost pile, too.


I have not had many chances to get out and look for migrating birds this week.  But I barely captured this hawk flying over the neighborhood.


A group of ten of us volunteered today to clear out honeysuckle bushes at the Palos Forest Preserve.


Here is a cleared out area surrounded by brush piles on either side.  We were not able to burn the brush piles today, because there was not enough wind to blow the smoke away, so someone will have to have a bonfire another time.


This is an area of the forest that was cleared earlier.

Fall Clean Up and Florida Birds

It was down to 32 degrees last night.  Yesterday was the big chance to get the leaves cleaned up, though there are still a few colorful leaves on trees and shrubs here and there.  I have also included some pictures below to let my minds wander back to warmer days we had not too long ago in Florida.


With our big trees cut down we had to get some leaves from the neighbors to make our fall compost pile.  We will be able to put our kitchen scraps in the pile most of the winter, if we can reach the pile and it is not too frozen.  We took the picture yesterday while the zinnias were still pretty.  They took their last bow with the frost last night.


The fothergilla bush is still pretty.


The brussel sprouts have been small and grown slowly, since we have had little rain this fall.  Maybe they will get a little bigger in the next few weeks before the hard frosts come.

Moving to some warm weather pictures! Here are some glimpses of birds we saw recently in Florida.

Black Skimmer

A black skimmer on the Miami beach.

Royal Tern in Florida

Royal tern facing into the wind on Miami beach.

Female painted bunting

Female painted bunting at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park on Key Biscayne.

Mangroves at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park

Mangroves at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park.  We went down some beautiful, but very mosquitoey, trails to get to this area where herons were fishing at sunset.  We ran back to our car pretty quickly.


The next morning we visited the Loxahatchee national wildlife refuge, the northern most part of the everglades.

Boat-tailed grackle

I think this is a boat-tailed grackle with the setting moon.  It was just before Halloween so a fun picture.

Common Egret at Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge

Great Egret at Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.

Anhinga at Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge

This Anhinga was making noise about something for a while as we watched.


In the afternoon we were in the Big Cypress National Preserve, just north of the Everglades, and saw this great blue heron near a pond at the Kirby Storter Roadside Park.  We followed a boardwalk through some wetlands and woods until we got to this pond.

Alligator at Kirby Storter Roadside Park

It took us a while before we spotted the alligator in the pond at the Kirby Storter Roadside Park.  It was a very quite spot, though we could hear the cars driving by not far away.

Green Heron at Oasis Visitor Center

We saw this hunting green heron at the oasis visitors center at the Big Cypress National Preserve.  The canal there seemed to be well stocked with fish, so there were many gators, herons, anhinga, and turtles for easy viewing of those who popped out of their cars to walk the boardwalk.


We were surprised to see quite a few large green iguanas.  This one was sunning itself just off the road in the Upper Florida Keys.  After a little research I learned that they are not native to Florida, but came to Florida as exotic pets. Now they are well established if I understand correctly.

Beach Entrance Blowing Rocks Preserve

A final shot of the entrance to the beach at Blowing Rocks Preserve, owned by the Nature Conservancy.  There was some type of raptor flying in the sky when I shot this picture.  What a beautiful place!  After that we went and splurged on big ice cream cones and watched some beginning surfers at Jupiter Beach as sunset approached.

Well, back in autumn in the Midwest…  Most of the vegetable plants are cleaned out of the garden and we are just eating collards, kale, brussel sprouts, and cabbage out of the garden until the snow flies….  Time to enjoy the cozy warmth of the house for a while, except for good walks with a jacket and gloves!

House Plants and a Beaver Lodge

Tomorrow is the first day of winter and hopefully the holidays will bring a time of relaxation.  Here are a few pictures from the past weeks.

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Every year I show you my cyclamen.  I am always amazed that it comes back so beautiful after looking so dead during the summer.  This is year nine.  I always take it outside over the summer, where it loses all its leaves, and then bring it back inside in the fall.  We also have a few small succulents that seem to be doing well in the greenhouse window.  No snow on the ground today, though some is predicted for Christmas Eve.

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This is the poinsettia plant I picked up cheaply last Christmas.  One of you readers told me it needed 12 hours of complete darkness in order for the leaves to turn red.  I have kept it in the laundry room, but apparently that is not dark enough, though the stems and some of the leaf veins are all red.

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I don’t know the name of this plant, but it is looking great since I re-potted my house plants this summer.  I am letting it get drier before watering this year.  Last year this plant was on its last leg…  It does have some white spot, which may be a disease, but it is not too bad and I can brush some of it off.

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Beaver lodge at Lake Katherine.  In an earlier post I showed you a tree chewed by a beaver.  When walking around the lake someone point out this lodge, made with sticks and mud.  That person had actually seen the beaver.  However the lodge has been looking the same for several weeks, so I have a suspicion that the beaver is no longer there.  I wonder what could have happened.

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Another view of the beaver lodge with sumac trees and a mallard duck.

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A closer look at that mallard duck. The males are called drakes.

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Drops of water on little crabapples, back in our yard.  You can see that the leaves are still on the viburnum bushes in the back of the yard.  The leaves had not fallen when the cold snap hit in mid November and they have clung to  the branches this past month.  It is a favorite shelter for sparrows and other birds.

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Sparrow hiding out in viburnum bush on a cold day.

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We cooked up some of these brussel sprout leaves and threw the rest in the compost pile.  So there is nothing really edible now except for a few kale leaves and some oregano under the leaf litter.

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The  compost pile was about 6 feet tall earlier with chopped leaves and grass.  It got pretty hot and shrunk down to 3 feet.  Then  I got my pitch fork out and turn the top half a bit, so it is almost 4 feet now and still pretty warm inside. There is plenty of room to dig holes and throw in our kitchen scraps.  Once it gets topped with snow and freezes then it will be harder to get the banana peels inside.

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I have a lot of books, mostly from the library, to keep me busy reading.  Right now I am in the middle of Deep Down Dark, about the Chilean miners who were stuck underground for 69 days.  So far very interesting reading.  When I feel tempted to complain about dark days I can be thankful that I am above ground and so incredibly blessed.

12/21/14 UPDATE – Beaver Spotted!

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Beaver at Lake Katherine on winter solstice.  This is not a very clear picture, but we went out walking around the lake this morning and saw the beaver swimming around.  Beavers are social creatures.  I wonder if there are two beavers in this pond, as I have only seen one.  It was such a quiet morning and a bit dark, so that is one reason it was hard to get a good picture.

Build Compost Pile and Spread Horse Manure

It is clean up time in the yard.  We mowed the lawn with a mulching mower that chops and gathers all the leaves along with the grass.  The compost pile was basically flat, so now is the time to build it up before winter.

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It is still sunny and windy enough to put a few clothes on the line, but time to pull in the clothes line soon.  You can see how much the house casts a shadow and we still have 6 weeks to the winter solstice.  In the back you can see the compost pile starting to form, and the dark brown color on the garden from the horse manure.

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I know this is not a beautiful picture, but I am always trying to understand what makes good soil.  I understand that organic matter is a reservoir of nutrients and water in soil.  It aids in reducing compaction, and it increases water infiltration.  Humus is what you get when the compost is completely decomposed so that is not going to decompose much more and has become stable.  That is the black stuff that looks like good dirt that is the end result of the compost pile.  In researching the value of manure I read that it adds nitrogen and helps the soil food web by encouraging microbial activity.  All of this improves soil structure.  I think I will need to study how soil works a lot longer to really understand it.  I went to the local horse stables where they have horse manure and straw in various stages of decomposition.  I shoveled up the most decomposed stuff and stuck it in buckets in the car trunk and brought it home for free.  Maybe I will do it again in the spring.

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The top leaves on the brussel sprout plant.  Really cold weather is projected later this week so I might have to eat or harvest the brussel sprouts more quickly.

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I finally got a shot of a chickadee in the crabapple tree.  I have been hearing the chickadee song all week and seeing them every day in the yard.

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Viburnum dentatum – Chicago Lustre.  The viburnum bushes are just starting to turn color and are currently hosting a flock of sparrows, though other birds fly in and out, too.  We planted two small bushes in the fall of 2009, I think, so it has been 5 years.  They were planted with the centers about 6 feet apart, with the idea that they would grow together to form a large bushy area.  They can grow up to 8 to 10 feet, I understand, which was the goal, but they get kind of leggy, and in the spring I will need to prune them to keep them growing nicely without falling down on the lawn.


I dug back in my old photos and found a picture of the two small viburnum bushes against the back fence in the spring of 2010.   They were a little over 3 feet tall and now are maybe 7 feet tall.  The garden has gotten messy since then, but I have had a lot of fun experimenting!

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Fall color on fothergilla bush.  I don’t know if you can see, but there is a branch in the bottom front with larger leaves.  That branch grew from below the grafting line and is a different cultivar.  The color is redder and the leaves are bigger.  I am not sure whether to cut the branch off and hope that a new branch will fill in from higher up, or just leave it as is.

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Miscanthus ‘ morning light’ seed heads.  I was looking at this grass more closely today and saw that the red seed heads were turning into the fluffy white stuff that the sparrow like so much for their nests.

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Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘little bunny’ fountain grass.  This is the largest the little bunny grass has gotten over quite a few years.

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Here is what little bunny looked like in August with rudbeckia – black-eyed susans.

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Almost all the plants have been cut down in the bed by the patio, except for this huge parsley plant!  Now we will be able to see the yew bushes from the kitchen window throughout the winter.  Under all the leaves is dragon’s blood sedum ground cover.  I need to chop it back some as it starts to cover the patio….

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Hicksii yew bushes.  This is a shot from when they were planted in the yard in September 2011.  You can see how much they have grown since then, in three years.

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I am not that fond of house sparrows, but it is interesting to watch their social behavior.  How many birds can yet get in a bird bath?  I can count at least 6 here.

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Finally, we went for a walk on the newly paved Cal-Sag bike trail this morning and came across this hornet’s nest.  Dan told me a story of when he was a little boy and took a hornet’s nest to school.  Once it got into a warm classroom the hornets started to come out and they had to get it outside quickly!