June was a great salad month, now the July heat is coaxing many of my greens to flowers. The lettuce starts I bought in May produced tones – enough for me to give away bags and bags of lettuce. Now they are starting to bolt, leaving me unsure how much more I’ll be able to harvest from that patch.
Fortunately, I planted my own lettuce starts in the shady spots created by the broccoli and tomatoes (which are now tall enough to provide plenty of shade). The hidden leaves are almost ready to harvest. The variety ‘drunken woman‘ is perhaps the prettiest lettuce I’ve ever grown. It’s producing an open rosette of slightly crinkly leaves that start green at the base and gets light red, almost rust, flecks by the tips.
Another variety, ‘Gandhi‘ is forming lovely heads of light green, contrasting nicely with the lacinato kale it’s growing beside. Arugula is thriving under the tomatoes and New Zealand spinach is almost ready to harvest. So, I’m not at risk of running out of salad greens anytime soon.
Other greens harvested include: pak choi and misome (a cross between komatsuna and tatsoi). The misome was a dark racing green and turned out much better than the pak choi, so I’ve planted more for the fall.
I took my daughter to a local beach yesterday. We arrived in the sun-dappled parking lot as a Pat Benatar’s ‘Hit Me With Your Best Shot‘ finished playing on the radio. Only a light sprinkling of parked cars were in the lot and no one was on the path down to the water, a pleasant consequence of being there on a weekday. A short set of concrete stairs lead us out onto a mostly rubble beach broken up with a few patches of sand exposed by the low tide.
After we crossed the slippery seaweed and barnacle encrusted rocks, I showed my daughter how to look under rocks for crabs. The first one she picked up skittered out of her hand and vanished under more rocks. The hunt was on. She eagerly flipped more rocks, finding more crabs in the process. Then she looked closely at the rock in her hand. Like a miniature mountain range, a cluster of empty barnacle houses remained adhered to the surface. Why the barnacles weren’t there I don’t know. My daughter didn’t question their absence, instead she examined the structures then crushed the empty exoskeletons.
Most barnacles are sessile filter feeders, raking the water with their arms when the tide is in and closing up shop when the tide leaves them exposed to air. In most marine environments, barnacles can be found glued to any hard surface from whales to ship hulls to rocks. Due to their lack of mobility, barnacles have developed the longest penis relative to their body size of any animal (picture here). Probably for other reasons, Charles Darwin focused his research efforts on these marine invertebrates from 1846 to 1854.
For 7 years Darwin looked at the anatomy of different barnacle species. At the time barnacles were grouped with clams and mussels in the mollusc family (which is where I would have assumed they fit). Darwin went on to compare how barnacles develop with other families. He discovered that barnacles share common features with crustaceans like crabs, lobsters and shrimp. Barnacles were moved from the molluscan to the crustacean family and Darwin was awarded a medal.
Barnacles have a two stage life-cycle starting out as larvae free swimming for 10 to 45 days. In that time, they have to make the biggest decision in their lives – where to set up their permanent home. If other barnacles of the same species are already living somewhere, often they take it as a sign of a good place to live, which is why they can be found in such high numbers. On the beach, with each step I took, I could feel barnacles crunching under my sandals making me feel like Godzilla crushing the homes of those in my way.
Barnacles have had their revenge on me, hitting me with their best shot. As a kid, I loved to wade out on rocky beaches to see the marine life and to swim. I always went barefoot making crossing the ubiquitous barnacle colonies risky. I’ve cut myself on barnacles many times and the cuts plus salt water always stung. Unfortunately, I’ve now introduced my daughter to that family tradition. She left the beach with her first barnacle scraped knee – fortunately, only a minor cut.
Yesterday, I watched a hummingbird charge at a crow.
The crow strayed to far across her unmarked boundary line. She burst out of the holly bush like a bullet straight for the much larger bird. With a startled ‘caw’ (I tend to anthropomorphize animals in the yard) the crow jumped out of the way and flew to the top of the fir tree on the other side of our fence. Taking a page from a WWII dive bombing manual, the hummingbird made repeated passes at the crow, getting closer and closer. It wasn’t long before the crow had enough and flew away.
The little aggressive female Anna’s Hummingbird has lived, year round, in our yard since we moved in and it wasn’t the first time I’ve seen her chase off a crow. The yard is her territory and she actively defends it (I’ve seen other hummingbirds behave the same way around feeders).
Our yard is probably worth defending. I’ve planted an assortment of hummingbird friendly flowers, like bee balm, that provide nectar from early spring to fall. In winter we see her picking through the cedar hedge hunting small insects. Every summer we spot a few juvenile hummingbirds hanging out in the yard, so our Anna’s Hummingbird is very successful.
Hummingbird photo by G. Hanke
I have a stereotypical expectation for ladybugs – red with black dots, like the anthropomorphized version found in kid’s books, rubber boots and clothes. Every time I step outside, I observe animal diversity, in butterflies, in pillbugs, in birds, in slugs and on and on. But I assumed the only diversity in ladybugs was the number of dots they had. I was wrong.
My husband found the pictured ladybug a few blocks from our yard and brought it home to show me. I had no idea that black with white polkadot ladybugs existed. My first thought was the beetle was a mutant, but it turns out to be Calvia quatuordecigmuttata, commonly known as a Polkadot Lady Beetle (also called Cream-Spottted Lady Beetle and Fourteen-Spotted Lady Beetle). After we took pictures, this ladybug was released on to my most aphid infested cabbage. I hope this one finds a mate and populates the yard.
Remember the Calvin and Hobbs cartoon where Calvin asks his teacher if he can go home because his brain is full? I feel just like that. For months, my focus has been on preparing for the candidacy exam part of my PhD. The oral exam loomed in front of me like an oversized camper on a narrow road. The other side felt impossibly far away. Then exam day came and went. I passed. That was about a week ago, a week I’ve taken off.
I had planned on reading the stack of un-read books that I’ve collected, I’ve started four and finished none (I tend to read multiple books at once). I thought I would write the interesting blog posts that have been cluttering my mind – nope, haven’t written anything. Mostly, I’ve puttered in the garden and reconnected with friends. My brain has been full.
So with nothing interesting to write about, here are some pictures of flowers in my garden:
Furthering my plan of identifying some of the diverse animals that make my yard their home, I was out photographing what I thought were a single colony of pill-bugs. They live beneath some flowers in the wood mulch. Hundreds of them were following seemingly randomly paths. I assume they were working at recycling the woody debris and doing what ever else pill bugs do. After taking a few pictures, I let them be.
Many years ago in my junior high science class, we were tasked with creating pill-bug habitats in jars. I found a large mason jar (likely stolen from my mom’s stash for canning plums and peaches) and layered woody debris topped with moss inside. I misted the interior and introduced a half-dozen pill-bugs caught from the yard. Un-phased by their new home, the pill-bugs immediately set to work doing what they do. I must have taken the little habitat into school on the bus – the jar propped up in my backpack hidden in the dark. The pill-bugs didn’t seem to mind and were just as busy when I pulled them out in science class. I don’t remember if we discussed it in class (we probably did and I forgot) but, despite their name, pill bugs aren’t bugs at all.
With a name that includes ‘bug’, I’ve always thought pill-bugs were insects with many names like sow-bug and wood-bug. These elephant-coloured armoured animals, have about as much in common with an elephant as they do with insects. It turns out pill-bugs are part of the isopod group called woodlouse (still sounds like a bug to me). They’re a terrestrial crustacean, distant relatives to shrimp and lobsters. A woodlouse is protected by a long exoskeleton and has 14 little limbs under their armour. Although, woodlice have tasty family members, they’re said to taste like urine (I have no idea who did that taste test).
It turns out my woodlouse colony (they seem to be living together) has at least two types of inhabitants, both introduced from Europe like my other yard inhabitants: house sparrows and purple deadnettles. The one with solid grey exoskeleton, is the common pill-bug (Armadillidium vulgare - top picture). You can identify this pill-bug by picking it up, if it rolls completely into a ball, it’s a pill-bug. The other woodlouse with a browner exoskeleton marked with tan spots is a common woodlouse (Oniscus asellus - bottom picture).
Woodlice are generally not a problem in a garden – mostly they eat woody debris, performing an important recycling function. They’re an army of crawling composters.
A guest post by Alana Clarke
Jeannette asked if I could do a guest post on her blog about brewing as she has already discussed our prospective licorice beer experiment.
To which I responded, “Sure, what would you like me to write about brewing?”
That took a bit more thought. See, I’m probably not the best example for this blog, which is more about natural processes, sustainability, backyard farming, etc. I don’t plow fields by hand, plant barley, water it with my blood and sweat, harvest it with a scythe, take it to a malting house, malt it, roast it, and then boil it up to make the wort that makes the beer, which would be far more appropriate for this site.
If you want that, go and watch one of the excellent BBC farm series with Peter, Alex and Ruth — they are awesome and Peter always seems to make an alcoholic beverage at least once in each series. But they have land, tools (albeit dated) and hopefully a large number of behind-the-scenes folks who help with the work.
I’m not even an all-grain brewer — my husband keeps saying we should go that route and I keep thinking about how much time and washing up would be involved in the process. I have a day job, housework, yardwork and I would rather make beer in a fashion that leaves us with some leisure time to drink it. (Being honest, the beer would always drunk even if the house/yard work didn’t get done, but that’s not the point.)
Because making beer isn’t hard. OK, old-school, BBC farm series method is hard, but my ersatz brewmeister technique is really quite straightforward. I use malt extract, which is the thick malty syrup you get at the end of the malting process, half-a-kilo or so of malted grain for extra flavour/texture, and hops.
But the best thing about this method, other than it being inexpensive, painless, and making very tasty beer, is that you can easily mess around with the basic recipes to make something a bit cool and different; just using different hops can significantly alter the resulting brew. Sometimes it is accidental, like when I mistakenly bought dark malt syrup for an IPA (India Pale Ale) recipe, so we had an IDA (India Dark Ale) which was very tasty. And since then I’ve actually seen some microbreweries making IDAs, so without knowing it we were cutting edge.
A lot of beer recipes call for unusual ingredients. I’ve made pumpkin ale (the pumpkin flavour was quite subtle), a winter spice beer (go easy on the cloves and load up on the fresh ginger, cardamom and vanilla) and ginger beer (a food processor made grating up the ginger a lot less work).
We’ve also tried out a few things on our own. One of the simplest was chili beer, which involved just a regular pale ale, but we put a bird’s eye chili in some of the bottles. The resulting beer tasted like pale ale, but had a chili-heat afterglow. Slightly more complicated was the blackberry porter, where we added blackberries cooked in black cherry juice to the beer about three-quarters of the way through the fermentation. Another experiment to reproduce a beer made by a local brewpub involved adding coconut extract to a chocolate porter just before bottling to create a chocolate coconut porter — that one made a lot of friends.
I’m looking forward to our experiment to make licorice beer from the licorice root Jeannette is growing in her yard, likely with a trial run of purchased licorice first. And she’s picked up a sour cherry tree, the fruit from which would probably make a tasty addition to a porter or a lighter, lager or wheat beer. Maybe try to make a kriek-style beer.
As a tangent, all of my tangents seem to end up around making alcoholic beverages of some sort. A close friend once inquired, “Is there any fruit you don’t drink?”
My recent thoughts about squeezing more food out of my urban lot led me to stumble upon The Quarter-Acre Farm: How I Kept the Patio, Lost the Lawn, and Fed My Family for a Year by Spring Warren (she has a nice website here). She is much further along the same path that I’m on – I haven’t converted my front lawn to veggie patch yet, but I’m plotting to do it. She committed to growing 75% of the food she would consume and her book is about her struggles and successes in doing that for a year. Plus, she has a goose with my name (a coincidence I’m sure).
Her motivations are all things I worry about. A primary reason for her was food safety and not really knowing what has been done to industrially produced veggies. She worries about the excessive fossil fuels used to produce industrial food and to get it to our plates. Yesterday my husband came home with asparagus from Washington State, the first reasonably local asparagus he has found. Over the last little while we’ve looked at the various tasty looking asparagus in the grocery store but not bought any because of how far they had come. Large scale meat and egg production is a big concern to her. I also worry about waste in packaging – growing veggies at home saves a lot of this waste.
Her northern California climate left me with plenty of garden envy, specifically citrus envy. I wish I could grow citrus, we try inside, but so far we’ve only ended up with buggy, pathetic trees that don’t even bother to flower. Excess olives are another problem I wish I had (if I did have this problem, Spring gives detailed instructions on how to salt cure them). I have to delve deeply into brassica diversity and odd/old crops to have something fresh to harvest year round.
I love her description of scrounging for the sake of her garden – gardens can cost a lot if you don’t do this. But, if you ask around plenty of things can be found for free. For example, we are off this afternoon to pick up a compost bin a college is giving us.
Spring ate her snails, albeit reluctantly, a delicious way to rid a garden of pests. Unfortunately, snail eating has been vetoed here. What is on my agenda is growing mushrooms – now I have a good idea of what to do and what not to do.
The Quarter-Acre Farm isn’t really a how-to-book, although there are some instructions and plenty of recipes that look good (I think I’ll try her preserved lemons, but sadly not with homegrown lemons), but it is a good story and easy to read. I enjoyed the book and recommend it to anyone who thinks about growing some of their own food.