Mother’s Day Flowers (A Little Late)

Hope everyone had a wonderful Mother’s Day last weekend!  I meant to get this post out earlier, but my week got interrupted picking up one of my boys from college. A trip that included a flat tire and some nasty storms.  But I have my boys home from school so all is good!

I spent last weekend in Door County, WI enjoying the great weather by taking a wonderful spring hike at the Ridges Sanctuary and bike riding on the Sunset Trail in Peninsula State Park.  As if Mother Nature knew it was Mother’s Day weekend, the spring flowers were all abloom.  It’s been years since I’ve been out in the woods in the spring and after this spring, I don’t think I’ll miss another.

The two places we visited were only a few miles apart, but they are quite unique habitats.  The Ridges is a unique boreal forest, more like a Canadian forest, and made up of ridges and swales created by the rising and receding Lake Michigan shoreline. Peninsula Sate Park is a combination of second growth hardwoods, mostly maple and beech, and northern white cedar along the bluffs.  These two areas lend themselves to quite different types of flowers.

At The Ridges, because of the cold Lake Michigan breezes, things are a little slower in blooming.  But the early bloomers were out like the Trailing Arbutus (Epigaea repens) in pink and white.

Trailing Arbutus (Epigaea repens)

Trailing Arbutus (Epigaea repens)

I was so surprised to see a Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia purpurea). Even without the blooms, this carnivorous plant is easy to identify.


This tiny iris, Dwarf Lake Iris (Iris lacustris), is unique in that it is only found in the Great Lake Region, and almost only in Michigan except for a few colonies elsewhere including the Door Peninsula.  It’s preferred habitat is sand or thin soil over limestone rich gravel or bedrock and, as in the case here at The Ridges, commonly found on old beach ridges of former shoreline of the Great Lakes.  The Dwarf Lake Iris is listed as a threatened species by the federal government and the state of Wisconsin.


Some of my favorite plants are club-mosses, and plenty could be seen now that the snow and ice was gone.

Spinulum annotinum (Stiff Club-moss)

Spinulum annotinum (Stiff Club-moss)

Dendrolycopodium obscurum (Tree Club-Moss)

Dendrolycopodium obscurum (Tree Club-Moss)

Lycopodium clavatum (Running Ground Pine)

Lycopodium clavatum (Running Ground Pine)

After exploring The Ridges, we took a bike ride on the Sunset Trail in Peninsula State Park.  A very different kind of forest and so the flowers were also different.  The Large-flowered Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) was out in full glorious bloom!


The Large-flower Bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora) always look like they are droopy and in need of some water.

Large-flower Bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora)

Even though the Forget-Me-Not (Myosotis sylvatica) is a non-native species, but one that is almost universally enjoyed.  Such a pretty spray of blue covering the woodland floor in the spring.

Forget-Me-Not (Myosotis sylvatica)

Lastly, the Wood Anemone (Anemone quinquefolia), part of the Buttercup family, could be seen in some of the more open spaces of the forest.


Have you been out enjoying the spring flowers?

On a personal note, sometimes life throws you curve balls and a very dear friend of mine has been thrown the worst kind.  She has been one of my blog’s biggest supporters, and I so appreciate her encouragement and support, and her friendship all these years.  I just wanted to say thank you, and tell how much she’s loved by all her family and friends.


Putting Up Eastern Bluebird Nest Boxes

I’ve always wanted to attract bluebirds with bluebird houses, but my backyard is not the right habitat.  I’m pretty sure any bluebird nest box I put up would only be filled by house sparrows :(  But, our cabin in Wisconsin has a long driveway that seems like the right kind of habitat.  I was inspired to put up the nest boxes after watching a fascinating local PBS show about the Bluebird Restoration of Wisconsin project (BRAW).  It was one of those interesting shows you stumble on when don’t have cable.

In Wisconsin, by the 1980’s Eastern Bluebirds had declined by almost 90% because of changes in farming, competition from House Sparrows and European Starlings, severe weather in its central and southern winter range, and the loss of nest sites, making them a pretty rare sighting for a long time.  But, through the hard work of BRAW, bluebirds have become a common Wisconsin sighting and now they are worried birders will become complacent and won’t continue to provide nesting habitat for them.

Following BRAW’s instructions on what a Bluebird nest box should look like, I purchased two Woodlink NABS style bluebird nest boxes and settled using a 6 ft section of electrical conduit as the pole.

Eastern Bluebird House

Bluebird houses should have a round opening of 1 1/2 to 1 9/16 in, have a base of 4-5 inches square, and a hole to base height of 4 1/2-6 in. Either the front or top should open to allow for checking and cleaning and the nest boxes should be placed 100-150 yards apart.  These dimensions are optimized to help prevent predators from nesting in the boxes or killing the eggs or nestlings. More detailed information can be found on the BRAWS website or NABS website.

Setting up the Nest Boxes:

First, we loosely attached 2 conduit straps.

Eastern Bluebird Nest Box

Then we flattened one end of the conduit to make it easier to pound into the ground.

Eastern Bluebird Nest Box

We knew the conduit strap was too loose to just use to mount the nest box, so we improvised and thickened the mounting spots with some duct tape and a piece of wood shim.

Eastern Bluebird Nest Box

Eastern Bluebird Nest Box

Fasten down the screws tightly.

Eastern Bluebird Nest Box

And the nest box is attached!

Eastern Bluebird Nest Box

Ready for the birds to come.  I hope I’m not overly optimistic that they’ll nest here since I’m not sure the habitat is ideal, but at least I’m giving it a shot.  But, no nest box mean no nests for sure :)

Eastern Bluebird Nest Box

Daisy enjoyed the building trip and something in the bushes caught her eye.

Door County, WI

And I have to give credit to Steve for helping me put these up in the miserable spring weather we’ve had–that day was drizzling and 40°.  It was a bit of a trick to keep everything dry as we were working on it.

Eastern Bluebird Nest Box

Do you have any bluebirds nesting on your property?

More Eastern Bluebird resources:


Anticipation (and a Stray Migrating Dragonfly)

Spring is such an interesting time of year in the garden.  What survived the winter?  When will the spring blooms begin?  It seems every year is different in how and when the growing season unfolds.  I thought it was going to be an early spring, and then we had quite a cold snap and slowed everything down.  Or maybe just made it more normal, but its hard to know what normal is anymore.  In any case, as I was walking the yard I was noticing how pretty and interesting the shrub flower buds were.  I was so focused on waiting for the blooms, I hadn’t been noticing the beauty in the buds getting ready to explode in color.

Star Magnolia

IMG_5572 (2)



Sargent Crab


Jane Magnolia


Dwarf Korean Lilac


While we were out looking closely at the shrubs, we had quite a surprise when we saw this guy hanging out on the Star Magnolia.

Green Darner

After consulting with my mom Peggy, who is my dragonfly expert, she identified it as a Green Darner.  It’s a fairly common, very large dragonfly and can be identified most easily by the very distinct “bull’s eye” on its forehead.

Green Darner

But why is this guy in my yard and not near any water?  Green Darners are one of the few migratory dragonflies.  There are two separate populations, one resident and one migratory, and to see an adult this early in the spring suggests that it may be part of the migratory group and he stopped off for a rest.  What a treat!



Want to read more?

Biokids: Anux junius

Wildscreen Arkive: Green Darner

Migratory Dragonfly Partnership


Enjoying a Glorious Spring Weekend

We have had a crazy spring to say the least!  Temperatures all over the place, snow, rain, sleet, you name it we’ve had it.  But this weekend was truly a glorious one and made us forget all the bad stuff Mother Nature has thrown at us the last few weeks (or maybe months).  In between catching up with the yard work, Steve and I got out to enjoy the spring that has finally arrived.

We started off with a hike off the beaten trail at the Morton Arboretum.  The spring bulbs were in full color.

Morton Arboretum

But what really caught my eye were the spring wildflowers we found.  Some of these I haven’t seen in years, so it was fun to keep our heads down and see what early spring wildflowers we could find.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)–The sun was shining on this patch so the flowers were wide open.  They’ll close up at night and last only a couple of days.

Morton Arboretum

Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris)–This area is usually flooded, but not much rain this week so a nice big patch of Marsh Marigold glowed in the distance.

Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica)–This flower that just screams spring covered a woody hillside making it look almost cloud white.  Stunning!

Morton Arboretum

White Trout Lily (Erythronium albidum)–There were trout lily leaves everywhere, but it wasn’t until almost at the end of the walk we finally saw a few flowers.  Trout Lilies, or Adders-tongues as I used to know them by, take years to finally mature and bloom, and then it’s only for a few days.

Morton Arboretum

Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) -This has to be my favorite of the day!  The flowers truly look like pantaloons with the ankles upward hanging from a clothesline.

Morton Arboretum

May-apple (Podophyllum peltatum)--Not quite blooming yet, but soon.

Morton Arboretum

Besides the flowers that were enjoying the spring warmth, so were the turtles.  In this pond, every log had multiple turtles sunning themselves.

Morton Arboretum

We finished the day by exploring the 2016 special exhibit “Ribbit! The Exhibit“.  There are 23 larger-than-life copper frogs taking part in a variety of activities, all centered around the visitors center.  J.A. Cobb, a North Carolina-based sculptor, fashioned these fun sculptures from sheets of copper around steel armatures.  Here’s my favorite–

Morton Arboretum

And in keeping with this frog’s theme, I did see and hear many birds on our walk, including a pair of Wood Ducks and a Pileated Woodpecker.

What’s your favorite spring flower?


Finally Fixing the Rabbit Fence

There are so many garden pests, but rabbits have to be right up there at the top of many gardener’s list (unless you have deer, then that’s a whole different issue).  Last summer I posted in “Oh Those Pesky Rabbits” about the issues I was having with rabbits eating many of my tender young vegetables.



For many years I hadn’t had issues with rabbits.  I had installed chicken wire fencing a few years back to block rabbits from getting through the cedar fence.  But as the years went by, both the cedar and chicken wire fences has become damaged, removed, soil levels changed and generally the whole anti-rabbit fence system became ineffective.


Last year, I found these cute babies in the yard, just waiting to attack my gardens.

rabbit nest

By the time I realized I had such a big problem, the cedar fence was almost impossible to get to because of summer foliage.  So I was going to have to wait until spring  to fix it.

Last week, Daisy and I scared a huge rabbit out from under the shed who fled across the yard, escaping through this giant hole in the fence.  It was time to get this problem solved!


Off to Home Depot I went to get some chicken wire, wire cutters and a staple gun.


After trying out a few staple guns, I ended up getting a light duty Stanley TR45.  I hope that it’s strong enough, but I had trouble squeezing anything more powerful and I didn’t want to invest a ton of money.



The staple gun worked just fine for this job.


I think this will keep out the rabbits!


I finished off the rest of the yard in an afternoon, and now will enjoy a nice glass of wine celebrating a job well done.


While I raise a glass to the rabbits, my next puzzle to solve is keeping Daisy out of the peppers.  Check out “Little White Pepper Thief” to see what that problem is.


Potholders: A Fun Project Not Just For Kids

Last fall, I was hosting a brunch for some friends and went to grab a potholder from the drawer…

woven cotton potholder

Hmm, that was embarrassing. How had I not noticed that my favorite potholders had seen better days.  I probably made these as a mother daughter craft with Emily at least 15 years ago and they’ve seen almost daily use since.  Seemed like a good time to replace them, so off I went to the store to buy some new potholders.  But I left empty handed.  Nothing seemed as comfortable or useful as what I had in the drawer.  I guess it was time to make new ones instead.

I had tried to make some at one time a few years back, but all I could find were polyester loops and and plastic looms.  Bad experience; polyester isn’t very useful around hot things, and plastic looms just broke under the tension.  I was hoping things had improved in the intervening years.

Success at Amazon! Harrisville Designs makes exactly what I was looking for. This Made in the USA company makes a kit that contains a sturdy metal loom, weaving and finishing hooks, and high quality, beautifully colored cotton loops.

Lotta loops

I ordered the kit and plenty of extra loops in all my favorite colors.  When they arrived, I got to work.  I forgot how fun it is to weave potholders, especially with all the great colors Harrisville Designs offers.

woven cotton potholder

woven cotton potholder

woven cotton potholder

These aren’t hard to make.  Pick you favorite colors and start weaving.  For help with pattern ideas, there’s a great Potholder Pattern Wizard on the Harrisville Designs website.

woven cotton potholder

woven cotton potholder

woven cotton potholder

woven cotton potholder

When they’re done, it’s time to use them!

woven cotton potholder

I brought my weaving supplies up to my mom’s to work on during my last visit.  At one point, she disappeared to the basement and came back with a very old Fay’s Drug bag containing bags of cotton loops bought at a local store, Pleasure’s and Pastimes.  My friends back in Buffalo will recognize these places, and how old those loops must be :)  I’m guessing 20 years minimum.

cotton potholder loops

While the colors are nowhere near as fun and bright as the new ones from Harrisville Designs, I may make some for old times sake.


Homegrown Spaghetti Squash

I have to be honest, I’m not a huge fan of squash.  I’ll grow zucchini and summer squash and eat them all summer, but don’t necessarily love them.


At the grocery store, I pass the pile of winter squashes and look, but they just confuse me.

winter squash

What would I do with it?   Does it need to be peeled?  Which one is which?  I have on occasion brought one or two home and they sat in the kitchen, making me feel guilty until they became rotten and I’d throw it away.  My friends all seem to have great recipes for soups and salads, or just roasting and eating.  Not me.  I realize it’s bordering on irrational.

Two things have conspired to get me to finally cook spaghetti squash.  My husband had a side of spaghetti squash at a restaurant, loved it and suggested I try to cook some at home.   Then my mom grew some in her backyard garden this past summer.  I was really impressed with how great her harvest was and she gave me a couple when I was up visiting in October.

Mom also told me that she had read that as long as part of then stem is attached, it won’t go bad.  So when she harvested her squash, she left a couple of inches attached.  She also cured them for 10 days in the heat of her sun porch.  I think she did a good job hardening them off, since they held up really well without any special storage.

spaghetti squash

This was the first time she had ever grown any kind of fall squash so were both going to experiment with them.  I was challenged.  I wasn’t going to let these two beautiful squashes go to waste so I needed to figure something out.

After a very interesting internet search, I found that many recipes were very heavy on cheese, so trying to stick to a low-sodium diet necessitated some creativity.  I finally settled on just a simple roasting, and then sautéing with butter, garlic and parsley for the first time.

There seemed to be no consensus on how to roast the squash so here’s what I did.

Preheat the oven to 400°F.  Slice the squash in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds.

spaghetti squash

spaghetti squash

Place the halves cut side down on a roasting pan and roast until softened, about 45 min.  It’s done when you can easily pierce the skin.

spaghetti squash

Remove from the oven.  Using a fork, scrape the fleshy spaghetti strands from the peel.

spaghetti squash

You can serve as is, it has a wonderful mellow flavor all on it’s own.  I sautéed it briefly in some butter, garlic and parsley.  There are so many things you can do with spaghetti squash.  You just need to be willing to try new things :)

What’s your favorite winter squash?


Another Fall Garlic Crop In The Ground

Last year, I successfully planted my first crop of garlic.


You can read about it in “Planting Garlic” and “Warding Off The Vampires“.  I love reaching in the cupboard and pulling out some home-grown, delicious tasting garlic.  I even have a little terra cotta garlic keeper handy right next to the stove.

terra cotta garlic keeper

This past fall I planted another, bigger, crop.  I was a little late in ordering, but was able to get Music, Purple Glazer and Susanville garlic from Territorial Seed Company, as well as French Shallots.

Territorial seed garlic

Next to garlic, I love cooking with shallots!  I’m still using some of last year’s harvest and looking forward to more.

growing shallots

Music and Purple Glazer are hard-necked varieties and Susanville a soft-necked variety.

Planting season is 6-8 weeks before the likely hard frost date for your area, so I planted mine in mid-October, although this winter that was too early.  Can’t plan for crazy weather though.

Last year, I planted in two different locations in the yard, and one was definitely more successful than the other.  Not sure why the difference, but this year I stuck to the raised beds in the backyard where I had success last year.


I also planted a bunch more in our new property in Door County, WI.  Lucky me–it came with a great raised bed all ready for planting!  I’ll talk more about that another time, but I’m excited to have another place to garden and explore.

stephi gardens

Before the cold and snow came, I was not surprised that I had green shoots coming up from the softneck Susanville garlic.

fall sprouting garlic

Not too worried, the same thing happened last year after planting.   I just covered them with a nice layer of mulch and they should be fine.

Can’t wait for the early spring garlic scapes to appear from the hard-necked varieties.


I wasn’t sure what to do with them last year, so they went to waste.  Not this year, I’m going have fun experimenting :)  In the meantime, I’ll just keep enjoying my harvest from last year.  So far, all the stored garlic is just fine!

Are you still using any of your stored garlic?  Or trying to grow it for the first time?


Happy New Year 2016

Happy New Year and Best Wishes for 2016!  I truly appreciate all who have visited my blog this year.  Here’s a look back at some of my most popular posts of 2015!  

Tomato Florida Weave

1.   Taming My Tomatoes With A Florida Weave:  My tomatoes were a mess, so I tried something new to try and keep things in order.



Blue Jay

2.    The Blue Jays are Back (and That’s Not a Good Thing):  What to do when you have nuisance birds at your feeder?




Garlic3.  Warding Off The Vampires:  This was my first try at growing garlic.  Easier than I thought and definitely worth the effort.




Multi stemmed Freeman Maple Autumn Blaze4.  So Long Beautiful Maple Tree:  Sometimes things go terribly wrong with plant.  In this case, construction and cold brought about the demise of our beautiful Freeman Maple



IMG_38415.  November in Chicago:  This fall was quite an unusual one.  Here in Chicago, the plants were quite confused as to the time of year and it made for an interesting fall.



clematis wilt6.  Something’s Wrong With the Clematis and Clematis Stem Wilt: An Update to Something’s Wrong With The Clematis:  The wet spring affected a lot of plants.  Many of us saw some terrible die back of our clematis due to Clematis Stem Wilt.  Hopefully next spring everything will rebound.


westie7.  Little White Pepper Thief:  Apparently Westies love peppers.  I didn’t get any sweet or hot peppers from my garden this year because of my little thief :(



rabbit nest8.  Spring Surprises:  Even when you think you know everything in your garden, you get surprised!




Callicarpa9.  Beautyberry Bushes:  Did They Survive the Winter?  After a winter like we had, I thought I had lost my new bushes.  But, they are one of the last to leaf out in the spring, so I’m glad I was patient.  



IMG_349510.  Fall in Northern Michigan/Stumbling Upon Club-Mosses:  This was one of my favorite posts of the year.  Not only was fall in Northern Michigan stunning, my mom and I stumbled onto a forest area full of a club mosses.   Very cool to see and explore.


..and a few of my all-time most popular posts:

Curled Leaves On The Bushes (August 2014)

Creeping Thyme Problems (April 2014) and an update in August, Oops, September Garden Update 

Painting Rock Garden Markers (February 2014)

Pelicans In Illinois (September 2013)

Our Family Christmas Tree (December 2013)

Hope you keep visiting, I have all kinds of ideas to keep everyone in the gardening mood all winter.  

Remember, you can also find Stephi Gardens on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and  Twitter.


The Feeders Are Ready for Winter

I don’t really feed the birds over the summer because there’s plenty of natural food around for them.  But as the plants die back, seeds become scarcer and the cold sets in, I get the feeders out.  I have to admit, I’m pretty sloppy when I put things away, so they really needed cleaning and checking out for any problems.

First up was the Squirrel Stopper Feeder Pole.  I still love this pole set-up for keeping off the squirrels and hanging a good assortment of feeders.  I just wish I hadn’t put it up so close to a tree that the squirrels can jump from (they warned me in the instructions!).  But, I decided to sacrifice for the ability to watch the birds so easily.  I will say that to the pole designers credit, NO squirrel has climbed up the pole.

But, back to cleaning.  I had been noticing a little rust and accumulated bird dirt on the poles, so after wiping it down, my husband Steve sanded the rust spots and sprayed a little Rustoleum on it.


Now ready for the feeders.  I have feeders for peanuts, suet, sunflower seeds, a fun No/No Sunflower Ball for the chickadees, a No/No Cardinal Feeder and cheerful a No/No Sunflower Feeder.

Bird feeders

I wiped down the wire feeders and scrubbed out the tube feeders with a long handled brush using a dilute bleach solution (1 part bleach:9 parts water and rinse thoroughly).  While checking the feeders, I did notice some issues with a couple.  The squirrels had chewed a hole in the peanut feeder.  Right through the wire mesh.

peanut feeder

So I ordered a new Perky Pet Sunflower and Peanut Feeder  that is supposed to be super strong against chewing squirrels.  Seems pretty solid to me.


The squirrels have also chewed away at the No/No Cardinal Feeder, but other than making it a little oddly shaped, haven’t made any holes.  The cardinals don’t seem to mind.

No-No Cardinal Feeder

The seed bins were full and ready, too.  Although, I did notice that I am out of shelled peanuts so I need to make another trip to the feed store.

IMG_3890 (1)

Here’s some of my favorite feeder “scoops” and funnels.  This small investment has made the process of filling the feeders a lot easier and less messy.

All finished and ready for winter!  If you know anything about our current winter here in Chicago, you know that this “finished” picture was taken a few weeks ago during the one snowfall we’ve had so far.

Then in addition to the usual birds that arrived almost immediately–chickadees, nuthatches, juncos, cardinals, goldfinches, downy woodpeckers–I had an extra special visitor at my Snowman Feeder.  A Northern Flicker!

Northern Flicker

Northern Flicker

What’s your favorite feeder?  Any interesting birds in your yard this winter?