Grove CSI: Owl Strike

Neither of us have seen the owls, although there might have been a distant sighting of one earlier in the winter. After the winds had ripped the last of the leaves from the trees in the grove we witnessed what seemed to be a silhouette reminiscent of a stately owl on a limb of the huge cottonwood that stands as a sentinel on the far northeast corner of our stand of trees. My binoculars made the darkened dot a little larger, enough so that it might resemble what you envision as a great horned owl. That is as close as we have come to seeing one.

The cottonwood is high enough to give an owl a vantage point view of both our eight acres of prairie and a wetland just over the rise of the hill on the other side of the road.   

We know owls are around us for we can hear them hooting. First one, then another. One closer, the other more distant. Just a quarter mile to the west of our farm is another good sized woodland … good sized in Minnesota prairie terms. Perhaps five acres in all, right along the gravel road. The distant hoot could come from there if the closer one is in our grove. 

Rather convincing evidence that owls are near greeted me on my return from the mailbox the other evening. Laying beneath the canopy of our recently cleaned grove was the carcass of a red bellied woodpecker with the upper skull eaten away. Perhaps this was the one I’ve been stalking with my camera. A red bellied was one of the first species to find our feeder once we got around to filling it with the ever popular black sunflower seeds.  

In my quest to capture an image of this beautiful bird I’ve set up my blind to no avail, and my luck using a remote shutter release wasn’t much better. This was one camera shy bird, unlike some of the other species coming to the feeder. The smallest woodpecker, the downy, and the larger hairy woodpeckers, have joined the bluejays and nuthatches in my digital cache of photographs, but not the red bellied.

Finding the carcass seemed to answer why the sightings of the red bellied had suddenly become so scarce. We’ve missed that telltale swoop down to the small tree the holds the squirrel-proof feeder, for the red caught your eye especially on those gray or whitish mornings. It would land low on the base of the tree and skitter up the trunk to where it was just a short hop over to the feeder. Once a seed was secured, off it would fly over the solarium porch back to the grove.

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Seeing the red bellied in the grove earlier in the fall keyed our decision to keep a number of what we called our “woodpecker trees” among the ash and other trees too immature for the saw. As we worked around one tree in particular, one with obvious pecked holes in the long dead wood of the trunk, the woodpecker had briefly peeked out at us. We assumed this was where the red bellied was returning with its seed. When the hairys return to the grove with their seeds they alight on our “lightning” tree, crawling up ever higher before breaking open the seed. Not the red bellied, for it typically flew deeper into the grove to its tree. That flash of red wasn’t good for keeping secrets. Not from us, nor apparently from the owl.

When I found the carcass, most of the head and that telltale identifying red stripe on the crown was gone. Eaten away in a meal of nature. 

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It was on a canoeing trip years ago on the Chippewa River that made me instantly think the culprit in the demise of the red bellied was an owl. We had just paddled around a bend when we came upon a noisy confrontation. Perched on a staunch limb just below the protective outreach of the canopy was a great horned owl, and scurrying all around it was a murder of crows, diving and cawing, threatening the much larger and dangerous bird of prey with pronounced racket and mayhem.   

“Accusations,” suggested my paddling and fishing friend, Wes Konzin as we slowed the canoe. “I think it all comes down to beheadings.”

Sometimes you can sneak into the inner workings of the natural world in a canoe, or it may materialize beside you while quietly waiting in a deer tree stand. We were completely unheeded as we drifted by, intently watching the confrontation. Surprisingly, the owl suddenly bolted from the tree, hastily beating its wings to escape just over us in that supremely hush of owl flight with the murder close behind, cawing, some deftly diving at its head, to land again inside of an outstretched canopy of a tree just down river. There the murder of crows continued their relentless attack.   

The birds know. So the beheading of the red bellied was a circumstantial CSI moment in the grove perhaps.   

After finding the carcass, calls were made to a couple of naturalists who both confirmed that the red bellied woodpecker had likely met its fate at the beak of an owl, that the eating of the head was indeed a significant clue.

Death is often sad, especially for those who remember a certain specialness. For the shy woodpecker, we’ll miss that flash of red swooping into our little square window to the outside world, its hopping up the narrow trunk of the tree, at how nervously it looked around in a search of danger, the quick stab for a single sunflower seed, then just as quickly, the flash of red disappearing back toward a hideaway in the grove. One of those flights was its last.

All in the realm of nature.

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Through Our Windows

Making dinner around here is so much fun. We rarely layer noodles with soups from Campbell’s’, and usually have a glass of wine within reach. One of us will usually stake ourself across the room chatting with whoever has opted to cook. Often we’ll walk around the center island to glance out the big kitchen window to take in what is typically a postcard worthy view. This happened again last night with a startling sunset.

Sunset from the kitchen window.

Sunset from the kitchen window.

“Startled” might be considered a bit extreme, and “surprise” might be closer to an appropriate reaction to when we first entered this kitchen where we spend so much of our quality time. This was my reaction on first looking at two double-hung windows with blurring screens found above the kitchen sink. “If we buy the house,” I said as we began our first look around, “these windows have to go. We must have a big plate glass window in here.”

Rebecca and Steve Bruns talking in the kitchen during the remodeling phase. The double hung windows are behind Steve.

Rebecca and Steve Bruns talking in the kitchen during the remodeling phase. The double hung windows are behind Steve.

Rebecca was no stranger to the house and especially in this kitchen where she recalled having numerous meals with her friends, the previous owners. If she was taken back by my comment, she hid it well.

Roger Albright and Steve Bruns bringing the new kitchen window up to install.

Roger Albright and Steve Bruns bringing the new kitchen window up to install.

The kitchen window after installation.

The kitchen window after installation.

Windows have long been a fascination. Whether visiting an old farm house like ours, a hospital or motel room, or even a European castle, I always find myself looking through the windows to see what there is to see. You know, “If I were king I’d put a window right here” sort of thing. I’ve never understood blocking a window view with a lamp, or even curtains. This has caused a few arguments and awkward moments through the years, and usually I’ll back down on the curtains.

Moon set from kitchen window.

Moon set from kitchen window.

Windows can showcase a larger world much like a picture frame. Through the years I’ve seen some fascinating views through the windows of others. So, in our pending purchase I simply couldn’t consider having all that wood framing and grayish screens blocking such an incredible view of the wooded grove, the nearby prairie or that distant farm site, views that seemingly are varied with each sunrise and setting sun, by cloud patterns, by rain, fog and blizzardy snow. These views never tire.

Sun dog from our kitchen window.

Sun dog from our kitchen window.

This kitchen window was one of two major window decisions we would make in remodeling the house. The other was in the upstairs bathroom where there was no window at all in the East wall. We had decided rather early to completely redo that room. Along that wall was a wide vanity. A toilet was placed up against the adjoining inside wall and was in plain view of the door opening to the hallway. There was no shower nor bath. We would eventually do a complete reworking of the room by removing enough of the floor to move the toilet across the room behind the door, to install a smaller vanity and sink where the toilet originally sat, and by adding a spa bath where the old vanity had been. It while I was framing in the tub surround that I thought of adding a window, to bring in more light, and to add a view.

Removing the cut out for the bathroom window.

Removing the cut out for the bathroom window.

Tile would be added across the entire floor and as a shower surround. And in that bare wall we cut a hole to add a modest plate glass window we had hoped would give us a nice view of the prairie and nearby wetland while sitting in the bath. That, we’ve since discovered, won’t happen since neither of us have the height of a NBA basketball player. Our view from the toilet, however, has no equal!

bathroom window

Fortunately this house has many windows and wonderful views from all angles. Our front porch solarium has a surround of windows on three sides, and the large windows from our office and family room offer views from the inside out into the solarium.

My muse for the kitchen began while doing a story on the husband of a former colleague who had a stately old house on the outskirts of Maynard. When they remodeled their kitchen they replaced double hung windows with a large open window above the sink that looked out onto their grove and picturesque pond garden. Their new window transformed a rather tired and forgettable kitchen into an exciting and comfortable room, inviting you into the world beyond. The window added life to a nearly barren room, a place where you could easily imagine planting your elbows on the kitchen counter to stare at an enticing outdoor landscape. It wasn’t hard to imagine having the same effect in our new home.

Sun rise through the bathroom window.

Sun rise through the bathroom window.

As we progressed in our remodeling I found myself anxiously awaiting the removal of the double-hungs. When it finally happened I could barely contain my excitement. It was the same when we finally lifted a ladder to cut through the outside wall for the new bathroom window. I don’t know if my co-workers on the remodeling project were all initially sold on cutting through the wall for that window, but afterwards they were equally as pleased and excited. Especially when we had finished with the tiling that framed the window from the inside.

Those two windows are my favorite places in our new home, framing views worthy of the Louvre every morning and evening. We couldn’t have made better decisions, nor could we be more blessed.

River Truck

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(Luise Hille and I pose with my River Truck after kayaking on the Minnesota River. 

I can’t remember the color of my “original” River Truck. It still had some miles left in it when the heater died in the dead of winter. A repair of the heater edged the beater into what insurance adjusters call “totaled.” So I drove onto a used car lot just to see what was around.

You’ll occasionally see a car slowly meandering through a dealership as the driver rubber necks at those rows of discarded dreams. One of those was me. Nothing stood out, yet I parked and ventured inside to talk with the saleslady. This is a huge undertaking since I’ve long suffered a sense of trepidation after a car salesman at a St. Paul nightspot laughed and said people like him love it when people like me walk through the doors.

“We can spot guys like you a mile away,” he laughed, tipping his long-neck bottle against mine in a friendly gesture. “You’re easy. Guys like you we call ‘marks.’”

Unlike at the city lots, my saleslady friend has treated me with respect and fairness.

“You really, really loved that old Explorer, didn’t you?” she said, with honest concern.

Indeed. That kayak/canoe rack on the top looked and fit just right, and it was easy to lower half of the backseat down to lay out a pad and sleeping bag. A portable ice fishing shack fit easily in the back, too. Bluegill flies that drifted from the boxes weren’t blown away in that 60 mph draft. Gosh, I could go on and on about the pluses.

“Did you see that blue one out there?” she asked.

Somehow I’d passed it by.

“Just got it in. Owned by a woman banker down by Sacred Heart. She drove it to work on the bad snow days. Not a lot of miles on it. Want to take a look?”

“Does the heater work?” I asked.

It was only a year younger and had just under 50,000 on the odometer. I hadn’t realized we’d had that much snow. Mine was tickling 200,000. I’d driven all over western Minnesota, and made several trips down to the farm in Missouri. There were all those jaunts to the BWCA, too. She shot me a price. Fortunately what I’d already had transferred from savings for a decent down payment on a newer car or truck more than covered the price. For the first time ever I drove off the lot with a loan-free vehicle. Not just a vehicle, but a new River Truck! All the gauges and dashboard gizmo’s were exactly alike, and I now had a CD player. Plus, one of the mechanics had helped transfer the kayak racks and ice fishing gear.

That was a decade and some 100,000 miles ago. I still carry the kayaks up on the rack and my seasonal gear fits easily in the back. Missing is the radio antenna. The fellow at the car wash I ran it through at least annually showed me how to remove it with a crescent wrench so it wouldn’t catch in flappers, a trick that came in handy one day at an entry point near Ely. I took it off so it wouldn’t break taking the shotgun side kayak off the top, then laid it on the back bumper after it had rolled off the hood onto the ground. Must have happened a second time. That was about four years ago.

The cab doors used to be tighter, and the hatch door on the back won’t shut completely. By now I’ve replaced the shocks, tires and ball joints. The heater still works, and you can even take a snow drift at 50 without it breaking all apart like my delicate new little foreign car.

That’s the car I bought a couple years ago for better fuel economy. The fill ups actually arrive at about the same places. The kicker is that the River Truck holds just over 23 gallons of gas bone dry compared to not quite 11 for the little car. Same difference, but twice the cost for a fill up.

I was relying more and more on my little car until I tried plowing through a snow drift near the farm late last winter and tore off part of the plastic undercarriage near the bumper. My River Truck sputtered, as it does even in the heat of summer, but eventually started, and the little car was parked until the thaw.

This winter I’ve relied more heavily on my River Truck. I should have used it the other evening when I went to shoot pictures of the full moon rising over the prairie. The little car was warm and handy, plus I was just driving a mile or so down the road to an oak savanna. Unfortunately the trees were nowhere near the rising moon, so I quickly sped off down a lesser used road toward a nearby WMA. I saw the drift coming up, and frankly, it didn’t look all that solid. Darkness does that to a fellow, I guess. There wasn’t a whole lot of give to that icy, glazed-over drift. There was, however, a horrible crunching sound when I landed about 30 feet further down the gravel road. My seat belt no doubt saved a concussion. I’ll call the body shop after the melt.

After surveying the damage I realized the truth once again. Like I told Rebecca: “Should have taken the River Truck.”

Utility and a working heater help define a good River Truck. So does having dependable landing gear.

Wind Poems

What though the radiance
which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass …

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My windshield and passenger windows often offer dreamy drive-time visualizations of what a sea grass of prairie might have looked like. They say the big bluestem grew so high and thick that it wore through the toes of a horseman’s boots in a season of riding. Such landscapes, those vast seas of grasses, are no more.

Nor can you photographically capture a horizon of a wide prairie sky with a native prairie stretching toward focal infinity. More common is a foreground of 20 to 40 acre remnant with a mix of Indian grass, side oat gamma, big bluestem and seasonal forbs with a field of row-cropped acres draped across the horizon.

A friend dismisses the entirety by saying, “It is what it is.” Crops and cropland are necessary, yet so is a balance that is missing in this altered ecology that is slowly being eroded away.

I’m new at this prairie watching. Yes, it is big sky and horizon. Most days you can see the very top of a grain elevator in some rural railroad town a dozen miles in the distance. Maybe even a water tower at half that distance. A prairie also offers views that are close and personal. Yet it is a prairie without prairie, a land mass naked of its namesake.

When photographer Brian Peterson was working on his book, “Voices for the Land,” he admitted struggling to find a way to photographically define this vastness. One day he felt he had captured a sense of it not through an image of big sky and horizon, but rather in a photo of a small ant climbing the stalk of a cone flower. Yes, there is sky, along with four other cone flowers in the photograph, yet he focused on a small, intimate detail to define an undefinable landscape. Some claim it is practically impossible to accurately portray the vastness of the prairie, to portray that vastness in contrast to individual insignificance. Perhaps they’re right.

So we look at parts of the whole, at ants on cone flowers, or other symbols.

A prairie is not just defined by the grasses, but also the winds that ruffle and bend them. Ah, the wind. Curators of the area county museums can usually put their fingers on letters from the wives of sod busters describing how the wind became so unbearable, of how someone, perhaps the letter writers themselves, “had lost their mind” from the constant wail of the wind when there was so little to stop it. Especially in the dead of winter, a mind lost while huddled for warmth in sod huts and remote farm houses.

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Yes, there is that rumble and roar of blizzards, but there is also a hush when grasses rise through the snow as in defiance of that rumble and roar. My wish has been to get a feel for the prairie when winter it isn’t quiet, when raging winds whip grasses with a vengeance. Then again, to return to portray the hush.

Although we have lived on this dispatched ecosystem for 22 years, this is my first to really concentrate on the prairie in winter. Twice I’ve driven off the farm yard during wind-whipped white outs to two different restored prairie remnants, including a Wildlife Management Area (WMA), to take pictures. In the scheme of seasons, winter is supposedly a quiet time, a rest perhaps, for the prairie. In winter, green isn’t evolving through dead and dormant grasses, nor is there a punctuation of color from blooming forbs in a blanket of green, nor are the acres of golden grasses painted by the fall sun being whipped and bent by autumn winds. So in that sense, winter is the season of rest despite the turmoil of arctic winds.

On one of those forays, with the sun muted by driven snow, the grasses of the Clinton prairie yielded to the winds, yet captured enough snow to create sea-like drifts. Enough snow was being captured that you could see a depth of perhaps a hundred yards … which was impossible on adjacent tilled fields. It was a wild moment in the “rest” — a wail that could cause one to lose their mind with a long exposure, for this blow continued for two to three continuous days. Cold and continuous.

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A week or so later, on a late afternoon, the hush of both the prairie and wind had returned. There on a clear and windless day, in the captured depths of snow, in both stem and shadow, were wind poems that spoke of silent secrets.

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Perhaps if we listen closely these poems may speak an endless and epic story, one our cultures of settlers, sod busters and industrial farmers have failed to silence. If you look close enough to find wind poems, and take time to listen close enough to hear those silent secrets. Take a moment, however long, and be quiet, however silent, and  simply listen.

Mayflowers

“Ah, the Mayflower!” sighed dear friend Kylene Olson, who probably is as close to a native prairie flower expert as you can find. “This flower has been ingrained in my memory and in my family traditions since I was two years old.”

This was a new term for me, yet it made sense. She was looking at a photograph made a few years ago on a Sunburg prairie of a pasque flower. There is a hidden story here, however, and a good lesson.

mayflower1

It has to do with a recent conversation with a prairie photographer artist friend who admitted she sometimes lacked motivation, especially after nearly two decades of portraying elements within the few remnants of remaining native prairie. “How many images do I really need of big bluestem?” she asked rhetorically, smiling, while also noting that her children are now taking precedent as they reach junior high age.

Indeed. My children are reared and into lives of their own, and my life has changed significantly in the meantime. Yet, after all these years motivation is not yet an issue. I’m easy. About all it takes for inspiration is for someone to smile and tell me they have enjoyed one of my images, like Kylene has. I’ll admit, though, there are still times when I weaken and wonder, “How many images do I really need of a big bluestem?” Or, of pasque flowers, for that matter.

Last year was my first at skipping over the blooming season of this stout little harbinger of spring. I neither found, nor sought, the opportunity. Photographers and others involved in different medium of the arts often struggle to find the motivation to capture new images of an old subject.

Our work is defined by how we “capture light” in terms of subject matter and composition. We may work for weeks to pull those three adverse criteria — light, subject matter and composition — together to create a perceived image. Sometimes we’re simply lucky. In photojournalism this is called “having an eye.” Composition becomes, in Hemingway’s words, “a movable feast.” You train yourself to see and capture an image on the run. Two ends of a photographer’s spectrum, perhaps, that may sometimes work in concert.

An example: Back in June when the delicate prairie rose was in bloom I scanned the late afternoon skies searching for just the right hue for an idea that is much easier to visualize than to actually describe. On a scouting trip with Rebecca, we spied what we thought were some fine specimens in a Wildlife Management Area about ten miles southeast of our farm. Finally one evening a rich, cranberry hue seemed promised by the evolving sunset and I promptly set off with my camera, barreling down country roads toward the site. Light conditions change rapidly late in the afternoon, and especially as sunset nears, so there was an urgency.

When I rolled up and rushed toward the flowers to work with the light I realized this was an entirely different plant with blue flowers. Scouting at 50 mph is highly overrated, especially around dusk when we made the original discovery. On the trip home on this perfectly calm night, as that crimson-y hue became even more vibrant across the sky, I passed a lone white pelican fishing solo on a mirror-like wetland. My trip was not made in vane. I returned home with a very pleasing yet unexpected image — the movable feast.
September

As for the prairie rose, the idea still simmers on the proverbial back burner.

When I first discovered the plight of our vanished prairie years ago I felt an urgency for capturing such “icons” as the pasque flower, prairie smoke, lady slippers and cone flowers, among others. I’d also found my way into taking a Minnesota Master Naturalist course that included a field trip to one of the most compelling stretches of native prairie in Western Minnesota. Steve Harms, who claims title to this hilly moraine of prairie near Sunburg with his wife, Robin Freese, told us that the pasque flowers were in full bloom and had virtually laid claim to the hillsides. “This is the best we seen for many years,” he said.

At the time my focus was still more in details than horizons, and I captured an image I liked well enough to put into my next calendar. When I shared my pasque flower image this past week with Kylene, she quickly created an entirely new wave of inspiration and motivation with her response.
pasqueflower

She said, “This flower (Anemone patens, or Pulsatilla patens or Pulsatilla nuttalliana, appears to have three Latin titles) is my earliest memory of a prairie flower. My friend Laurie Denbrook recently asked, ‘Remember picking bags full of Mayflowers?’ Her sister was my best childhood girlfriend. We would pick paper bags full (before the dreaded plastic grocery bags) and walk around Watson, knock on doors (mostly the older women in town) and sell them a large handful for a nickel, every spring. We picked them ‘on the hill,’ which at the time was our horse pasture before becoming the infamous Champion Hill, noted in the not too distant past as the ‘sledding hill’ in Watson! Even after all my older sisters and I grew up and moved away and came home for Easter, it was a tradition to go to Champion Hill and search for Mayflowers. We were rarely disappointed. It seemed that no matter how early or late spring came, or how early or late Easter, Mayflowers were always blooming that weekend — amazing. Each spring my older sisters still ask if I had checked for Mayflowers.”

Added another friend, Lynn Lokken, “I grew up picking them as well. Great memories of my grandma teaching me about them. They bloom, we get snow, and they survive! In fact, we’ve done prairie burns and they pop up through that, too.”

I have no such childhood memories of pasque flowers, yet it is pleasing when an image brings pleasure and memories for others. Good fuel for motivation, I’d say.

Confessions of a Seed Order Procrastinator

I haven’t yet purchased my seeds.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking about it, studying catalogs, even filling out forms. In fact, I’ve already ordered hundreds of packets of seeds, but those were the result of a selection process by members of our local food co-op for seed rack sales. They arrived at the store a couple of days ago.

But for my own garden? I’m almost through the process of figuring out which varieties I’ll get from which company–either because one variety I really like is only available in one place, or because the number of seeds in the packet is different depending on the source. After all, 30 seeds of any one squash variety is far more than I have use for.

So, I was approaching readiness with Johnny’s, Pine Tree, Territorial, and Seed Savers (and taking into account the High Mowing and Prairie Road Organic Seed I’ve picked up at conferences), when a disruptive well-meaning friend dropped off her Baker Creek catalog, which I’d not gotten this year. Shockingly, I had not planned on trying any new tomatoes this year–as a result of the disaster that was my 2013 town house garden, leaving some of last year’s new varieties still new-to-me.

Now? Now I’ve got eight or nine more new-to-me heirlooms on the docket. So many tomato varieties, so few years to garden in a lifetime.

Not my best garden ever.

Not my best garden ever.

I’ve since sold the Clinton house, so this year all the gardens will be on the farm. Over the years of market gardening, CSA, and home gardens, I’ve learned that living in the same place you plant is the ideal situation if you can get it–though looking back it’s surprising how much I produced without that being the case.

Mixed tomatoes 2

Cherry tomatoes 2009

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In 2005, when I started CSA sales down in Southeastern South Dakota, I’d planned on renting the same plots I’d been using for market gardening out on the western edge of town. Several people had signed up (and paid) for their shares, and I was at a farming conference when I got the call from the owner of that land, saying he’d sold it for housing development.

Cue: a mad scramble for suitable garden space. I ended up in two places a few miles apart north of town (one of which was split between three other gardeners), and tried to grow every vegetable under the sun. It was a steep learning curve that first year, but I managed to fill the bags every week for 26 weeks, and the next year I dumped the one place (susceptible to both flooding and herbicide drift) and displaced the other gardeners on the second. My friend H gamely expanded the usable area every year after that, so ultimately it was divided into five gardens of varying sizes for a good rotation.

early spring garden

Spring at Flying Tomato Farms, circa 2007

I am considering getting back into market gardening this year after a few year’s hiatus, but I can’t imagine going at it like I did back then. The farmers market (and the population) here isn’t anywhere near the size of Vermillion’s (though, to be fair–Ortonville’s market is bigger now than Vermillion’s was when I started), and I’m wondering how many years it might take for me to sell a single daikon radish (there, it took 3 or 4).

Of course, back in 2005, I didn’t imagine the scale I’d be at when I left in 2010, or how game people would be to try new things. Stinging nettle, anyone? No, really, they’re delicious! And there is a lot of room out on our farm….

But first, I’d better order my seeds.