Prepare Your Plants for Winter

Ready or not! Here it comes! Winter is on its way! If you live in the Midwest, it is time to winterize your house and stock up your pantry. It is also time to bring in any plants that were taken outside for the summer. There was a radio talk show host in the late 90’s who had a rant titled, “Houseplants are HOUSEplants! They are supposed to stay in the house!” But for those of us who have sentimental plants that are precious but large, taking the plant outside is a necessity in the summer.

A peace lily in a white plastic pot sitting next to a window.
Peace Lily

If you are in the habit of taking houseplants out for the summer, here are the best ways to assure that you don’t bring problems back into your house along with your plants:

  • Spray the plant for any insects that are common to the plant as a preventive measure. Relocating a plant to the warmth of your home will encourage insect survival.
    • Be sure that any houseplant spray you use will kill insect eggs. If it doesn’t kill the eggs, plan to spray 3 times at two week intervals.
    • Be safe by making sure that the plant you are spraying is listed on the label. Many plants are killed because they were sprayed with a chemical that was not safe for them.

If you want to use less chemical and have more effect, place the houseplant inside a trash bag while it is outside for spraying. Carefully spray the chemical into the bag. Quickly seal the bag with the plant and chemical inside. Leave it alone for 24 hours away from direct sunlight. After 24 hours, open the bag and air out the plant for about an hour. Then bring your treated plant in the house. This system can also be used inside.

    • Be careful to keep all chemicals away from pets or children.
  • Trim away any dead or dying leaves. The plant will continue to try to support any weak leaves. Removing them helps reduce insect and disease possibilities as both attack dying tissue.
  • Give your plant as much light as you can when you first bring it inside. As the plant adjusts to the new light source, you can slowly move it to its final location. This may mean that you will be moving your plants around inside a couple of times but your plant will be happier in the long run. If your plant has only one location that it will fit inside your home, consider using grow lights to help your plant make the adjustment from summer home to winter home. (You don’t have to do anything fancy, you can actually get grow lights that will fit in a standard light fixture.)
  • Pay attention. With houseplants it is very important to pay attention to them. Insect and disease problems often start slowly but spread quickly and if you are paying attention, the problem leaves can be removed and the problem remedied before it affects the whole plant.

Growing and caring for plants is a very satisfying way to pass the winter. Transitioning your plants from their summer home to their winter location is easy, but takes some finesse. If you really need to have blooms through the winter, search out paperwhite bulbs, zygocactus  (also called Christmas Cactus) or amaryllis. For easy greens choose spider plants, peace lily, or Norfolk Island pine. Whether they are Aunt Violet’s African violets or a new and exotic species that you discovered at the local greenhouse, plants are great company and worth the attention.

If you have any thoughts about bringing in plants for the winter or stories about the plants that you have inherited that have been part of your family, please add a comment to this post or contact John at  John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Appreciating the Healing Powers of Animals

I’ve always appreciated the ability of animals to make bad feelings better. There always seems to be something interesting going on with animals that makes the day more pleasant and happy. Of course, there is an almost continuous array of bird song in our area during the daylight hours. Just the happy song of birds is enough to make me smile.

When the native birds add antics to the mix, I sometimes get a good laugh in as well. Such is the case with a little downy woodpecker that visits the feeder near our house. He never seems to arrive right side up. No, despite his best efforts, he always seems to hit the perch upside down and must fight his way to an upright position. The vibrant mix of colors doesn’t help the woodpecker’s cause—he looks a bit like a clown anyway. Our particular downy woodpecker seems to have a bit more head color than pictures I see online show, but far less than a red headed woodpecker.

Now, when you mix native birds with chickens, you really get a visual treat. In most cases, the chickens try their best to ignore the native birds because they’re obviously better (at least, as far as the chickens are concerned). However, the other day the chickens didn’t have much choice in the matter because some sparrows decided to have fun with them. Imagine this scene for a moment, chickens running madly about flapping their wings and clucking crazily while sparrows are dive bombing them. I laughed so hard that it took several minutes for me to compose myself enough to come to the chicken’s aid.

In a contrast to the antics of the chickens, our rabbits are lovers, not fighters. They often need a hug. At the top of the hugging list is Twilight. She always wants a hug whenever I open her cage to feed her. In fact, she actively pursues hugs every time I walk by. She does this odd sort of clapping motion to attract my attention by sitting on her hind feet and moving her front paws back and forth.

Entertainment isn’t something that happens just outside either. Our dog Reese is hysterical. For one thing, she can’t go anywhere in a straight line. She runs in circles every time she goes from one place to another. When she’s excited, she mixes the frantic circles with a mix of barking and baying. How any one dog can look so happy and absurd at the same time is amazing.

Whenever Shelby (our other dog) senses that I’m blue, she offers me a paw. She’s not really looking for a handshake. Instead, she wants me to hold the paw—possibly for as long as I need to do so. So, I hold her paw and she washes my hand. It’s therapeutic, even if it does get a bit wet.

Another washer is Smucker who offers kisses by the gross. He likes to lean into my side and then wash my arms, hands, or other exposed body parts. Of course, the bath comes complete with purring.

Finally, Sugar Plum is absolutely frantic about getting petted. She’ll keep nuzzling me until I pet her (and keep petting her until she’s satisfied that I’ve petted her enough). Her purr is a bit louder than Smucker’s purr (as is her meow).

All of these behaviors (and many others) serve to help keep my calm and feeling good. I can actually measure a change in both blood pressure and heart rate after interacting with the animals. Many medical studies have noted similar results with other people, so I’m definitely not alone. The point is that animals provide benefits far beyond companionship and laughter. They also make it easier for people to deal with a host of problems in their lives. Let me know about your health benefit experience with a pet at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Silent Conversation

He spoke not a word,
had nothing to say,
as we went out to work each day.

Yet he said it all,
revealed to me his mind,
that he was wise and humble and kind.

He spoke to me in riddles,
in sunsets and storms,
in billowing winds and still other forms.

We conversed in new born kittens,
using fresh mown hay,
and watching the birds so hard in their play.

The delight of a raindrop,
the rush of the wave,
filling a creek bed that snow melt gave.

In smelling the air,
odors both subtle and gross,
the churnings of nature that he loved the most.

And when the day was over,
he told me good night,
the only words spoken, made the day just right.

Copyright 2014, John Paul Mueller

Delicious Queen Anne’s Lace Jelly

It wasn’t long ago that I wrote The Wonders of Queen Anne’s Lace. In that particular post, I provide a recipe for making a delicious jelly from the flower. This year’s jelly is the best Rebecca has ever made. The flowers were plentiful and extremely fragrant this year. In fact, the wildflowers as a whole were amazing this year. Something about the cool wet spring and odd summer weather caused the wildflowers to grow in such profusion that every trip to town was a joy (I just wish I had thought to stop along they way and take some pictures—such is the problem with missed opportunity). The difference was so incredible that the road department actually held off mowing the shoulders just so people would be able to enjoy the flowers longer (the shoulders have since been mowed in the interest of public safety). Wisconsin’s rustic roads received quite a workout as people enjoyed the splendor.

In thinking about my post earlier this week about every year being a good and a bad year at the same time, the profusion of wildflowers this year is definitely a good thing. However, it also brings to mind an issue that everyone needs to consider when using herbs of any sort (including Queen Anne’s Lace). The difference in potency this year is striking. Just sticking my nose into the bag I used to collect the flowers this year was overwhelming and you can definitely taste the difference in the resulting jelly. Herbal potency varies year-by-year and also location-by-location (it also varies according to the age of the plant, the part of the plant used, and a number of other factors). It’s important to consider the strength of the herbs you collect when you use whole herbs as we do. We don’t use herbs for medicinal purposes (an exception is comfrey, which I do use for foot baths and on sore muscles), but we do use them in cooking where a difference in potency can be quite noticeable and sometimes unwelcome when the result is unbalanced. In short, you need to take potency into consideration when picking and using herbs.

Some people try to overcome these differences by using a standardized herbal extract. A standardized extract contains a specific amount of the active ingredients in a particular herb. You can depend on the herb extract acting in a certain way. However, the equipment needed to create a standardized herbal extract is well beyond the means of most enthusiasts working in smaller herb gardens. In addition, there is some discussion that standardized herbal extracts leave out valuable, but less researched, components that are also useful and helpful. In short, when you buy a standardized herbal extract, you might not get everything the plant has to offer.

In looking at the beautiful jars of Queen Anne’s Lace jelly now adorning our larder shelves, I know I’ll enjoy a bit of summer this winter every time I have a bit of it on my toast. Sometimes the wonder of herbs comes from enjoying them just as they are. Even so, the smart gardener does keep potency in mind. Marking jars with perceived strength is a good idea, especially when cooking with a particular herb could lead to a resulting imbalance in the taste your food. Let me know your thoughts on herbal potency at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Seeing Ice Feathers on the Ground

One of the nicer things about living where we are is that there is always something unusual to see. Nature is always presenting us with something interesting—all we have to do is keep our eyes open to see it. That’s what happened the other day. The weather was just perfect for creating ice feathers. Here’s one view of the ice feathers:

IceFeathers01

If you get close enough, they actually look like little feathers. Another name for ice feathers is rime ice. The name ice feathers is a bit more poetic and also more descriptive of a particular kind of rime ice. The crystals form when moist air, wind, and cold surface temperatures combine to create a kind of artistic statement. This sort of ice feather is somewhat rare—I remember seeing it only a few times in my entire life.

Some people might also call ice features like this hoarfrost, and that would possibly be an appropriate name, except that hoarfrost is the result of dew, where ice feathers form from melted water carried on the wind. There are minor distinctions between hoarfrost, rime ice, ice feathers, and other ice formations—all of which are quite beautiful. When I saw these ice feathers on the ground though, I knew they would be something special. You can see them in a little more detail in this picture.

IceFeathers02

Nature is always presenting us with something pretty. Whether it’s a sundog, an ice draped tree, or ice feathers, winter does have its own vision of beauty to offer. What is the most beautiful feature of winter that you’ve seen? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Winter Feathers


Feathers

Feathers on my window pane,
Tell me winter’s here again.
Elfin hands paint lines at night,
That morning’s sun, shows so bright.

Though the feathers look like glass,
With winter’s sun they cannot last.
Like a dream they fade away,
‘Til nothing’s left in the day.

Come the night they reappear,
As the sun does disappear.
Each cycle brings to my view,
Winter feathers always new.

Copyright 2013, John Paul Mueller

Enjoying My Own Personal Flower Garden

Every year Rebecca works out a new arrangement and adds plants to her gift to me, a personal flower garden. Every morning I wake to the scene below our bedroom window of Rebecca’s hard work. I know it’s an effort because getting into that rock garden is hard. It’s on a slope that’s taxing even for me; I can’t even imagine how hard Rebecca must have to work to maintain it for me. I talked about my garden a little last year in the Making Self-Sufficiency Relationships Work post.

One of Rebecca’s goals is to make sure that something is always blooming in my rock garden. It’s a little difficult to accomplish, but I know that people in the past performed the same task to ensure that there would always be something pretty to see. I really respect her efforts to make the garden as pretty as possible and to keep it that way all summer. So, the pictures you see in this post are a mere snapshot of my rock garden. Later in the summer, the scene will change and then it will change again for fall.

A favorite new plant is a pincushion flower. The exquisite blue flowers are really hard to capture, but I managed to get a passable picture of them. The real world flower is even more beautiful than the one shown here.

RockGarden01

One of the flowers that came back from last year is the blanket flower. It’s a favorite of mine because the colors change slightly over time and I love the fact that the flowers are bi-colored. This year the blanket flower is paired up with fiber-optic grass. As you can see from the following picture, the combination is really nice.

RockGarden02

A few of the rock garden elements are edible. For example, the chives have some beautiful flowers that are also edible (as are the chives). I’ve always found chives to be a nice addition because they combine color and texture so well.

RockGarden03

Some of the flowers are quite bright. One of the flowers in this category is the coreopsis. Rebecca has them placed where their profusion of bright flowers will show up best. This is another holdover from last year. Immediately below the coreopsis in this picture is bugleweed ‘metallica crispa’, which has already bloomed for the year, but will continue to add its deeply colored foliage to the garden.

RockGarden04

Most of the pictures that I’ve found of wild strawberries online show white flowers. I’ve been assured that the plants in the rock garden are wild strawberries, but they have these dramatic pink flowers. As with many other plants, they’ve come up from last year.

RockGarden05

Another bright pink flower in the garden is seathrift (armeria). This year the seathrift is nestled in with some ferns and a happy looking frog.

RockGarden06

As I said last year, the view from our bedroom is for me alone. When I go out my back door though, I see some amazing beauty—the rock garden, our herb garden, the woods, and bushes surrounding our patio. Most importantly, I see the love my wife has for me in producing something so quiet and peaceful for me to enjoy.

RockGarden07

 

Spring is on the Way

It would probably be hard for most people to accept the fact that spring is on the way, especially when they look outside on a snowbound day like this one:

SpringOnTheWay

However, the fact of the matter is that spring really is on the way. It’s going to be an early spring, in fact. There are several things that tell me this. First, and possibly most important, the tree sap is starting to run again. In fact, the people around here who tap maple trees to make syrup have already done so, which is extremely early. I noticed that the trees in the woods also have sap running in them—at least the ones in our woods. I’ve never seen the sap run this early. (My uncle, who has lived a few years more than I have, says he has seen spring arrive this early in the past, but he wasn’t quite sure when, which tells me it was quite some time ago.)

Anyone who lives in the north will tell you that the air takes on a different quality in the spring. It has a different odor to it, or perhaps a different texture. I have yet to find a good way to quantify the difference, but the difference is unmistakeable. You take a good deep whiff and the air simply doesn’t quite smell like winter anymore. Perhaps there is the faintest hint of fresh greenery or some other element that looms at the horizon of human perception—present, but hard to identify. I smell it every spring and every spring I fail to pin down precisely what has changed.

Of course, most people want something a little more substantial than tree sap and odd smells, so there is also  the birds to consider. When we were trimming the trees the other day, we definitely noticed the springtime songs of birds. No, it’s not the wild kingdom effect—the raucous early morning expenditure of energy that birds have later in the spring, but it’s a gentler prelude, as if the symphony is about to begin.

There are going to be other signs. None of my flowers have started bursting through the soil as of yet. The buds on the trees are still shut tightly as well. However, it won’t be long and I’ll start to see bud swell, and then, one day I’ll look at my flower bed and see just an inkling of the springtime flowers peaking through to see if the coast is clear. Spring is most definitely on the way—the signs are all around for anyone who wants to look. What are your favorite indicators of spring? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Entering the New Year

Today is my first day back from vacation. I’ve been looking forward to telling you everything that has happened during my down time! In fact, unlike many people, I really look forward to getting back to work. Well, the crammed inbox is a bit of a pain, but even the e-mail surplus is a reminder to me that you’re finding the help in my books useful.

Vacation is a bit of a misnomer for me. Yes, I do unplug from the computer as described in my Learning to Unplug post, but there is plenty to do outside. One of the new experiences I had during vacation was working on a large tree. My uncle had an oak with a 44″ diameter trunk fall several years ago. It was time to cut it up this winter. I only have a 22″ bar on my chainsaw and a 22″ bar doesn’t quite reach 22″ into the trunk, so we had a bit of trouble getting the rounds cut from the trunk. Cutting as much as I could and then using wedges to do the rest worked fine. Moving pieces that large is also a problem because you can’t lift them (or barely budge them for that matter). I learned how to use a cant hook to move the large pieces of wood onto the splitter (my uncle has a hydraulic splitter attached to his tractor). I still use a 20 pound splitting maul and splitting wedge to hand split all of my wood. Most people use a lighter splitting maul, but the abundance of white and red elm, black locust, and hickory on my property makes a heavier maul a necessity. Lets just say that between helping my uncle and cutting a bit of my own wood, I didn’t lack for exercise during vacation .

This year we did get to spend quite a bit of time with family and friends, especially since the weather here is Wisconsin is unusually mild. We don’t have any snow on the ground to speak of at the moment and none is in the forecast. Of course, the lack of snow makes travel easy, but it’s also worrisome because our plants will miss the moisture come spring and we could experience problems due to the lack of cover. However, each winter is different and I’m sure we’ll get clobbered by a snowstorm or two before all is said and done.

Rebecca and I also spent time putting a puzzle together (a review will appear later this week) and we had some fun watching movies. Of course, the tea kettle received a workout as we spent time in front of the wood stove enjoying something good to read. Overall, a nice way to rest during vacation. We didn’t just stay at home though. The new Sherlock Holmes movie called to us, so we went to see it at our local theater. Of course, there were visits to Deli Bean (a local coffee shop) and Stone Hollow (our local restaurant), where we enjoyed some nice treats.

The mild weather also made it possible for me to walk in the woods. During one of my visits to the woods, I kept track of a fox. Cody (see Many Hands Make Light Work) and I had spotted a dead raccoon near a den in the woods, so I perched a distance from the den to see if anything came out. The den had a fox in it last winter and it appears that the same fox is there this winter. So, I sat on my stump for a while and watched. I find nature amazing. The woods provides us with food, heat, and entertainmentwhat more could anyone ask?

However, in addition to these activities, I also worked on some ideas for upcoming books, which is one of the focuses of this post. I’m planning to write some books on self-sufficiency. The books will have the same focus as my blog posts. I want to make things simple and to demonstrate ways you can also receive a financial benefit from your activities. Self-sufficiency is great because you help the environment, improve your health, and get a better product. For many people, these reasons look attractive until you start considering the financial element of self-sufficiency. Surprisingly, many people are unaware of the fact that self-sufficiency saves considerable money—enough that you really need to consider it as a source of income, rather than as a money sink. My new book will emphasize what you get in exchange for your efforts and how to optimize the benefits you receive. If you have some ideas on what you’d like to see in my book, please be sure to write me at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

Vacation is a time for equipment maintenance as well. I was able to get a few necessary maintenance tasks done during vacation. Another week off would have been nice, but I did get the essentials done.

One of my favorite activities during vacation was baking cookies with Rebecca. She makes the most delightful cookies and it’s always a pleasure to give her a hand when I can. We made sugar cookies this time around, but next time we may do something a bit more exciting.

Today is the first in-office work day of the year for me. Please be patient if you’ve sent me an e-mail while I’ve been gone. I promise to answer every e-mail that I’ve received while I was gone, but with a little over 900 reader e-mails in my inbox, it takes a while to get the job done. In the meantime, I hope that you’ve had a great start to the new year and I’m looking forward to presenting you will all sorts of really neat posts this upcoming year on just about every topic imaginable!

 

Flying Squirrel Antics

This is the time of year that I spend a good deal of time in the woods cutting fallen trees as fodder for my wood stove. Not only is cutting wood good exercise and a cost effective way to heat our home, but using wood can be better for the environment because it’s a renewable resource. We do our best to replace the trees that we use to heat our home. In fact, some areas of the woods that we initially began using 15 years ago are already growing back quite nicely.

Some people get the idea that I keep my nose to the grindstone while out there, which would be a true waste. For one thing, not paying attention to what’s going on around you is a really good way to get hit by a falling tree. They all have to fall sometime—there isn’t any unwritten rule that states they’ll wait until I’m no longer around to hit. However, the thing I like best about being in the woods is seeing all of the animal life. You might think that Wisconsin in the winter is a dead place, but life abounds in all its forms. So, it was with a great deal of glee that I watched flying squirrels glide between trees the other day.

It’s a common misconception that flying squirrels actually fly. They’re fantastic gliders, not fliers. A flap of skin between the front and back legs provides lift for them to glide between trees quite swiftly. In fact, of all the squirrels, I think they move the fastest (we also have red and gray squirrels around here). Trying to grab a picture of them is a near impossibility. I’m sure someone has done it, but they’re more skilled than I am .

I haven’t seen much of Woody, the pileated woodpecker this year. He often watches me work on trees. I can differentiate this particular woodpecker from the others in our woods in two ways. First, the bands of colors on Woody’s head are different from other woodpeckers in our woods. Second, he has a habit of looking at me sideways with the right eye. I’m not sure if his left eye is damaged or it’s simply a characteristic of this particular woodpecker. What attracted Woody is unknown to me. Most woodpeckers want nothing to do with me (granted, Woody does keep his distance and isn’t in any way tame).

Of course, there are always rabbits, endless assortments of birds, and all sorts of other animals in the woods. Sometimes I’ll see opossum. On one occasion I saw a fishersomething that is extremely rare from what I’ve been told. The fisher seemed to be chasing after rabbits, but it was far enough away that I don’t know what it was chasing with absolute certainty. On rare days I’ll see a deer, but because I make so much noise cutting wood, such sightings are incredibly rare for me. I’m most likely to see a deer on days when I go to the woods for the sheer joy of observing nature, rather than cutting wood.

Some people question why I’d go to the woods to sit on a tree stump in the middle of winter when I could be inside safe and warm. Nature offers considerable entertainment for anyone willing to take the time to view it. During this particular day, the antics of the flying squirrels had me chucking quite hardily. You just don’t get that sort of entertainment on television. Do you ever observe nature and all it has to offer? What are your favorite sights? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.