Thursday, September 29, 2011

Thankful Thursday

Lilac blooms awaiting Spring

He makes all things 
in His time.  

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Halloween Harvest

September has yet to sign off, but thanks to our local retailers, we’ve been immersed in Trick-or-Treat paraphernalia for at least a month.  Halloween is a cautionary holiday.  Do carry a flashlight.  Don’t eat unwrapped candy.  Do travel in groups.  One essential warning flies below the radar: Beware the cheap chocolate.  This devilish combination of cost-saving calories has spooked my self-control for many an October.

Chocolate is one of my three favorite foods.  I have oh-so-many favorite foods, but topping the list are “The BIG Three”: chocolate, fresh blueberries and homemade salsa. 

Every July, the kids and I make our annual trek to pick blueberries.  It’s usually Africa-hot and my little workers lose their enthusiasm within the first twenty minutes.  Last year, we managed to pluck 15 pounds before we succumbed to retreat.  My plans for a mega-pick this summer were thwarted by my conflicted calendar, crazy crowds and a thirsty 10-year-old who lacked his mother’s dedication.  We slumped away with seven paltry pounds. 

My salsa harvest was sadder still.  The Candy onions I planted were swallowed up by a grass invasion.  They may still be in there....somewhere….but I doubt it.  My tomatoes gave a tragic performance.  Lots of green tomatoes equal very little salsa.  My red peppers are still thinking about turning red.  One is blushing now, but of course, the essential summer heat has packed its bags and headed south.  The cilantro would’ve done beautifully, had I actually sown the seeds.  The seed packet is still sitting on my counter.  I had delayed planting the quick-sprouting cilantro so that it wouldn’t bolt before the other ingredients were ready for harvest.  Would’ve been a good plan if my postponement hadn't degraded into procrastination.  My jalapenos did beautifully.  I could kiss them if they weren’t so spicy.  Unfortunately, I have no other use for them besides homemade salsa.  We Uftrings are a mild bunch, I’m afraid. 

So as another Halloween approaches, I brace myself for temptation.  The desire to overcompensate in the chocolate aisle for a harvest of disappointments is a strong one.  If you happen upon me there, contemplating the sheer deliciousness of a reduced-price bag of Rolos, feel free to distract me. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Woolly Wonders

Last week, Lauren and I teetered on our two-wheelers and pedaled our way to the creek.  On the handlebars, I balanced a plastic cup o’ tadpoles, treasures we had loved and fed and observed for all of 4 days.  This is a habit of ours, providing temporary refuge to wild wayfarers whilst we watch them.  We ought to hang up a sign, “Creature Comfort Bed n’ Breakfast”.  In this case, five tadpoles checked in and only 4 were checking out.  Perhaps I ought to scratch "Comfort" from the sign.  When we discovered the unfortunate demise, we knew it was time to release them. 

And so it was that we found ourselves riding slowly down the road, listening to the rustling cornstalks and making our way to the small creek that meanders nearby.  When you ride a bike with a small child, the purpose is rarely the destination.  A ride that would’ve taken me 5 minutes – tops – on my own, found us only halfway after 15 minutes.  We were delayed by a migration.  Woolly Bear caterpillars, bellies full of soybean and weed leaves, were crossing the road, drawn to the tall cornstalks on the other side. 

I believe God had little girls in mind when He created caterpillars.  They’re mostly lacking the ‘creepy’ and ‘dangerous’ factors that draw the bravado of boys.  Scooting along with their fuzzy fur coats, they look like macaroni-shaped teddy bears.  The fact that they sprout into colorful, winged fairies that flutter about our flowers is only icing on the cake.  So I wasn't too surprised when our tadpole release morphed into a caterpillar ‘rescue’. 

Woolly bears came into their own line of infamy back in 1948.  It was then that Dr. C. H. Curran began to make connections between the coats of the striped woolly bear and the weather.  He surmised that the length of the brown segment of the caterpillar was a precursor to the forthcoming winter.  Longer segments, meant a milder winter.  Scientifically, this is about as accurate as Groundhogs Day, but it’s fun to collect them and see what Mr. Woolly Bear’s prediction is.   In our case, the woolly bears had no stripe at all.  This dire prediction lead me to contemplate the purchase of a snow-blower.  Further inquiry, however, revealed that we had a naturally stripe-less strain, known as the Yellow Woolly Bear.  So, the snow-blower money is safely tucked away, and we will rely - once again - on our trusty, economical snow shovels.  

At this time of year, woolly bears are seeking shelter from the approaching winter.  If you find a few, you can provide it for them.  Simply give them fresh green grass daily and several large twigs in a ventilated container.  After a bit, your caterpillars will go to sleep.  They will not form a cocoon until spring, so please don’t give up when it seems they’ve died.  Place your container in a protected cold location, such as a garage or covered porch.  In the spring, they will awaken and after eating some fresh grass, they’ll begin to spin silky cocoons.  After a week or so, a Tiger Moth will emerge.  

"Where do bugs go in winter?" is a commonly asked question, and this is a great opportunity for kids - young and old - to see overwintering bugs in action.  It may not be as thrilling as spying on a hibernating skunk or bear, but it illustrates the same concept, with a bit less risk.  

Emerald Ash Borer

Horticulturally, it's as if the theme from Jaws has been playing in the background for months previous, but the day so many dreaded has come:  Emerald Ash Borer has arrived.  What does this mean for us?  Well, for starters, I'd really enjoy the Ashes this October.  Their spectacular fall color may be a thing of the past in years to come.

The tiny metallic beetles that hail the demise of the Ash family start munching at the top of the tree and work their way down, making their presence initially difficult to detect.  Once a tree is infected, death is guaranteed.  According to the Illinois Department of Ag, chemical treatments can help prolong the infected tree's life, but eventually it will go.  Cities north of Kankakee county have been fighting the EAB for several years, with no success.  This year, Joliet will remove 700 infected trees.

Big Ten fans are highly competitive in the sports realm, but horticulturally, they're teaming up to attack the Emerald Ash Borer together.  The research team is working on several avenues of dealing with these pests.  Parasitic Oobius wasps, which attack EABs, offer a possible solution.  Another light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel potential is the development of a resistant strain of Ash.

Beetles spread primarily through the transportation of firewood.  Once relocated, they emerge in mid-May through June.  Identifying EAB can be challenging.  Signs of infestation include increased woodpecker activity (they feed on the beetles), canopy dieback, splitting bark and sprouting from trunk and roots.  

1.  Burn all standing firewood before May.

2.  Apply Bayer's soil drench in May.  Trees treated for 2 years have a fighting chance.  Start now!  I recommend watching Bayer's informative video.  However, it is important to note that an infected tree will not be saved by the drench.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Casa Mariposa: Reality Break

Need a blast of reality and humor? Tammy won't fail to bring a smile to your face.

Casa Mariposa: Reality Break: I don't know about you, but I've had enough reality for one week. Between the fires in Texas and the floods here in Virginia, there doesn't ...

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

From Dirt to Dinner - Kids in the Garden

Getting kids into dirt is no trick at all.  It’s certainly easier than getting them into their pajamas.  No cajoling or stern looks required.  Accomplishing something productive and educational while they’re there requires a bit of strategy.

A challenge of this complexity requires a plan of attack.  Whilst perusing the displays at my beloved Limestone Library, I found the perfect resource for just such a situation.  Playing on children's love for all things dirty and yummy, Grow It Cook It, by DK Publishing, instills the value of vegetation without so much as one boring lecture.  If you’ve ever picked up a DK book, you know that their signature strength is amazing photography.  They utilize it in this gardening-cookbook hybrid to entrance both mom and munchkin alike.  From page one, the kids are in charge – from seed to supper.  

The book opens with a creative primer on plants.  Birds and bees, pollination and seeds, protection and disease: all the plant basics are demonstrated through pictures or dynamic illustrations.  Tucked amongst them are enough creative tips and trivia to help even a hardened old horticulturist find their inner child.  
Their creative repurposing of containers will have your kids running around the house, looking for anything fun that could hold dirt. 

Fifteen crops are featured, including fruits, vegetables, greens and herbs.  Each one's life cycle is explained simply, from planting, to growing, then harvesting and finally devouring!  Dazzling photography and terrific tips detail each step.

The harvest culminates in the recipe page.  Ingredients are labeled by icon, and each recipe is geared with a child's appetite for imagination in mind.  The menu boasts (among other things) a giant beanstalk stirfry, miniature pumpkin pies, a rainbow salad with home-made star-shaped croutons and blueberry cheesecake cups.  Kids will be too busy stuffing their faces to realize that they've just engaged in an educational activity.  And what exactly have they learned?  Just a little bit about patience, perspiration and pay-off.  

It is certainly too late to begin any of the projects this season, but Christmas is just coming into view.  Truth be told, my kids would groan at the sight of a gardening book tucked beneath the tree.  They can't yet see past the glitter of Lego and Polly Pocket.  So, consider Grow It Cook It my recommendation for creative mom and teacher gifts this year.  At an affordable $10-$12, the price is right.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Red Pepper Challenge

I’m not a fan of green peppers.  It’s not that I won’t eat them.  Give me some Hidden Valley Ranch, and I’ll munch on a few.  Toss a few in my chili and I'll happily slurp away.  But green peppers don't hold a candle to reds.  As red peppers mature and ripen, sugars accumulate, culminating in a sweeter crunch than any green could ever aspire to.  Not only do they taste better, reds actually ARE better for you.  Along with the sugars, Vitamin C content increases substantially throughout the ripening process, doubling, in some cases.  Red's sweet healthfulness leaves ‘other’ peppers green with envy. 

Growing them, however, has been no picnic for me.  Reds require a long season to ripen into their sweet nature.  I have tried, for several years, to bring to maturity a shiny red pepper.  When we first moved to Irwin, we had no garden.  A generous neighbor offered to share their garden space.  I planted my red pepper promise and tended to it all summer long.  As August meandered along, I patiently waited for the first hint of red.  One afternoon, there was a knock-knock on my door.  The neighbor’s son greeted me with three not-yet-red green peppers in his hands.  He had thoughtfully picked them for me, assuming that they were fully-grown.  His well-intentioned hospitality brought a tear to my eye.

Fast forward, through a series of red pepper failures, to this year.  I planted in a new location, hoping the sun, the soil, whatever cotton-picking magical ingredient necessary would be there, in that spot.  A month ago, I inspected the progress and noticed that the peppers were growing misshapen, smooshed between stems.  Thinking I could free them up by separating the stems a bit, I proceeded to snap off half of my plant.  Imagine my delight.  In the spirit of the red pepper challenge, I have chosen to think upon that incident as ‘selective pruning’.  Maybe it’ll be the secret to my success. 

Last week, I walked into Walmart and was assaulted by a sight both repulsive and ravishing.  A huge bin sat in the produce section, overflowing with bushels and bushels of glossy red peppers.  Shoppers wandered past as though this bin was nothing of note (much the way I react to a bin-full of muskmelons).  But I noticed, and was overcome by shame and covetousness.  Somewhere in the recesses of my mind, a chorus rang out.  “Look how easy this is” sang a choir of invisible farmers.  “We grew so many that we’re putting them on sale!”  As if the radiance and abundance of the harvest weren’t insult enough, they were being flaunted at the low, low price of $1.44!  Sheesh.  Should a red pepper ever actually appear in my garden, I wouldn’t consider selling it for less than $35.  

Is it too early to plan for next year?  Not at the rate I’m growing.  So I’m planning out my red pepper strategy in September.  Next spring, I’ll be on the look-out for some early-maturing Reds, such as ‘Gypsy’, ‘Lipstick’ or ‘Ace’.  The average Red takes 100 days to mature.  These short-seasoned Reds can accomplish it in 65-70.  I may declare victory yet.
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