All posts by Annaka

I am a software engineer, YA fantasy writer, and gardener.

Spring Movements

It is feeling like mid-spring here.

The early red rhodie is now in full bloom.

And the native bleeding hearts are getting started.

I saw my first bat yesterday evening, although I haven’t been keeping an eye out, so they may have been here for a while.

I went out to listen to the spring chorus a few times last week. Here’s who’s around (seen or heard):

  • Anna’s Hummingbird
  • Barred Owl
  • Brown Creeper
  • Chickadee, Chestnut-backed
  • Cooper’s Hawk
  • Crow, American
  • Dove, Mourning
  • (Finch, Purple)
  • Junco, Dark-eyed
  • Kinglet, Golden-crowned
  • Kinglet, Ruby-crowned
  • Mallard
  • Nuthatch, Red-breasted
  • Pine Siskin
  • Raven, Common
  • Robin
  • (Sparrow, Chipping)
  • Sparrow, Song
  • Sparrow, White-crowned
  • Stellar’s Jay
  • Towhee, Spotted
  • Varied Thrush
  • Wood Duck
  • Woodpecker, Pileated
  • Wren, Pacific

    I was surprised not to hear any black-capped chickadees. Maybe they migrate, and I just never noticed, since the chestnut-backed are around all year?

    It will be interesting to see who shows up in the next few weeks!

  • Spring is Springing!

    Spring is off to a bounding and early start here.

    Pacific Trillium. These native beauties were photographed at Cougar Mountain park in Renton 3/30

    Based on my photo rolls, everything is running 1-3 weeks earlier than usual.

    Earliest red rhodie at our home. Taken 3/30.

    Our early big red started opening a week ago, and is now in full bloom.

    Big red, 4/6/24

    Last year, it was at a comparable bloom point 4/22.

    I admit I’m enjoying the warmer weather, even as I worry about this summer.

    Rob helped me set up a new nursery area in some excess driveway space. I’ve been busily up-potting a lot of the native trees and shrubs that we’re growing on.

    A lot of them will go in the ground this fall.

    I have a lot of native seeds in the “wait and see” stage. They require both stratification and patience!

    Fortunately, I also have garden friendlies like signet marigolds to give me instant gratification in the meantime 🙂

    I grew them for the first time last year, and thought them utterly adorable, so I’m doubling down this year!

    I’m growing seeds from this beauty, some compact orange signet marigolds, and some burgundy signet marigolds. I have no idea how true they’ll come from seed, but only one way to find out!

    More Frost Flowers, iPhone

    We had the correct conditions for frost flowers (hair ice) two days last week: overnight Tuesday (with pictures Wednesday morning) and overnight Wednesday (with pictures Thursday morning).

    This sort of clustering is common, because the clear day/cold snap (for us!) conditions required for frost flowers tend to cluster.

    Olympia, March 7 2024, iPhone 15 pro

    Yesterday I talked a bit about the conditions that allow frost flowers and hair ice to “grow”; today I want to talk a little bit about photographing frost flowers, with a focus on my latest experience with the iPhone 15.

    Olympia, March 7 2024, iPhone 15 pro

    I have been photographing frost flowers for a few years now. I saw my first frost flowers on a cold morning along the Elwha river in 2015. The following winter, I discovered them growing in our home woods in Port Angeles.

    Elwha River frost flower, 2015, photographed with an iPhone 5

    When we moved to Olympia, I was delighted to discover that our local woods “grew” frost flowers even more frequently than our Port Angeles woods. Since moving, I have been photographing frost flowers happily with an iPhone 10, sometimes in combination with a hand lens.

    Olympia Frost Flower, January 2022, photographed with an iPhone 10

    I was able to get some great frost flower pictures with my iPhone 10, and was generally delighted with its macro quality. However, it did tend to lose detail when there was any degree of light; it would all just go to white (as in the top of this picture).

    When I got my iPhone 15 pro a couple weeks ago, I was initially extremely excited about its macro potential. However, a couple experiments with flowers had me concerned. This flush of frost flowers was my first opportunity to try my new camera (phone) with one of my favorite subjects.

    Olympia, March 7 2024, iPhone 15 pro

    Overall, I’m very pleased with the results. The macro setting did not have the same issue it did with flowers. I think the flowers failed because the sensors got confused about what to focus on; with the frost flowers, it was a larger field of focus, so it didn’t get confused.

    Olympia, March 7 2024, iPhone 15 pro

    The macro setting allows me to focus close-in at least as well as the iPhone 10 plus hand lens, which is lovely. They have also done some fancy footwork to take care of the whiteout issue that I often had with the iPhone 10. Each strand really stands out.

    Olympia, March 7 2024, iPhone 15 pro

    Is it hands-down better than the iPhone 10?

    Well… no. I love that it captures all the detail, and makes it easier to see the individual strands. But I think its focus has some issues, and everything winds up looking super crystalline (partly as a result of the lighting fancy-footwork). The pictures lose some of the satiny quality of the frost flowers.

    Olympia, March 7 2024, iPhone 15 pro

    I feel like the best of my iPhone 10 photos were better than my iPhone 15 photos, but the conditions had to be just right. With the iPhone 15, I can easily capture the wonderful detail of the frost flowers, but the feel is a little different. And it can capture frost flowers that would have just been a mass of white in the iPhone 10, such as this candy-floss type.

    Olympia, March 7 2024, iPhone 15 pro

    Anyway, I’m generally pleased, but I really hope Apple fixes the macro focus issues before (botanical) flower season is here in earnest!

    Late Frost Flowers

    We’re lucky enough to live in a region that usually gets frost flowers (hair ice) several times each winter. This winter was weird, though — too warm, and then too cold, and then too warm — so I was starting to wonder whether we would get any really good frost formations.

    We got a few, early, back in November, but we hadn’t had any truly good blooms.

    Finally, on the morning of March 6th, we got a very good bloom! It was clear, and hit around 28F, which is perfect for “growing” frost flowers/hair ice.

    Please note that the general frost flower commentary below is taken from this post from a couple years ago. All the photos are new.

    Frost flowers (hair ice) form when there are sodden sticks that dip below freezing overnight. Around here, the sweet spot is ~28-31 F. It needs to be cold enough to produce frost, but not so cold as to freeze the stick solid.

    The ice forms on the surface of the stick, and is extruded as it freezes to form “hair” which can take beautiful forms that look like silvery locks or silvery flowers.

    There is a fungal association with Exidiopsis effusa. Around here, there is also a clear preference for alder twigs and branches. I’m not sure whether that’s what the fungus prefers, or whether the wood somehow favors frost flower formation.

    Frost flower and hair ice are two terms used semi-interchangeably. As far as I can tell, the distinction is mostly based on the type of formation. If it’s a burst formation (e.g. from the end of a stick), it’s a frost flower. If it looks like hair growing out of the middle of a stick, it’s hair ice. Even though most of what we get is probably more hair ice than frost flowers, I like the latter term better 🙂

    Frost flowers and hair ice are relatively rare worldwide. They require specific conditions to “grow”. In climates with cold winters, you might be lucky enough to see a few in the autumns. 

    Here in the Puget Sound area, the winters are mild and tend to only dip below freezing occasionally. We also have an abundance of alders. That gives us the ideal conditions for hair ice and frost flowers.

    To see them, go out on a cold morning and check any local alder groves. They tend to be more common at the edges of alder groves, where the sticks are a bit more exposed… but that depends on the temperature range. On a very cold morning (25-28F) there may be such formations deeper in the woods.

    They are most common on mid-sized twigs and branches (~1/2-2″ diameter), but occasionally they grow on larger or smaller branches.

    Joshua Tree

    We just got back from a lovely little trip to Joshua Tree and San Diego.

    Joshua Tree is named for the Yucca brevifolia plants that are common in the northern plains of the park, but rare in general. They are amazing tree-form yuccas that can live for decades or centuries!

    A Joshua Tree against an eroded granite island at a picnic area in Joshua Tree National Park

    I didn’t know quite what to expect from the park, other than an interesting desert environment. I didn’t expect all the beautiful eroded granite outcroppings! The are often so pillowy that I mistook them for sandstone, until I got a closer look.

    Eroded granite formations on the Split Rock trail

    The two key features of the northern part of the park — Joshua trees and granite formations — are nearly mutually exclusive. Although the occasional Joshua Tree grows near the rocks, as in the first picture, the Joshua Trees prefer the wide prairie areas. In the rocky areas, they are mostly replaced by regular yucca, bear grass, pinyon pines, juniper, and little scrub oaks.

    A massive granite boulder, the size of a house, is graded by the neighboring rocks that made up part of the same crag before erosion broke them up. The yucca, creosote bushes, and juniper in the foreground are common in the shallow soils surrounding the crags.

    We happened to do two of the most dramatic hikes right off the bat.

    Hidden Valley is a short but splendid introduction to the granite formations. Apparently it gets very busy; we were lucky enough to go first thing, so there were very few people. The trail twists and winds among a series of granite crags and valleys, so it does a good job of keeping hikers separated out. And it’s gorgeous!

    This eroded granite crag with bear grass and a twisty dead tree is midway through the Hidden Valley hike. The eroded crag in the background gives a sense of the layers of rock that are a feature throughout the hike.

    The Split Rock trail is a longer hike. It has lots of amazing views, they just aren’t quite as concentrated as on the Hidden Valley hike — but it also isn’t as busy. A lot of people come and take a picture of Split Rock, which is right by the parking lot, and then leave without doing the hike.

    Split rock. This cracked boulder is the size of a small house!

    In addition to the longer hikes, there are some short walks that are spectacular introductions to the rock formations. We visited Hall of Horrors on the second day. It isn’t listed as a hike at all, because it is primarily a climbing area (Joshua Tree is a world-class climbing destination).

    Because it’s a climbing area, you can really explore the rocky crags.

    One of the rocky crags at Hall of Horrors, from the back. Note presence of Rob for scale.

    On the second day, we made a point to get a better look at the Joshua Tree prairie area. There are several opportunities for this; we walked the first mile or two of Big Tree trail from Ryan Campground.

    Gestural Joshua Tree with Joshua Tree plains in the background

    It’s hard to date Joshua Trees, because they’re succulents, but the big ones like these are probably well over 100 years old. However, you won’t see many bigger than these — they seem to max out at around 20 feet, before gravity starts breaking them to pieces.

    On our last day, we drove south through the park, taking the scenic route back towards San Diego. The road drops rather precipitously from the Mojave Desert area into the Colorado Desert area.

    The Cholla Garden gave a neat glimpse into one aspect of Colorado Desert flora. It would be a real treat to see it in bloom!

    These cholla cacti varied from knee high to head high. The little yellow clusters looked like flowers. I’m not sure whether they are young fruit, or early-stage buds.

    I’ll close out with this sunrise shot. It was actually taken in Joshua Tree town, a few miles from the Joshua Tree NP gate. The town is full of the unique yuccas; it’s fun to see them integrated into people’s yards and gardens.

    Sunrise in Joshua Tree town

    I would highly recommend Joshua Tree to anyone who likes dramatic scenery and/or interesting plants. It was very pleasant visiting mid-winter, but it would be amazing seeing the desert in bloom!

    Early Frost Flowers

    We got our first frost flowers (hair ice) of the year on Friday. It is rare for us to get them before December: it requires a very specific combination of sodden sticks and cold.

    These frost formations grow from alder sticks. The fine strands extrude from the stick as the surface freezes, so they truly do grow in a very similar way to hair.

    I waffle between “frost flower” and “hair ice”; my current understanding is that the terms are semi interchangeable, and are more based on the type of formation than the actual process.

    I admit I find “frost flower” a very appealing term, but this photo is definitely more on the “hair ice” part of the formation spectrum!

    I periodically do posts of frost flowers/hair ice, since we’re fortunate enough to get them a few times each winter. Check for tags “hair ice” or “frost flowers” to find them!

    Planting Notes: Giant Red Indian Paintbrush from Seed

    I tried growing a bunch of PNW native seeds in 2022-23. I got the seeds from Inside Passage.

    I had good success with Castilleja miniata (giant red Indian paintbrush).

    My basic protocol was to fill a sterilized 4″ pot with a soil-free mixture of 2 parts coir, 1 part perlite, 1 part vermiculite. I then planted the seeds and put the pots outside under a hardware cloth cover to get scarification over the winter.

    Based on the UW native plant protocols (available to the public here: https://jbakker.shinyapps.io/Protocols/ ), I planted the seeds on the surface and sprinkled a light layer of perlite on top.

    Note that you should be able to do scarification in the refrigerator; I’ll be experimenting more with that in the 2023-24 season. For my first attempt, I wanted to keep everything as “natural” as possible.

    When I checked my native seed pots in mid February, I had some sprouts starting! At around this time, I brought the pots in and put them under grow lights in the garage (about 50F).

    By 3/7 they had 2-4 true leaves, and I split them into multiple 2 and 4″ pots (scooping out small clumps of seedlings with a fork and transferring them as intact as possible), and added native yarrow seeds.

    Most paintbrush species are hemiparasitic: they can do their own photosynthesis, but they get a boost from their neighbors. I had encountered a reference indicating that they could be grown with native yarrow, which is convenient because yarrow is an extremely fast sprouter.

    The yarrow sprouted in less than a week, and they really started to take off.

    2″ pots of Paintbrush seedlings surrounded by host yarrow, 1 month after yarrow seeds were added.

    I up-potted into 4″ and gallon pots over the next two months. I moved them back outside sometime in April, probably late April.

    I got my first bloom at the beginning of June!

    This was a lovely surprise, because I had thought that I would have to wait until the next year to get any blooms.

    As it turned out, most of the Paintbrush plants wound up blooming, probably because of the boost they got from their time under grow lights through early spring.

    Another unexpected and pleasant surprise was how long the flowers lasted. That initial flower was still going strong 3 weeks later. I think it lasted a good month.

    The other paintbrush plants started blooming in late July.

    Some paintbrush plants are biennial, some are perennial. I think these are perennial, so I will plant them out in a meadow area this autumn, and hope they come back next year.

    One more planting note: these are listed as full sun, but we really don’t have full sun available; the best I could do was 6 hours of direct sun, with shade the rest of the day.

    That probably wasn’t optimal, but it was enough to get blooming plants!

    Let me know if you have questions! If you decide to give them a try, good luck!

    Beaver!

    Our lot is bordered by a creek on one side.

    It’s a good creek, year-round, but at this time of year it is made up of pools connected by a trickle of water. It’s a good time to put out the game cam, and see who’s around.

    We knew we would see raccoons and coyotes; what we did not expect to see was a beaver!

    T86

    We knew that the creek had beavers — an old map of the creek marks a beaver dam farther upstream, and a couple years ago a beaver came up a seasonal offshoot in March and took out a few aspen seedlings and a bunch of ferns.

    That was a thrill (once we got over the aspens), but the creek was running high, and beavers can come quite a ways when there is water.

    There is not currently much water… the photo above is taken from the middle of the creek bed.

    We’re not sure where the beavers are living, but it can’t be very far. We adjusted the position of the game cam the next night, and got a number of good shots of the beaver hauling salmonberries home for the winter.

    T86

    Yesterday, we discovered that the beaver had moved on to larger prey.

    It took out not one, but two, 10-20 year old Big Leaf Maples.

    They were nice trees, but in a somewhat awkward place, so we weren’t broken-hearted, but we’ll be doing a review of other trees close to the creek.

    I might also don waders and go down the creek a bit, see whether I can find the den. Given how hard it’s foraging in our backyard, it can’t be coming that far!

    Stay tuned!

    Garden Update

    We’re about halfway through the summer, so I can see what’s working well and what… not so much.

    I think my attempt to keep the jungle of Ozette potatoes more balanced has been successful. I really like the signet marigolds tucked around the edge, along with feverfew and breadseed poppies.

    I also planted cosmos in the middle. Those are just starting to bloom, and may not be tall enough — even though I’m trimming the potatoes this year!

    Left to their own devices, Ozettes grow 6′ tall and tip over (at least for me).

    So far, pruning the vines has been pretty effective, but I need to keep on it.

    Rob’s garden is looking nice: borage and hollyhocks, with Larkspur just starting.

    Next year, I may try some hollyhocks at the backs of my potato beds. They’re so colorful!

    Normally, the deer eat them, but Rob got some blood-based spray that has been doing wonders at keeping the deer away.

    Finally, my pots! Some of these are native trees and shrubs that we’re growing out for another year; others are flowers and herbs, some of which I may tuck around the garden.

    I’ll be experimenting more with potted plants in the garden. It seems like a good way of keeping the color and balance through the season (quite a challenge, if you rely on in-ground plants!).

    Bees in Summer

    The bumblebees are enjoying the mid-summer garden, and I’m enjoying the bees! Here’s a lovely bumblebee on a hollyhock.

    And here’s a bumblebee on toadflax.

    And here’s a bumblebee on oregano. Can you see the flecks of pollen?

    But the borage is king! It’s very peaceful sitting by the borage and watching the girls forage.

    Borage can get looking a little odd later in the summer, but I always keep it going as long as possible. The bees love it so, and the little birds eat the seeds.