A Few Warm Days in February

February 11th, 2009

Storms and rain since yesterday, but we had a really nice run of warm weather and I took advantage of the time to catch up on outdoor chores.   It was even time to clean up the garden and prune a host of shrubs.  The timing worked out well with today’s rain- I was able to burn a small garage-sized pile of brush that had accumulated since November.  I only burn after (or during) rainfall, when the winds are calm.   The temperatures are dropping back down to the forties now, but yesterday was amazing.  I was out in a t-shirt in 70 degree weather happily mulching the garden.   Maybe in a few months that will change to happily munching in the garden!

It was time to paint the old bluebird nest boxes too… there’s always some paint around that can be used for something.  The young boy loves to paint!

 Painting Bluebird nest boxes

The weather was so warm we saw a handful of bugs flying around.  Last night this little critter landed on the glass door- the young boy stood on the inside saying it looked like a T, so we called it a T-bug.   I went out and took its picture, and didn’t realize until looking at the picture today that he had traced his own T on the opposite side of the glass.  Update:  A little Googling revealed this critter is in the family of Plume Moths…

The T-Bug

Now we need to find some organic mulch or compost to topdress the garden rows, and we’ll be ready to plant starts and seeds next month or early April.  Before last year I had accumulated enough leaves and grass clippings to have our own mulch, but last year the bagger broke and I just cut the leaves up on the grass.   Going to fix that this year and keep building our own mulch pile again- it’s too easy to have your own, and too expensive to get it someplace else.  Of course if we had some goats or chickens that would be different…  heck, if things get any worse out there we may need to…  

Nothing like a helping hand of the loader bucket to carry the brush and clippings away.  I really like roses… but it’s not fun pruning them.  We’re still experimenting with growing vegetables organically, keeping the weeds down and improving the soil.  Haven’t found a system that works very well yet, but it’s probably more like that old quote about gardens needing lots of moisture… it’s mostly in the form of perspiration! 

 Cleaning up the garden

Pile-O-Piglets and Other Critters

October 21st, 2008

Last Friday we went to a fun night for families at the elementary school.  It was great seeing the kids go crazy, and enjoy some silly activities.  They even had a mini-petting zoo with a cute “pile-o-piglets.”  These little guys were pretty tuckered out from all the attention.  It would be neat to raise some  pigs as Ron’s family has done this year, but I’m not so sure we could, uh, invite them to dinner if you know what I mean! 

Pile of piglets

It has been wonderful weather outside, and a chance to get a lot done.  Of course it’s nice to just enjoy the outdoors as well, and after school yesterday we jumped in a little paddleboat on the pond.  The boy loved paddling around collecting leaves, while the basset hound followed around the shoreline going “Bowwooo!”   We saw a few of our large Koi swimming around.  There should be five in the pond, but we’ve only seen four recently…  we call this one “Orangey.”  I’m not sure how big they’ll get, but compared to those oak leaves this one is really growing.  I’ve heard they can live for decades.

Big Koi named Orangey


The big garden news:  After planting 3-4 watermelon starts and watching dozens of vines grow and flowers bloom this year, we finally have our ** ONE ** watermelon for the year.  Yipee! I don’t know why the plants didn’t set more fruit… they were in full sun and really nice soil. We’ll see how this one ripens before we try it.   Our pumpkins didn’t set this year either.  Maybe it was too much rain?

 Homegrown watermelon

But the tomatoes are doing great- and I put up another 3 quarts of spaghetti sauce.  We’ve got enough green tomatoes on the plants still for another 3-4 quarts of sauce, but I may have to pick them all before we get our first frost.  For now we’re enjoying cool nights and warm days.  The frost can just stay away, thank you very much!

For the bug aficianados out there, here’s blue and black butterfly of some kind.  I thought it was a swallowtail of some type, but can’t quite identify it.  ***Update***  Beetle Doc was kind enough to tell us this is a “Red-Spotted Purple” butterfly.  That’s what I was going to say! Not… :) 

Unknown black and blue butterfly

And here’s a Comma butterfly, or maybe a Question Mark (yes, that’s a butterfly name!).  It’s the first one I’ve seen here.

Comma butterfly in October

Okay, one more bug today. This little thing is really strange.  It’s a wood wasp of some type I think, and was flying along just above the ground.  It’s about 2 inches long!  That long part is normally an ovipositor for laying eggs.  But again, I tried and was not able to identify it.  Anyone? The wings are a blur as it is flying along in this picture.  *** Update ***  Beetle Doc got this one right too! It’s an Ichnuemonid wasp, and lays eggs into larvae of beetles, caterpillars and other wasps using that long ovipositor.  Strange critter…

Uknown Wood wasp

More Gifts from the Garden

September 30th, 2008

It’s one of those beautiful early fall days today, crisp and cool with bright sunshine.  Can we have a few more months of this please?  I love summer for the warmth, the garden, the outdoor fun… but the cooler weather is so invigorating!

The garden is slowing down, but there are still vegetables to be found.   The beans are almost finished, but I keep picking them here and there.  The beets have grown through the summer and I’m collecting them now.  I was hoping the beets would grow a little larger. I think I didn’t space them out enough, and I need to augment the soil a little better probably.  The cucumbers have finally given up for the year, but the tomatoes have come into their own.  There are many larger red and green tomatoes on the vine, so hopefully we’ll have a few more weeks for them to grow before the first frost.

Vegetable bounty in September

When is the frost in your area?  We usually get it about the middle of October.  Just enough to snap the annual plants for the year.  I suppose we need a month or two of this weather because it helps us clean up the garden and everything else before winter.  The leaves have begun to drift off the trees, slowly and gently falling with the wind.

Doggy Treats in the Garden

September 9th, 2008

The past couple of years I have worked hard to train my young Labrador Retriever.  He’s a smart and gentle dog, and will do just about anything  you ask.  If he’s not good at something, it’s because his trainer (me!) doesn’t know how to teach him.  This will hopefully be his first real season with ducks, and he turns two years old in a few weeks. 

But he’s also full of surprises.  Last year I threw him a tomato hornworm from the garden, which he happily munched up… yuck! 

Tomato Hornworm, a Labrador treat! 

The other day as I was picking some beans, I looked over to see him sniffing the tomato plants, and then looked again to see him playing with, and then eating something on the ground.  He had found, and picked off his own tomato hornworm!  

Labrador Retriever in the garden

My first thought for how to explain this: “Uh, well, I don’t know how he is on ducks, but man you should see him retrieve tomato hornworms!”   He wanted to sniff out a few more himself, but he has a knack for pulling off entire branches of the tomato plant too.  So I found a few myself and threw them to him.  He seems to have a taste for those little suckers.   Maybe when we go duck hunting, I’ll take a few hornworms with me and rub them on the birds?!

Jam and Jelly Skies in Summer

August 28th, 2008

The past few days have started a fun-filled week of outdoor activities, fresh air and just good ‘ole fashioned country living.   Which translated means getting a lot of work done and not writing on the blog nearly enough.  But it seems many of the trees have been shedding branches this summer, so it’s been round-up time for the big burn pile.  Next time we get a good day or two of rain, we’ll think of burning some brush.

Catching up with the grass and garden is also part of the mix, and we’re seeing what may be the last of the hot summer days this week.

But what is it about a beautiful sunset that fires the imagination?  Cutting the grass in the evening the other day I watched the sky turn to dusky orange, pink and purple.  For a brief moment the pond and the sky are almost one, glowing with color.

Sunset at Fox Haven © Fox Haven Media - 2008

Which reminds me of the colors of elderberry jam and grape jelly.  Those Concord grapes from a few days ago?  I decided to mess up the kitchen and they’ve already been converted to delicious, gooey jelly.  Beautiful purple and very grape tasting, with a little tart flavor to go with the sweet.   Here’s a bowl of concord grape juice after cooking only 3 pounds of those grapes down for about 20 minutes.  It’s so neat to have something from the yard turn into something you can use in the future.

Homegrown Concord Grape juice ready to make jelly

But even better is the Elderberry jam, at least I think so.  From the middle to late August, the elderberry plants are full of fruit, with heads or corymbs of purple-black berries.  It’s a strange little berry that doesn’t taste very good by itself.  Some folks believe the berries are toxic if not cooked first.  Never made it before, but after learning about elderberries I thought it would be a neat experiment.  I combined the elderberries with a little of the Concord grapes and the flavor is wonderful.   I’m no expert with jam or jelly, but it seemed to turn out pretty well.

Corymb of fresh Elderberries

Where did I get the elderberries?  Some were found on our property, but even more from driving the countryside and spotting a bush here and there.  Today I even spied a few full heads of berries off a main road (one used for this picture!), and I had to park quite a ways down and walk back.  I just couldn’t let them be wasted… so there I was, feeling guilty walking past several country houses, standing in a roadside ditch cutting off heads of elderberries.

I know the folks driving by wondered what in the heck I was doing. And yes, these are little berries, not much larger than BB’s.  How do you get them off?  It takes time with a fork or nimble fingers (which will turn purple in a short while).  One of the easiest ways is to freeze the whole bag full of the heads of elderberries.  Then bring them out and the berries pop off much easier, as well as much more “bug free”!  But although tedious, the end result is worth it.

There are many types of elderberry around the world, and a few that are too toxic to eat.  Even our local Sambuca nigra can be toxic if one eats the leaves or stems, and some say the raw elderberries are toxic as well.  As I said, the berries don’t taste very good fresh, but when made into jam or jelly it becomes very special.

Dad making Elderberry jam and Concord grape jelly

So I cooked 2+ pounds of elderberries down for about 20-30 minutes, and then combined them with pressed Concord grape juice from about a pound of grapes.   Of course both the elderberries and grapes went through a food mill after cooking them down in order to remove the seeds and skin, resulting in the juicy, pulpy mix above ready to make jam or jelly.  Some recipes use cheesecloth or something to strain the cooked berries to a clear juice, but I love the pulpy mix in the jam or jelly, so the food mill helps retain a thicker mix.

Homemade Concord Grape jelly

And look how much jelly that same juice has made!?  I’m amazed what you can do with a few pounds of grapes.  Homegrown and homemade from the garden in less than a week.  Not sure I can see doing this very often however, as it’s a messy business.  But the family enjoyed eating the grape jelly after helping to pick, stem and make it.And it’s Oh so good!  Just a little tart and yummy sweet combined, awesome for toast or biscuits.

The grape jelly set beautifully within in a few minutes, but my first time at making it meant that the elderberry jam is a little thin still and hasn’t set quite yet.  And I even made it twice to try and get it to set!  Think it needed more sugar, but I was trying to keep the sugar content as low as possible.  No matter, as we’ll use it for syrup or a health tonic.  Some believe elderberry juice can help ward off cold or flu and serves as an immune booster.

There is a product I like called Sambucol which is an Israeli-developed elderberry syrup that has been shown to have anti-viral effects for flu.  It’s not cheap, and who knows if it really works. But they make a good argument for the health effects, and maybe those old-timers knew something we didn’t about elderberry syrup and wine?  Elderberry was also revered as a magical plant in 17th century Britain and Europe.  They say that fairies live and play around elderberry plants and that on the Isle of Man every house has an elderberry nearby to ward off evil spirits.   Around here those fairies must dance a lot to avoid getting run over by cars with all the elderberry plants on the roadside! ;)  But most of the literature involves the medicinal aspects, and apparently a host of folks use the early summer flowers as a tonic or for herbal teas.

I don’t know much about all of that or the health aspects, but the jam sure has a unique flavor and if it’s even remotely healthy that’s good enough for me.  As with the grapes, I need to find a wine-making mentor…  and that will be whole ‘nother matter!  Have a great Labor Day weekend.

Purple Daze with August Grapes

August 23rd, 2008

I thought it was Thursday yesterday, so I’m already a day behind this week.  We’ve had a good bit of rain and the landscape is lush and green.  So different from years past, but a nice change.  The grape arbor is the story of the month however.  Two main vines have produced tons of Concord grapes that ripened so quickly they are falling to the ground.  We managed to pick and freeze 8 pounds of them the other day, and there are still many more grapes on the vines.

Concord Grapes

It takes some time to pick and then pull the grapes off the stems.  But it may be worth it; grape jelly anyone?  Have to find a recipe for it somewhere.  They taste and smell great, but do have chunky seeds inside.  My goal is to make a Concord Grape pie from them.  I’ve found a few recipes that make it sound very tedious to pull the skins off and then cook and strain the grapes to remove the seeds.  But I’ve also found one that uses a food mill after cooking down the grapes, removing the seeds during the milling process.  We’ll have to see how it works out. 

You know what would be really neat?  To try making wine from the grapes.  Anyone ever tried that before?  That may be next year’s project, and I’ll learn more about it this winter.   For now it’s time to get out there and pick more grapes!

A Cool Morning in August

August 12th, 2008

There are few things like coming home.  The familiar, the comfortable, all the sights and sounds and… the work to do!    We’ve been blessed with cool weather this summer, and for being almost mid-August it’s amazing to see the grass and landscape so green.   In years past the grass would be brown and not require cutting by now.   But it’s beautiful in the early morning, especially with the air so cool and refreshing.

I walked down to the pond and enjoyed watching the wisps of fog move gently across the warmer water.   What is it about mornings that I love so much?  The quiet awakening of the day?  The promise of things to come?  I really don’t know, but its always been my favorite time of day.

The pond on a summer morning

Our little apple orchard seems to be doing well, meaning that the trees have received enough water and the deer haven’t chewed them to pieces this summer.  That may change quickly in the fall, but for now I’m spraying deer repellant around the leaves and base of the trees to discourage the deer from browsing.  The next plan is to wrap the trunks and install some fencing to protect the little trees.   We even have a few apples developing still, the first for a small apple tree planted two years ago.  I’m not sure who will get to eat this apple first, us or the deer… but it looks pretty good!

Home grown apple

For now it’s time to catch up on chores (and writing and reading too).  It was interesting to be without internet access for much of our trip the past two weeks.  Sure I missed the convenience and instant information available, yet it brought back awareness of simpler times and was kind of nice to just “be” if that makes any sense.  More to ponder, but while I do the garden is still producing a bunch of tomatoes and cucumbers, and even a few beans.  It’s about time to put up some pickles again too!

Sunflowers, Tangles and Tomatoes

July 21st, 2008

It seems that if you plant sunflowers, there will be a few volunteers over the years.  This one is growing toward the front of the house, brought there by friendly birds after last year’s plants in the garden. 

Sunflower volunteer planted by birds

It’s kind of neat that one of the ways seeds are propagated in nature is due to birds.  The birds eat the fruit and as the seeds pass through their digestive tract, they are deposited in many different places.  Which is kind of amazing really.   Except for cedar trees.  Eastern Red Cedar that is.  It’s a pretty, evergreen tree that produces very strong (and nice smelling) wood.  But they are ubiquitous!  Too big of a word to simply say we have too many around, and they get their start with the help of birds usually while perched along a fence. 

Brushy fenceline

At least around here that’s why you see so many cedar trees along the fence lines.  Down the road a bit I saw someone who cleared out their fence line of all the brush and barb wire, removing all but some nicely spaced and trimmed cedars.  That looks very nice I will admit.  One day perhaps we’ll do the same.  For now the barb wire, old fence posts and tangly growth is just going to stay for a while.

Speaking of growing things, our tomatoes are finally turning red.  The little cherry tomatoes have been producing for a while, but the larger ones are now ripening.  We planted several different varieties as an informal experiment to see which ones do well here.  With the cooler, wet season early on, it seemed like they were going to stay green, but now they are coming on much better.   

Tomatoes growing in July

If they produce much more we’re going to make sauce, stewed tomatoes, frozen tomatoes… whatever works. Met someone last week though who is growing 104 tomato plants… in their yard.  They are taking the ripe tomatoes to farmer’s markets in the back of a truck.  That must be a lot of picking!

Caterpillars Too

July 18th, 2008

This must really be “bug week” because I find myself taking pictures of all sorts of insect critters.  Maybe they’re too easy and I’m not being creative enough. But the Japanese beetles are still filling up plastic bags and we’re trying to keep the pests out of the garden.  And the moles!  I haven’t found a good deterent for them, although the cat sometimes ends up with one.  

I actually watched some lettuce plants wobbling back and forth as a mole tunneled underneath the other day.  They love to eat worms and grubs, but maybe tender roots as well?  All I know is their tunnels leave the roots without soil and water, and the plant will die if you don’t reseat them in the soil.  Some wiser folks have said that castor bean oil is a good deterrent so we may try that.  The metal mole traps are simply too cumbersome and unreliable for me to work very well.

I haven’t seen any Monarch caterpillars on our milkweed plants, but maybe that’s because these Tussock Moth Caterpillars keep devouring the milkweed.  I saw one of the plants chewed to the ground and then found these guys working on the next one.  Looks like a hungry football team lined up at the buffet!

Tussock Moth Caterpillars eating milkweed leaf

And the little guy below was too cute to pass up.  My unscientific name is “Brown Fuzzy Caterpillar.”  What it really is I have  no idea, but isn’t it funny how the “cute” ones seem acceptable, but the “ugly” ones we get rid of?  I’ve pulled some big green hornworms off the tomato plants and the yellow lab likes to play with them.  I think he actually eats them… uh, yuck?! (there’s a close up of the Tussock Moth Caterpillar from last year at that link too).

But this “BFC” wasn’t eating leaves or doing anything it seemed.  Maybe he was looking for a place to make a chrysalis?

Brown fuzzy caterpillar

After today I’ve got to find some new material that doesn’t involve bugs.  Unless they’re really neat looking or something.  Or involve bees.  Or, well… let’s just see what happens. 

Double Cukes and Corn Dogs

July 12th, 2008

Busy doings outside these days, with so much just growing and growing.  We’ve been lucky to have rain almost every week, especially for the garden and the bees.  I’ve heard this is one of the best years many beekeepers can remember in our area and that the “honeyflow” is nice and long from the rain and cooler weather. 
Double cucumberWe found a funny “double cucumber” in the garden the other day. Now how do you suppose it grew like this? It’s still in the fridge while I wonder what I can do with it. Maybe I could put it on ebay :)

And the blackberries have really started ripening, so we picked a couple quarts already.  I’m just amazed- we haven’t had any berries the past couple of years, but with the bees this year there’s a bunch of wild berries in places I’d never seen before.  Maybe it’s also the rain this year.  But we need to pick some more soon! And anybody have a good blackberry pie recipe?

Wild blackberries in July


The green beans have done so well this year we’ve been putting up a bunch in the freezer. Time to pick more cucumbers now too, and maybe pickles soon? The garden is great but next year it needs to be bigger!  I say that now, and we hardly keep up with it.  I’m always amazed at how much room the plants can use though. 

 We dug up some potatoes for the first time and they were delicious.  Never grew potatoes before, but it was pretty easy, and they didn’t take up too much room.  I was surprised how fast the little guys grew. 

Corn growing Basset Hound

Also had our first ear of home-grown corn yesterday. It wasn’t too big, but some critters had started munching the top so it was time to pick. It sure was tasty though!

Here’s our corn-growing Basset Hound. Oh wait! I’m told this is our CORN DOG! He’s really our garden dog, and likes to follow us around and hang out wherever we are. He’s the good ‘ole man of the place, going on 11 years now.
Of course it’s kind of hard to grow corn on top of the dog. But he likes the attention, especially getting watered on hot days.

We may have to find somewhere else to grow it next year though. There’s just not enough space!

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