There is a lot going on in the garden now, but I thought I would take a little time to mention something that I find important.  Soil is not just dirt.  It is full of life and all the creatures in the soil make up the soil food web.  It is pretty common to rototill the garden to make the soil nice and fluffy to plant in.  However, that tiller is killing a lot of the life that lives in the soil, like worms, slugs, earwigs, centipedes, pill bugs, and even smaller critters.  Since these creatures eat other life forms and are food for other creatures the web of life is disrupted, and if this is done continually then the soil gradually dies.  Then you just need a lot of synthetic fertilizer to get your plants to grow.

I know there are different opinions on this, and a lot of great gardeners till their gardens each year.  I just think there is a healthier way that seems to work, though I admit I still have a lot to learn about soil.

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Collards planted a few weeks ago are growing strong.  I just dig a hole and amend the soil a little in the hole.  The soil is dark and has plenty of worms.

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I put up a lot of big tomato cages for my two little tomato plants.  Once some of these plants start growing they can get aggressive and will take as much room as you give them.  I should be able to eat from these red and green romaine lettuce plants in a few days.  Plants that will be in this area and a little beyond the picture are tomatoes, zucchini, potatoes, cucumbers, turnips, eggplant, brussel sprouts, mint, and green beans.  A bunch of other vegetables are in other areas…  Once the seeds sprout and everything is growing I will put down some more mulch.

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This book, I checked out from the library, explains no-till gardening among other good garden practices.

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Pak choy flowers and a pollinator.

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I noticed the rhubarb was flowering again this week.  I cut back all the flower stalks.  The article I was reading said that if you keep cutting them back the plant will eventually go back to focusing on growing leaves instead of flowers.  I am hoping that is also true for my vegetables that made it through the winter but are flowering now.  Last summer the kale flowered all summer, but it also grew a lot of leaves that we ate until December.

I made my first batch of rhubarb sauce yesterday!

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I just finished listening to this audiobook, A County Year.  I did not want it to end.  It describes a bee keeper who lives in the Ozarks and what happens to her over the course of a year.

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We have a guard robin, instead of a guard dog!  Lots of bugs these days for this bird!

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One morning I threw part of a bucket of water on my strawberries and I saw the snake scurry off.  I don’t think snakes like strawberries, but they may keep my patch more free of pests like slugs.

It is almost berry time!

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Yellow Show

May 7, 2014

It is 80 degrees fahrenheit today!  My tomato and pepper plants arrived in the mail and I put them in the ground.  There seems to be a number of yellow things in the garden that I thought I might group together.

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Mammoth yellow quill chrysanthemum.  I got three of these plants in the mail this spring and they are starting to bloom.  I wonder if they will bloom again in the fall.

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Dandelion.  I hate to admit that it was not hard to find one to photograph!

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There are a lot of strawberry blossoms now.  You can see the green strawberry starting to form in the center of the flower.

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American plum blossom.  This is not really yellow, but I had to point out that there is only one blossom on my two trees.  Last year there were about 10 blossoms.  I wonder why.

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We still have a number of yellow and white daffodils around the yard.  I think this one only gets partial sun, so it opened later.

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I put together a container over the weekend.  The big plant in the middle is a cornflower.  It was taking over the flower bed, so I took it out and stuck it in this planter.  I also put in some marigolds, purple petunias, and a little goldenrod. In the back left the wonderful agastache is starting to come back.

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Goldfinch.  I think this is a male goldfinch.  The picture is not so great, but he was singing his heart out when I zoomed in for this shot.

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Speaking of birds, we have a number of cow birds in the area.  Here is the male.  The female is harder to get a good picture of.  They lay their eggs in songbirds’ nest and the songbird ends up feeding the baby bird for them, often to the harm of her own chicks.

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I noticed the yellow on this bird’s throat, but I don’t know what kind of bird it is.  Can anyone identify this bird? Dan was shooting bird pictures from the kitchen.

I have trouble focusing on just one thing in the garden.  This is an important time to be planting early spring vegetables and thinking about producing food, but I am also keeping my eye on the beauty of the flowers and taking a little time to clean them up and weed around the beds.  I love seeing the trees and shrubs starting to leaf out and bloom.  Even the lawn must be attended to a little.  In all the activity I am always watching birds and even what is crawling in the compost pile.  Like I said, I have trouble focusing and specializing.  I just dabble in whatever interests me at the moment.

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Serviceberry amelanchier laevis.  This native serviceberry is blooming now with a promise of sweet berries in June.  It grew so much this past year that I am guessing it is eight feet tall now and is solidly established after a slow start.

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Another native shrub – spicebush lindera benzoin.  It looks like this shrub could use some pruning, but the tiny yellow flowers are just starting to bloom.  There are no berries here, but it is a host plant for the spicebush swallowtail butterfly.  Actually, I think I might get berries if I had a second spicebush for cross-pollination.  You can see the serviceberry bush in the background.

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I spent quite a while yesterday morning cleaning up four strawberry patches I have around the garden.  First I cleaned out dead leaves and pulled up runners.  I moved some of the smaller plants to new locations.  I put down compost between the plants and watered it in then laid down straw from my ornamental grasses between the plants.  That keeps the strawberries off the ground and there are less problems with pests and diseases.  Can’t wait!

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Time to eat these onions.  This weekend I planted more onion bulbs, red potatoes, and seeds for peas, kale, pak choi, turnips, and lettuce.  I am also trying spinach again, which I have never had much success with.  These plants all do well in cool weather.  There never seems to be enough room for all the vegetables I want to plant, so I mix them in with the flowers or pull up more grass to plant more food.

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A project for the weekend was putting in two poles for laundry.  Previously we only had one laundry line.  Thanks Dan!!  The green side of me likes to limit my use of the gas dryer whenever possible.  In the background you can see the red leaves of the crabapple.  In the foreground the common lilac is getting ready to bloom.  On the left are the strawberries.  The yellow daffodils are still looking good, but starting to wind down in some areas.

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This is one of the later daffodils with white petals and a yellow trumpet.

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Another late daffodil with a peach colored trumpet.  I am glad to see these flowers multiplying each year.

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I started to turn the compost pile yesterday, but realized that the shovel I was using was likely to slice a lot of worms in half and kill other critters in the pile, so I went and got this pitchfork.  It is called a 5-tine manure fork.  Now I really feel like a farmer!  I need to finish turning the pile.  Parts of the pile were steaming but other parts seemed a little slimy, so it needs some oxygen.  We have gotten a lot of leaves blowing in from the neighbor’s yards this year, while I appreciated and added to the pile.

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I disturbed a nice worm while cleaning up the oregano patch.  The worms improve the structure of the soil and eat organic material like bits of dead leaves, then poop out worm castings, which are great fertilizer.

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Wild violets are blooming in the lawn and here among the ground cover plants.  Such a delicate design!  I am not sure what I will do to improve the front lawn this year.  I would like a nice organic lawn service to make it look good!  The back lawn, which I do not worry much about, is full of creeping charlie, my least favorite plant.

Notice:  At some point this blog will run out of storage space.  At that point I am thinking of starting a new blog that will refer back to this blog.  I guess I will do this when I have to and I am not sure when that will be.  I don’t feel like paying for the additional storage space indefinitely.

From Snow To A Snake

April 20, 2014

Happy Easter everyone!  It is a beautiful day here in Northern Illinois!  A great day to kick back, get out the lawn chair and take a nap in the sun…

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The garden this time of year is bright yellow with daffodils and everything is starting to green up.  The dragon’s blood sedum is red this time of year and the red leaves of the ‘profusion’ crab apple are opening up.  The bumble bees and butterflies are visiting.

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But when we woke up last Tuesday morning, April 15th, this is what it looked like.  The snow did not last long though, and soon we were back to the green color.  I think I have put the plastic hoop away for good now…

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Yesterday was a beautiful day and I planted some collards, along with some other plants.  This robin kept track of me and followed me around looking in holes I dug.  It may be a little early to plant, but collards are pretty hardy and they were very cheap, so why not! The green onions are ready to eat.

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I divided my chives and put half under my American plum trees, which are just starting to leaf out.   I also planted a hellebore under these little trees.  Here is my theory.  Last year the plums were attacked by a lot of little bugs.  If I put some smelly plants and more variety below these shrubs and leave the lawn a little high while the trees are blossoming then the bugs will get more confused or have more places to explore.  The predators will also have more places to hide out.  Basically, biodiversity to solve the gardens problems.

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I got my daughter outside to enjoy the day and she snapped a picture of me planting some mums.  It was a hot day, but I was covered up, afraid of sunburn, since I was out many hours.  You can see that the hicksii yew shrubs got a little burnt over the winter.  Luckily it was not too bad.

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After trimming some old overgrown thyme I noticed a snake moving and went to get my camera.

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Here is a close up of the head.  My daughter and I guessed it was between 12 and 15 inches long.

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Here you can see the skin pattern a little.  Looking on Google I am guessing that this is a DeKay’s brown snake.  Any snake experts want to tell me if I am on track or not?  They apparently spend a lot of time underground and eat earthworms and slugs.  We have plenty of both of those.  I enjoyed seeing this little guy and glad he has a home in my yard.

Previous postings:  I noticed that when people first visit my blog they often open the link for “Purchase Pre-Planned Garden,” which I posted many years ago.  I wanted to say that only about half of the plants I ordered in that package garden lasted past the first year.  The lavender, sea holly, and the yellow butterfly weed did not survive.  I substituted with other plants.

Food – We are eating several cups of baby kale and greens every day from the plants that made it through the winter.

Spring Cleaning

April 13, 2014

Yesterday was a beautiful day and I finally got out to start some clean up in the garden.  With the long winter I have had extra time for reading and have enjoyed a number of inspirational books.

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Will Allen received a MacArthur genius grant and I was fascinated by reading The Good Food Revolution.  He encourages me to keep trying new things.  I have had the plastic off the hoop for a few weeks now.  The kale of is coming along well.  I have lettuce planted and it is slowly coming.  Yesterday I went to a horse stable and filled my trunk with six big buckets of composted horse manure.  I was excited that there seemed to be a lot of worms in it.  I spread most of it on the vegetable garden and strawberry patches and put a bucket of it directly into the compost file, to help that process.  It was free, so I might go get some more if I find the time….

Garden 04 13 14 015Praying mantis egg sac on spice bush.  While cleaning up yesterday I saw two of these egg sacs on shrubs and four more on the miscanthus grass I chopped down.  I just take the sacs that are in the ornamental grass and prop them up in the crook of some branches until they hatch.

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While cleaning up I got distracted and started pruning the serviceberry bush and the lilac bush, just where the branches were crossing unhelpfully.  I brought in some of the branches to cheer up the kitchen.  I was hoping the serviceberry blossoms would not completely open before the frost tomorrow.

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When I came home on Monday, April 7th, there was a box of mail order plants that had arrived.  I was really not in the mood, as it was still cold.  But I bought some soil and potted them up in the garage.  Later in the week I started to put them out to harden them up.  Maybe I will plant them next week.  The big pot in the middle is goldenrod ‘fireworks’ that I pulled out of the ground yesterday, as it had gotten too big for its space.  I kept it in case I find a place to put a little of it somewhere.

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This morning I moved the Gilbertson bluebird house to a new location.  The sparrows had been ignoring it previously, but were suddenly all very interested.  This house sparrow couple claimed the house right away and the male chased away other males.  I have heard that the hole is really kind of small for sparrows, so we will see if they abandon it soon.  I am not very hopeful about getting bluebirds, but still, I will give it another try.

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Female house sparrow in birdbath with daffodils.  These non-native birds are everywhere and seem to live in the neighbors’ evergreen trees.

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Robin in birdbath.  Dan has been taking bird pictures again.  He captured cardinals, doves, sparrows and robins.  I have not seen many migrating birds this year.  I saw a robin gathering nesting material this morning.  He seemed to be carrying it to the evergreen tree next door.  I think the robin might have benefited from a few of the worms in the manure yesterday!

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These hen and chicks are not real birds!  They made it through another winter under the snow.

From the Ground Up

March 23, 2014

It was cold today with a few snow flakes that did not stick to the ground.  There are daffodils, crocuses, and irises coming up in the garden, but the ground is mushy with the thawing and freezing so I did not want to venture out.  It has been a good year for reading garden books inside!

From the Ground UpI heard that Jeanne Nolan was speaking at the Chicago Flower and Garden Show, so I thought I would check to see if she had a book in the library.  Sure enough, she did and I checked it out.

Jeanne left home as a teenager to live on an organic farm which was a commune.  This community had some cult like tendencies, and so she eventually left and came back to Chicago.  The skills she learned on the farm helped her later to start her own business in organic gardening in an urban setting.

I also was part of a community in my younger years that had some cult like tendencies, which caused me to move on, although my experience was very different from hers.  It was interesting to read how she went through a time of healing and then found her place as a contributing member of society.

My job changes have not led me to gardening full-time, but I still enjoyed reading what she is doing in Chicagoland and had a yearning to be part of the movement to bring organic food gardening to the suburbs and the city in some small way. Plant food!!

Last week, as I looked at pictures of last year in the garden, I realized that it was time for the vernal witch hazel to bloom, so I went out in the snow to take a look.  Sure enough the bottom branches were starting to bloom.

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First yellow blooms on the vernal witch hazel bush.

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Stepping back to see the whole vernal witch hazel bush, which was planted in the fall of 2012.  Just the bottom branches are starting to bloom.

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Wednesday morning brought six more inches of wet, heavy snow, which weighed down the shrubs.  I had to go out to the yew bushes in the front of this picture and the viburnum in the very back and shake the icy snow off of each branch to keep them from breaking and get them to stand up straight again.  Then on Friday the weather was in the 50s and the snow started melting quickly.

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The ice around the low hoop finally melted enough so that I could open one side and get some fresh air in.  Although it looks pathetic after months of freezing weather, I was heartened to see the onions growing and new leaves on the kale and tatsoi.  I could probably throw some lettuce seeds in here in a little while and see what comes up.

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Although the yellow kale leaves are only good for compost there are new green leaves starting in the center showing that the plant is alive. So I should have this plant producing food again soon.

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The pak choi roots have sent up new leaves!  There were also a couple of leaf lettuce plants with new leaves.

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Strawberry leaves poke out of the snow in the garden.  I saw quite a few strawberry plants coming up, so once it is a little warmer I will need to clean out the dead material and extra vines around each plant.

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Various types of sedum are greening up around the garden.  I don’t want to clean up the leaves too much because we are expecting more snow and cold weather on Sunday.

Animal sighting:  I saw a skunk meandering near the little pond I can see from the window at work.  Later in the week I was driving through my neighborhood and smelled the strong smell of skunk.  Seems like the wildlife are ready to come out of their hibernation now, too.

Ducks in a Row

March 9, 2014

I took an afternoon walk down by the Village of Worth canal area.  Here’s what I saw…

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The ducks are in a row at the edge of the canal.  Or this could be called “duck dating.”  Once the water warms up there will be a little waterfall here.   In the foreground a swan is sleeping and in the left corner a gull is checking out the ducks.

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The swans sipping some water.  Several swan pairs live in the area.

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After sipping the water the swans settled down for another snooze.

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The gulls were lined up, too, facing the wind.  I love seeing the gulls gliding through the blue sky on these cold winter days.  According to my bird book these seem to be ring-billed gulls.  My bird book also says they commute into the city of Chicago every day during early morning hours.  Is this true of these birds that already enjoy the canal waterfront here?

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I was taking this walk by the water reclamation plant.  Once the weather warms up this will become a little lake.  Water from the water reclamation facility will pass through the lake on its way to the canal.  A lot of people come here to feed bread to the ducks, geese, and gulls.  There are no signs discouraging this, as there are at Lake Katherine.

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I took a walk along the canal and was grateful that there was no ice on the sidewalk.  I was hoping to find birds here, but it was very quite in the middle of the afternoon.  Just tall bare trees and a big sky.

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Back in our yard a female cardinal worked on a crabapple.

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Tonight will be the first night in a long time that the temperatures will be above freezing.  I decided I finally had to dig in and try to lift the plastic on the low hoop.  The kale leaves inside all looked very yellow.  It look me about 10 minutes to loosen the ice enough to lift some of the plastic and open a crack for air.  Tomorrow the temperature is predicted to be 54 degrees Fahrenheit, so I would like to get a little more of the plastic rolled back if possible.

We had three warm days last week before the cold weather came back.  Today it is sunny, which really helps, though this week promises more sub-zero temperatures.  Here are some snapshots from this past week.

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The snow melted off the gnome and he is getting some fresh air again.  This gnome is a toad house, so maybe something is hibernating underneath it.

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The snow has melted off the compost pile, so I was able to chuck my kitchen scraps in again.

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This was how high the snow was on Tuesday morning.

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This is the same shot three days later.  There is quite a bit of ice under the snow so it is taking a while to melt.

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Very near our home is a former mining pit that is now a lake.  It is owned by the army corps or engineers and so is off limits to local traffic.  Still the chain link fence has a big opening used by locals and the deer.  The lake looks pretty frozen.  Every fall and spring, if I have time, I join some volunteers in going in and cleaning up trash from all the illegal visitors, many of whom are fishing here.  It is a good way to explore this off limits area, which provides a natural habitat for a lot of wildlife in the area, including some swans.  The corps wanted to dumps dredged material from the canal in this pit, but it has been disputed for many years, while they try to find an alternate location for the dredgings, which contain pollutants that could harm the ground water in this heavily populated neighborhood.

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Nearby was a huge old oak.

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Winter oak leaves and a blue sky.

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Sea gull in the winter sky.

Well there is nothing green in the garden to take pictures of except for the moss, which seems very green poking out of the melting snow.  But I could be seeing daffodils in a month, if spring is not too late this year.

Looking back on my blogs it looks like there has been snow on the ground for the past two months.  We have heard that the high will be around 40 degrees a few days this week.  In the fall when the weather goes down to 40 degrees it seems so cold, but in the spring 40 degrees seems wonderful.

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I walked around Lake Katherine for about 45 minutes this morning and did not meet a soul.  The sky caught my attention, with the sun trying to peek through the clouds.

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I took a walk through the back woods to see if I could see any fresh animal tracks in the snow.  I was not the first one back there and did not see anything.  Also, after watching PBS shows about coyotes in the Chicago area I did not want to walk too far here by myself.  I have seen coyotes in these woods and I don’t think one would bother me, but I did not want to find out.

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I only came across rabbit tracks.

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Walking along the canal I saw this single swan swimming.  Eventually the swam came to ice blocking the way and could go no further, so it swam in circles for a while.

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Here is the sun and shade a little after mid-day in the back yard.  I am hoping that by Friday the snow will be mostly melted.  Then I will have to take a look inside the hoop and see what happened to the vegetables.  Maybe the mud that is coming will be worse than this pretty snow.