Sunday, October 13, 2019

The End Has Come

This scene is no more.

The decaying corpses of these plants still stand... for the moment... but the brilliance of their photosynthesizing life is gone. Our first freeze of the season arrived yesterday morning and summer is truly gone, taking with it the last of the summer vegetables and tender annuals such as these. To the right of the red amaranth are -- were -- bell peppers. To the left of the golden marigolds were nasturtiums and eggplant; all now slain by the freeze.

Gone are the okra, tomatoes (many of which I took down weeks ago), watermelon, long beans, and cantaloupe. The cucumbers, which provided an overwhelming harvest, have been gone (to my relief) for a few weeks, as well.

Often I am reluctant to let go of summer, especially when the first frost/freeze comes early, as this one did. I drag sheets and blankets out to the garden to save the peppers and at least some of the tomatoes, as well as any other summer resident that I deem worthy.

Tomatoes, zinnias and nasturtiums. All now gone.
Not this year. I felt almost relieved when the first frost showed up in the forecast. I dug the sweet potatoes, picked a half bushel or more of green and not quite green peppers, as well as a gallon of hot peppers. I picked a few green tomatoes -- only the two Brandywine, and two Sun Gold plants were left, anyway. Gathered the last okra pods and any other summer vegetable, as well the red raspberries which were still putting on new berries. I went to bed Friday night feeling ready.

When I went out the next morning and found the nasturtiums and melons that shared a bed, melted and dead, I felt no remorse. Instead I felt a surge of joy, a soaring lightness. I felt eager to begin the clearing away. No longer will I feel the urgency of harvesting and processing the summer crops.

That didn't end my harvesting, however. Kale, cabbage, lettuce, bok choy, turnips, carrots, winter radishes, and a few others still grow, made all the better tasting for the chill. These I hope to keep going well into winter with some protection. Plus I have all the summer bounty tucked away in the freezer, or dehydrated and sitting in jars on the pantry shelf. I think I can eat until next season's harvest begins.

Nasturtiums, peppers, okra (background), and datura. Only the leeks (showing
 just behind the peppers and datura) remain
The only thing I will miss are the zinnias, those brilliant flower fireworks. On Friday evening, as dusk deepened I gathered in zinnias, so now (for the first time this year, can you believe it?) bouquets of zinnias are scattered about the house, along with a couple of vases of deep purple twice-blooming iris.

It's time to turn inward, into the house, into my heart, into my soul. Oh you can bet I've still got plenty to do in the garden -- fences to remove and erect, clearing to do -- the tasks never end. But it's all without urgency. I can afford to turn inward.

This afternoon I sat in the middle of the garden, sun warming my shoulders, my eyes closed, and felt the green energy sinking down, into the earth. I embraced the change of seasons, and heard the whole world breathe a contented sigh as it snuggles in, to rest.

Soon the evidence of that movement downward, inward will be apparent as leaves turn color, then fall. The kale and other cold-season vegetables will eventually be shrouded -- first in white, then in plastic -- to give them just a little extra time to grow. The leeks, carrots and radishes will all be dug, and a fire will roar in our stove. All in their time.

Today, however, I will sit in the sun and let summer go.








Sunday, August 4, 2019

Of Cucumbers, Tomatoes and Bagworms

Miniature White Cucumbers, my favorite. Productive, crunchy, small seeded, and rarely bitter.
It's been a fruitful summer.

If you come to my house over the next month, it's quite likely I will coerce you into -- I mean -- offer you as many cucumbers as you could possibly want. My neighbor has come up at least twice to pick cucumbers. Today some friends who came over went home with loads of cukes. Last night I took some to a gathering and implored people to take some home with them. I always have more than we can consume, and it is no different this year, even though I planted fewer cucumbers than usual. Why does it seem like I have more than usual?

I eat fresh cucumbers every day and have made more than three gallons of fermented cucumber pickles. Do I really need a fourth gallon? Maybe.

In a quest for something else to do with cucumbers I discovered numerous fresh salads that combine cucumbers with tomatoes, peppers, onions and whatever other summer veggies are on hand, such as Panzanella (minus the bread crumbs for me) and Fatoush (which I fell in love with while dining from the Sunday buffet at a local Mediterranean restaurant). Of course there's tatziki, a Mediterranean sauce/dip made with Greek yogurt, grated cucumber and dill, with the option of adding mint. I love all these. Guess I'll make some Fatoush for tomorrow.

But I've also discovered Gazpacho. Not exactly "discovered." I've known about gazpacho for a long time, but always went, "Cold soup? Um... no." However, desperation sets in and I tried an intriguing gazpacho recipe that uses 1 pound of cucumbers, 1 pound of tomatillos, half a medium onion, one clove garlic, half a poblano chili, and 1/4 cup olive oil.

I don't have tomatillos, so I used Sun Gold cherry tomatoes instead. I doubled the garlic (ONE clove garlic? What good is that?). I didn't have poblanos, so I use a little bit of chipotle. It all goes into the blender and is well-chilled before serving. OK, so, Yum. I mean YUM. I'll make it again and I'm waiting to try another gazpacho that uses arugula and "tender" herbs, such as basil, cilantro, parley when the arugula gets growing well again. It seems that gazpacho variations are many.

But I think tomorrow I'll make fatoush, without the feta.

Of course these salads all use tomatoes as well as cucumbers. That's just fine, as the tomatoes are doing quite well. I'm not so desperate to have other people pick those, as they are easy to preserve, although I do share. The Amish Paste get sliced and dehydrated. The Black Vernissage (apparently the Vernissage group also has pink, yellow and green varieties) that don't get used fresh in the salads will be roasted and frozen in wide-mouth canning jars. Pink Brandywine is best fresh and is The Best fresh tomato, in my opinion. But it's easy to have an excess, so some will be dried, roasted or given away. Fortunately they aren't a super productive variety and I planted just two.

Now we come to the bagworms, of which we also have a bumper crop this year. Unfortunately, I wasn't aware that it would be a bumper crop at the optimum time to manage them (June-ish) by spraying Bt, a biological control. After it became apparent, I just sort of... not "just sort of," I purposely and actively ignored them. By August they've done most of their feeding and so it's not any use spraying. Now they hang like ornaments almost every few inches along all the branches of many of our red cedar trees. With luck, they haven't actually killed any, at least not the important ones.

One of last year's Monarchs shortly after emerging.
I'm not sure why they're so abundant this year, other insects seem to be in short supply. The milkweeds I planted for the Monarch butterflies have not been eaten by Monarch caterpillars, although caterpillars of the Tufted Tiger Moth (I guess they're also known as the Milkweed Tussock Moth) completely devoured a couple of the plants. They tend to swarm the plants, whereas Monarch Butterflies lay just one egg per leaf. Still a Monarch caterpillar can pretty much eat an entire plant.

I've seen a few Black Swallowtail caterpillars -- the benefit of having an abundance of dill and fennel -- but no Silvery Checkerspot larvae on the echinaceas. Even the squash bugs seem in short supply, but maybe that's because the squash also is in short supply. The Japanese beetles also have been blessedly scarce. I'm curious as to what next summer will bring insect-wise. Late cold weather this past winter/early spring might have reduced many of the insect populations...

But not the bagworm population. Why?

I'm not sure even the entomologists can answer that one.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Preparing for the Heat

I've spent a good part of this week so far watering food plants in preparation for several days of high temperatures near or at 100 degrees. I will continue to water something every day. The blueberries will need water every day until the temperature moderates. Everything in pots will need close watching.

My new schedule has me outside early and quitting about 1 p.m. before the heat hits its high. I came in today at 1:15, my clothes soaked as if I'd jumped in the pond. The temperature was 95 degrees F. Too sunny, too hot, too humid. Drink lots of water, folks. It's hot out there. And it will get hotter.

I'm not going to complain, though. It is July in Kansas. We've been fortunate so far. I worked under a cloud-covered sky this morning, which was nice. It was only 85 degrees then, but the beating sun can make even that temperature a shirt soaker. So the clouds were a nice touch. Thank you, Universe. And just when I went in for brunch at 10 a.m., a surprise shower began to fall. Nothing measureable, but it felt good to have rain.

What Kansas is experiencing this week is nothing compared to what other places have experienced. It's not supposed to be in the mid-90s in Alaska, but it was. Last summer (which occurred during our winter) Australia had an incredible heat wave.

And yet people seem oblivious to climate change. But I see it. When you keep your eye on the ramblings of the season as closely as I do, you know when things fall out of whack. And they're out of whack. I know it's a difficult thing to face, but if we're going to make changes that will make a difference, we must face it.

Start by calling your Congress Critters and asking them why climate change, the Climate Crisis, isn't front and center. Why are we allowing bee-killing pesticides to be sprayed over large areas, and toxic crap to be dumped into water? Why aren't we pushing solar and wind power and making changes? Why isn't my grandchildren's future important? Why are we busy manufacturing a crisis at the border instead of dealing with a real crisis, climate change?

But what can I do as an individual besides yelling at the Congress Critters? Plant trees. Look for ways to reduce your carbon footprint, such as driving less, turning off electronics not in use, eating less meat, buying local produce... We do what we can and hope for the best.
Cucumbers fermenting. Dill pickles.

Depression over climate change and the potential lack of any real future is a new thing among young people. I have struggled with it. There is every possibility that, barring a large truck bearing down on me, I could be around for another 30, even 40 years... if climate change doesn't make that impossible. I want every possible moment of life. I want my grandchildren to have every opportunity for a good life. Climate change isn't some conspiracy theory. It's real.

So, enough. I don't like to get preachy on this blog, but we really should be yelling at the people in charge about this. We're supposed to be in charge, but... no I won't go there.

Tomorrow I'm not going to worry about it. I'm just going to do what I can do. And enjoy life as much as possible, regardless of the forecast.

I'll enjoy working in the garden in the morning and whatever indoor projects need to be done in the afternoon... I'll bundle and hang the garlic to dry, watch the cucumbers fermenting on the counter, work on a presentation I have to give on Saturday, vacuum the floors (let's not get crazy now)... Focus on the Now.

For Now I only have to deal with a week or so of high heat. I'll deal with the future heat when it arrives.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Life...

This hummer liked to sit on the glass snail that sits in the pot where the wrens built their nest.
I miss my little neighbors.

A month or two ago a pair of Carolina wrens built a nest cozied in between two plants in a large pot on our front porch. Within no time five little eggs occupied the nest, then five gaping mouths (that was all we could see of the babies in the deep nest). We anticipated watching the babies eventually fledge.

The plants in the pot started looking a bit ragged because I was afraid to water much. I didn't want to flood the nest, especially after the babies hatched. While we sat on our porch at meals, we watched the parents come with caterpillars or other tasty treats, then go again. Often they would perch on top of an iron sculpture at the corner of the porch and belt out a beautiful trill before flying off to go hunting.

Then one morning, a week ago, my husband went onto the front porch and saw the nest overturned and empty. The parents returned, screeching in anguish. It was heart-wrenching.

I know that feeling. A few years ago a cardinal pair built a nest in the bay tree on our front porch. I loved pulling back the shade a crack to look at the eggs, then the nestlings. But one day I looked out and the babies were gone. It must have just happened, because the parents returned and went into hysterics. It tore my heart out.

A year or two before that, cardinals nested in the bay tree. Only to lose the nestlings.

Life is hard for bird parents. It makes me wonder just how many bird babies actually make it out of the nest alive. After watching cardinal parents lose babies from their nests in the bay tree, I saw a cardinal nest tucked away at the top of the black raspberry brambles. It was difficult to see, even when I knew where to look. Surely these babies will fledge.

But, no. They too perished too soon.

Being so small and tasty and easy to capture, baby song birds are on many critters' dinner lists -- snakes, cats, raccoons, other birds. Even squirrels will eat birds from time to time, I recently learned.

Squirrels? No wonder one of the wren parents chittered with such concern when a squirrel was lurking about on our porch. I couldn't figure out why the wren was so concerned about a squirrel. It was as much of a mystery to as is what the silly squirrels like to do on our porch. Sometimes they seem to be licking the concrete. What?

Anyway, we figure the squirrel go the baby wrens, and a squirrel was possibly the culprit in taking out the cardinal babies.

How do song birds cope with losing their young so frequently? I guess they just build another nest and lay more eggs.

Life.

We've decided that if other birds start nest building on our front porch that we're going to prevent them by removing any nesting material they lay down. Maybe the birds have learned to cope with their frequent losses, but I don't think I can.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Abundance


This morning's harvest.

Four kinds of lettuce, peppermint, and nasturtiums, with a handful of snow peas underneath the peppermint.

The lettuce, nasturtiums and snow peas became salad, and the peppermint became cold tea. A refreshing summer repast.

This blog post comes to you courtesy of one of my followers (I have followers? Oh my!) who sent me a message yesterday wondering if I was all right. It's been March since my last posting, after all. (That long? Oh dear.)

I've had a lot of blog posts go through my head since then. So much happens in the garden from March through June. The poppies, purple cone flowers, lilies and yarrow were magnificent and still look lovely, even though they're moving past their prime. What's next?

In the spring my husband urged me to plant lettuce, lettuce and more lettuce. So I did, even adding another "even more lettuce." Now we have more lettuce than we know what to do with. Abundance.

Abundance came in other ways, such as a bumper crop of pie cherries. Cherries, cherries, and more cherries. Unfortunately, as it is with great wealth, I couldn't pick all the cherries before it was too late. We bought a cherry pitter, which significantly speeded up that process. But with everything else to do, I just couldn't get them all and many cherries rotted on the tree. What I did harvest will be held preciously.

We also have apricots. Just the ones I've gathered off the ground were more than we've gotten in all nine years since I planted the tree. Somehow those left in the tree are disappearing. Either they're being eaten as soon as they fall to the ground, or someone is stealing them from the tree. Hmmm....

This week I'll be picking cabbages. Lots of cabbages. Sauerkraut, stir fry, roasted cabbage "steaks," the possibilities are endless. No babies in the cabbage patch yet. (Does anyone continue that fairytale?) Yesterday I started a batch of green sauerkraut. In a day or two I'll start red cabbage sauerkraut. So looking forward to it.

Bonus lily photo.
The peppermint is going crazy. I'm actually managing to dry up a bunch of herbs -- peppermint, tulsi, sage, oregano, etc. -- to use for tea and cooking. I don't always manage that. With so many tasks to do I am easily distracted.

We've also had an abundance of rain this summer. May was drenching. Our pond filled again, for the first time in a few years. June was much drier on my hilltop, but dropped six inches of rain over three days last week. The forecast looks a bit more "normal" for the coming week, hot and drier but with a slight chance of rain, which if it comes will fall in torrents with lots of nature's fireworks to rival the human-made ones. The early rain kept me out of the garden, but encouraged the weeds. Weeds, weeds, weeds, and abundance of weeds. I'm weeding, weeding, and weeding. What to do today? Weed or pick cabbages or trim raspberries or climb the tree and get the last of the apricots? Oh look, the peaches are turning.

Better get to them before the squirrels do.

Up next, elderberries and summer apples. And starting cabbages (again?) and other vegetables for the fall garden.

Because I promised readers of my newspaper column, here are some links to gardening guides. From Seed Savers Exchange . The K-State Research and Extension Garden Guide.

Enjoy.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Spring... a Tentative Step

Juniper contemplating the disappearing snow less than a week ago. She thinks spring is on its way.
The snow has disappeared -- except for a tiny patch where we piled snow scooped from in front of our garage.

The snow is gone, as are single digit temperatures (please, please, please). The winter aconite survived the minus 3 degrees Fahrenheit while blanketed in snow.

The snow is gone, but the yellow flowers remain, looking much like sunshine bubbling out of the earth. A quick look today revealed the yellowed tips of daffodil blades, spiky crocus leaves, and the tips of surprise lily leaves.

Yesterday and today I walked barefoot in the garden. Where the sun shone, the ground was warm enough. But ice remains in the ground where shade lies all day. It will be gone soon, though, soon.

I've been able to set my baby cabbages, broccoli, and other spring vegetable transplants on the front porch to harden off. With good fortune we'll have a run of dry sunny weather before the end of March so I can set them in the ground. A few days ago I started peppers and eggplants. Sometime this week I'll start tomatoes. Maybe I'll even plant peas in the garden later this week when it clears off, briefly.

We've started buying our wood for next winter. With luck, the wood we bought last year will last through the cold weather this spring.

It is spring. It feels like spring. The birds say it's spring, and the calendar says spring begins next week. I'll take it. Finally. I hope.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Prairie Posting: Native Resiliency

Blue sage, a native salvia, waves beautiful blossoms in the tallgrass prairie in late summer.
I grew up on the eastern edge of the Flint Hills, probably the largest expanse of virgin tallgrass prairie left in existence. The prairie is home to me, it's part of who I am. Even though I don't live in the midst of tallgrass prairie now, restoring and preserving a tiny piece of prairie near my home feels essential.

At one time, before European settlers began plowing, the central portion of North America, up into Canada, was covered in tallgrass prairie, with medium and shortgrass prairies covering dryer parts of the region. Little of that virgin prairie remains. In some states, less than 5 percent of the original prairie still stands. Kansas, however, has a large portion of the remaining prairie.

Most likely, what saved much of this tallgrass prairie is the terrain. Too rocky and hilly to make good cropland, it was, and still is, ideal for pasturing livestock. Large herds of grazing animals -- bison, elk, deer, and others -- served as a major force in preventing the prairies from being overtaken by woody plants and turning into woodlands. Along with the grazers, periodic fires pushed out the woody plants. At some point, the indigenous people of this land learned to use fire to their advantage, as the succulent growth that followed a prairie fire drew these grazers that provided food, skins, bones for tools, and other resources. And the excrement and urine of these animals fed the prairie plants, creating a lush grassland.
Butterfly on a butterfly milkweed, Asclepias tuberosa

The prairies aren't just grasses, though. They also contain many, many species of forbs, better known to you as "wildflowers," that fed adult and larval forms of the thousands of species of native insects. Many factors, including the loss of habitats containing native plant species, have significantly reduced the number of native insect populations.

The loss of insect populations is quite obvious to me. At one time, when I went driving at night the front end of my car would become crusted with the smashed corpses of insects that jumped or flew into my path. I no longer need to scrub that crust off the car, regardless of how often I drive at night.

Great! You might be thinking. No more bugs!

But hold on a minute. Insects are the foundation of any ecosystem, as they are at the bottom of the food chain. A dramatic drop in the insect population creates a great loss in populations of creatures that depend upon them for sustenance -- birds, frogs, toads, other amphibians and small reptiles, and birds. Oh. Did I say "birds" twice?

Many people might not care much for amphibians and reptiles (and many do), but birds, now... that's a different story. Why else would people spend so much time and money on bird feeders and bird food? Those sunflower seeds you feed them certainly helps survival, especially in hard winters, but birds need insects. That's their source of protein for their young. They don't feed chicks sunflower seeds, they feed them insects.

"Most caterpillars don't turn into butterflies and moths," said Betsy Betros, entomologist, "they turn into birds."

A pair of mated chickadees must hunt down 10,000 caterpillars in order to raise one clutch of chicks, Betros said during a recent panel discussion on "Native Plants for a Resilient Kansas." A more conservative estimate by author Douglas Tallamy (who was not on the recent panel), who wrote "Bringing Nature Home," was 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars. That's still a lot of caterpillars to raise five to 10 chicks. And black-capped chickadees are tiny birds. Imagine how many bugs it takes to raise a clutch of larger birds.
Echinacea paradoxa

The value of these birds goes beyond delighting us with their antics at feeders and their love songs. They also serve as food for larger birds -- owls, hawks, eagles -- as well as some mammals. All creatures eventually become food for something, be it vultures and other scavengers, or microorganisms. A significant decrease in populations of critters at the bottom of the food chain means decreasing numbers of critters all the way up the food chain. Except for humans. It seems we keep reproducing and growing in numbers in spite of all the signs that we should stop.

And then there are the native pollinators -- mostly insects here -- who are responsible for keeping the wildflower and food populations going. Bees, not just honeybees (which are not native here), are the most critical pollinators. With dire predictions of the potential collapse of the beautiful Monarch butterfly, everyone is planting milkweeds. But we need to do more to sustain all other native pollinators. While some of the non-native flowering plants we put in our garden will provide food for some of our native pollinators, our native plants attract a much larger variety of these insects.

Many insects -- particularly moths and butterflies -- use only one genera of plants as food for their caterpillars. For example, the Monarch's preference is for milkweed species. My common milkweed plants get eaten to the bone by larvae of the Monarch butterfly and the Tufted Tiger Moth. But that's the point. We need nurseries for the young, not just nectar and pollen sources. Native pollinating insect adults also seem to prefer pollen and nectar from native plants.

Plant native flowers. Save the world. Or at least save the insects... which amounts to the same thing. STOP USING INSECTICIDES. Provide habitat. Many of our native bees nest deep in the soil, an adaptation to survive prairie fires. Support organizations, such as the Kaw Valley Native Plant Coalition, and Grassland Heritage Foundation, and others that work to preserve and restore native prairies. They and others also are great sources of information on what natives to grow.

To learn more about various insects, check out Bug Guide by Iowa State University. This page is all about dragonflies and their relatives. Look for Betros's new book, "A Photographic Field Guide to the Butterflies in the Kansas City Regions." The more you know about insects, the more you'll love them.