Sunday, December 10, 2006

Christmas giving that keeps on giving

Christmas is fast approaching and I know lots of busy people are looking for that perfect last-minute gift or Secret Santa present.

How about a gift that's something more than just another fancy soap, box of candy, or plastic whatnot? How about a gift that really means something?

My favorite gifts for my online friends the last couple of years have been a Gift of Trees, a Share in a Knitting Basket, or a Flock of Ducks, given to a family in poverty in the name of the recipient through Heifer International.

The cool thing about Heifer is that part of the deal of receiving animals through them is that the recipients have to pass the gift along to another needy family. A Heifer gift is truly a gift that keeps on giving!

I'm baaack...

This unannounced hiatus was due to getting totally busy writing my dissertation and taking up a new job, as well as all the paperwork involved in taking a new job, being a grad student, etc. etc.

It's finally Christmas break, the dissertation is this close to being finished, and I have some time to myself once again.

Of course in all this busy-ness, the garden has been neglected. There are still leaves to rake and shrubs to trim, weeds to pull -- and it's raining, raining, raining. Bleah.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The garden in August

It's the middle of the dry season, and everything is burning up in the summer's heat. I'm cheating in these pictures. They only show the pretty details, and leave out the brown lawn and the crispy perennials that need trimmed. Kind of like I do as I walk through the garden: try to look only at the pretty bits.

Here, Rudbeckia makes a brave show, being one of the few flowers to thrive in the summer's heat, given a bit of water.

A single hollyhock, Creme de Cassis , blooms against the blue sky. Amazingly, it escaped the usual rust invasion this year, though the bugs made lacework of the leaves.

A lone Dianthus just coming into bloom, poking out of the weeds and the dry ground. Yes, I need to water, but we're supposed to be conserving around here, and the water bills can get outrageous this time of year.

Out of a ruin of dried leaves at the base of a sword fern, a cluster of cyclamen emerge.

Chelone (turtleheads) blossom against a bright sky. These normally like boggy ground, so they need an extra hit from the hose now and then.

In the back yard, a variegated butterfly bush is still blooming away.

The asparagus we ate last spring is now a small forest, with the peach tree peeking up from behind:

Rejoice! My very first home-grown cauliflower! This variety, "Cheddar," has the added benefit of being packed full of carotenes. I cut this, steamed it just until tender, and served it up with just a bit of butter. It was amazingly sweet and flavorful. As the nutritional scientists now say, eat colorful food!

The red raspberries are late this year, but they're worth the wait:

The golden raspberries put on a crop earlier, but they're back for another show:

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Featured on Blogger!

Wow! I'd been away from the blogs for a while, dealing with family and personal business, and while I'm away the stat counter shot up, with hit after hit from the Blogger home page!

I'm thrilled! I'm honored!

And you're all welcome guests. Please come in, pull up a chair, browse around for a good book, or just enjoy the pretty pictures.

Here are a few popular posts from the past that you might enjoy:

Superfoods! Article 2: Beans

"The Army gets the gravy but the Navy gets the beans, beans, beans, beans..." goes the song, and indeed, beans have gotten a bad rap over the years as a cheap protein substitute. Long have beans been the food of the poor, and during the two World Wars, beans were promoted as a meat substitute for meatless meals during times of rationing.

But a mere substitute? Beans deserve a better reputation than something to fill up the kiddies while the meat-eating men march off to war. According to SuperFoods Rx (see SuperFoods! Article 1), beans are a low-fat source of protein, are full of fiber, and contain a good dose of B vitamins, iron, folic acid, potassium, magnesium, and a variety of plant pigments collectively known as "phytonutrients." The fiber in beans has been shown to lower cholesterol in people with cholesterol problems, so not only do beans "substitute" for meat, they also help control some of the problems associated with eating high-fat protein foods. Beans have been found to help stabilize blood sugar, so they may be useful for people with type II diabetes. Beans may also help reduce some cancers, particularly colon cancer. Of course, some people have a problem with -- er -- the "inflatable effects" of beans. People who eat beans frequently tend to produce the enzymes necessary for digesting them, and have fewer problems. For those who just can't eat beans without the musical after-effects, it's Beano to the rescue! This product, in liquid or tablet form, contains the enzymes that will solve the problem.

The superfoods "beans" group encompasses most legumes, including dried beans, lima beans, lentils, green beans, fava beans, and garden peas. Think of the variety of flavors, colors, and cooking methods!

True beans are summer crops, usually planted late in May and ripening late in the summer. Because beans are legumes, they form associations with nitrogen-fixing bacteria that create nodules on the roots of the plants; hence beans and their bacterial friends put nitrogen into the soil, and beans don't require much in the way of fertilizers. In fact, too much fertilizer will make beans run all to leaves and produce too few flowers and pods.

Most beans will need a trellis to climb on. The good old "bean teepee" is easy to make from bamboo poles. Tie a half-dozen or so poles about six or more feet long together at one end, and sink the opposite ends in the ground. Run string around and around them as you would string lights around a Christmas tree, winding the string around the poles themselves to anchor it. You can also run twine between two sturdy stakes, running it across the top and about six inches from the bottom, then run twine up and down vertically between the two horizontal strings. Or run deer netting or bird netting between two tall stakes. Either of these will provide support for a row. Keep the beans watered well for full growth.

Beans can be picked when green to steam, stir-fry, use in soups, or freeze. To freeze beans, trim the ends and cut into pieces, blanch in boiling water for three or four minutes, and cool immediately in ice water before putting in freezer-safe containers.

Bean pods can also be left on the plant to dry if you want to grow dry beans. While dry pintos, navy beans, and garbanzos are cheap to buy in the stores (and can, incidentally, be used as cheap seed source), more exotic, flavorful heirloom beans must be home-grown. Want a full list of heirloom bean varieties? Try The Bean Bag. The more colorful the beans, the higher levels of substances called polyphenols. These phytonutrients are important antioxidants. Dry beans are super in soups, can be served cold on salads, or used for bean dips. Try a traditional French cassoulet for a warm winter meal.

Fall and spring are the time to plant two other important members of the bean group: Fava beans and peas. Favas are much better known in Europe than in the U.S. These broad beans have skins with a slightly bitter flavor that some people love and others detest. The immature beans can harvested when they're thumb-nail sized. They can be simmered until tender, sauted lightly in butter, then seasoned with salt, fresh thyme, and a good vinegar for a full, rich flavor. The vinegar helps alleviate some of the bitterness. Favas are also great in soups.

Favas for planting are huge, and should be soaked before planting. Late in the summer, plant them in rich soil where you've pulled out summer crops. They'll enrich your potato patch. They're also a good follow-up crop to corn. The plants will get a head start in the warm days of late summer, grow very slowly in the winter, and produce a crop in the spring. They can also be planted as early in the spring as the soil can be worked.

Peas are a familiar garden favorite, and another member of the bean group. Peas are most often served as fresh, immature peas, lightly simmered. Traditional peas are harvested for their seeds, but snow peas are eaten as immature pods, and sugar peas are eaten at a more mature stage, pod, seeds, and all. This gives the gardener a lot more food for the effort. Still, there's nothing that can beat the taste of fresh petite pois peas, barely simmered, and seasoned with butter and a touch of dill.

My grandmother always said to plant peas on Washington's birthday. That may be a little early for those north of zone 8, but the idea is to plant peas as early as the soil can be worked. Peas benefit from the use of pea innoculants, which add those nitrogen-fixing root-nodule-making bacteria to the cold soil. Soak the peas, toss them with a light coating of the innoculant, then plant immediately, sinking the peas about two inches into the soil. Early planting helps prevent pea enation, a fungal disease that strikes in early summer. Spring-planted peas are usually ready in June. Many parts of the country can get a second crop of fall-planted peas as well.

With the wide variety of beans available, it shouldn't be too hard to get the recommended four 1/2 cup servings per week.

Superfoods! Article 1: The book

Have you seen SuperFoods Rx?

Dr. Steven Pratt and co-author Kathy Matthews teamed up in this book to present fourteen categories of food that have super health benefits. Now mind, you, I've been teaching science for, oh, quite a few years (longer than I care to admit), and I have a pretty critical stance when it comes to health claims. Most diet books that I've seen are worthless (all that talk of "detoxifying," claiming that it's toxins that make you fat, is bogus -- "detoxifying" teas are mostly diuretics, as are the "fat flushing" potions). But SuperFoods Rx impressed me. It has its share of hype -- it's hard to get a health book published and noticed these days without resorting to hype -- but most of the claims are backed by real research that appeared in real research journals, not vague claims of "some studies suggest..." or support from various unscientific testimonials.

All of the foods in the book contain more than the usual vitamins and minerals. Pratt goes into various anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, and otherwise health-enhancing substances in common foods, from the isoflavones in soy, to omega-3 oils in fish and leafy greens, to the colorful lutiens, xanthophyls, and anthocyanins in fruits and veggies. The best part is that you don't have to search the back shelves of esoteric health food shops to find these super foods. You can find them all at your grocery store -- or better still, most of them you can grow yourself to get the full benefits of fresh, organically-grown food!

So, as we move into fall harvest time, winter gardening time (for those of us in mild climates), and winter garden planning, I'll be running a series of articles on how to grow foods in most of the groups of superfoods. I'll skip over turkey (low-fat protein, high in three B vitamins, iron, selenium, and zinc, and supportive of the immune system), since I don't know anything about poultry-raising, and likewise I'll skip wild salmon (high in omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, and selenium, since it's not exactly something you can plant in your raised beds. As for the whole grains group, I'll discuss corn and a few other garden-appropriate grain foods, but leave the growing of oats, wheat, and rice to the farmers.

That still leaves plenty of superfoods you can grow in your garden or your kitchen, so we'll begin at the beginning of the book with the next article: Beans.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Wild Bill is in the house

Last Friday I decided it was time. I fixed up a little spot in our master bath with kitty dishes, a bed, and toys in preparation for bringing the feral kitten in the house. I played with Wild Bill on the porch, reached out, picked him up, and took him inside.

The first night was a bit rough. Wild Bill mewed for his mama, and I could hear her calling for him several times throughout the night. I tried putting him on a tiny kitten leash so he could eat breakfast with her, but of course he tried to run off and flew into a panic when he hit the end of the leash. He can still see her through the screen door. Smart little guy that he is, he quickly figured out the lay of the house, and figured out where the back door was, knowing that his mama was out there somewhere.

In the meantime, our bitty gray tabby, Belle, took right to the kitten, and he glomed on to her for surrogate comfort. For the first couple of days he mostly hid in our bathroom or under our bed, and followed Belle around like a shadow when she came into the room. But after he figures out how to use the litter box, and seemed ready to explore, I let him roam. This morning he was on top of the cat tower, looking quite pleased with himself.

He still darts off if he thinks someone is about to pick him up, but he's starting to tolerate being petted. He's also playing happily in the living room when the people are around.

Mama still comes up on the deck to eat, but she seems more furtive. Whereas before she'd stick around and watch while I came out to play with the kitten, now she just eats and runs off as fast as she can. I hope that eventually she'll forget her distress and learn to trust us again. It was heartbreaking to have to separate a mama from her baby, but if we hadn't, this kitten would have been as wild as his mother. Watching him now, he seems like he'll be a fine house cat.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Feral Kitten Update

Back in May, I wrote about our Weekend Kitten Drama, in which I found two feral kittens in a brush pile in the back yard. We tried "baiting" a trap with the kittens, trying to catch the mama cat, but one of the kittens disappeared, and we were afraid that if the mama had taken him and moved him, we wouldn't be able to find him if we caught her. So we bottle fed the one left behind, named him Jack, and the local cat rescue found a foster momcat for him. He should be about ready for us to bring him back home.

But in the meantime, we've been watching Mama Cat. I've been putting food out for her since May, taking it in at night because otherwise the raccoons steal it (there's a mama raccoon with three babies to feed that I've seen on the deck), and just a couple of weeks ago, she showed up with the other kitten! Hoorah! We'd been half-afraid he'd been the victim of a predator, but no, his clever mama really did steal him from the trap, and would probably have come back for little Jack if we'd left the trap open.

I was still determined to get Mama Cat spayed before she populated the neighborhood with kittens. There's a wooded lot near us that is full of thick blackberry bushes and I suspect thick with feral cats as well. I've seen a manky old orange tomcat around here, and if he's not the sire of our backyard kittens, he could easily sire another batch.

Thus I made a trip to the nearby equipment rental place and rented a live trap again.

So, how do you successfuly trap a feral cat? Here's how I did it.

First I called the Friends of Felines organization and asked, "Okay, so I catch the feral mama. Then what? Can I take her to a vet right away?" They sent me a list of vets who take ferals on short notice, and sent a discount certificate. I called around to the vets to make sure they'd be available. There were two in town, but one was going on vacation, so I gave the other the heads-up.

I set the trap out at the bottom of the yard, well away from where we feed the kitties. I used a twist of wire to hold the mechanism in place to keep one door open. I laid a dark towel inside the cage to hide the trigger mechanism, and covered the whole thing with a large towel. Cats know better than to enter a cage, but if you make it look like a nice, dark tunnel, they may go inside, just like house cats like playing in boxes. I set food inside down at the closed end so she'd have to walk over the trigger to get to it.

I set the trap up on a Sunday and left it there, putting fresh food inside each morning and taking it out at night because I didn't want the raccoons messing with it. I also put a little canned food inside morning and night, because it has more of an odor than dry food. The food disappeared by evening, so I knew she was entering the trap.

I'm teaching a summer class four mornings a week, and the veterinary clinic doesn't do surgery on weekends, so that left Thursday and Friday to get the thing done. I dashed home as soon as class let out on Thursday, set fresh food in the trap, removed the wire, and set the trap as sensitively as I could. Then I went inside to make lunch.

Within five minutes -- SNAP! I trotted out, and there was Mama Cat:

I called the vet to let them know we were on our way. My husband was home to help me, and together we hustled the trap into the car and off to the vet. She was quiet all the way there, probably scared out of her wits. Unlike house cats who yowl in fear, this little lady hid in silence. We kept the towel over the trap so as to shut out frightening sights and to keep her as calm as possible. At the clinic we got her checked in, and ordered the spaying, paying extra for dissolvable sutures, post-op pain medication, and vaccinations. Because they prefer to do surgery on cats that haven't eaten for 12 hours, they kept her overnight.

While she was gone, we watched for the kitten, but we never saw him. He must be very well trained to stay near the nest, or just wasn't big and brave enough to venture out on his own.

Late Friday afternoon Mama Cat was ready to pick up. She was quiet on the way home, but as soon as we set the trap in the back yard, she went into a panic. I opened the trap and she was off like a shot.

We didn't see her the rest of that evening, but the next day she turned up again, with the baby.

Tonight she was up on the deck with the little guy. I got another picture of her -- not very good because I was taking it through a screen door:

And here's little Wild Bill, her kitten. I tried getting other shots of him, but he moves too fast. He's such a cutie-pie:

What's more, I got him to play with me. I took a cat toy that's a feather boa on a stick and carefully stuck, it out the screen door. After some coaxing, Wild Bill came and played with it and with another toy that's a bundle of feathers on a stick. He even came up and sniffed my fingers, and sniffed our bitty kitty Belle's paws she she stuck them out to play with the little guy. He stuck around and played for about a half an hour. If we keep that up, we might even be able to lure him inside. I also have a plan to try to get him into a cat carrier and pull the door shut with a string. Kind of like a kid trying to set up a bird trap under a box, I know, but it just might work.

Ah, looks like baby is back again. Time for some more play time.

A while later:

Yep, we played some more. I opened the screen door a crack and put my fingers through to play, too. Little Wild Bill licked some Gerber chicken off of my fingers. The critter bites pretty hard, I found out. He obviously doesn't understand fingers! For a few moments, I scratched him behind the ear. Mama Cat seems to be pretty trusting. She disappeared for a while, leaving her baby to play with us unsupervised. I got some better shots of the little guy, the one now at the top of the post, and this one:

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Friday, July 14, 2006

Friday Finds

Some gardening-related goodies from across the web:
  • The Bonsai Site: I've not been bit by the bonsai bug, but for anyone who has been, this is the place to visit to find out all about it.
  • Organic Lawn Care for the Cheap and Lazy: Yeah, that sounds good to me. I'm not one of those lawn nuts who gets out there with manicure scissors. I just want soft, green stuff to walk barefoot in. Here's how to do it.
  • Antique Seed Packets: I love it. Old seed packets -- the genuine thing, it looks like -- framed as art.
  • Fork: An online gardening 'zine with a feisty 'tude. Only one issue so far. With a little support, maybe there will be more.
  • Upside-down tomato plants: You know those expensive thingies you can buy for growing hanging tomato plants? Here's how to make them out of old plastic buckets.
Have a nice weekend, everyone!

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Wayside Gardens Internet Sale

I got an email from Wayside Gardens yesterday announcing an internet sale. Order through their website and get 15% off an order of $75 or more from now through July 21. The secret coupon code is "wayside discount." Here's the link to the site: Wayside Gardens.

Rainmaker Day no more

Today, July 12, is Rainmaker Day, the day on which, in all of recorded weather history, there has not been any measurable rain in Salem, Oregon.

Until today.

Alas, there is a fine, misty rain falling, and if it drops a measurable amount, the Rainmaker Day record will be broken forever.

This has been such a strange weather year, with temperatures reaching over 100 degrees at the end of June, when it usually doesn't get that hot until August. Something's up with our typical weather cycles.

Now if it fails to rain at least one day during the State Fair in August, as it always does, I shall be truly worried.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Big, bad asbestos and your garden

As though the warnings about lavender and tea tree oil that I summarized in the last post weren't enough, the July 8 issue of Science News has this article: Dirty little secret: asbestos laces many residential soils (available online for non-subscribers). We're not talking about houses built on old waste dumps, either. Asbestos is a mined mineral, and when asbestos-containing deposits are found near the surface, disturbances (such as the housing development described in the article) can send the cancer-causing fibers flying. Though the fibers in question are larger and don't drift as far as those released from old insulation materials and other asbestos found in old buildings, they do pose a risk when they're kicked up by wind or machinery. Unfortunately, though asbestos use in construction and its removal from old buildings are highly regulated, there are no laws restricting construction on sites where veins of asbestos-containing minerals have been uncovered.

But even if your home isn't built on a tremolite vein (one common asbestos-containing mineral), concerns about asbestos contamination of vermiculite mines a few years ago had gardeners and horticulturalists up in arms. Vermiculite, of course, is the stuff put in potting mix to lighten it while helping retain water. Experienced gardeners know you can buy it by the bagful if you want to create your own potting mix. It's also mixed into fertilizers, and has dozens of commercial and industrial uses, from fireproofing to nuclear waste disposal.

So what's a gardener to do? If you use vermiculite, the EPA recommends these steps to reduce exposure to the dust:
  • Use vermiculite outdoors or in a well-ventilated space (outdoors is best).
  • Dampen vermiculite before using it to prevent dust from flying.
  • Use purchased, moist potting mixes to reduce total vermiculite exposure.
  • If using vermiculite outdoors, peel off outer layers of clothing before going inside, and wash them.
A dust mask might not be a bad idea, also.

The National Cancer Institute has more recommendations for reducing cancer risk from asbestos.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Lavender and Tea Tree Oil: Estrogen Mimics

I posted a summary of this on the You Grow Girl forums. The July 1 issue of Science News carried an article about the newly-discovered feminizing effects of lavender and tea tree oil in young boys, and appear to be responsible for a rise in breast development in pre-pubescent boys. The article is on the Science News website, but is available only to subscribers of the print magazine, so I'll summarize the findings here.

The story: Ever since 1990, Dr. Clifford Bloch, an endocrinologist in the Denver area, had been seeing a number of cases of gynecomastia in pre-pubescent boys. Gynecomastia, or breast development in boys, is unusual, and when it occurs it's usually the result of some hormonal problem. However, testing the boys for sex hormones showed a normal ratio of the various sex hormones, so it wasn't a hormone production problem. After a great deal of laborious detective work, trying to find out what these boys all had in common, the doctor traced down two possible culprits: lavender essence and tea tree oil. All the boys had been using soaps, hair gel, shampoo, and similar topical products with these two herbal ingredients. In some cases, boys had been putting pure lavender oil on their skin. When Bloch suggested they stop using these products, the condition disappeared within a few months.

But a simple correlation doesn't prove a cause, so the doctor contacted a health sciences research lab in North Carolina, and asked them to investigate. The researchers carried out an in-vitro experiment, treating human breast tissue cultures with lavender or tea tree oil. In both cases, the oils caused the cells to turn on estrogen-regulated genes and turn off androgen-regulated genes. In other words, both act as estrogen mimics, turning on genes normally controlled by estrogen, such as genes that stimulate breast tissue growth. It also turns off genes controlled by male hormones.

While Bloch's observations were on young boys, the same effect may also happen in young girls. In fact some health researchers have noted a recent rise in pre-pubescent breast development in girls. With the increased popularity of lavender as a calming aroma in aromatherapy, more people are using lavender-scented products, and users include children in the household.

The article had no report as to whether spammers will soon be pushing breast enlargement products featuring lavender and tea tree oil. It probably wouldn't work, either. Kids have such low levels of sex hormones that the small amounts of estrogen mimics in these oils may be upsetting the balance, but adults may not even notice the difference. However, women with or recovering from estrogen-related breast cancer will also want to take note of this article, and discuss it with their doctor.

Moral of the story: enjoy lavender and tea tree oil now and then, but don't overdo it. And for pity's sake, don't let your kids slather lavender oil all over themselves. Even without the hormonal problem, it's a bit much.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Free shipping from Dutch Gardens until September 15

The heat of the summer may not seem like the time to think about fall planting, but if you have special bulbs in mind, it pays to order early before they're all sold out. Today's email brought a letter from Dutch Gardens that says they're offering free shipping between now and September 15. Hmm, ordering early pays in more way than one. Dutch Gardens offers a good selection of tulips, narcissus, and many of the smaller bulbs. I've ordered from them for quite a few years now and I've always been satisfied with their quality and their prices.

Dutch Gardens, Inc.

Monday, July 03, 2006

The garden in July

Even though it's stinkin' hot out there, I did get outside to get a few garden pictures.

First, a look down the lovely throat of a lavender poppy, with its lovely pale crepe-paper petals. I shall save seeds from this one -- I had many more in the past, but this is the only one I've spotted this year:
And as for the lavender itself, it's blooming away like mad, and the bumblebees are having a marvelous time all over it:

The hot border in front, blazing away in a mass of scarlet sage and bright yellow coreopsis. There's Moonshine Yarrow peeping around the edge of the sage, barely visible:

And the Dierama, or wand flower, sending up its long stalks with charming little purple flags waving from them:
Now if it will only cool down enough for me to go and chase the weeds. They're having their way with things all over the garden again.

Currant Jelly

From gorgeous fresh currants like these...

...comes magnificent, anti-oxidant-loaded, extremely delicious jelly like this:

But alas, as my entire harvest from my one-year-old currant bushes was all of one quart of mixed red, black, and white currants (mostly red and white), including stems, that's all the lovely currant jelly I got for this year! It was worth it, though, and the last of it adorned my English muffin this morning.

The jelly is about the easiest jelly I've made, since currants have plenty of pectin in them and don't need additional pectin to jell. In fact, I cooked this batch just a little too long and my jelly had almost the texture of jujubes. Took a bit of energy to spread the stuff. But oh, it tasted good.

Here's how to make it:

Start with several quarts of fresh-picked currants of whatever color you fancy, or a mixture therof. Don't bother to pick off the stems, since the whole mass will be strained for the juice. Put in a kettle with a little water, turn the heat on medium, and simer until the berries are soft. Mash a bit with potato masher or a whisk for more juice (or leave them be if you want the clearest juice).

The best thing to use to strain the juice is a jelly bag. If you don't have one, cut a big, big square of cheesecloth. Two single layers will do. Place the cheesecloth in a collander, and place the collander in a pan. Pour your juicy cooked currants in the collander. Let most of the juice drip through, then gather up the edges of the cheesecloth, tie with string, and hang from a knob on a cupboard over the pan and let it drip. If you want, you can squeeze the bag to get every last bit of juice out of it, but if you'll get the clearest jelly if you don't.

Measure the juice. For every cup of juice, add one cup of sugar. Put no more than 4 cups of juice and sugar mixture in a heavy-bottomed pan on the stove and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer. To test to see if the jelly is done, take some up in a large spoon and let it pour off the side. If it dribbles thinly, it's not ready, but if it pours in one semi-thick mass from the spoon, it's ready. Or dab some on a very cold plate and see if it sets up. My jelly took about 5 minutes to reach this stage. A full 4 cups should take 8-10 minutes. But do test from time to time.

To preserve the jelly, pour into clean, hot, sterilized half-pint jelly glasses, leaving about 1/2 to 1/4 inch of space from the top. Place a clean, hot lid on top and put on a screw ring tightly. Turn the jar over and let it cool completely. This nearly always creates a seal when the jar is turned upright again. Don't try to seal a half-jar of jelly. Instead, put it in the refrigerator for your morning muffins.

Red, white, and blueberry pie

Now that's what I call dessert. I'm taking two of these beauties to a 4th of July picnic tomorrow. The blueberries came out of my garden, but alas, I had to go buy the strawberries since my plants just went in this year and aren't producing well yet. All it needs now is a decorative bit of whipped cream for some visible white -- though there's white creamy stuff under the berries.

Here's how you can make one yourself:

Red, white, and blueberry pie

Start with one pre-made graham cracker or cookie crumb pie shell, store-bought or made yourself.

Put one 8 oz package of lowfat cream cheese in a mixer. Blend with about 1/4 cup powdered sugar (more or less to taste), 1 teaspoon of vanilla, and 2 tablespoons of milk. Whip until smooth and creamy. Spread on the bottom of the crust.

Wash 1 quart of strawberries. Remove the hulls. Place pointy-side up in the cream cheese. To make cutting the pie easier, I cut the berries in quarters, but keep the quarters together as I press them into the cream cheese.

Sprinkle about 1 cup of blueberries over the strawberries.

For the glaze, mix 1/3 cup of sugar with 1 tablespoon of cornstarch and 1 tablespoon of strawberry gelatin mix in a small saucepan. Mix in 1/3 cup of water. Bring to a boil, then boil 1 minute. Use a gravy ladle or large spoon to pour the glaze over the berries. Refrigerate 1-2 hours or overnight. Garnish with whipped cream.

(If you buy a crust, save the plastic liner. Turn it over to make a nifty pie cover to protect your masterpiece if you have to transport it somewhere. Just lift the edges of the pan as you had to do to remove the plastic, put the "lid" in place, and push the edges of the pan back down again.)

Saturday, June 24, 2006

We're havin' a heat wave...

June began cold and wet. Last week it was pleasant -- partly cloudy, mild temperatures.

Today, as I write, it's 92 degrees. Tomorrow it's supposed to get over 100.

I intended to do some late planting of annuals in the front garden, but the soil there is bone dry and just as hard, so I finally dragged out the sprinkler hose and it's getting a thorough dousing. The whole bed needs renovated, so there's no point in planting any seeds until I at least get some cow stuff dug in around the places I want to plant. Otherwise it's going to get just as hard again when it dries out.

The lettuce bolted, the peas that I planted back in February (Planting Peas, Striking Gold, Pea Sprouts and Peach Blossoms) are at the end of their productivity, so pulled both out. I planted new lettuce seeds, some where the old lettuce had been, some in the shade of the now-towering asparagus, to see if it would do better there in the summer's heat. Alas, the peach tree got hit with a bad case of leaf curl, so all those lovely blossoms never had the chance to produce a peach. But the broccoli and cauliflower that I started from seed (Bouncing Baby Broccoli) are doing nicely so far. I gave them a good watering.

I'd put up some pictures, but it's too stinkin' hot out there right now. Maybe I'll get some in the morning.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

A Chocolate Garden

I was looking for several things on when I came across this interesting product: Chocolate Garden.

It's a tin containing seeds of chocolate covered perennials, to wit: " Chocolate Flower, Chocolate Columbine, Midnight Candy Phlox, Chocolate Royale, Chocolate Nasturtium and Royal Chocolate Painted Tongue." A chocolate-loving gardener's delight!

While it's rather late in the season to start seeds for this year's garden, in warmer regions gardeners could start perennials to plant in the fall and overwinter for next year's blooms. Or put this one on your "wish list" for Christmas.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Green Blog Project

Foodie gardeners will want to check out Ginger and Mango: Green Blog Project. The author wants her readers to grow something themselves, make something to eat out of it, and post the picture of what they grew along with the recipe. This was just a quiet little food blog, but the Green Blog challenge seems to have upped the traffic many-fold. What food-loving gardener could resist?

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Happy Father's Day (you all did remember, right?)

"Fatherhood is pretending the present you love the most is soap-on-a-rope."
Bill Cosby
You know, I remember a few of those infamous rope-bound soap bars appearing at Christmas back when I was a kid.

Please tell me it wasn't me who gave them.

Happy Father's Day, everyone.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Urban Farmers vs. the Bulldozers of L.A.

Once upon a time on 41st and Alameda Street in South Central Los Angeles, a garden arose. Not just any garden, but a community garden, where the people in a low-income neighborhood gathered to grow food and so feed themselves. And it was good.

Until now.

It's no fairy tale, but it's turning into a horror story even now. Fourteen years ago, a 14-acre piece of land became the property of the City of Los Angeles under the laws of eminent domain. Landowners were compensated, and the city planned to build an incinerator on the site. Because of complaints of people in the surrounding neighborhood, the city abandoned the plan. However, if within 10 years the city determined that it no longer needed the land, the former owner, a large investment firm, was granted rights of first refusal. The city then set the land aside for a community garden, allowing the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank to manage it.

The garden has been a tremendous success. People from the neighborhood have been growing masses of food from the reclaimed land, which they use to reduce the cost of their own groceries, as well as helping others. The garden has become a community center, with special events, fairs, and a Farmer's Market.

But behind the scenes, the city was busy negotiating with another investment firm to sell the land. Back and forth negotiations went, with the investment firm at one point raising a lawsuit against the city for demurring on their deal. After several years of negotiating, the city finally settled with the firm and sold the land. Only then did they inform the food bank of the deal, which was the first notice that the gardeners had of their garden's impending doom. At no point was the food bank nor were the gardeners allowed to make an offer of their own. The gardeners banded together and raised a lawsuit of their own against the city for breaking the charter with the food bank, but the city claims it no longer needed the land, and that this loophole in the law took priority over the charter.

This morning, police in riot gear arrived to evict the farmers. Fire trucks were on the scene, ladder trucks to pluck protesters out of trees -- yes, trees, which shows how far this garden has come from the old vacant lot it once was. Trees planted by the gardeners themselves, and bearing fruit.

This evening, the bulldozers arrived. Tomorrow, Los Angeles' own Eden will be a dirty scar.

Cheers, L.A.

The gardeners haven't given up, however, in spite of the imminent destruction of fourteen years worth of hard labor. They're still trying to raise funds to buy the land themselves, and will return all donations if they can't buy the land. Their site is here: South Central Farmers

Saturday, June 10, 2006

I am a snapdragon -- Don't ask me why...

...because I really don't know, but the quiz was kind of fun:

I am a

What Flower
Are You?

And it says: "Mischief is your middle name, but your first is friend. You are quite the prankster that loves to make other people laugh."

Now I'll have to take the quiz again and pretend to be other characters to see what other flowers people can "be."

Friday, June 09, 2006

Stepping Stone Project: Complete

At last, the concrete stones from my first major concrete poetry project (besides the single stone that said "welcome") have been poured, the letters pressed into them, and the lot have been allowed to cure for a while. They should probably cure another week before anyone walks on them, but I was ready to get them off of the back deck, so I laid them out on the newly renovated bed under the crabapple tree. I don't expect anyone to go traipsing across them there, so they should be fine. You can't really tell in the picture, but the five of them spell out "grow where you are planted." A nice sentiment for all of us -- and perhaps a command to my new transplants? "Grow! Yes, grow! Don't die! Grow!"

A couple of closeups show the lettering and decorations a bit better. Here's "grow where you":

And here's "are planted":

The marble decorations came from the floral aisle in the craft store. I used opaque glass rather than the transparent glass, because I thought it would look better in concrete for this project. Either would have been fine. Transparent deep colors would look more jewel-like.

And some more pictures from around the garden, since I had the camera out.

The nuthatches are working on a second brood in the nesting box in the front yard. They finished one brood late in April. I caught one of them bringing food to the current set of nestlings:

A clump of bright pink dianthus that's just come into bloom. I'd forgotten I'd planted it!

One of the pink petunias that I grew from seed that I got from Thompson and Morgan:

And a look up into the crabapple tree, where the Lincoln Constance rose is busy blooming away, scattering rose petals far and wide:

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Long-legged Rats: Deer in Suburbia

"They're nothing but long-legged rats!" a gardener friend once said. They dine on expensive hybrid roses. They take a bite out of each of the melons on the vine, spoiling all before they move on. They'll yank the broccoli and lettuce out of the ground, and make short work of the perennial bed.

They're Bambis in Suburbia, Over the Hedge in 3-D real life, and not nearly so funny when they gobble up the plants that you've poured money and sweat into.

Within a half mile of our house is an abandoned orchard where the deer roam, and sometimes wander out into the surrounding neighborhoods. Recently the bulldozers have been at work, since someone plans to subdivide and build on the site (exactly who we don't know, nor do we know what the plans are, as they seem to change as often as Madonna's new "look"), pushing the deer out of their former home. They haven't turned up in our yard yet, but as there is an overgrown wood nearby, and a convenient back alley access, it's only a matter of time. Others in the neighborhood have not been so fortunate. Their excitement about the ooh-so-cute brown-eyed delicate-looking creatures quickly turns to rage as Bambi bites all the flowers off of the tea rose.

Why do they do it? Why do the take a bite here, a bite there, and ruin all the pumpkins or melons in the patch instead of feeding on just one? Because they're browsers, not grazers. It's the way that deer eat. They're also edge species, moving from wood to meadow and back again, and when we carve up the woods to make suburbs, we provide more edges than nature ever intended, increasing their habitat many times over. They we lay out a banquet of roses and veggies for them. What else are they going to do but belly up to the buffet and sample everything, then trot off to the woods to make more little deer?

When I was a kid, though, I grew up in the country, where deer made regular treks across the front lawn and through the garden. We tried all the "sure-fire" remedies that we'd heard recommended. We hung aluminum pie tins out where they'd rattle in the breezes. It helped a bit with the birds, but the deer were unfazed. We hung strong-smelling soap -- Lifebuoy was the supposed magic brand -- but it had so little effect, we half-suspected the deer were showering with it. We scattered human hair around, but the deer seemed so used to the presence of humans already that this barely registered with them. We tried sprinkling blood meal around. Great fertilizer, lousy deer repellant. The only "deer-proof" plants that were ever actually deer proof seemed to be the daffodils. The rest were fair game, even if they were only second choice, and the only thing left during the dry season of August and September.

Besides, by the time you apply all the usual remedies, and reapply them frequently, you'll spend all of your gardening time hanging up noisemakers and applying noxious mixtures. Who wants a smelly, noisy garden anyway?

The only thing that ever worked were physical barriers. A simple fence made of metal stakes with twine slowed them down a bit, at least in the raised bed in the turnaround where the roses were. Late in the summer when everything dried up, they'd still manage to hop over this. The electric fence that Dad strung around the vegetable garden did a better job, as did the wire mesh cages -- simple cylinders of hardware cloth -- that went up around the blueberry bushes. And a taller, more permanent fence that he built around the permanent garden, where the berries and grapes were, managed to protect those plantings reasonably well.

I think it's a cycle that all gardeners go through. First you try what amounts to little folk charms because someone swears they'll work and they're cheap -- cheap that is until you lose that expensive perennial that you've been nursing along. Eventually you realize that "cheap" means spending the money to do things right in the first place. Up goes the fence, and the deer move on.

Since the configuration of our yard doesn't make it easy to fence, I'm hoping that the deer never discover us. But if they do -- well, I'd better start setting something aside against that day, because fencing everything in isn't going to be cheap. Either that, or build wire mesh covers, though I don't fancy keeping a cage farm.

The Washington Post has more on the subject, here: Not Yours to Munch, Deer.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Save Gas -- Grow Food

Every couple of years our family takes a road trip back to Indiana to see my mother-in-law. We often get off the freeway and see the sights, or just enjoy the scenery as we go.

As a gardener, of course I'm interested in what other people have in their gardens. One thing that has often struck me as we pass through ranch country and then Midwest farm country is the decided lack of visible vegetable gardens.

Maybe it's just the areas we pass through. Or maybe the farmers and ranchers are incredibly busy people. Or maybe it's an unfortunate trend. But when I see a house sitting in the middle of the sagebrush with nothing around it but a patch of lawn and no hint anywhere of food growing up around it, I have to wonder why. Is it really cost-effective to drive all the way to the nearest store, which looks to be an hour or so away at least, to get everything that the ranchers and their help eat? Having not been raised on a South Dakota ranch, I'm in no position to make a definitive statement on that. But I have to wonder, especially now with rising gas prices.

My grandmother spent part of her formative years on a potato farm in the bustling town of Tule Lake, California (just across the Oregon border from Klamath Falls). She grew up with gardening as a part of her life, and every year up until her 90's, she planted a vegetable garden. My parents grew up with victory gardens, during the war years when growing and preserving food was a patriotic act. When I was a kid, my parents grew and preserved corn, tomatoes, blueberries, raspberries, and lots of other produce, and we went to orchards to pick fruit for canning. This was such an integral part of my life that it seemed odd to me as I grew up to find that there were other people in the world who didn't grow so much as a parsley sprig or a strawberry that's worth eating.

We've gotten so used to perfect produce shipped from thousands of miles away that it no longer seems strange to see seasonal produce in the supermarkets all year long. But as gas prices continue to skyrocket, transportation costs for imported produce are increasing, which means the cost of the produce will increase along with it.

But it doesn't take a lot of gas and money to put fresh produce on our tables, not for people who have even a small patch of sunny earth to call their own. Along with other gardeners, I'm wondering if increases in fuel prices and resulting increases in food costs will spur a new gardening revival. So long as people are sensible about their gardening practices, and don't go to the extremes described in The $64 Tomato, growing some of your own food can help offset the rising grocery bill.

If you don't have a suitable spot for a vegetable patch, or don't have the time for a vegetable garden, buying locally-grown produce is a great alternative. Check out the 100 mile diet site, a terrific resource for people who want to buy their food from local growers and producers. The idea is to buy food that is grown within 100 miles of your home. That may sound like a long distance, but it's a whole lot better than the of 1,500 miles that the average food item travels from farm to plate -- and produce imported in the winter travels a whole lot farther than that.

How easy it is to go on the 100 mile diet may depend on where people live. Where I live there are lots of fruit farms and a handful of independent meat markets, as well as lots of fruit stands. It's not hard to find peaches, pears, cherries, blueberries, and other fruit for freezing and canning, and locally-grown meats at reasonable prices. Big cities often have farmer's markets where city folk can find farm-fresh produce. But while my mother-in-law can buy fresh corn in season in her area of Indiana, fruit farms are far scarcer than they are where I live.

If we all do what we can -- grow what we can, and buy what we can locally -- we can all make a contribution to fuel conservation.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Review: Garden Open Tomorrow

Review of Garden Open Tomorrow by Beverley Nichols (Copyright 1968; facsimile produced by Timber Press, 2002).

Garden Open Tomorrow, the sequel to Garden Open Today, is the last of Nichols' garden books, and carries with it the faint melancholy air of an author who knows this is, indeed, a "last" of anything. Nichols was no longer the springy young man who composed Down the Garden Path some thirty six years earlier. In 1968, he was 70 years old, and feeling the effects of age as he puttered about the garden of Sudbury cottage. Wind and winter are themes throughout, and Nichols gives advice on which plants to grow for winter blossoms, which will survive deep winter gales, and which plants to grow that will survive on windy heights. He also rails against the growing use of poisons in the garden, and narrates his own experiments with more earth-friendly forms of insect control.

By this time he was willing to admit, as he had not in earlier books, that most of the hard work was done by hired help. Indeed, in his chapter on gardening for the elderly, he advises hiring the heavy work done, and offers other tips for retirees who purchase a cottage in the English countryside, with the vision of turning a wilderness into a garden. Burning the ladder stands out most notably, since Nichols himself had an unfortunate habit of falling off of them. He also advises on plants that give excellent results with little care, particularly vines that will grow quickly but do not require trips up and down ladders to trim and care for them.

But all is not dark with thoughts of winter and death. There are cat ballets to enjoy, as the kittens Anthony and Trollop cavort in the heather, and an aged Five makes a cameo appearance to show them how it is done. There is an entire chapter on growing plants on alkaline soil, since chalk is the bane of many gardens in Britain. And there is a section on garden design, though Nichols' few forays into professional garden advice weren't always the sterling success one might imagine.

What is missing from this volume is the array of characters that sparkled across the pages of his earlier works. The mysterious Marius, whom we suspect of working for the secret service, drifts in and out a few times. Nichols' factotum, Gaskin, puts in a brief appearance, and the gardener, Page, is mentioned, though we know little about him. Page is not the Oldfield of the Merry Hall trilogy.

Instead, Garden Open Tomorrow is a more serious work, filled with gardening advice, as though the author wished he'd put more seriousness in his earlier garden books and so packed it all into his final gardening volume. Yet the humor that readers look forward to is still there, as well as Nichols' very decided opinions regarding plants and garden design.

For more on the author himself, see Beverley Nichols: A Life by Bryan Connon

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Review: The Gardener

Review of The Gardener by Sara Stewart, illustrated by David Small (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1997). A Caldecott Honor book.

It's 1935, and Lydia Grace Finch is on the train, traveling from her grandparent's farmhouse in the country, to her Uncle Jim in the big city. The Great Depression has put Lydia's father out of work, but Uncle Jim can use some help in his bakery, and Lydia is just right for the job.

In a series of letters, first to her Uncle Jim, then to her family back home, Lydia narrates a story of her own inner strength that gives her the courage to travel alone, to a new home in a strange new place, yet never succumb to fear and doubt.

For Lydia is a gardener, and with her she carries a gardener's hope and packets of seeds. She tells her Uncle Jim that she knows a lot about gardening and nothing about baking, but she's anxious to learn about baking, and is there any place to plant seeds?

Uncle Jim never smiles, but he's no ogre, either, and Lydia fits right in. She's excited to find that there are window boxes on the bakery building and the rooms upstairs where they live, though the window boxes are empty.

Throughout the winter, Lydia works in the bakery learning the trade -- and works quietly on a secret that she's building with cracked teacups, bent cakepans, and dirt from a vacant lot down the street. Up the fire escape she discovers a secret place where she can carry out her plans, with the help of one of her uncle's assistants.

The comes spring, and Lydia's suprise blossoms -- literally -- in window boxes, half-barrels, and, best of all, in Lydia's surprise for her uncle.

The Gardener is a beautiful picture book for children, but you don't need kids in the house to enjoy its lovely illustrations and timeless message. Send a copy to any displaced gardener you know who is stuck in the city without a speck of dirt to dig, or keep a copy for yourself to cheer the gray winter months.

Live Leopards -- as Garden Decor?!?!

There has to be one in every community, doesn't there? You know, the person who thinks "neighborly" is for weenies and can't understand why the neighbors are upset with the rifle range or stock car track or whatever bit of macho memorabilia that's appeared in his back yard.

In a neighborhood south of London, it's a fellow -- claiming all the while to be an avid conservationist -- who wants to keep live leopards in 12 foot cages in his back yard. The neighbors are upset, but the magistrates have allowed it after a vet declared the cages "adequate" to house the cats.

Doesn't look like anyone asked the leopards if a 12 foot cage is truly "adequate." Read the story on the BBC website: Man Can Keep Leopards in Garden.

Monday, May 29, 2006

In Memoriam

My father, Don J. Lytle (1931-1999), U.S. Air Force, Korea
My uncle, Richard Hiday (1914-1945), U.S. Army, World War II
My grandfather, James W. Lytle (1892-1951), U.S. Army, World War I
My friend, Robert Solonika (1962-1982), U.S. Army

Thanks, guys.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Renovation Under the Hobbit Tree

With the Hobbit Tree all trimmed up (as told in The Hobbit Tree Got a Haircut), and with some likely plants gathered together, it was time to renovate the bed underneath it. I'd been wanting to fix it up for quite some time, but it didnt' seem worthwhile to fix it up all nice and pretty just to get it trampled when the tree trimmers came through. Those folks get paid by the job, and it's in their best interests to get the job done as quickly as possible, which leaves them no time to be delicately tiptoeing around someone else's tulips. If you want work crews to be careful of your plants, you've got to say things like, "And there's an extra $50 in it for you if you can get the job done without crushing my plants." And even then there's no guarantee that they'll know the difference between your prize dianthus and a dandelion.

At any rate, with the crews gone and any damage already done, renovation could begin. I'll do like the old Charles Atlas ads in the comic books -- not with muscular guys in Speedos, but with "before" and "after" pictures. So here's "before":

The grape hyacinths have died back, the wild bleeding hearts are fading, and the hostas, now exposed to sunlight more than before, are getting sunburnt. Some clumps of yellow Sysirinchium are still doing all right, though it's so hard to tell it apart from a particularly nasty grass that's been invading the bead that weeding requires painful delicacy.

Here's "before" from another angle.

Still lots of twigs and debris from the trimming, and with all the dying grape hyacinths, this patch really needs some help. Plants that I had high hopes for have faded over the years, leaving a haphazard arrangement of the survivors. While it's not absolutely dreadful, it could still be much better.

Now here's "during":

Yuck. Looks like a mine field. But things often have to get worse before they get better, and a flower bed is no exception. I've raked up most of the debris, some of which is piled up on the right, and rough-dug the bed, loosening the soil so that the earthworms can have free reign. The dwarf boxwood is fine where it is, but I'm wondering at this point about the pulmonarias, and a large clump of violets. The hostas are in the process of getting moved. Some have already been relocated nearer the base of the tree to help cover the bare stems of the rose. After this I spread three bags of steer manure and rough-dug that it.

And here's "after":
After raking everything smooth, I planted some new plants. The hostas are now all clustered near the tree, as are several young blue columbines, transplanted from another flower bed. The "Red Hobbit" columbine is near these. In front of the columbines I've put some scarlet coral bells. There's a deer tongue fern near the box. I planted some tiny aubrietas and creeping penstemons near the front, both of which are low and will spread. After planting everything, I watered in all the transplants, and spread four sacks of hemlock bark to protect the soil and keep in the moisture. In the picture there's still some debris to clear up and the sidewalk needs swept. But it's looking a whole lot better, and will be fabulous when the plants grow up, fill in, and start blooming like crazy.

Not a bad day's work if I do say so myself.