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.)