Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Seed-Starting, Day Ten

My little garden is coming along nicely. All but one or two of my tomatoes are up now; the last to germinate were the Super Bush container tomatoes at the far left, which started coming up right after my last update. The zinnias are now a couple of inches tall and developing their first true leaves. Only the peppers have yet to appear, and they are always slow unless it is really warm. In my house, even under the grow-lights, they are probably only at 65 degrees or less much of the time, as the house heat is turned down at night and when I am at work.

This array of seedlings doesn't look like much, but it is 30+ plants. Given the other things I plan to plant -- lettuce, chard, radishes, cucumbers, chard, squash, pumpkins and sunflowers -- in my small garden (containers on my patio and one long garden bed I have use of at my ex-husband's house), I'm not even sure I'll have room for all of these when it comes time to dig and plant.
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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Treasures from the Book Raid

The Great Northfield Book Raid is the big annual fund raiser for the Northfield Hospital Auxiliary, and a Northfield tradition. Dave and I went on Friday evening after work. He was eager to see what might turn up at a used book sale in such a bookish town, and we were both happy with what we found. He found some history and Russian literature he was very pleased with; I spent most of my time at the Nature table and came away with half a box of nice paperbacks, mostly, for about $13 (it was half-price night). Here are some of the ones I'm particularly pleased to add to my shelves:
  • The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher, Lewis Thomas -- I read several of Thomas's books when I was in college (my boyfriend at the time, who is now a physician, professor and medical researcher at U.Penn., introduced me to him), and I'm delighted to own (or own again? I feel I must have had it at one time) this familiar, slim volume of humane essays about science.

  • Botany -- A little (about 4"x6") Golden Press field guide to botany that could come in handy as I think and blog about plants. It's not a guide to identification as much as a guide to the different classes of plants and their anatomy, habits and environments.

  • Dancing on the Shore: A Celebration of Life at Annapolis Basin, Harold Horwood -- a chronicle of life at a haven for wildlife in Novia Scotia. I've not heard of the author before, but the blurb on the inside cover says that this book puts him squarely in the ranks of Farley Mowat and Barry Lopez as "one of North America's most eloquent writers about the natural world." I've read some Lopez, and have at least seen the film about Mowat's study of wolves (Never Cry Wolf). For what that's worth.

  • Speak to the Earth: Pages from a farmwife's journal, Rachel Peden -- A nicely designed little hardcover "book of rural virtues and a naturalist's philosophy" by an Indiana farmwife and newspaper columnist, with a nice sepia drawing of a possum, a blue jay (I think -- it's a little hard to tell in sepia) and a farm field on the cover.

  • Blooming: A Small-town Girlhood, Susan Allen Toth -- Mary Schier introduced me to Toth a number of years back and I've read several of her books about traveling in England. This chronicle of growing up in Ames, Iowa, in the 1950s sounds like something I'll enjoy.
I was also happy to pick up a new copy of Bridget Jones's Diary to replace the one that my elder daughter seems to have adopted for her own, as well as some slightly battered mysteries by Dick Francis, Amanda Cross and Sue Grafton (I discovered I'd never read O is for Outlaw! That will never do...), and some nice clean copies of respectable novels by Annie Proulx, Anne Tyler and Kaye Gibbons. If we get another snowstorm, I'm set. No need to leave the house for weeks!

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Seed-Starting, Day Seven

The little zinnias that emerged so quickly earlier this week (above) have spent the past several days straightening up and fully opening their oval first leaves, or cotyledons. They are vigorous little things.

Lemon basil (Mrs. Burns' Lemon Basil, Ocimum basilicum citriodora), in the left-hand cells above, was next up, with the first tiny points of green appearing on day four or five. A large-leaf container basil (Italian Cameo, Ocimum basilicum), in the right-hand cells above, appeared a day or so later -- you can see how very tiny these basils are when they first appear by looking at the one in the lower right cell.

The first tomatoes to appear were the tricolor cherry tomatoes (Garden Candy: A mixture of Sweet Gold F-1, Supersweet 100 F-1, and Sungold F-1), in the two lower rows above, with their slender, elongated first leaves. A few Big Beef seedlings, in the top two rows of cells above, came next, but they are already showing their greater size potential.

No sign yet of the remaining two varieties I started -- a container tomato and a green pepper.

I've been leaving the grow-lights on around the clock to add a little warmth and aid germination, but once everything's up that is going to come up I'll probably turn them off at night. Soon I'll start some lettuce, chard and radishes directly in the garden. It's been so wet that I'm waiting for some drier days before working the soil.
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Saturday, April 26, 2008

Bright Red House Finch on a Cold, Gray Day

April 25-26 may not have brought us a full-fledged winter storm, as it did to areas in central and northern Minnesota, but relentless winds and fine blowing snow made the mid-70s of just a few days ago feel like something we just imagined. On this cold, gray day the brilliant hues of a male house finch at my feeder provided a welcome bright spot. According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, female house finches prefer to mate with the reddest male they can find. Apparently, plumage redness in the male house finch is a good indicator of his nutritional condition, over-winter survival, and nest attentiveness. Would that there were such straightforward indicators in the human species! (Click on the photo for better detail.)
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Friday, April 25, 2008

Worm Post Gets Attention

My Worms As Big As Your Foot post was featured today in's Local Blogging section, leading to twice as many visits, so far, as on a typical day. A nice way to end the week!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Worms As Big As Your Foot

After a full day of drizzle and rain and a real cloudburst near the end of the day, my 8-year-old son and I came out of the high school where he'd just finished his Tae Kwon Do class, and found ourselves surrounded by more big worms than I've ever seen in my life. We had to walk carefully or we could easily have mashed one with every step. I couldn't resist taking this photo of his foot next to one of the giants. This was the largest in the immediate vicinity, but many others were nearly as big. Now, let's see, do I classify this as a wildlife post?
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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Seed-Starting, Day Three

Last night, as I posted earlier, I discovered three seedlings from the ten zinnia seeds I had planted Sunday evening. When I got home from work this evening there were six up, and two hours later there were eight. I checked the seed packet, which gave typical germination time as 7-10 days. I've got these under good lights, and I'm guessing that helped speed things up. These flowers want full sun, according to the seed packet.

It never fails to thrill me to see such sturdy, determined life emerge from something so small, dry and seemingly lifeless. Below is a screenshot from the Renee's Garden website showing these Raggedy Anne Cactus Zinnias (Zinnia elegans). The packet says:
"These giant flowering cactus zinnias have jolly 4-5 inch flower faces with curved and twisted narrow petals like quilled chrysanthemums. Raggedy Anne's branching plants grow 3-4 feet tall and bloom merrily, lighting up the garden for weeks on end."
From this description, I can see why they were included in the Children's Garden seed collection we ordered, along with giant sunflowers, Cinderella pumpkins and more. That's a lot of pizzazz from a few small seeds.

Speedy Zinnias First to Emerge

I started some seeds for vegetables, basil and zinnias on Sunday, and last night I was quite surprised to find that three zinnia plants were already starting to show their little bent-double stems above the soil. That is rapid germination!

Monday, April 21, 2008

Warmest Days in Six Months

Yesterday and today the temperature passed the 70-degree mark for the first times since October 20, according to the records for Northfield on Weather Underground (a source which I believe often runs a couple of degrees higher than other temperature records for the area). The weather's been behaving in true leapfroggy springtime style, hasn't it? In the past three weeks, we've seen plenty of evidence for that old saying (which I've heard used about New England and the upper Midwest and probably elsewhere as well) that if you don't like the weather just wait 10 minutes, 'cause it'll probably change. If you wanted highs in the 30s and snow, you got them. 40s, 50s, 60s, back to 40s and 50s, and now upper 70s? You got them. Rain? Wind? Thunder? You got them. On Saturday I wore a wool coat and carried an umbrella. Today I needed to roll down my car windows and started wondering which of the warm-weather clothes in my closet are fit for another season (or which fit at all, which is another issue...)

In short, it's been a tantalizingly slow spring, following one of our coldest winters in recent memory. Enjoy the warmer weather while you can, because it looks as if we're back into the 50s by the weekend. But my, wouldn't that have sounded amazingly good just a few weeks back?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Seed-Starting, Day One

I finally -- at least a couple of weeks later than I'd intended -- got started on my 2008 garden today. My new adjustable Grow Light system arrived and I set it up more than a week ago. Finally today, with spring breathing most delightfully down my neck, I got out an old seed-starting tray, filled about half of the cells with potting soil (I know, a lighter-weight medium is often recommended, but I had it on hand...), and planted a modest number of seeds for four varieties of tomatoes, one type of pepper, two basils and some zinnias. I will keep the soil moist, helped by some plastic wrap which I removed for the photo, and should start to see some babies popping up in one to two weeks.
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Saturday, April 19, 2008

First Warblers, Er,Oops, Make that Goldfinches

A flash of yellow drew my eye to the first warblers (oops, make that goldfinches -- see below) I've seen this season -- first one, then a second, alighting in my neighbors' tree. Click on the photo for a better view of the two birds with lemon-yellow breasts, one some distance above the other in the tree. Soon the trees will be leafing out and it will be much harder to see birds like these.

As I told a friend the other day, I know just enough about birds to be dangerous. My favorite birding expert took a look at my photo and informed me that these are goldfinches, still in their paler winter plumage (that's what threw me off). It is still a little early for warblers here. Goldfinches, I learned, can be seen year-round here in southern Minnesota , though I've seen very few and then only in the summer or early fall.

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

A Little Shake to the Path

The path gave a sudden twist and shook itself...
Through the Looking Glass -- Lewis Carroll
A slightly new look for Penelopedia reflects a little shake to the path that may already have been evident to regular readers. Rather more emphasis on wildlife, nature and gardening, in season. Rather less emphasis on tracking my participation in Eat Local challenges (though I continue to support the notion of acquiring more of our food from local sources). Continued interest in sustainable agriculture and greener living. Cheers -- and stay tuned.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Blue-winged Teals

I walked around the pond off Superior Drive again today and saw plenty of gulls and cormorants and some harder-to-identify avian life forms that stayed as far away from me as they could. As I rounded the corner where the spring channels into the pond, I startled a pair of Blue-winged Teals, who hurried away but were still close enough to get a decent photo. I'm told that in the western part of the state these pretty ducks are more common than mallards.
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Friday, April 11, 2008

Shy Cormorants

I stopped by the Superior Drive pond between picking up kids from school this afternoon, and saw the flock of cormorants that Brendon had reported seeing there recently. I like the way their heads stick up out of the water! They sit very low in the water, and their bodies easily disappear from view while their long necks remain very visible. They are easily spooked, however, and as soon as I approached they took flight. I was rather impressed that the photo below caught their "footsteps" on the water as they took off -- something I couldn't see with the naked eye and wasn't aware I was capturing with the camera. (Click on the photos for greater detail.)

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Just Us Boys: Mallards in Spring

These four male mallards came enthusiastically up to me as I got out of my car today, and then wandered away again when I got out my camera rather than some nice breadcrusts.

Tuesday night while walking out Division Street toward the high school, I saw a pair of male mallards repeatedly jumping on top of a lone female on someone's front lawn; she would totally disappear under them. They seemed very into it but I wasn't so sure about her, as she tried to waddle away whenever she was able to emerge from under the ardent pair. I was running late, so I didn't linger to see which one, if any, won the lady's affections.
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My Favorite Tree

Christopher Tassava picked up on another blogger's query about favorite trees. This is a blog topic I've meant to start myself, as I think of it every time I drive south on Water Street toward Woodley and see this magnificent elm. Winter or summer, it's a beautiful sight. But Christopher, some of the oaks on the Carleton campus are right up there for me too -- I love their gnarled intricacies.
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Tuesday, April 8, 2008

A Powerful Swimmer

As I was leaving work today at about 6:30 p.m., I saw a large black bird come in for a landing on the river, and soon saw another like it already on the water. These seem very likely to have been double-crested cormorants. Last summer I regularly saw one perched at the top of the large cottonwood tree that was taken down later in the season, but I hadn't seen them on the water before. Look at the wake this one leaves as it swims, and how the water is cresting up around the bird: now that's a powerful swimmer. (Click on the photo for better detail.)

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Coots and Gulls

I was out for my new favorite walk around the Superior Drive pond again today, between rain showers. The loon was prominent once again at the center of the pond, and Brendon Etter, who opened his window to chat, reported having seen a pair of them now (see his comment to yesterday's Loon in Northfield post). I also spotted a swimming muskrat, which was smaller than I'd expected. By this time I'd already been around the pond and the only other waterfowl to be seen were a little covey of coots, or whatever the proper collective noun for coots might be:

Behind that pond is another, still half-frozen, on the very edge of town, where there were quite a few gulls (below).

I'm not expert at gull identification, but I think these are likely to be Ring-billed Gulls, based on the pale wings with black tips and the fan-shaped tail. Click on either photo to see more detail.

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Saturday, April 5, 2008

First Snowdrops and a Rainbow

This was the first bunch of snowdrops I've seen this year, dotted with raindrops from the late afternoon showers we had on Friday. A little while later I drove my daughter to a friend's house on the eastern edge of town and had my breath taken away by my first rainbow of the season.
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Loon in Northfield

This is the best shot I was able to get of the loon that has been spending time on the pond off Superior Drive in southeast Northfield -- probably one of the largest expanses of open water in the area, other than the river. This was taken a little after 7 p.m. on Friday. The bird was difficult to capture with the camera, as it was fishing out in the center of the pond and then when it had a fish it kept changing its position, trying to realign the fish for easier swallowing. It was not difficult to recognize -- larger than almost anything other than a goose, dark and low in the water, and with that long flat back. Through the binoculars we could easily see the diagnostic spotted back. Here is a little more about loons from the Cornell Ornithological Lab.

Mary and I briefly saw the loon on our walk earlier on Friday, after it was pointed out to us by a neighbor; thereafter it made itself scarce. The man commented that they have had loons there before and that his daughter had written all about one they'd seen for school but was told by her science teacher that it could not have been a loon and must have been a coot or something else. Well, loons may not spend much time here, but here is evidence, if a little blurry, that they certainly do indeed pass through as they follow open water north in the spring.

I've only been privileged to see loons on one occasion previously, during a lake vacation north of Bemidji almost seven years ago -- the occasion also of seeing my first bald eagle. After I'd been living in Minnesota for a while, I was startled to realize that the loon is the bird featured by another name in one of the Swallows and Amazons books, a classic British children's series of quite substantial novels by Arthur Ransome. As the child of British parents, I'd grown up reading and loving these books about capable children having independent sailing and camping adventures in the English Lake District and a few other locations between the World Wars. (You'll learn quite a bit about sailing, the Lake District, charcoal burners, mining, signalling, carrier pigeons and more if you care to take a look. Definitely recommended for about ages 9 and up!) The book in question, in which the children try to thwart a threatening egg collector who is after the nest of a rare breeding loon in the far northern British Isles, is called Great Northern? -- the name by which the Common Loon is known in Europe being the Great Northern Diver, which suits it very well indeed.
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Friday, April 4, 2008

Ducks Galore

My friend Mary of My Northern Garden and I took a walk around the ponds at the southeast edge of town at midday today and found the wealth of ducks that I'd been promised. Naturally they moved steadily away from us as we neared, so all these shots are taken with the zoom and none are as clear as I'd like. Click on the photos for better detail. I was able to identify hooded mergansers (the males have the big white patches on their crests), a common merganser (large sleek duck with dark head and light body) and northern shovelers (multicolored ducks with distinctively long, heavy bills). I have been advised by my favorite birding expert that the light-bodied ducks in the top photo are scaups. As was noted in one of the comments to my previous post, many of these are just passing through on their way to more northerly breeding grounds. Enjoy them while you can!

Above: two male hooded mergansers, three scaup, two shovelers, and three female ducks, "n.o.s." (not otherwise specified).

Above: northern shovelers, male and female hooded mergansers, Canada geese

Above: male and female hooded mergansers and a scaup. Below, a common merganser.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Pied-billed Grebes

Last week I caught a glimpse of a small, slender-necked, duck-shaped bird on the river near Ames Park. This morning I was able to confirm that there are at least three Pied-billed Grebes there.

This small (perhaps two-thirds the size of a mallard) diving bird is recognizable by its chicken-like, light-colored bill.

I will keep an eye out for them and hope to have some better photos later. I am always delighted to discover something other than our typical mallards and Canada geese right here in central Northfield, and it would be wonderful if these birds choose this location for their breeding ground. Here are some more facts about the Pied-billed Grebe from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology:

  • The Pied-billed Grebe is common on lakes and ponds across North America. It is rarely seen in flight. It prefers to escape predators by diving, and it migrates at night. However, it can fly, and stray individuals have reached Hawaii and Europe.

  • Although it swims like a duck, the Pied-billed Grebe does not have webbed feet. Instead of having a webbing connecting all the toes, each toe has lobes extending out on the sides that provide extra surface area for paddling.

  • The downy chicks can leave the nest soon after hatching, but they do not swim well at first and do not spend much time in the water in the first week. They sleep on the back of a parent, held close beneath its wings. By the age of four weeks, the young grebes are spending day and night on the water. For the first ten days their response to danger is to climb onto a parent's back. After that, when danger threatens, they dive under water.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

After Snow, Seeds...

I'm getting ready to begin the gardening season by starting some seeds inside. With the long cold winter we've had and Monday's heavy, wet snow, the ground outside won't be ready to be worked for a while yet. You've probably read how to test whether the soil is ready: scoop a handful of soil up in your hand and squeeze it. If it sticks together (or worse, drips), it's too wet to be worked and you'll just damage the soil structure by trying. When the soil crumbles in your hand like chocolate cake, then you can start turning over your garden beds and thinking about planting your early spring crops like lettuce and peas.

Back in February when we were freezing our buns off, I ordered some seeds as an act of hope. Some of these, like lettuce, chard and cucumbers, are plants I can eventually -- either in the spring or later when the soil is good and warm, depending on the plant -- sow directly in my patio pots or the bit of additional in-ground garden space I hope to be borrowing this year. But in our short northern growing season, heat-loving plants like tomatoes and peppers must be started indoors so that they can avoid the cold, stunting soil of spring but still bear plenty of ripe fruit before the first frosts of fall.

At my former house, there was a fluorescent shoplight apparatus in the basement that I used to start seeds under. You need good strong lights (fluorescents, not hot ones that will fry the seedlings) just inches above the young plants, so that they grow strong and bushy, not tall and leggy reaching for the light, and you need to be able to raise the lights to accommodate the growing seedlings -- or to be able to lower the plants, as I did, to accomplish the same thing. I had my seed trays on top of a stack of boxes and old books, and I'd just remove a supporting layer occasionally as the plants grew.

In the lovely old house I lived in before that, we had big south- and west-facing windows with wide cast-iron radiators under them, coming almost up to the sills. The warmth of those radiators and the good light made quite a decent seed-starting set-up, as long as I remembered to turn the trays often so the plants would grow more or less straight.

Where I live now, there's nothing like either of those arrangements available, so I've splurged (I mean, made an investment that will pay off in the currencies of both food and happiness) and ordered a neat little freestanding, height-adjustable seed starting light fixture with a zippy name: the Jump Start 4' Grow Light System. I shopped around a little and found one of the better prices at It features AgroBrite full-spectrum fluorescent tubes, said to offer "sun-like light with great value and efficiency"!

It's not here yet, but I'm hoping to set it up in a corner somewhere where it won't get bumped but where it's in sight so my kids and I can watch those first tiny shoots unfurl, develop their first true leaves, and grow into sturdy little plants that will thrive when I can finally move them outside in late May or June.