Monday, February 28, 2011

Cat Capers With the Not-Mouse

As I sat at my couch-desk this morning, a movement caught my left eye - something was going on just outside the south window. A lot goes on outside that window on a regular basis, mostly of the bird nature, since that's where our main feeder is located. But the feeder was unoccupied. There was a cat about.


I got up to investigate further and those smart birds were well up into the trees and though no cats can get to the feeder, the birds weren't taking any chances. Lily was patrolling the south lawn and she'd found something. I hesitate to say just what the something was, because I didn't get a close enough look at it.

"It looks like a mouse..."

I knew it wasn't a mouse, but determining whether it was a mole, a vole, or a shrew was something I wasn't qualified to do. I know the difference, but without a closer look, I couldn't know for sure. So for now, we'll just say it was a Not-Mouse.

"It moves like a mouse..."

We have all four animals here in Ohio. We know we've got mice. That goes without saying. But according to wildlife expert Tim Burton, Ohio has five species of shrew, three of mole, and four of vole. And while you might think they're all pretty much the same, they're not.

The mole is 5-7 inches long, black, tunnels underground and rarely leaves their tunnels. They eat earthworms, grubs and beetles. They have wide front feet, made for digging.

Slightly larger than moles, voles can be very troublesome in the garden. They eat bulbs, tubers, grasses and herbaceous plants. They make tunnels, too, but they also will make use of the moles' tunnels and will eat roots of your plants. They'll eat bark off the trees and can kill young saplings by girdling them with their gnawing.

Voles are black, gray, or brown and have a shorter tail than a mouse. Do NOT use poisons to control voles, because other animals can be poisoned when eating voles, such as dogs and cats, which both find voles to be tasty.

Shrews are smaller than moles and voles, being 4-5 inches long. They have a pointy snout, and a short tail like the vole. They are insectivores and are not considered to be harmful to the garden. They can be seen foraging above ground in search of food (nuts, insects, and worms), unlike moles and voles, which tend to stay underground. They do resemble pointy-nosed mice, but aren't even related to mice and aren't rodents, as mice are.

Shrews hold nearly 10% of their mass in their brain, which is the highest brain to body mass ratio of all animals (including humans).  ~Wikipedia reference

Shrews are not tasty to cats, although they will play with them and chase them. In fact, many shrews contain a toxin that can prove to be fatal to some animals that eat them or those that are bitten by them. They also emit an odor that may warn predators to stay away.

And now that I've done this bit of research about moles and voles and shrews, I'd bet my buttons that the one we saw today was a shrew. It had a pointy nose, and seemed to be frantically looking for something in the grass.

"What's that smell??"

"What the ..." 


Perhaps the most telling factor was that the cats were hesitant to get close to it, and the few times they did, they jumped back as if the Not-Mouse tried to bite them. After about 15 minutes of watching the Not-Mouse run around, both Lily and Sam lost interest and walked away. The Not-Mouse continued about its business of rooting around in the grass. I lost interest, too.

"Looks like a mouse, don't it, Sam?"

"Do you smell it, too?"

"Careful, Sam..."

"I told you it wasn't no mouse!"

The taming of the shrew? I think it was the shrew that was doing the taming today.

"Now where did that beetle run off to..."

Friday, February 25, 2011

Community Garden Projects : Coming to a Blog Near You!

Ginkgo Organic Gardens - Chicago, IL
Community gardens are a popular and good thing. For those that live in apartments or have no place to put a garden of their own, community plots of earth are a great way to exercise gardening muscles and grow your own food and flowers.

Gardeners also have local organizations they belong to, such as garden clubs and Master Gardener groups. But there's yet another larger community of gardeners - those who connect via Twitter, Facebook, and garden blogs. The internet has made it wondrously possible for us to communicate with gardeners all over the world, thus opening up our world to greater learning and relationships with those that share our passion for growing.

As the 2011 growing season gets underway, many have created opportunities for gardeners to connect on an even more intimate way, by joining together in community gardens of another sort.

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The World's Largest "Community" Garden - The Beekman Boys at Beekman 1802 and Williams-Sonoma are pairing up with gardeners the world over in growing the same 10 heirloom vegetables. You can sign up for customized e-mails that will help you every step of the way and you can share your progress on their site.

You can order the seeds at Williams-Sonoma online or you can purchase them in their stores. For more information, visit those Beekman Boys.

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Community Container Garden at Life on the Balcony - Fern Richardson has created an edible container garden and has suggested that we all plant the same thing, then compare notes as they grow. Her container recipe includes:

  • ‘Spacemaster’ Cucumber
  • ‘Better Bush’ Tomato
  • ‘Sunspot’ Sunflowers
  • ‘Purple Petra’ Basil
  • Garlic Chives

To make it easier, she has partnered with Jayme Jenkins of, where you can buy all five Botanical Interests seed packets for $10.95. And you'll get 10% off your purchase (of anything at aHa! Modern Living!) using the code LOTBseeds.

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The Sunflower Project has as its goal to encourage us to not give up on the dream of world peace:
"Sunflowers sprouting tall across our Earth will remind us to trust in nature as our most important resource, and let others know that we, the people on the planet, want clean air, water and food, as well as peace in our homes, schools, and between nations.

The Sunflower Project vision is to see all people in every corner of the globe who are concerned about nuclear war, pollution, violence, injustice, and/or threats to the balance of nature, to plant at least one sunflower seed in a sunny place where it will be noticed."

For more information on participating, visit their website at

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The Great Sunflower Project is yet another involving the planting of sunflowers, but specifically the 'Lemon Queen' variety. They have chosen this particular sunflower because of its universal attraction to bees. Once the sunflowers are in bloom, participants count the number of bees seen pollinating a single plant for 15 minutes, twice a month. Data is then entered on the website, where it will be used to determine where pollinators may need help.

Renee's Garden Seeds have joined in on the project by selling 'Lemon Queen' sunflower seeds and if you use the code FR225A on your order, Renee's will donate a portion of the sales to the project.

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If you know of another such project that any gardener can participate in, please let me know and I'll edit this post to include it. Let's grow together in 2011!

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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Why the Robin Isn't a Sign of Spring

You hear it all the time, especially this time of year: "I saw my first robin! Spring must be on the way!" Robin sightings in late winter being seen as a sign of spring is a long-held myth that persists even now. But the truth is that robins are like people - some migrate south and some do not and they are no more a predictor of spring than Punxsutawney Phil. (With all due respect to our Pennsylvania neighbors!)

Robins that spend summers in Canada may travel southward when cold winter weather arrives, and to them, the northern United States is south. So some of the robins we see may be Canadian robins. But many of our native robins hang around, as long as they have a reliable food source.

Most winters, I will see robins on a regular basis, this winter included. But one bird we don't see much of when the weather turns cold is the red-winged blackbird. We are in the northern part of their year-round range, but you're not likely to see them here until spring is approaching.

I saw my first one of the season last Saturday, as I drove to nearby Ft. Wayne, IN. The flash of red and yellow on their wings is an attention-getter when the landscape is covered in snow and there isn't much color along the roadside. That's where they can usually be found, in both winter and summer - perched atop tall plants in ditches or higher up on power lines. They prefer marshy wetlands and like to make their nests near such areas.

And then they showed up here during the snow storm on Monday afternoon, after I'd already submitted my Great Backyard Bird Count report.

The male red-winged blackbirds are real Casanovas. They patrol and defend their territory and may take as many as 15 mates at a time, making up their harem. Females have 2-3 broods a year, with 2-4 eggs in each one. It only takes 11-13 days for the eggs to hatch and another two weeks until they fledge.

Blackbirds generally forage on the ground rather than visit a feeder, so to attract them to your yard, scatter seed on the ground.  The blackbirds you see here are eating from the top of some yew shrubs, just under our platform feeder, from which other birds have thrown seed as they feed.

When looking for the red-winged blackbird, be sure to listen for their distinctive song. They're announcing the approach of spring, you know!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Great Backyard Bird Count Round-Up

The Great Backyard Bird Count
comes to a close today. Each year, bird watchers across the country have been keeping an eye on their feeders and their trees for any and all birds that paid them a visit. We've kept track of the different species as well as how many of those we saw.

The official site makes it easy to do, even giving us lists of birds that are common to our area. To help with identification, links to Cornell's site for each species are given. I didn't see any unusual birds during my count, which I did this morning, but we aren't having the best weather today either. Freezing rain and wind no doubt kept many birds huddled in a warm spot somewhere!

However, some of the most common birds we see here in the winter braved the weather to grab some berries from the Washington hawthorn (Crataegus phaenopyrum) trees and from those that had fallen to the ground. The feeder, which is usually a constant hub of activity, was ignored by all except a lone blue jay.

Throughout this winter, we've seen several species - cedar waxwings, white-breasted nuthatches, red-bellied woodpeckers, finches, downy woodpeckers, mourning doves, numerous sparrows, starlings, and of course, blue jays, cardinals, and robins.

Robins all winter, you ask? Yes! Many robins stay here in northwest Ohio and don't go south, although many of the ones we see may actually be from further north, in Canada. I guess it's all relative when it comes to temperature! Robins stay if they've got a food source and in our yard, they've certainly got that.

For this reason, seeing robins at this time of year is not a sign of spring in our area. The more reliable harbinger is the red-winged blackbird. (More on this tomorrow!) No blackbirds showed up for the count period, but during the hour I kept count, I did see these:

Mourning Dove: 1
Cardinal: 3
Blue Jay: 2
Sparrows (unspecified species): 5
American Robin: 13

The robins were seen all at once, in one tree and on the ground below it. They spent the entire hour that I watched, munching away.

Several of you also participated in the count:

  • Dan, from Nature Observances in Connecticut, saw a red-winged blackbird, too!
  • Nathan and Kelly, of Barrie, Ontario, Canada, show their birds at Petals Wings and Things Photography.
  • Frances of Fairegarden (in Tennessee) has photos of birds common in her yard and the tally of species she saw.
  • Kathleen, who blogs at Kasey's Korner and lives in Colorado, has an adorable photo of a house finch taking a bath.
  • Becky, at Native Backyard, watches birds in North Carolina and saw quite a diverse lot of birds!
  • John, in New Jersey, has several posts about the days he participated on A DC Birding Blog.
  • Rose, at Prairie Rose's Garden in Illinois, had a visitor of another kind at her feeder!

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Best Bloom I Almost Missed

On the fabulous Annie's Annuals website, you will find page after page of the most unbelievable plants, even to those who live in Northern California, where their garden center is located. For those of us in the midwest, and specifically in zone 5, many of their offerings are otherworldly. But that's precisely why we like them. Never mind that many of them aren't particularly suited for our climate. That's never stopped too many gardeners.

It certainly didn't stop me.

I'd seen their Ferraria and was instantly smitten. Called "Spider Iris," their intricate blooms are so unusual, so detailed, so everything I love in a flower, and I wanted them. I e-mailed and tweeted back and forth with employee Elayne, since I knew virtually nothing about them. I just knew I wanted some.

She talked with their horticulturist, Claire, and we had a lengthy phone conversation about the Ferraria. I wanted the F. crispa. They didn't have any. But they did have F. ferrariola, if I wanted to try those. Of course I did!

Claire was very concerned that these wouldn't work for me. They like it very dry while dormant, which is during the summer. No problem. But what about when fall and winter came, and they needed warmer weather for growth and blooming? I'd grown warm weather bulbs successfully before, in the house.

Claire and Elayne, bless their hearts, tried to discourage me, because they didn't want me to be disappointed, but I assured them that I knew I was taking a risk. If they didn't grow, I'd been warned. And what fun is gardening if you don't take a risk now and then?

The bulbs were sent and there was a bonus bulb lying loose in the shipment, sent unintentionally. I contacted Elayne to see if she might know what it was. She relayed that Claire said it could be any kind of Ferraria or even something entirely different. I potted that one up, too, in a small pot. (These corms are really small.)

I put them in some well-draining potting medium that I'd gotten from an earlier order of tropical hibiscus (that I managed to kill). Then I put them in the basement for the summer - their dormant period. I checked on them rarely, and actually forgot about them. Then sometime in October, I was down there and noticed a little spear of green coming up out of the smallest pot - the unknown corm.

November 14, 2010

I brought it upstairs, watered it, and put it in a sunny south window. It grew rather quickly, putting up four or five very long blades, each about three feet tall. They were so narrow and flimsy, they didn't stand on their own, so I staked them. When the conservatory was finished, I moved it out there, giving it a western exposure. It continued to stay green, and I watered sparingly - only when the soil was completely dry and pulling away from the edges.

I didn't really have much hope of seeing a bloom. The foliage wasn't the strongest or the healthiest I'd ever seen, but I didn't really know what it was supposed to look like either.

This afternoon, as I was doing some pruning and watering, I noticed the mystery bulb was leaning towards the window frame, rather hidden from my view, because it was right next to the door. I went to straighten it up and tighten the Velcro tape to give it more support and what I saw nearly sent me into a state of horticultural hysteria.

Now that not the coolest thing you've ever seen? Weirdly, uniquely, ravishingly gorgeous.

It's fragrant, too, although I'm not sure I like it. It has a hint of the same fragrance as the paper whites people force in the winter - Narcissus tazetta - though not as strong. My husband doesn't like the fragrance of those at all, and has forbidden me to grow them in our house ever again. Daughter Kara likes the smell. They remind her of magic markers. I can take them or leave them.

Now, what remains is to identify just which Ferraria this is. F. crispa perhaps after all, since the description of the fragrance fits, and their appearance can be variable. I've messaged Elayne to enlist her help, and I'm sure she'll get Claire right on it. I've also asked some horticultural experts and they're working on the case, too.

It doesn't really matter all that much, although I do like to know just what I have, especially when it's as special as this. It appears there will be a few more blooms on this flower stalk, too. It's about 18 inches tall and definitely needs support. The bloom is about two inches across.

Now THIS is what I'm talking about - taking risks. Sometimes you win, and when you do, victory is oh so sweet.

EDIT: Claire and Elayne have just confirmed that it is indeed Ferraria crispa. This just gets better all the time. :-)

The Great Backyard Bird Count 2011

This weekend marks the 14th annual Great Backyard Bird Count. Thousands of participants will be watching their yards and feeders to see which kinds and how many birds show up for the census. I enjoy watching the birds anyway, so officially counting them isn't really much of a chore. And it's something that anyone can do.

White-breasted Nuthatch
The official site, located here, gives you all the details. You can choose the time or times you want to count. It can be as little as 15 minutes!  But I'm willing to bet, once you start doing it, you won't want to stop at that. YOU decide.

There is a regional bird list to help you, listing birds that are common in your area. You simply enter your zip code and it will give you a list. Each bird on your list has a link to the Cornell University site that has all kinds of wonderful information on each species of bird, complete with pictures and recordings of bird sounds. This may help you identify mystery birds. Now won't that be fun - learning what those birds are at your feeder that you see all the time?

Don't worry if you don't recognize every species of bird you see. You'll report what you do see, using their online form. Be sure to read the instructions on reporting and you'll see just how easy it is to do.

There's a party goin' on right here...

I participated for the first time last year. I saw my first robin of the season during the count. I usually see them all winter long, but last winter, they didn't come around until then.

The count starts today at 7:00 AM EST and runs through Monday evening. Like I said, you can do it whenever you wish during this time period. You'll be able to check which birds are being seen in your area as the count takes place and observers are entering their counts. You can submit photos to the site, too. In fact, they're giving away some great prizes to the winners of their photo contest and from among those who enter data!

Clearly size matters, because the only two birds I've ever seen a blue jay
share the feeder with are the mourning dove (shown here) and the red-bellied
woodpecker, both of which are larger birds.

Why do this? You'll help naturalists answer these questions:

  • How is this winter's weather influencing bird populations?
  • Where are winter finches and other “irruptive” species that appear in large numbers during some years but not others?
  • How are bird diseases, such as West Nile virus, affecting birds in different regions?
  • What birds appear in cities versus suburban, rural, and natural areas?
  • Are any birds undergoing worrisome declines that may point to the need for conservation attention? 

So besides being a fun thing to do, you'll be helping by supplying some very important data.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

If you do participate, I invite you to take photos of your birds, if possible, and blog about what you saw. Just like last year, let me know you did, by either e-mailing me or leaving a comment to this post and I'll list a link to your blog when I do my own report here, after the count period is over.

C'mon people, let's count those birdies!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Teaser Season

This winter seems to be extra long to me, for some reason. I had a feeling it would, after last year's dream winter. It was a warm one, as winters here go, and spring arrived early. That's a tough act to follow.

We didn't have a January thaw this year. It's the middle of February now and we still haven't had it, in fact, last week we had the coldest temperatures of the season, dipping below 0°F for a few days. But we're on the rise now, with the forecast for Thursday for a high of 56°F! I don't even wear a coat when it's that warm.

I can imagine it now - the birds will be giddy and chirping a "Here comes spring!" chorus, the air will have a fresh earthy fragrance to it, and the sun will actually feel warm as it shines on my face. In the distance, the trickle of melting snow will be heard as it runs off the fields into the creek. I'll venture out in my Wellies to see if I can find snowdrops, crocus, or hopefully, the witch hazel in bloom.

Witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) in late winter, 2010

Already, the conservatory is benefiting from solar heating, enough that the propane heater doesn't even come on during the day now. Temperatures hover around 80°F on these sunny days and the many tropical plants housed there love it.

But this is The Teaser Season. 56° on Thursday is enough to make us come down with spring fever, with its glimpse of warmer days. It will energize us and we'll long for the time it will consistently be as warm and sunny and then some. But we know, even as we love and welcome a few nice days, that Mother Nature can slap us back to reality with snow and frigid temperatures again.

Hoarfrost on Washington hawthorn berries

I remember, as we drove to Chicago last year to attend the Chicago Flower and Garden Show, we saw our first red-winged blackbird of the season. That's a true harbinger of spring for us in this part of the country and this year's show is a mere 17 days away. Even remembering that spring came early, I'll be watching the fence rows and ditch weeds for them again this year.

So, I'll take those teaser days, Mother Nature, whenever you choose to dole them out to us. We deserve them after having to endure this thing you call winter.

A Night in the Conservatory

I spent the night in the conservatory last night. Someone had asked me back when it was completed if I was going to sleep out there, so I said I would. For one night.

With snow still on the ground and night temperatures below freezing, I wasn't sure how well this was going to go. I hate to be cold. We keep the conservatory at 60°F and if it dips below that, the propane heater kicks on. That's a little chillier than we keep our bedroom, although my husband would love that temperature for sleeping.

I toyed with the idea of taking the little 7" TV out with me, but it was Tuesday night and there wasn't much besides NCIS that I cared to watch anyway. My plan was to work on some writing I needed to do, so I took my computer out with me, and did a little of that. I spent some time on Twitter and I finished reading Still Summer by Jacqueline Mitchard.

Refreshments accompanied me - Diet Mountain Dew and barbecue Lay's. I had to make sure I closed the Lay's bag up really tight when I was done with them, because the humidity out there would ruin them by morning if I didn't. I had my phone by me, in case the boogey man tried to break in.

Around 9:00 PM, the fluorescent lights turned off, as programmed by the timer. That left a very dim 60-watt bulb for light. Every now and then, I'd see something move out of the corner of my eye. In low light like that, everything looks a bit fuzzy and some things are not instantly recognizable. The moving somethings turned out to be a few fungus gnats. Ahhh...just like home.

I wish I could report that some sort of adventure happened, but the night was pretty uneventful. I'd let Lily in to sleep with me, so we snuggled all night on the lawn lounge. At one point, she noticed something outside and I thought maybe the deer were sneaking a snack in the garden, but when I looked, it was just a rabbit, heading into the neighbor's yard.

There was a slight breeze outside, so mostly the only sounds I heard during the night were the five-foot wind chimes, hung just outside the conservatory, in the gazebo. The heater came on periodically, but after awhile, I didn't notice it. The hum of the ceiling fan overhead provided a low-level white noise, perfect for sleeping.

When you're alone and it's quiet and dark, a lot of thinking goes on. Sure, it can be dark and quiet inside your home, but there's something about being in atypical surroundings that changes the subject of your thoughts. Writers know about this. It's why many choose a retreat specifically to write and why many become writers because of it.

Nothing outside of that thought itself was profound in the least. I worried that Lily would wake in the night and dig in the large brugmansia pot to do her business. (She didn't.) I was concerned that the propane heater was putting out carbon monoxide and I would be found in the morning with blue lips with my beloved Lily in my arms. (And then I remembered that the heater was made to be used in homes, too.)

1:40 AM ... Max's Garden by moonlight

I thought about the wasp I'd seen buzzing in one of the windows last week and hoped it slept at night.  There were the spiders, of course, but I quickly put those out of my mind. I hoped to hear the Great Horned Owl, as we do on many nights. (And I did - both male and female, calling to one another!)

1:35 AM ... the moon through the skylight
I caught an earworm while waiting for sleep to come to me. The moon was my night light, three days from being full, and Cat Steven's Moonshadow was my lullaby until I finally fell asleep. Lily never left my lap all night, only changing position when I did.

So you're probably wondering why I did this. I can't give you an answer other than to say, "Because I could." I awoke this morning, surrounded by beautiful plants and when the sun rose and shone through the east windows, it was good.


Monday, February 14, 2011

Orchid Love

I finally feel comfortable with orchids. When you've got nearly half of all the orchids you own in some stage of re-bloom - fully open, blooming and buds together, or spiking - it gives you confidence that you've gotten the hang of things. That's not to say I  haven't killed a few along the way since I brought my first one home about five years ago, but it's been a long time since I had to throw one in the compost bin.

I credit the fact that my dad made me a beautiful orchid table, complete with humidity trays, for part of my success. Being natives of the humid tropics, they love their saturated air, and while the air isn't saturated, even with the trays, it certainly increases it for them.

December 25, 2009

My watering habits probably have a bit to do with it, too. At least once a month, I take a big bowl, and sit each orchid pot, one by one, in the bottom. Then I water it thoroughly and allow the pot to soak for about five minutes. This allows the bark medium to really absorb the liquid. I fertilize them each time I water, alternating orchid bloom booster (mixed weakly) with Haven Brand Compost Tea. I don't water them again until the bark appears to be quite dry.

My orchids sit in a south window on the orchid table from first frost in the fall to last frost in the spring. On very sunny days, I keep the shade drawn, which allows bright light in, but nothing harsh that might burn the leaves. Once the temperatures are above 50 degrees at night, outside they go, on the north side of the house, where they are mostly shaded by an oak tree. They get about an hour of early morning sun, but nothing direct after that.

During summer, I water them with the garden hose, set on a fine mist spray. Rarely do I fertilize in the summer. (I'm not advocating that, I'm just very, very lax about it in the summer.)

Today, I got a wonderful, unexpected surprise. Fed Ex delivered a beautiful Phalaenopsis orchid to me, courtesy of Costa Farms. Several of my orchids are from Costa Farms, having purchased them myself from Lowe's and Walmart in previous years.

When I first became interested in orchids, they were quite expensive and not readily available. That has changed now, thanks to growers like Costa Farms. That's how I came to have a collection of them and I'm just as enthralled with them now as I was in the beginning. Orchids have one of the most beautiful blooms in the world, and they're long-lasting, too - sometimes months!

Orchids can now be purchased in the $15-20 range, sometimes even less, so why not try one yourself?

St. Valentine Has His Day

I never really knew the story of St. Valentine and how we came to send Valentine's Day cards to those we like and love, adore and admire. Our church pastor enlightened us yesterday and I found it to be interesting and as heart-warming as a Valentine itself. Please note, however, much of this is akin to legend, but the possibility exists that it may be true.

St. Valentine did exist - several historical Valentines are known, in fact - and in particular, the hero of our story lived during the third century, A.D. The story has it that St. Valentine was queried by Roman emperor Claudius as to whether he believed in God. He answered that he did, and Claudius tried to persuade him to convert to paganism and comply with the order to not perform any marriages.

Valentine continued to perform many weddings in secret, which eventually led to his imprisonment. Legend has it that Valentine sent letters of encouragement to various people while imprisoned, and the jailer's daughter was his partner in crime by helping smuggle them out. He later was executed for his beliefs and his actions.

Whether our practice of sending Valentines to one another truly was born of this depends on what you want to believe. And surely Hallmark had a hand in it all, but it still is an endearing holiday, whether you have a true sweetheart or not. Do we not all have friends? Special family members? They can be our Valentines, too!

Happy Valentine's Day!

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