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 in small piles, 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.  Soon we will learn about building some new bird houses- they seem quite simple, and it’s great to teach children to learn more about safe use of tools and carpentry.  I like to browse Ted’s Woodworking Plans, because it offers so many varieties of plans and ideas for use around the home and farm.   

As for the old birdhouses- there’s always some paint around that can be used for something.  The young boy loves to paint! So that was his new project.

 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. 

 Cleaning up the garden

I have not found an easy method for trimming weeds and bushes yet, but it’s probably more like that old quote about hard work and “gardens needing lots of moisture”… it’s mostly in the form of perspiration! 

Ted's Woodworking Plans

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.

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