Winter Soils

Ann and her little dog, Gracie, heading into the garden

Ann and her little dog, Gracie, heading into the garden

If you love the earth, gardening is a marvelous way to watch and participate in the changing of the seasons. Here in the north us winter gardeners are busily cutting back dying vegetation and preparing the soil for winter rains or snows. My Australian gardening friends, Linette and Marie, are all excited about new lettuce, basil, and tomato plants—the often more exciting end of the gardening spectrum.

But I love putting my garden to bed and thinking about protecting my soil! Winter rains or snow can severely compact things. And since one-half of a healthy soil is air pockets, avoiding compaction is important.

Garden bed covered with leaves

Garden bed covered with leaves

One way I protect my soils is to cover them with leaves. Another more productive way is to plant a cover crop. Cover crops not only stabilize soils, they bring deep-rooted minerals to the surface and lessen the loss of nutrients during winter rainfall.

Where I live a good cover crop consists of a mixture of winter rye, fava beans, Austrian field peas, hairy vetch, and crimson clover.

Cover crop sprinkled on the soil

Cover crop sprinkled on the soil

Birds love this mix of seed—they are also getting ready for winter! So, to insure that you actually get a cover crop it is helpful to lay down some garden fabric or row cover until the seeds germinate.

Row cover protects the seeds until they germinate

Row cover protects the seeds until they germinate

More on cover crops in a few months when I turn ours over!

The Change of Seasons

Changing colors in the fall garden

Changing colors in the fall garden

Ann checking temperature of newly made compost

Ann checking temperature of newly made compost

I am especially thinking of my dad this fall. He was an avid gardener and once cooler weather began to arrive he taught me to be meticulous about getting plants cut back and prepared for winter.

Yesterday I worked with friends in our community garden to cut back plants, move manure from a local horse farm to compost our garden waste, and generally admire the changing colors.

When I called Dad in the memory care unit this morning, I shared with him a description of what I had done in the garden and thanked him for all he had taught me about gardening. “That’s nice,” he said.

My sisters and I are working to share strong images of his good life with him as he nears the end of his days. At 87 years he is frail and failing. None of us knows when he will die anymore than we can predict when the first frost will come.

What we do know, though, is that this difficult post stroke phase of his life will end. And like all good gardeners everywhere we know that there is a next, beautiful phase to his life . . . for nature teaches us that life continually transforms itself.

Brussels sprouts ready to harvest

Brussels sprouts ready to harvest

Inspiration in Many Forms


This is not a stock photo. It was taken with an iPhone by my partner, Christina, on a recent September day. Mt. Shucksan as mirrored in Picture Lake is one of the iconic photographs in Washington state. And we were lucky enough to visit when photographic conditions were perfect.

Many, many things about that day were inspirational. We drove past Picture Lake up to Artist’s Point where Mt. Shucksan rises in one direction and Washington’s youngest volcano, Mt. Baker, rises in the other direction. For several hours we hiked the Ptarmigan Ridge Trail filling our souls with the majesty of these two great mountains.

There were lots of people on the trail that day. We paused in the shade of a tree island to rest and have a small snack. An older woman and three male hikers paused to rest with us.

“Pardon me,” I said to the woman. “I am 64 and always looking to be inspired by someone older than myself. Do you mind if I ask how old you are?”

“I’m 90,” she said.

“Wow!” I responded.

“We are a four generation hiking party,” she continued. “My son here is 65. My grandson is 44 and my great grandson is 6.”

We had a marvelous conversation, including learning that she had just hiked three rocky, occasionally steep miles with her family. Her grandson, obviously proud of his grandmother, volunteered a lot of information about this Illinois woman hiking along at 5,000 feet elevation. I learned that part of her secret is hiking several miles a day and enjoying a gin and tonic at night.

As we watched them hike back towards the parking lot, I found myself as inspired by human nature as I was by scenic nature.

August harvester

August is not the best sleeping month at our house. My earlier blog was about loud, early morning fog horns. This blog is about a little busybody harvester whose work often wakes us with a loud BAM beginning about 5:30 a.m.

We have a huge Douglas fir tree towering over our house. Each year in late August a little red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), or maybe it is an army of red squirrels, begin harvesting the thousands of cones our tree produces each year. The skylight in the bathroom adjacent to our bedroom seems to be the main target. It is uncanny how loud the sound from a small three inch cone can be when it drops from 70 or 80 feet.

There does not seem to be a particular system for what happens once the cones are felled. Some of them get eaten on the roof. Some of them get carried into our wood pile. Most of them seem to be abandoned all over the back yard, where they are a bit like walking on marbles.

Years ago when I worked for the U.S. Forest Service we took advantage of the red squirrel’s scattered approach to putting away food stocks for the winter. Our forest biologist explained that they harvest way more cones than they need and actually forget where all their stores are. So, we would find a cache and collect cones to give to give to the nursery that grew young trees for our replanting operations.

I am not sure what signals the squirrels that our cones are ready for harvesting or why they quit after about 5 days. It is simply one of those mysteries I enjoy tracking in our rural setting.




Mid-morning fog out my front window

Mid-morning fog out my front window

Early this morning I awoke to the deep-throated booming of a ship’s foghorn. In the dawn light I could read the alarm “4:35 a.m.” In two minutes the “bee-ohhh” penetrated the morning silence again. This time it had moved closer to our house. In another two minutes it sounded like it was going to come in through the front door.

Living adjacent to the shipping lane in Puget Sound, I have come to love these wake-up calls. Often, I open the front door to see if I can catch a glimpse of our morning visitor.

August is a common time for fog in our area—so much so, that we dub this month “Fog-ust”. The low-lying clouds slide in over the Sound in the early morning hours and linger until mid-day when the summer sun manages to burn it off. We often say that summer here occurs between 1 p.m. when the sun burns off and 6 p.m. when the cool, marine air engulfs us once again and we put our fleece and wool sox on again.

There are many technical descriptions of why fog occurs in the warm summer months by the sea, but basically it is the result of warm atmospheric air clashing with cooler marine air.

Morning sun trying to burn off the fog

Morning sun trying to burn off the fog

What fascinates me, though, is the personality of fog. It is mysterious. It is elusive. It is unpredictable—just when you see some blue sky overhead and think it is clearing, you are engulfed in deeper fog for hours. And never did I feel that unpredictability more profoundly than the summer I kayaked around Lake Superior.

“About twenty minutes into our crossing, the predicted blanket of fog descended and wrapped us in a gray cocoon. The distant shore became a wishful thought. . . our lives depended on our $80 mounted compasses and our steadfastness in believing them.” Deep Water Passage—a Spiritual Journey at Midlife by Ann Linnea

Twenty-one years later I still remember the sheer determination, fear, and good luck that got me through those frequent times on the world’s largest inland sea. Lying in my warm bed, I think about those huge ships outside my window with their fancy radar units and their old-fashioned fog horns warning small-time mariners who must depend only on their eyes and ears to navigate the fog.

A mother’s wisdom


On a recent family trip our two-year-old granddaughter managed to hike up Easter Bluff on Cortes Island, BC. It was a challenging hike up and over big boulders. “I do it myself,” she stated many times. Her mom and dad were always close at hand.

It is no small thing that this little one was able to climb several hundred feet over a mile long trail. But what I will always remember is the trip down.

We watched the sunset after eating our picnic dinner. It was 8:30 p.m. and little Sasha had no nap that day. Within ten minutes of beginning our descent she was in full meltdown. No one could help. Nothing worked. We got to a flatter place in the trail beneath two very large, old growth Douglas fir trees.

My daughter, Sally, scooped Sasha into her arms and sat down beneath the tree. “OK, Sweetie, breathe. Just breathe. We will breathe together.” Within minutes Sasha was no longer crying. It was a mother’s magic at work.

And then, of course, her father carried her the rest of the way down the mountain.

Ancient Tree in an Ancient Town

img_2719smallx225On a recent European teaching trip we stopped to visit the town of Groznian on the Istria Peninsula in Croatia. Like so many things in this country, both the tree and the town have a long history.

A vendor near the tree identified it as a Mediterranean hackberry or European nettle tree, (Celtis australis). It stood prominently near the edge of the walled city. We were enthralled by its warty bark and hollow center. Indeed, it seemed to be a testament to perseverance, not unlike the town it had been planted in!

The first mention of the town in any written history was 1102. Being from North America where 400 year-year-old buildings are a rarity,
Groznjan awed us with its stone streets, walls, and arches. Today it is being revitalized as a meeting place for young musicians. Perhaps the tree will live to see the city thrive again as a cultural center of this area.

Weather Watching



With a 40-mile view of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains I love watching the weather. All kinds of clouds gallop across the Pacific Ocean and fly over the mountain tops  to produce our maritime weather.

As a citizen scientist, I am part of a team of volunteer weather watchers and measurers: Our information provides important supplemental backup for the National Weather Service forecasts. Anyone can participate. All it takes is a $30 rain gauge and a computer. Even my 10-year-old nephew in North Carolina is part of this team.

Look us up and join in. It is a lot of fun and very informative.



Toddler Hummingbird


A young rufuous hummingbird (left) learned to drink from our feeder today and lucky me got to witness it. This morning while making tea I noticed a hummer fly in and sit right next to another hummer who was feeding.

“Hmmm,” I thought. “Hummingbirds generally fight each other, not sit together.”

Then the one who flew in began to beg for food from the other. It put its little beak up in the air and opened it, hoping for breakfast. The mother completely ignored its young offspring and kept drinking. The message was clear. It’s time for you to learn how to do this.

After several attempts at begging, the little bird started jabbing its bill into the red plastic. “Dang,” I could almost hear it thinking. “This is not getting me any food.”

Then the little hummer flew underneath the feeder and tried jabbing at it. Still nothing. Back it flew to the top of the feeder and began begging again. Mom was not impressed. She kept feeding. The little hummer started jabbing its bill at the feeder again and BINGO in went its beak. The little guy got excited and started flapping madly with its beak in the hole.

“Uh oh,” I thought. “Its beak is shorter than its mothers and the feeder is only about a third full. I am not sure it’s getting any sugar water.” The two hummers flew off. I made more sugar water and filled the feeder. They were back in minutes.

Once again the whole scene repeated itself—begging, ignoring behavior, more begging, more ignoring behavior, finally success at sticking its beak in the hole and resting on the perch drinking.

Such a miracle to see one of nature’s vulnerable moments!

The bird on the left is the young. The bird on the right is the mother. The photo below shows the characteristic rufous hummingbird reddish tail.

Snow in May?


Snow in May?

At first glance, it looks like we got a light dusting of snow here on Whidbey Island in May. Unlike my disgruntled friends and family members in Minnesota who DID get snow on May 2, this white substance by the side of the road is white flowers from our beautiful madrone trees.

Madrone flowers on the road

Madrone flowers on the road


The madrone tree, Arbutus menziesii, is found all along the west coast of North America. In spring it creates these white flowers and in the fall it bears red berries that are much loved by local birds.
img_9834It is an evergreen tree with rich, orange-red bark that peels in thin sheets, not unlike birch trees. It is very dense and therefore good for firewood. I love the curved, sensuous beauty of its twisting trunks. One of its challenges is that the heavily populated west coast no longer allows fires, which it readily survives and thrives on.