Lizzie and a Prairie Skink (Plestiodon septentrionalis)

Prairie Skinks (Plestiodon septentrionalis) have been making our yard their home for many years. I often see then near a block retaining wall next to our patio. I suspect they like the many nooks and crannies the retaining wall blocks offer them.

A Prairie Skink (Plestiodon septentrionalis) on our retaining wall.
A Prairie Skink (Plestiodon septentrionalis) hanging out on our retaining wall.

Lizzie has been vaguely aware of them because she notices them moving through the yard but until recently hadn’t had opportunity to investigate them. The other day, a skink hung out on the retaining wall long enough for us to take photos of it and for Lizzie to sniff it.

A Prairie Skink (Plestiodon septentrionalis) on our retaining wall.
A Prairie Skink (Plestiodon septentrionalis) hanging out on our retaining wall.

She was curious but with gentle encouragement we taught her to leave it alone. She eventually lost interest, probably because it wasn’t furry and didn’t squeak like a rodent.

A Prairie Skink (Plestiodon septentrionalis) on our retaining wall.
A Prairie Skink (Plestiodon septentrionalis) hanging out on our retaining wall.

Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos)

Unbeknownst to us, a mallard pair (Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) built a nest in our yard and laid eggs in it. We discovered it by chance when Lizzie accidentally scared up the hen while playing in the yard. On the second occasion of that, when I investigated, I found a nest with six eggs in it.

Six mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) eggs in a nest
Six mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) eggs in a nest.

I placed recently dropped tree branches around the nest to dissuade Lizzie from wandering over to the nest. Lizzie has no interest in birds so I was not concerned she would pester the nest but I wanted to keep her away from the nest so as to reduce stress on the hen.

Unfortunately, two week later, the eggs were destroyed. I suspect raccoons (Procyon lotor) found the nest and ate the eggs.

Three destroyed Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) eggs.
Three Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) eggs, possibly eaten by raccoons (Procyon lotor).

Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes

From a post on Mastodon by Catherine, I was introduced to “Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes”. Catherine’s comments intrigued me such that I found the book to read.

I’m only part way into the first chapter but there is a lot to unpack! As I currently understand the message in the book, we can create resilient landscapes using both native and non-native species. That is, the landscapes do not have to be composed of exclusively native species of plants. I admit to leaning toward the former line of thinking but I have also allowed myself to believe that the only correct environment is one that contains only native plants.

The authors have stated that what matters is the density of plants in an environment and how self-sustaining the plant community is. By self-sustaining, they mean a community of plants that does not need continuous weeding, fertilizing, or watering. Density is a question of “is every niche occupied?”

Creeping Charlie (Glechoma hederacea) is an introduced plant to North America. Many people consider it a nuisance weed. I’ve had a mixed relationship with it. I recognize that it is viewed as a weed by many people but I also recognize its value to bees because it is one of the first flowering plants in our yard. I’ve spent countless hours pulling creeping charlie from gardens in an endless effort to keep it under control.

After partially reading the first chapter in “Planting in a Post-Wild World:”, I now know I am approaching the situation from the wrong angle.

I don’t need to be concerned about creeping charlie because it is not a displacer in our yard. It doesn’t survive in the dense parts of the yard. There is no creeping charlie anywhere in our yard except in the turf grass areas and planted gardens residing in full sun. The native wildflowers, which grow thick and dense in the rest of the yard, crowd out the creeping charlie.

My new approach to creeping charlie will to let it grow in the turf grass while focusing on crowding it out in the sparsely planted gardens on the periphery of the turf grass lawn.

Emerald Ash Borer

Emerald ash borer has killed all of my ash trees.

Emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis) was discovered in Minnesota in 2009. Ever since, it has been expanding its area. Emerald ash borer is an invasive species of beetle that is a highly destructive pest of ash (Fraxinus) trees.

In 2017, Emerald ash borer was discovered about a mile from our property and more extensive infestations where found in 2019. I considered having our ash trees removed at that time but I had other more pressing concerns when the COVID pandemic hit in 2020. With the assistance of the resident woodpeckers, I made positive identification of Emerald ash borer infestations in our ash trees this spring (May 2022) but I had already had suspicions the previous fall.

We have an acre of land with 15-20 ash trees, all of which are infested and dying or are already dead. I requested estimates from several tree removal companies. I chose Davey Tree in South St Paul who will remove the ash trees in January.

Fortunately, only two ash trees are near our house. Neither provides significant shade on the house in the summer, so their loss will be minimal. The other remaining ash trees are clustered on south end of our property. They are largely screened from view by maple trees. However, their loss will be felt because the shaded they provided kept the common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) at bay. I foresee increased effort upon my part to remove buckthorn from our property.

I’ll replace the two ash trees near the house with Kentucky coffeetrees (Gymnocladus dioicus) and the other ash trees with a mix of black walnut (Juglans nigra) and black cherry (Prunus serotina) trees. Black walnut will do well as I am frequently removing saplings from inopportune locations, most likely planted there by the resident gray squirrels. And there are numerous Kentucky coffeetrees in a county park located a few miles away. I was unable to find any black cherry trees while taking Lizzie for a walk through the neighborhood in search of them. I believe I have seen them around, I just don’t remember where I saw them. An article in Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, published by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), states that Minnesota is becoming more suitable for black cherry due to climate change.

I’m grateful none of our oak trees are impacted by pests or diseases. Oak trees provide all of the summer time shade on our house, keeping it significantly cooler during the summer. There is a noticeable difference in temperature between the unshaded and shaded portions of the front yard. On hot summer days, the unshaded portion is 10℉ warmer than the shaded portion. I’ve been keeping a close watch on our oak trees and have been diligently watering them during the drought we have been experiencing for the last two years. Our neighbors have an oak in their back yard that was killed by oak wilt. I intend on contacting Davey Tree to inquire with them what preventative steps I can take to protect our oak trees. I don’t want to lose them.

Nocturnal Critters and Bugs

There is an interesting phenomenon where someone installs a security camera for the first time. A week later, they are alarmed to discover that people are walking through their yard at night and at 1 am every morning a cat sits on the back steps of their house. They post videos to the Nextdoor and Neighbors apps, inquiring about the errant trespassers. Unbeknownst to them, people have been walking through their yard for years because it is a convenient route to get from the basketball court in the city park to the nearest bus stop. And the cat, well, it lives three doors down at the Hendersons and visits every house in the neighborhood.

Most people are unaware of what is going on around them at night because they have their windows closed tight and are night-blinded and night-deafened by their TVs, laptops, or phones. Twenty or so years ago, after our house was burgled for the first time, I approached our neighbors, who we were already on good terms with, about the event. I learned from them that a lot goes on at night when we are sleeping or when we are away from our homes. I learned it was worthwhile for me to keep in contact with them and to pay attention to the comings and goings of people, particularly when we were asleep or away at work or on a trip.

I have several cameras located around our property. I use them because I am curious about what goes on when I am not present to observe. Below are a few videos from those cameras. None involve criminal activity, thankfully, and, instead, feature various animals and bugs.


A raccoon (Procyon lotor) using a tree to climb down from our fence. I’m always impressed with the climbing ability of raccoons.


A centipede (Chilopoda) crawling on the wall next to a camera in our garage.


A spider traversing its web.


A mouse exploring in the garage. This mouse could be the non-native house mouse (Mus musculus), native western harvest mouse (Reithrodontomys megalotis), or even a native eastern deer mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus). While I think mice are cute, I’m not sufficiently interested to positively identify them. Besides, by the time I can examine them, Lizzie has mangled them.

Flowerpot Riparium continued

None of my aquarium projects ever proceed with any swiftness. After I assembled everything, I partially filled the flowerpot with water. After a week with no leakage, I added more water. I kept adding water every week until the pot was filled to the level I wanted it at. Then it sprang a leak!

I was in the work room in our basement when I felt water dripping on me. Looking up, I saw water dripping from an electric wire strung through the joists of the floor above me. I ran upstairs to discover a puddle of water under the flowerpot. After four weeks of leak testing, the flowerpot had sprung a leak. This necessitated another delay since I had to empty the flowerpot, let it thoroughly dry, and then seal the leak.

Finally, after leak testing for another month, I was ready to add the plants. By this time, however, the upright philodendron (Thaumatophyllum) had grown quite a bit which required me to trim it down so it would fit in its flowerpot.

Riparium with upright philodendron and duckweed
Riparium with upright philodendron and duckweed

After four months in the riparium, the philodendron doing well as is the duckweed (Lemna minor).

Riparium with upright philodendron and duckweed
Riparium with upright philodendron and duckweed

I have this in our dining room which does not get enough light for plants to grow well. For additional light, I am using an Intpro LED light inside a basket. I couldn’t find a lampshade that would fit over the LED light so I resorted to using a basket. It is almost too heavy for the lamp stand, so I placed a brick on the lamp stand base to keep it from tipping over. I have the lamp plugged into a ESP8285 smart plug that I flashed with Tasmota. The smart plug is connected to Apple Homekit via Homebridge I have running on a Raspberry Pi. This allows me to set a schedule for the light while also allowing us to turn the light on/off from our iPhones. Low tech with high tech.

All that is left to do is add guppies (Poecilia reticulata). When I checked the water last week, there was no detectable ammonia or nitrite but the nitrate was at 80 ppm. Water hardness and pH were right where I want them to be. Once the nitrate level drops to 40 ppm or less, I’ll add guppies.

Flowerpot Riparium

My plans for a paludarium have been set aside until I find a 40-gallon long aquarium. However, while perusing Tanner Serpa’s YouTube SerpaDesign channel, I found a project idea I could immediately undertake – a planter-based riparium.

A riparium is a vivarium that incorporates both terrestrial and aquatic elements. If that sounds like a paludarium, don’t be surprised because they are similar. The key difference is the ratio of terrestrial-to-aquatic elements. A paludarium has enough terrestrial elements to support semi-aquatic animals whereas a riparium has almost none, being able to support only aquatic animals.

A large, glazed clay flowerpot
A large, glazed clay flowerpot

My father-in-law had gifted a beautiful large, glazed flowerpot to me that was ideal as the container for the riparium. I had most of everything else I needed but, to begin the project, I visited the local Ace Hardware store and local fish store to purchase the remaining items.

A clay flowerpot
An unprepared clay flowerpot

The first order of business was preparing two clay pots. I used a hole saw suitable for masonrary to cut several holes in both pots. One pot will contain the featured plant while the other will be a base for primary pot. In the pot intended to contain the plant, I covered the holes with 1-mm plastic mesh to contain the substrate while allowing roots to grow through it into the water column. The outgrowth of roots into the water column will be essential towards maintaining water quality, as they will clear the water of ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates.

Two clay flowerpots
Two clay flowerpots with holes cut into them.
Two clay flowerpots
Two clay flowerpots with holes cut into them.
A clay flowerpot
A clay flowerpot with the holes covered by 1-mm plastic mesh.

As did Tanner Serpa, I will be using an upright philodendron (Thaumatophyllum) as the featured plant. Because I already had an upright philodrendon, my plan was to propagate it by take a cutting from it. After failing to propagate it after several months of effort, I resorted to buying another upright philodendron at a local greenhouse. This is the first time I’ve failed to propagate a plant by cutting.

To be continued…

The First Planted Aquariums

The Story

I don’t know how I got started with planted aquariums but it was a result of my researching the environmental conditions for keeping bettas. I learned they preferred warm, slow moving water with plants that offered places to hide and rest. I found information on low-tech planted, AKA Walsted, aquariums and decided that it was more my style of project. Our friend Linda, who got me started with fish keeping, gave me a 20-gallon long aquarium.

We repurposed a nightstand as an aquarium stand, placed the new aquarium in our living room, and built a new, planted aquarium. I purchased an organic potting soil from Home Depot for use as a substrate, purchased a bunch of plants from the local Petco store and World of Fish (located in Richfield, MN). I used the heater and HOB filter from our previous betta aquarium.

For the first time, I began performing water tests. Much to my joy, once the aquarium had cycled, the ammonia and nitrite levels were undetectable, that is 0 ppm. The nitrate levels were measurable but low, measuring between 10 and 40 ppm. pH levels were generally around 7.5, varying with time of day, which I learned was to expected with planted aquariums.

After the aquarium was stable, we introduced a betta, several shrimp, a couple nerite snails and a mystery snail.

That first aquarium functioned well for a year and half before it crashed. The snails died as well as the shrimp. Soon the lush plant scape thinned and algae took over. Water tests showed the pH, GH (general hardness), and KH (carbonate hardness) levels were rising. I performed extensive water changes and added new plants but to no avail. After about a year and a half, the betta died. I pulled the plug on the heater and filter and began planning for a new setup.

For the second iteration of the planted aquarium, I again used organic potting soil purchased from Home Depot. I had learned that the natural environment of bettas had soft, low pH waters, so I used distilled water to reduce the pH, GH, and KH levels. Unfortunately, I learned that not all organic potting soils are the same.

Because I had used up the previous bag of organic soil on other projects, I had to buy more soil. Not remembering what the previous brand was, I bought what looked to be suitable. To my eventual dismay, I learned this soil was very high in carbonates. Despite always using distilled water, I could never get the pH and KH down. The KH levels were at the upper limit of what my test kit could measure and the pH level was in the high 8’s. After a frustrating short year of fighting perpetual algae blooms, the tank again crashed and our third betta died.

While researching the issues with the second planted tank, I learned that high pH levels are conducive to algae growth and that high KH levels buffer pH, making it difficult to bring it down. Asking on reddit for suggestions, I learned of ADA Amazonia substrate, which provides a naturally low pH and KH environment. However, this was about 6 months into the COVID pandemic with its disruptions of supply chains. None of the local fish stores had ADA Amazonia nor could I get it online.

Eventually, the second aquarium gave up the ghost and I was left with a dead aquarium. By this time, it was 18 months into the COVID pandemic and the supply chains had sort of unkinked themselves. I found an online seller who had ADA Amazonia in stock and bought a 9L bag of version 2 to of ADA’s Amazonia soil.

I dumped the contents of the dead, second aquarium in the backyard and began setting up the third planted aquarium. For the base, I used pea gravel left over from a previous aquarium project and layered the Amazonia soil on top of it. I added plants I purchased from the local Petco store, chola wood and other items from the previous tank, and the already cycled filter media from the HOB filter from the previous aquarium.

Despite starting out with media and items from an already cycled aquarium, it took longer than I expected to cycle the new aquarium. The ADA Amazonia soil came with fertilizer tabs that contributed to the elevated ammonia and then nitrite levels. The ammonia and nitrite levels dropped to 0 ppm after three weeks but the nitrate levels continue to remain at 80 ppm after six weeks of cycling.

Despite higher nitrate levels and slow plant growth, I added a Betta, two Otocinclus (Oto) catfish, and three Neritina natalensis (Nerite) snails.The nerites and otos seem happy. They tore through the algae that was growing on the aquarium decorations and items I brought over from the previous planted aquarium.

So far, the water parameters have been low: low pH (<5) and low dGH and dKH (~3.5) with total dissolved solids (TDS) at 190. For reference, the TDS on the previous aquarium was at the upper limit of my meter.

What I Learned

Algae prefers high pH levels (8+). Plants do well with lower pH levels (<7).

KH (carbonate hardness) buffers pH, that is, high KH levels maintain pH levels regardless of how much pH-down conditioner you add.

Choice of substrate matters. And not all organic potting soil is equivalent.

Next Up

Next up is a 40-gallon long paludarium, a type of vivarium that incorporates both terrestrial and aquatic elements, that can host a school of fish along with a Betta. I am hoping to have a school of 10-12 Boraras, along with a few Otocinclus catfish and Malaysian trumpet snails. I plan on using ADA Amazonia soil as the substrate along with aquatic plants such as Hygrophila corymbosa, Pogostemon helferi, and Rotala rotundifolia, all which are native to southeast Asia. I’m hoping to create a beautiful aquarium that replicates the biotope that wild bettas and boraras inhabit.

When I ask about these topics on reddit, I often receive a “don’t worry about it, bettas can tolerate a wide range of conditions” response. I’m not worrying about it. I’m exploring and learning. The next project will be a learning project. I’m looking forward to it.

The First Aquariums

The Story

I got started with keeping fish in aquariums about a decade ago when our friend Linda helped me set up a 25 gallon tall aquarium that I stocked with a pair of comet goldfish. I used a HOB filter, a heater, and a Tetra air pump that connected to a sunken treasure chest bubbler. I decorated the aquarium with colorful blue gravel and a few other colorful decorations.

I performed partial water changes every weekend, using a gravel aquarium siphon to clean up after those messy fish. The aquarium was located in a window between the kitchen and our living room. It was located right above the kitchen sink, which made it easy to perform water changes.

At night, the aquarium added a pleasing ambience to our living room. During our annual Tiki parties, I would hang light blocking curtains on the kitchen side to block the light coming from the kitchen and then turn down the lights in the living room. It greatly enhanced the Tiki aspect of our living room.

When we were in the kitchen, either preparing food or cleaning dishes, the goldfish would watch us. We rewarded them with food so they were always eager to engage us when we were in the kitchen.

I replaced the comets with shubunkin goldfish when the comets died and eventually added a fancy tail goldfish. At some point, Kat became interested in bettas, so we bought a (too) small aquarium and put a betta in it. Kat was diligent about cleaning it every week. Initially it appeared happy in its home but as summer gave way to fall and fall gave way to winter, our house would become colder and colder at night. We would wake in the morning to find a very sluggish betta.

Being concerned for the betta, we researched what bettas needed for environmental conditions. To our dismay, we learned that what we were providing was inadequate. To provide a warmer environment, we added an in-aquarium container that we placed in the goldfish aquarium. While it was warmer, the betta was not happy with the constant water movement. We eventually bought a 10 gallon tank to which we added a small heater and a low flow HOB filter. The betta was much happier in that and lived for another 3.5 years.

What put an end to the goldfish and betta aquariums was a complete remodel of our kitchen. We removed and closed off the window and rearranged the kitchen. It is so much better than before but there was no longer a good location for an aquarium in the kitchen.

What I Learned

Not all fish are as easy to care for as care-free comet and shubunkin goldfish.

Up Next

Planted, low tech aquariums.

Visitors at the Bird Bath

During the drought this year, to assist the various animals that make our yard their home, I placed a bird bath at the bottom of our hill, in the wooded part of the yard. To learn what animals were using the bird bath, I placed a trail cam on a nearby tree to record the activity at the bird bath. Below are some of images recorded by the trail cam.

American Robin (Turdus migratorius)

Robins were frequent visitors to the bird bath. Sometimes, families of 3-4 robins would take turns bathing in the bird bath.

A picture of an American Robin (Turdus migratorius) perched on a bird bath
An American Robin (Turdus migratorius) perched on the bird bath.

Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)

A picture of a Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) on the edge of a bird bath.
A Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) on the edge of a bird bath.

Prior to seeing the following image, I had not seen a Blue Jay bathe in a bird bath despite having multiple bird baths for years.

A picture of a wet Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)
A Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) wet after taking a bath.

Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

A picture of a Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)
A Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)
A picture of a pair of Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) at the bird bath.
A pair of Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) at the bird bath.

American goldfinch (Spinus tristis)

A picture of an American goldfinch (Spinus tristis) on a bird bath
An American goldfinch (Spinus tristis).

American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos)

After I saw the following picture, I knew why I occasionally found partially consumed animal carcasses in the bird bath. Crows were using it to clean their food.

A picture of an American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) cleaning its food in a bird bath
An American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) cleaning its food in a bird bath.
A picture of a muster of American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos)
A muster of American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) with three on the bird bath and two in the trees.

Hairy Woodpecker (Leuconotopicus villosus)

A Hairy Woodpecker would frequently visit nearby trees but never visited the bird bath.

A picture of a Hairy Woodpecker (Leuconotopicus villosus) on a tree
A Hairy Woodpecker (Leuconotopicus villosus) on a nearby tree.

Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)

A picture of an Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) visiting the bird bath.
An Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) visiting the bird bath.

One apparently tired Gray Squirrel rested on the bird bath.

A picture of an Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) lounging on the bird bath.
An Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) lounging on the bird bath.

American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus)

A picture of an American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) visiting the bird bath
An American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus)
A picture of an American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) drinking from the bird bath
An American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) drinking from the bird bath.


The bird bath even had visitors at night. The camera recorded several images of mice visiting the bird bath at night.

A picture of a mouse drinking from the bird bath
A mouse drinking from the bird bath.

Raccoon (Procyon lotor)

A pair of raccoons were recorded walking past the bird bath but they apparently had no interest in it.

A picture of a Raccoon (Procyon lotor) walking past the bird bath.
A Raccoon (Procyon lotor) walking past the bird bath.