Of love and late-summer flowers

Painted Lady butterfly on stonecrop sedum. Painted Lady butterflies are abundant this year.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about love and late-summer flowers. I’m not sure what brought on these musings, but I think it may have something to do with turning the big double nickel last week.

I’m a late-summer flower myself.

I’m also helping my mother sell her home and move into independent living, letting my children grow up and turning my mothering to Monarch caterpillars. I’ve watched the devastation of two hurricanes in the news with alarm, resignation and then love and admiration for those who helped. Plus, I finished listening to the S-Town podcast and read Y is for Yesterday (A Kinsey Millhone Novel), by Sue Grafton, on my birthday.

Whew! I have a lot going on. Please bear with me as I sort out my thoughts. It’s good this blog is called Red Dirt Ramblings, especially today. Grab a cup of coffee or tea and wander with me, okay?

Monarch caterpillar on butterfly weed
Monarch caterpillar on butterfly weed.

Honestly, I was feeling kind of dismal about the state of the world last week until I steeped myself in prayer and cut more milkweed for my baby Monarchs.

The hurricane coverage and overall media misery were starting to get to me, and S-Town and Y is for Yesterday didn’t help either. As I listened to S-Town, I began to feel like a voyeur. The series took an especially dark turn in the last chapter which made me want to cry for John B. McElmore. I think this opinion piece by Jessica Goudeau in The Atlantic sums my dilemma up pretty well. It does contain spoilers so keep that in mind if you read it. One sentence from the poetry and letters she discussed stood out for me “Probe your own life and past if you must, but you cannot use another person’s trauma without permission for your aesthetic gain.” At the end of the podcast, only ashes remained, along with an icky feeling of crawling through one man’s private angst.

Y is for Yesterday cover.

As for Y is for Yesterday, I bought and saved it for my birthday. For me, it’s a kind of ritual because I’ve read all of her books from the beginning. I met Grafton, and I admire her greatly. After all, I’ve only written one book that’s been published. I don’t want to give anything away in the 25th installment of my favorite detective series, but the ending wasn’t the least bit redemptive. Grafton wrote another book in the series with a similar ending, and it wasn’t my favorite either. While life is messy, novels, especially detective novels, are all about setting the universe back to rights after something throws it into chaos. It’s why people read detective novels. Some of you might argue that things in fictional Santa Teresa, CA, were set right, but I didn’t think so. I did enjoy much of the novel and laughed out loud at Kinsey Millhone, who I’ve grown to love as an old friend.

With dismay, I began to wonder if we’d forgotten how to tell redemptive stories. In our society’s effort to become ever more secular, we have forgotten how to read anything that challenges us, including the Bible. Whether you believe in God or not, the Bible is a great piece of literature with extremely good advice. I would also argue we’ve forgotten how to immerse ourselves in Nature, another great teacher.

Not a Monarch, but instead, a mimic, the Viceroy butterfly, Limenitis archippus, has a smile on its lower wings that the Monarch doesn't have.
Not a Monarch, but instead, a mimic, the Viceroy butterfly, Limenitis archippus. The Viceroy has a smile on its lower wings that the Monarch doesn’t have. I think this is the first year I’ve seen a Viceroy in my garden.

After much prayer, I began to see my care for my Monarch caterpillars as a metaphor for God’s love for us. The caterpillars have no idea I’m watching over them. They just eat and poop and do their thing. They’re rather helpless. They can also be quite hard on each other so I sometimes separate them when they crawl too close. When I pick them up–after making sure my hands are clean–immediately, they curl into a C of defensiveness. It’s all they know. I gently place them near some milkweed, leave them alone, and soon they’re back doing their thing. I watch over these creatures as if each one is precious cargo because it is. Monarchs are basically endangered even if it isn’t official yet.

I’m not saying people are like caterpillars. Obviously, not, but being a woman of faith, I see God’s unconditional love to be similar to my care for these small insects that will eventually change into something much more glorious than when they first began. (Click on pictures in the galleries to make them larger.)

There’s a good reason why caterpillars and butterflies are symbolic of metamorphosis and rebirth.

My children, by the way, are completely grossed out that I have cages all over the dining room with caterpillars in various stages and sizes. I keep telling them caterpillars are not gross. In fact, if you run your finger gently across one’s back, it is silky to the touch. Plus, their camouflage coloring is quite beautiful. They blend in with the milkweed. Not so for adult butterflies who live for such a short and glorious time.

As for God’s love, I think butterflies and late-summer flowers are good points of reference. There are many more efficient pollinators out there than butterflies. I’m not sure Nature needs butterflies, but humans do.

When the news, the podcast and my reading became too much for me, I wandered outside into my messy late-summer garden. My favorite flower of the moment is Autumn sneezeweed, Helenium autumnale. I planted smallish plants last fall, and they are glorious this summer. They, along with the still-blooming Phlox paniculata ‘Bright Eyes,’ are much favored by pollinators, and the late-summer bloom is all about feeding the pollinators before winter sets in. I’m still waiting for the asters to bloom in a blue haze, but this year, I’m actually enjoying wild ageratum, Eupatorium coelestinum, a/k/a mistflower, for the first time. I used to hate it because it is so prolific, but it’s a favorite nectar plant of adult Monarchs so I’ve learned to pull as much as I can in spring and enjoy the rest. The same is true for garlic chives, Allium tuberosum, and obedient plant, Physostegia virginiana, which I can’t seem to eradicate. Don’t plant them if you don’t want them until the end of your days. Since I didn’t deadhead much in July, these plants are carrying the garden through early September.

Pretty soon, asters and garden mums will join the other flowers, and the garden will have a kind of rebirth before it dies in late autumn after a killing freeze.

We had a party last weekend, and several of my friends wanted to see the gardens. We walked and talked, and I pointed out butterflies and moths flitting amongst the blooms. My friends were amazed at the beauty of these small creatures like the Hemaris thysbe, hummingbird clearwing moth. These moths dart in and out of the phlox like hummingbirds hence the name. They are one of the best reasons to grow phlox. Need more good reasons? How about the Painted Lady butterflies, Vanessa cardui, which are so abundant this year. Painted Lady butterflies also adore stonecrop sedum, Sedum spectabile, so plant it too.

Hemaris thysbe, Hummingbird Clearwing moth on P. paniculata 'Bright Eyes' phlox.
Hemaris thysbe, Hummingbird Clearwing moth on P. paniculata ‘Bright Eyes’ phlox.

Speaking of hummingbirds, I have a couple of males that check me out every time I go out to get more milkweed. They love the zinnia patch this year and protect it fiercely. They are so cute but so naughty keeping all of the other creatures except wasps on the wing. Bill caught sight of them of them the other day and was charmed by their antics.

Butterflies and late-summer flowers both speak to me of God’s love and also the quick passage of time. Much was made of horology, the study of time, in S-town. It was the best part of the podcast. John B. was a genius who built and repaired beautiful timepieces throughout much of his life. Check out this sundial he built for his friend, teacher, and mentor, Tom Moore. I think McLemore loved people fiercely, but couldn’t accept their love in return.

Like the caterpillars and the late-summer flowers, we bloom and eventually fade away. I just hope we all experience metamorphosis and winged flight before our time is done. The late-summer garden beckons like a lover in the cool evening. Don’t forget to go outside and enjoy it before it too is gone.

Tomato season in high gear

Artisan Pink Tiger tomato is tiny, but packs a big punch. Very thin skinned and sweet.

Tomato season is in high gear at Little Cedar. You know we’re calling our property Little Cedar, right? That’s because my sister-in-law, Maria, said our garden reminded her of Big Cedar Lodge when she visited us in spring, and she dubbed our garden “Little Cedar.” We loved the name so much it stuck. In fact, Bill had a sign made for my little she shed out back.

We go to Big Cedar almost every year so this name means a lot to us.

'Honey Drop' tomato from Hudson Valley Seed Co. is the best and sweetest cherry tomato I've ever eaten.
‘Honey Drop’ tomato from Hudson Valley Seed Co. is the best and sweetest cherry tomato I’ve ever eaten. I started this one from seed and have been eating them for a month. These are much sweeter than my former favorite, ‘Sungold.’

But, back to tomato season in my Oklahoma hills, and what a tomato season it is.

Whopper tomatoes in the green. Good eating coming soon.
‘Whopper’ tomatoes in the green. Good eating coming soon. I always grow ‘Whopper’ tomatoes. They aren’t huge, but they have a great acid balance, and you don’t always need a giant tomato on a sandwich although I ate a huge ‘Cherokee Purple’ one on a sandwich today.

I spoke to the Tulsa Perennial Club on vegetable gardening the day before yesterday so I’ve been taking a few photos here and there with my iPhone while I’ve been out working. Vegetable gardens are unforgiving this time of year. If you don’t go out every single day, they expire from hot weather–we’ve been over 100F lately–or the squash bugs arrive without warning and kill your squash plants in a day. Use diatomaceous earth on squash bugs nymphs, but be careful not to get it on blossoms. You don’t want to kill your pollinators. If anyone has any other great organic squash bug killing advice, other than squishing them–I do–please let me know. I told my Tulsa friends that I didn’t have any, but they arrived that night.

This is my two-day harvest from seven raised beds. The new raised beds are 8' x 16' so they are pretty big, but over halfway full of flowers for cutting.
This is my two-day harvest from seven raised beds. The new raised beds are 8′ x 16′ so they are pretty big, but over halfway full of flowers for cutting. Those large tomatoes on top are ‘Cherokee Purple’ which is one of my favorites. It’s often available locally in spring.

Stupid Insect-tards.

You can plant tomatoes now and reap a harvest in September before sunlight lessens. Just be sure to keep everything well watered. We’re having some terribly hot temperatures this week in the 100s°F. When the temperatures soar above 100°F, tomato blossoms just fall off.

Try not to worry. Just keep your plants healthy and water because temperatures will lessen, and you should have time to grow and ripen more fruit. Speaking of ripening, I usually harvest my tomatoes just when they start to turn like the photo below. I know articles tell you to wait, but if I wait, the stink bugs will suck them dry and cause sores on the skin which is just gross. I bring partially ripened tomatoes inside and finish them on my kitchen counter. They still taste delicious and don’t even need the sunshine to ripen. I also don’t refrigerate tomatoes until I must because they don’t taste as good and quit ripening. Any tomato you grow at home tastes 100 times better than one bought in the store.

Partially ripe tomatoes on the vine. I harvested these and brought them indoors to finish ripening.
Partially ripe tomatoes on the vine. I harvested these and brought them indoors to finish ripening.

I started a bunch of seeds in the greenhouse last February, and while I didn’t have time to write about it on the blog, the tomatoes didn’t know. They grew just fine.

My transplants never look as big and bulky as those you buy at the nursery or box store, but they quickly catch up. After transplanting in late April or early May, I watched my plants grow all spring and worried over them. We had very cool temperatures and loads of rain. I planted some tomatoes in the potager in new spots–crop rotation to repel root-knot nematodes–and after the raised beds were built, I planted more out there.


The good folks at Burpee Plants/Burpee Home Gardens sent me several tomatoes and peppers to try. I really appreciate the markers they sent with the plants, along with a very helpful laminated card. Vegetable and flower companies who send out trial plants don’t realize how easy it is to lose tags in the middle of spring planting season. If you receive plants from several companies to trial, as I do, you may not be able to identify the plant later on. I so appreciate Burpee’s extra step. All of the plants showed up super healthy and not stressed for which I was thankful. Overall, I’ve been very pleased with the plants they sent me.

When I start seeds, I always choose unique varieties. Then, I run up to my local nurseries and buy my standard favorites like ‘Supersteak,’ ‘Big Beef,’ ‘Cherokee Purple,’ ‘Rutgers,’ ‘Beefmaster,’ ‘Super Sioux’ and ‘Whopper.’ I may not grow all of these in a particular year. It depends on what I find locally. The ones I start from seed will almost always be weird like ‘Artisan Pink Tiger.’ This elongated cherry tomato has a very complicated taste and such thin skin it is easily bruised. These are the vegetables I like to grow at home, the ones grocery stores don’t carry because of shipping considerations.

Artisan Pink Tiger tomato is tiny, but packs a big punch. Very thin skinned and sweet.
Artisan Pink Tiger tomato is tiny, but packs a big punch. Very thin skinned and sweet.

It’s been a great tomato season so far. One step I made sure to complete was to ferilize the tomatoes again when they started to bloom. In other words, I fertilized their planting holes when I transplanted them and mulched them heavily to stop dirt and diseases from splashing up on the leaves. Then, when they started to bloom about five weeks later, I fertilized them around the drip line with an organic fertilizer like Jobe’s Organics All Purpose fertilizer. If you’d rather, you can buy  Jobe’s Organics Vegetable & Tomato Fertilizer, but I just use the all-purpose one everywhere. I don’t have time to mess with all these distinctions. For my Tulsa friends, this is the fertilizer I was talking about the other night.
I also tied everyone up nice and neat and braced my tomato cages with rebar. It’s how I like to do it. I could build more extensive cages, but I haven’t so far. I like the colored cages, and so many of the determinate and patio type tomatoes do just fine in these as long as I tuck in their canes as they grow. The rest I tie up as needed.

I think that’s all I have this Saturday. How is your tomato season going?