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Mad Hatter


So I’m hosting a murder mystery garden party in July. I did one two years ago and it seemed to be a big hit, so here we go again. While my first was set in Upton Abbey in 1912 (pop culture tie-in!), this year’s epic will take place on the Catsby Estate in 1921.

Because I never do anything in a small way, I’ve been scurrying to prepare periodesque costumes for my cast of suspects (my put-upon kin). This involves long strings of pearls, decorative fans, feather boas and especially hats.

When I had the idea for the party theme, I went online to check out the availability of 1920s ladies hats, and found them aplenty. However, the hats I found on eBay and Etsy were outrageously expensive, to the tune of several hundred dollars. “What nonsense!” I snorted to myself. “I’ll just make my own on the cheap!”


Beads? What beads?

Famous last words.

It turns out that the reason custom-made hats available for purchase are so dear is less because of the artisanship of the creation than the expense of the doodads and gew-gaws to pretty them up. “Upcycling,” it appears, means starting with a $2 straw hat and adding $200 worth of feathers. I can see where ostriches would be reluctant to part with their plumes for a nickel, but $35 each seems a bit rich. I may go into ostrich feather farming to make my fortune.

Part of my problem is that I’ve never subscribed to the “less is more” or “tastefully understated” philosophy. More beads! More ribbon! More, more, MORE shabby chic roses! For a month, my bedroom (well, let’s just call it a workshop, shall we?) has been strewn with appliques and puff balls and strands of beads. The cats are delighted. I’ve come to cringe at the knowing smirk of the clerk behind the till at JoAnn Fabrics when I haul my latest trove of fancies up to the counter. Really, though: is ANY ribbon, no matter how sparkly, worth $17.95 a yard? And do I REALLY need two yards?



An unexpected – Well, I probably should have anticipated it, though I never was much good at physics – effect of all this razzle dazzle is that each of the hats now weighs about five pounds. I expect to be hit with chiropractic bills from my injured relations after the party.

I finished my four hats this weekend. I look forward to seeing my sister and nieces in them. And to justify the moolah I’ve splashed out on the damned things, look for me to wear them to church, work and the grocery store every day from now on.

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Turf Wars


For a man raised on the South Dakota prairie, my Dad was inordinately fond of trees. He was known to snag seedlings out of ditches and bring them home to install in the backyard. The result after 55 years is a whole lot of very big trees and a lawn that shaded for much of every day. Side effect: our lawn has become increasingly patchy. My mother has long fretted about this, and a couple of years ago I had a lawn company come out to treat the grass with fertilizers and weed killers. My nephew discouraged this. “If you kill all the crabgrass, you won’t have anything green left back there.”

Wise beyond his years, my nephew.

Two years later, the lawn people having come and gone half a dozen times for regular maintenance, large swaths of the yard are reduced to compacted dirt. But at least there’s no crabgrass.

This is not of great concern to me, as I have always hated grass. I find its uniformity rather bland and it requires a great deal of fussing. It has to be mowed, for instance. Not only is this a tiresome waste of time that would be better spent weeding the flower beds, it has been my sad experience that no lawn mower invented has ever started in two consecutive instances. Lawn mowers break down just sitting in the shed. You’ll have them tune up at the small engine place, mow the lawn once, put it back in the shed and the next week it will be dead as a stone. For years, the arrival of lawnmower season was reliably greeted by tears of frustration and my mother’s plaintive suggestion that “perhaps we’d be better off in an apartment.”

Let the lawn drive me from my own property? Ha! NEVER! Last year I found a guy who comes to mow the lawn once a week. He drives one of those big machines with levers instead of a steering wheel and he gets the whole place done in about 15 minutes. As far as I can tell, he has shed no tears over my lawn. (However, my mother insists that he shakes his head a little irritably while mowing, irked at having to maneuver around my proliferating garden beds.

At my mother’s urging, I reseed the bare patches every.single.year. I dig up the ground, rake it over smooth, generously scatter seed, cover with a light layer of soil and water thoroughly twice a day. Watch the tiny seedlings sprout. See them proliferate. Observe them wither and die. Stomp around mad for the rest of the summer.


SyFy should make a film of this.

This year I have a new plan. I’m going to cover every bare spot I see with a charming garden gnome.

That won’t be creepy at all.

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Grim Pickin’s


Gather ye rosebugs while ye may.

At one end of my backyard are three large, old rosebushes. They grew from cuttings taken from my mother’s childhood farm more than half a century ago, and the bush from which they were taken had persevered on the hot, dusty South Dakota prairie since the 1930s. My mother recalls that it grew up over the gate in the yard, covered with needle-like thorns, and her mother was always after her dad to trim it back. But having just come through the Dust Bowl, where the entire farmstead was reduced to lifeless dirt, John Welsh could never bring himself to cut away any living greenery.

That original bush’s progeny, transplanted to central Minnesota, has been largely untended since 1960 – in part because I, like my grandpa, find it hard to cut back anything alive. Mostly, though, it’s because the cluster of bushes has grown into a monster, akin to the fortress of thorns that surrounded Sleeping Beauty’s castle in the old fairytale.

They are not a fancy hybrid – just a plain, old-fashioned shrub variety that flowers prolifically early each summer with yellow blooms for a week or so, then subsides into foliage and thorns for the rest of the season. They possess the hardiness of old, native varieties, seldom troubled by disease even when my showier roses are shriveled and mottled by black spot, rust, powdery mildew or any of the many other pestilences that reduce the rose gardener to fits of tears and profanity.

These roses, however, do have one perennial nemesis. Every year at this time, the leaves of the bushes start to brown and curl at the edges. A close examination reveals the leaves to be skeletonized. Left unchecked, the bushes are largely denuded of foliage by the end of June, only to sprout new, leafy growth again in July.

For an astonishingly long time, I couldn’t figure out what was going on. Perhaps I’m profoundly unobservant, or more likely I never cared to venture within range of those vicious thorns. When I finally did take a closer look several years ago, in the midst of the spring die-off, I discovered an invader. The leaves were covered with small, green worms. The Internet quickly ID’d them as rose slug sawfly larva, destined to become a fairly benign little winged insect. There are three varieties of sawfly larva that affect roses in my area: the bristly roseslug, Cladius difformis; the European roseslug, Endelomyia aethiops, and the curled roseslug sawfly, Allantus cinctus. I seem to have escaped the bristly roseslug. The other two are happy consumers of my bushes.

The name sawfly derives from the fact that the female uses her elongated, serrated genitals (!) to cut into the leaf to deposit her eggs. And you thought human labor was hard work.sawflylarva

There is apparently no effective remedy for these pests, according to the experts. I avoid chemicals in the garden (save the bees!), and the recommended treatment, powerful blasts from the garden hose, tend to knock off the blossoms as well – but their blooming period is brief enough, and is the only thing that makes them worth keeping around. The only other recourse is to pick them off the leaves, one by one. And so, rose worm pickin’ season begins.

I used to be more squeamish about such things, and began by scraping them off leaves and onto the ground with sticks (inefficient) or picking them off with tweezers (messy). Finally, I got over the willies and started picking them off by hand. I find it most effective to gently roll them between my thumb and index finger, which dislodges them without mushing them into green jelly.

In a previous post, I confessed my aversion to killing just about anything (mosquitoes are an exception). This includes little green worms. So when I pick them off the leaves, I drop them a few feet away from the bush and watch them begin at once to creep back toward their source of sustenance. I suppose most of them perish of fatigue and/or starvation before they reach the bush again, so it would perhaps be kinder to simply squoosh them or drop them into a can of kerosene. Yet I cannot bring myself to be the active and immediate agent of their demise … and there is always the possibility that they will survive to fulfill their destiny as winged creatures with sharp-toothed vaginas (it’s possible my understanding of sawfly anatomy isn’t entirely clear).

I have so far offered this sporting chance to several hundred sawfly larvae over the past week. Like the flush of starry blossoms, rose worm pickin’ season is a brief one; in a few days it will be all over. Then what will I do with my time? No worries: aphid pickin’ season starts next week!

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