Category Archives: The Great Outdoors

Take time to smell the lilacs

I have an app or two on my phone and tablet that sends me “memories” of what I tweeted, or posted on Facebook or took photos of that day in history, back to 6 or 7 years ago. For the past few days I have been seeing photos of lilacs that I took and either tweeted about or posted about on Facebook. This morning I panicked, worrying that I’d missed the lilacs this year. That I’d been so preoccupied with a bunch of other things that the lilacs had come and gone and I’d not had the chance to smell them this year.

My lilacs are in the front yard and one would think that I’d notice if they were in bloom or not, what with my car usually being parked 10 feet away from them. But I’d not gone outside much lately and when I did, didn’t think to check the lilacs. I did check them about three weeks or so ago and noticed there were a few tiny buds, so I knew I was going to get a few blooms this year, but not many.

I was happy to see that there were some lilacs on the tree when I checked from the front window of the house but it was hard to tell if they were in bloom or past their prime. This afternoon, after my dentist appointment I got a close look at them and saw that a few of the small flowers were in full bloom, but most were still tightly closed. I’d not missed them after all. I took a few big sniffs, smiled and went on with my day. For the next week or so I plan to visit my lilac bush several times a day and deeply inhale one of my all-time favorite scents.

I also took a moment to snap some shots of the other flowers in our yard. Spring is definitely the nicest season on our property.

Miracle Zinnia

miracle zinnaA couple of months ago two neighborhood girls held a bake sale for some charity that also included some handmade items and a few plants. I bought a cookie or two and some lemonade. I also bought a small zinnia to help their cause.

I ate the cookies, drank the lemonade and planted the zinnia on the front porch. When it bloomed for the first time I remembered a comment Lali made on a blog post I wrote about lilacs — she said that with most flowers the more you cut the more you get. I knew this was true for zinnias so I cut the first bloom off the zinnia to make sure I got more. I put the single bloom in a silver vase Clare received as a birthday gift from her godmother, Totty. It prettied up the kitchen table for a week or so, then I moved it to a higher location so our cat would not eat it. There it stayed for weeks. Eventually the color faded and I thought it was dried out. Eventually I pulled it out of the vase to put elsewhere — after all it was a dried flower — and was astonished to see that it had grown roots! A good 8 inches of roots. I’d learned all about advantagious buds in botany class, but didn’t realize a plain old stem could create roots.

I planted it in the same pot as the mother zinnia and it is still living — the leaves are green and the flower seems to have gotten some of its color back. We have a good couple of months left for it to grow outside. I wonder if it will just stay the way it is — or try to create seeds with its head. Maybe those advantagious buds that are probably near where the leaves meet the stem will begin to grow into stems with more flowers. I may need to bring this little miracle into the house for the winter!


I am selfish. I have a hard time sharing things I like — dark chocolate, Jelly Bellies (TM), time with my kids, etc. I remember attending a Friday Mass when I worked at a Catholic school that talked about the benefits of sharing but I remained steadfastly selfish.

The other day I picked some lilacs from “our” bush (it was the neighbor’s lilac bush when we moved to Hoover Street but it has since  migrated to our side of the property line) and noticed that we had more bunches of flowers than in years before. I wondered how to make them last so I could enjoy them for as long as possible. I love lilacs. I worried that people would come in the night and take away my fragrant blossoms.

This evening as I planted basil in a planter on my front porch two women walked by the lilac tree and stopped and smelled and exclaimed at the scent. I called my agreement to them.

One of the women said she grew up in the Alps and had lilacs in her garden. I told her to take some. She was reluctant, but did take some. Then I realized that sharing is better than not sharing — you get more out what you share. I think I understand that Mass now.


Patchwork garden

grandma's quiltWhen I was a child and would visit my Grandma Patrick, sometimes she’d tell me about the patchwork quilt that hung over the back of her sofa in her living room. Its pattern was of tulips in pots and suns with beams. Flowered material made up the border. As we sat under the quilt she’d point to a pot or a flower or a sunbeam and tell me about the piece of clothing that it came from. Sometimes her own, sometimes one of her 4 daughters. There even were pieces of shirts from my dad and his dad, her husband.

mountain mintTo me this quilt was special, not only because she made it herself, but it was made up of scraps of material that once clothed her family. This quilt now hangs on a sofa in my house. While I don’t remember whose dress or shirt each flowerpot or sunbeam was made from, I have told my children about it. Maybe someday they will tell their children too.

fall blooming crocusI thought about this quilt last night after thinking of the plants that will go into the bed in my front yard. I’ve hired my neighbor, Terese, a professional garden designer to plan the bed, and she’s come up with a great design. She’s purchased some plants for it, but we will incorporate some existing plants from the bed and take some from other places in my yard that I planted without knowledge of what they needed in the way of sunlight, drainage, etc. A few of these plants were from the garden of my friend, Bob, who reluctantly moved away from the neighborhood last December. We’re also getting a few plants from my friend, Alison. Terese is giving me some plants from her garden and maybe some from a community garden.

So my garden will be somewhat of a patchwork garden, plants from friends and neighbors will grow next to newly purchased plants. Plants that are re-purposed — just like the cloth in Grandma’s quilt. And it will be all the better for it. Maybe, when my future grandchildren visit, I will tell them about the people who gave me each of the plants; about Bob and what a beautiful garden he had or about my friend Alison and her family, with whom we had some amazing times. If only I’d remembered to take the plants that Frances gave me from my yard in Alexandria when we moved to Bethesda.

Ms P. and the Rats of NIH(M)

I’m a birder. A lazy birder, but a birder nonetheless. It is part of who I am and has  been for more than half of my life.

One huge aspect of birding for me is feeding the birds. I have many bird feeders — two Droll Yankee tube-like feeders: one serves up tiny nyger seed that the finches love and one doles out larger seed such as sunflower, cracked corn or safflower. I also have decorative bird feeders — one looks like a birch log, but is ceramic. Another looks like a church, with a roof and clear plastic sides which hold in the seed — which I am surprised has not been chewed apart by squirrels yet. Then there are the suet cages and nyger seed socks.

I don’t have all of these feeders up at the same time. That would be unwise in Bethesda. I’d be the crazy bird lady. Recently I had one Droll Yankee feeder filled with sunflower seed and one nyger sock in back by the bird bath and one nyger sock outside the attic window.

One day I noticed that the nyger sock in the backyard had a huge hole in it. I wondered what animal had made this hole. I suspected it was a squirrel, but knowing that squirrels don’t particularly care for nyger seed, I was more than a little worried we had another rodent problem.

A few days later I looked out the window and saw the culprit. A large brown Norway rat. It was just after dinner and this rat was helping him or herself to the nyger seed. It was actually kind of cute — if you forget all the bad rat stories. But I was dismayed. I thought we were done with these things.

Years ago we had rats in the ductwork of our addition. Dean and I both noticed a funky smell coming from the heating vents in the sun room — it reminded me of the elephant house. When we discovered that it was a nest of rats, I was horrified and would never ever have admitted our discovery to anyone. I was embarrassed and ashamed and it lowered my self-esteem for a while. Dean, being the son of a dairy farmer, took care of it and we hoped we were done with rats.

The following January, however, we came home from our annual Christmas in the Midwest trip to find a rat had gotten into our house and was trapped in a mousetrap behind our stove. Dean took care of it, too. I was ready to hire an exterminator, but Dean felt that he knew what to do as well as any exterminator, so I believed him.

The next year was the year of cicadas in our area and when the cicadas died out the entire neighborhood had a rat problem. It seemed that the rats were displaced from NIH because of construction there. They didn’t care where they lived because they had a bounty of cicadas for several weeks, but after the cicadas were done with their (very cool) life cycle in our area, the rats had nothing to eat, so became a nuisance. I finally lost the embarrassment I was feeling about the rat problem we’d had — especially since other neighbors were admitting to having had rats in previous years as well.

Everyone dealt with the rats in their own ways, some hired exterminators while others, like Dean, took care of it themselves. The worst part of the rat problem for me, however, was having to give up feeding the birds. I had a slight meltdown when I realized I’d have to do this, but Dean said that maybe it would not be permanent. I held on to that hope.

We went a few years with no apparent rat problems — I even was able to feed the birds again until this year when I saw the rat eating the nyger seed.

So now I’ve had to store my bird feeders for good. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to feed birds in the backyard again — certainly not at this house. I think I can still feed them at the attic windows — but it’s not really the same. I’ll not be seeing any more Rose Breasted Grosbeaks feeding on sunflower seed outside the window in the back yard.  I can still provide water for the birds and I have started looking more at planting more bird friendly plants in the yard. But I feel as if a part of my personality has been lost for good.

5 things I hate about fall and 5 things I don’t

I love the way the sky looks impossibly blue behind still green leaves.

I don't like how some leaves turn completely brown.

I love the smell of fallen leaves and the way they sound when you walk through them

I hate the way the fruit from the ginkgo tree makes your feet smell after walking through them

I love the way our sugar maple turns bright orange in the fall.

I hate knowing it will lose all the leaves very soon. (Although birds will be easier to spot when that happens)

I hate the way the black-eyed susans have lost their petals and greenery

But I like the seeds left over that attract the birds.

I dread the falling temperatures.

But I'm looking forward to sitting by a cozy fire.

Suburban wilderness

So last night was bookgroup. This month’s book was The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig. It’s good, although I’m not quite finished with it yet.

This month’s meeting was in Kensington at Karen’s house and I thought I knew how to get to her house, but I ended up parking several blocks away. Luckily I ran into another member, also wandering around the neighborhood, wondering where the house was. We finally found it and all was good.

While I was wandering around the neighborhood alone I disturbed a rabbit who scampered across the road. I also thought I saw a larger animal on the other side of a hedge in someone’s side yard. I first thought it was a dog, but it didn’t bark and seemed almost ghostlike in its movements. I dismissed it as my imagination or maybe a large scrap of paper being blown by the strong breeze.

After the meeting as I drove down a side street, back to the main road that would take me home, a large animal crossed in front of me and this time I could not dismiss it as paper or my imagination. I think it was a small deer. Then, back on Cedar Lane, the main drag through this part of Kensington, a red fox crossed in front of me and ran into the trees.

Now that I think about it — I’m not surprised to see wildlife in Kensington. After all, Rock Creek Park runs along the western and southern boundries of this town, and I was within blocks of it when I saw the animals. Still, it was an unusual thing for me to see. I still wonder what the apparation was that I saw before book group.

Peepers, an Owl and Possible Woodcock, Oh My!

Last year, this same week, incidentally, I commented on a weblog post about spring peepers. I’ve been thinking about spring peepers lately, and mentioned to Dean that I’d like to find some singing some evening.

Dean thought about it and then said he knew of a pond we could visit and maybe hear some peepers. I almost said no, but knew that I’d regret it if I just spend the night longing to hear peepers and searching the Internet for their sounds. Besides, it was due to get cold again and this was a perfect evening to walk in the woods.

Barred OwlWe got to the park at dusk, but because there was a huge party going on and we didn’t see any parking spots left we nearly turned around and went home. Luckily Dean spotted a place to park. After securing the parking space we walked into the park, along a creek. I saw skunk cabbage, which I’d just read, shares the same habitat as spring peepers, so my hopes of hearing spring peepers began to rise. It was still too light to hear any, I concluded, but darkness was on its way.

A few cars passed us, probably Boy Scout leaders heading to the nearby campgrounds. Another couple, walking their dog, passed us. We nodded hellos and continued walking.

As we rounded a corner onto a narrow path, Dean pointed to a large bird that had just landed on a branch in a tree. I thought it was a heron and began looking for a roost. Dean wondered if it was, perhaps, an owl. We got closer and saw that it was, indeed, an owl. He hoo hoo hooed at us, posed for a photo and flew off across the creek.

After our owl encounter I looked back at the ground and realized we were now next to a pond. We walked a bit further and I heard the first peeper call. Then another answered. They got louder so we sat near the pond on a rotting log to hear them for a few minutes.

We then walked further along the pond and creek. The sounds of the peepers died down as we left the pond area. We walked back after hiking to the end of the trail and by this time it was much darker; the peepers were louder. We paused again to hear them before we headed home.

As we walked past the place we’d originally seen the owl, I looked up and saw it again, staring down at us as if were were intruders. He then hooed at us again. Dean called back and the owl called. This went back and forth for a while.

I vaguely wondered if there were any woodcocks in the area and suddenly heard an animal sound I’d never heard before, it was in the distance, but loud enough to be heard over the call of the peepers and hoo hoo hooing of the owl. It sounded kind of like a cardinal, but I was surprised to hear cardinals singing so late in the evening. When got home I listened to some bird calls, including the woodcock. I think I might have heard the woodcock’s “whistle dance“, but I cannot be sure. Although, earlier, I heard what I thought was the sound of a chipmunk chirping, but didn’t see any chipmunks.

Who knows? I guess I’ll have to go back.

After dinner entertainment

Raccoon in treeA few evenings ago, after dinner, Dean called the kids to quickly come up to the dining room. They both complied, Clare from the living room where she was studying for a chemistry test and Andrew from the basement where he was playing a computer game. Dean pointed out the window and we all looked and saw a large raccoon on a low branch of the tulip popular, which stands on the easement about 15 feet from the house.

My first thought was rabies. Aren’t raccoons nocturnal? What, other than rabies. can cause an animal that is supposed to come out only at night, to be visible in broad daylight? Dean suggested it had been scared by another animal from its normal hiding place. It did look rather worried and while we watched, it climbed even higher in the tree. Clare ran for the camera to document our visitor and the rest of us scattered to different windows to watch.

Racoon climbing down treeAt first it continued its ascent of the tall tree, but after a while carefully climbed back down the trunk and slowly ambled over to the house, opened the garbage can lid and began biting at the garbage bag. I opened the side door and after it scurried away, pushed the lid down on the trash can.

Raccoon in garbageShortly thereafter Andrew looked out the window of our kitchen door and exclaimed, “It’s right outside the door and looked me right in the eye!” Sure enough there was the raccoon, precariously perching on the railing observing the humans who were observing him. Then it reached over, actually sneered in his raccoon way and opened the trash can lid again, with no trouble at all and began pulling at the trash bag with his teeth.

Forlorn and hungry raccoonThis time Andrew opened the door and the raccoon once again left. Andrew stood outside for a few moments and Clare noticed the raccoon had scampered across the street, possibly to find a garbage can without so many pests hanging around.

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