May 2010


When I went to check on the robin chicks yesterday morning I discovered that the nest was empty. After our sad loss last week, I feared the worst.  I immediately went outside and searched the entire area around the nest, but found nothing.  A little later in the morning, as I was refilling the bird bath, I looked up and there they were, in our Mulberry tree.  I hadn’t realize that they were that close to flying, because because their tail and wing feathers weren’t grown in yet.  But I guess they were ready, since their parents couldn’t have carried them.  That must have been quite a journey for them all, from the arbor on one side of our house, to the Mulberry Tree all the way back near our garage on the other side of our lot.  It’s got to be at least 75 feet, as the bird flies, so to speak.  What amazes me is how good Hector and Heloise’s timing was.  The Mulberry tree just ripened a couple of days before their chicks fledged.  Between the nest building, the courting, the incubation, the hatching and the fledging, about 6 weeks to 2 months must have passed.  It just leaves me in total awe of how the natural world flows in synchronicity.

That Mulberry tree is such an asset to the wildlife in our community.   It’s a weed tree and its existence entirely due to serendipity.  When we bought this house about 11 years ago, it was as tall as the forsythia border between our driveway and the property line.  I have fond memories of Mulberry trees, there were a few in the neighborhood where I grew up in the Bronx, so I just let it grow.  My neighbor wasn’t crazy about it because it cast too much shade on her border on the other side, so every spring I tried to prune it to keep it on our side.  In those days, it was too young to fruit though, and remembering the purple stained sidewalks of my childhood, I wasn’t sure that we’d want to keep the tree once it started to fruit.  But it was a fun project for me to hone my pruning skills on (as is forsythia).  The side benefit of that early pruning is a really cool branch structure, perfect for tree climbing.  Both my kids and the neighbor kids love getting up in there.  Fortunately it turned out to be a white mulberry tree, so although it does make a mess at this time of the year, the berries don’t stain.  And the wildlife LOVE it.  It’s absolutely insane how active that tree is at this time of the year.

In addition to our two beloved baby Robins, I’ve noticed several (2 – 4) newly fledged starlings in the tree.  It’s hard to differentiate fledglings from their parents, because they are almost the same size, but I’ve observed that they definitely don’t fly as well as the adults, they look like they have to work really hard at it.  The mulberries are a great food source for all kinds of birds, I’ve seen cardinals, sparrows, catbirds, mockingbirds, grackles, and mourning doves.  Song sparrows and gold finches are around too.  Mulberries are somewhat sweet, and have tons of seeds, which are a great source of protein.   I don’t like them much, they’re a bit bland, but my neighbors’ mom likes them.  They seem to be a new health food, too, I’ve seen packets of them dried in our local Whole Foods.  I just looked them up online and they are going for $7 to a whopping $15 a pound!  They are supposed to be a great source of vitamin C, iron, calcium, and protein.  I’ve read that cherry orchards plant mulberry trees because they fruit at the same time as cherries, but the birds like mulberries better, so they stay away from the cherries.  I have a young cherry tree, but the mulberries didn’t protect my cherries last year.  Maybe birds prefer the black mulberry.

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What kind of monster do you think I am?  After researching catapults this evening with my 9 year old, the title of this post does sound like a dish that would be served at a European medieval banquet.  The idea of braised lettuce reared it’s ugly head again after I harvested all of my lettuce because of the threat of hot weather.  There was no way we’d be able to eat all of it as salads before it went bad.  So, I mentioned it to my Mom this morning and she told me that her Dad had made braised lettuce with peas, once, years ago, but the flavor was so amazing she’s never forgotten it.  I then turned to the helpful internet, first epicurious, and then a general google search for inspiration.  I had some aging leeks, so I sautéed them in oil and butter, then added the lettuces, 2 bibbs, quartered, plus some chicken broth, and cooked coverede at a low heat for about 20 minutes.  Even though I wasn’t convinced about the peas, I added them (frozen) at the end of cooking.  And the results?  Eh.  The first few bites were good, but then, I was quite hungry.  And they went well with the quick veal stroganoff I made to accompany it.  But after it sat on the plate for a while it lost something.  I think the lettuces might have started bolting before I picked them, and so the centers were bitter.  It definitely did not make me want to repeat the experiment.

This experience has reminded me of some of the challenges of learning how to be a good kitchen gardener.  The obvious one is learning how to plant so you have the right amount of produce that you like at the right time.  But honestly I think there will always be surpluses.  I’ve had some other “failed successes” over the years, and the failure is usually due to a kitchen failure  (i.e. my screw up).  Last year I tried snow peas, since I’ve found regular peas to be too much trouble, and take up too much room, for too long, for what you get.  I had a bumper crop.  However, I totally messed up cooking them.  I made a huge batch of shrimp with snow peas, but didn’t realize that you have to string the pods.  Yeah.  Disgusting.  The year before that I had a bumper crop of these beautiful Japanese eggplant, Fairy Tale.  But I had heard that you don’t need to salt Japanese eggplant to get rid of their bitterness, so I didn’t.  Mistake.  The sad thing is that I was totally turned off to both of these veggies because of my kitchen errors. I haven’t given up trying new stuff, although I have given up on snow peas and eggplant.  It’ll be a while before I try those again.

Finally I have to give all of you bird lovers out there an update on how our little darlings are doing.  They are great!  They’re getting their “big boy” feathers in, their wing and tail feathers are coming in, too, and they look like real birds now.  I tried to sneak over from the other side, off the patio, to get a shot, and got totally dive bombed by one of the parents.  Plus the little guys are so alert, they saw me coming and hunkered down into their nest for protection.  The best views of them are still from our sunroom window.  They are starting to stretch their wings and are constantly grooming themselves (they look itchy).  They are getting crowded in that nest too, I am primarily worried about one of them falling out.  Fortunately the nest is in a protected area, so the dog can’t get them if they do.  You’ve got to figure that they will be learning to fly by the end of the week.  It’s so exciting!

Today I spent the day watching my beans emerge.  Not the whole day, non-stop, I have of course been in the throes of May madness.  Since May 15th, our last frost date, I have been planting, planting, planting, all the tender annuals that I have been collecting from the nurseries over the past few weeks, and all the ones I have been caring for in the basement.  When I went out this morning to get started, I noticed a few beans were cracking the soil.  I planted them last Sunday, but had feared that the birds had gotten them.  By the end of the day the beans were (almost) all up, with their first true leaves unfolding.  Such a miracle, this transformation from hard dry seed to lush green plant.  Such faith needed, to wait patiently (or not) for the natural processes to do their thing.  This week I have been contemplating the similarities between mothering and gardening, and the anticipated appearance of these bean plants struck me as a poetic symbol of that relationship.

Last week while wandering around the internet, looking for other gardeners blogging about kitchen and wildlife gardening, I found a great website (but sadly forgot to bookmark it!).  The blogger had just had her first baby in December and it made me think about the challenges of mothering and gardening.  And that led me to a revelation about what the garden has to teach mothers.  Mothering and gardening both require patience and faith, to allow the being in question, whether plant or child, to develop naturally.  Most of our time is spent waiting and observing, filling our time cleaning up or feeding.  But then comes the moment when a corrective action needs to be taken, a branch pruned, floppy stems tied up, a bandaid applied to a cut knee, hurt feelings assuaged, and we have to be present, to attend to the need for nurturance.  To allow the natural processes to unfold, while being prepared for a timely intervention to coax into a more civilized form.

Now obviously the child needs constant care, whereas the garden can take care of itself.  If something goes wrong in the garden, a dry spell or an aphid infestation, and you cannot tend to it, the garden will survive.  Not so much with the child, especially a small one. But still, there are some powerful similarities.  Working with the natural form and inclinations, patiently guiding their development.  Adapting to the conditions that are presented to you, whether it is a child’s personality or a certain soil type.  Ultimately you are on your own, because no one has ever been in this time and place, with these conditions, before.  You have to develop your own philosophy and your own methods for coping with the vagaries of your situation.  You can only learn how to garden, and to mother, by doing it.  You have to get your hands dirty, you have to make mistakes, in order to learn how to do it.  At first it may seem daunting, overwhelming even, but at a certain point, you somehow know the right thing to do at the right moment.  And all the while you experience the joy of nurturing something, or someone, inherently beautiful.

It is with great sadness that I have to tell you about the death of one of the baby robins.  I thought they had made it through that long rainy Tuesday, but I was wrong.  Almost as soon as I got up on Wednesday I knew there was something wrong.  As I looked and looked out my window at the nest, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach.  It appeared that there were only 2 babies being fed.  I felt quite bereft and couldn’t settle until I went outside and investigated around their nest. And there he, or she, was.  Hanging limply in the rose vines.  My 5-year old asked, what made it die, Mom?  There are a couple of probable causes.  There was always one chick that was slower and less visible than the other two.  His siblings always popped right up, aggressively seeking the worms that Hector and Heloise brought back.  I saw the parents making an effort to feed them all, but you’ve got to figure the more eager ones got more food.  Then it was a cold, windy, and rainy day, I’m sure the nest was soaking wet.  He could have just died, and the mother pushed him out.  Or he could have been knocked out in the middle of the night by accident, and died of exposure.  Or, saddest of all, he could have been knocked out on purpose, but I choose not to believe that.  It is true that birds do lay more eggs than they expect, or are able, to raise to adulthood, as a biological insurance policy, the “spare heir”.  Natural selection in action is not pretty.

My experiences with this nest, and the loss of one of the chicks, made me think about the fact that baby birds, and other wildlife, are falling out of their nests and getting displaced a lot around this time of the year.  Many people do not know what to do if they find an injured or orphaned animal.  The best thing to do is to leave them alone.  Their parents will continue to care for them even if they are not in the nest.  If you can return a baby bird to its nest, do so.  Touching it once will not make its parents reject it.  If it truly is displaced, or orphaned, and you live within driving distance of the Great Swamp Wildlife Refuge, in Morris County, there’s a great organization just outside of it where you can bring injured or orphaned birds.  The Raptor Trust is a truly amazing organization, whose goal is the care and rehabilitation of injured wild birds.  You can visit them and see many types of raptors that cannot be released for some reason.  Also, the State of New Jersey licenses wildlife rehabilitators, people who are trained to care for injured or displaced wildlife of all kinds.  Here’s a link to New Jersey’s Division of Fish and Wildlife’s list of wildlife rehabilitators.  We’ve had experiences with the two in our area, due to some unfortunate happenings with baby raccoons, and have found them to be incredibly helpful.  If you live in a different state, just go to your state’s Fish and Wildlife Department, I’m sure they will be able to help you.

Finally, to end on a positive note, the other two baby Robins seem to be just fine.  I had a minor scare this morning when I looked out and saw no parents and the chicks did not seem to be moving.  Finally Heloise showed up with a beak of worms and the little dears popped up.  They are getting big!  They grow up so fast!  My nine-year old observed that their eyes have opened.  They are getting their feathers, too, and starting to look like birds, and not some bizarre alien embryos. As I was showing one of my friends the nest, she remarked that if she had such a visible nest, she would spend all day watching them.  In doing so, I’m becoming quite attached to them.

Two posts today!  Just a quick one to let any fellow baby bird lovers out there know how the little darlings are.  Even with the terrible rain we’ve been having they are doing great!  Heloise sat on them all through the worst of the rain, keeping them warm and dry.  They are getting big, and strong.  They kept poking her off of them, sticking their hungry beaks up.  My 9 year old and I spent about an hour watching them through the window, trying to capture the image.  We saw some amazing things, but unfortunately the camera wasn’t on.  The big moment came when after about two hours, Hector showed up with a huge beakful of worms and bugs.  Heloise took off immediately, I bet she was ready for a break.

Anybody out there ever catch the t.v. show Manic Organic?  It was on cable, I think in the Fall 2008, I can’t remember which station.  Anyway, it was an innovative and highly enjoyable program.   In it, an organic market gardener from Ontario, Antony John, takes you, in one half hour, from the planting, to the growing, to the harvesting, and finally the cooking and eating of various vegetables.  I had never seen anything like it before (nor since): a gardening show that brings you all the way from the seed to the plate.  Really, a combination gardening and cooking show.  Unfortunately, I think they only made one season of it.  I have to say though, that watching it was highly influential in how I think about kitchen gardening.  The Manic Organic helped me shift how I think about my garden planning, from just planting veggies and then figuring out what to make with them, to actually thinking about what I’d like to eat, and then planning the garden that would deliver the ingredients for those dishes.

Every year I like to try growing something I have never grown before, and this spring (actually this winter while pouring over seed catalogues), I decided to try broccoli raab.  Now I don’t eat it myself, ever since my first pregnancy I have had an aversion to broccoli.  But my husband likes it, he always orders pasta with broccoli raab and sausage, so I figured I’d give it a try.  It’s an early spring (and fall) vegetable, so I started the seeds when I did my lettuce, onions, and cabbage.  Since I was new to it, I just started one 3 inch square pot of them.  It grew pretty quickly, and about 2 months ago I planted it into my cold frame, about 12 seedlings directly out of the one pot into a space about 1’x2’.  At the same time I planted about the same area with broccoli raab seeds.  About 2 weeks ago one of the plants started to form the little florets, so I harvested at, and a couple more came in the following week.  Not enough to make a meal so I stashed them in the fridge.  Then last week they all seemed to be coming into bud, and since I needed the space (and quite frankly they were blocking my cabbage, which I actually do like to eat) I decided to harvest them all.  Interestingly enough, the plants I had grown directly from seed were about 1/3 of the size of the ones started indoors, but they were budding up as well.

One of the techniques I’ve found to be incredibly useful for storing greens before cooking is to put them in a big bowl of water, making sure that the stems are submerged (like cut flowers).  This works great with chard and lettuce, I have kept them both looking good on the countertop for at least 2 days after harvesting.  It works especially well if you are harvesting in the morning (when they are at their peak) to cook that evening.  Plus, it takes a lot less time when you are in the middle of gardening to just throw them in a bowl of water in the kitchen and run back out into the garden, then washing and refrigerating.  The broccoli raab really responded well to this treatment, they actually continued to grow.  And the comparison between those on the counter and those in the fridge?  No contest.  So a full 2 ½ days after harvest, I trimmed them up and sautéed them in a pan with sliced garlic and olive oil.  DH said they were delicious, and I like to think he would be honest with me.  The pasta with broccoli raab and sausage didn’t happen, but having the broccoli raab right there on the counter made sure that I didn’t forget to cook them at all (I needed the bowl for something else).  If I’d left them in the garden I’m sure they would have wound up just going to flower.

Like an over 35 year old expectant mother waiting for the amnio results before telling anyone, I have not wanted to post about our nest.  A robin built a nest in our arbor about 4 weeks ago.  I saw her, out of the corner of my eye, collecting dried grass, etc., from around the yard, but I did not realize where she was building her nest.  It wasn’t until many days later, while I was investigating the growth of some vines, that I looked up into the arbor, and there it was!  A nest!  Over the next few days I read up on robin nesting practices (from the book Birdscaping Your Garden by George Adams) and observed the courtship of our mama-to-be by 3 swains.  Then one day two weeks ago I noticed that she was sitting on her nest and being very agitated when we got anywhere near.  I asked my husband to get up on a chair and look inside the nest and lo and behold, there were 3 beautiful blue eggs.

We’ve been lucky, because the arbor is right outside our sunroom window, which we use as an office room.  Over the past 2 weeks, we’ve been observing Heloise on her nest.  Her nest is right near one of my main veggie beds, so it’s been a challenge to respect her space while taking care of garden chores.  We closed off the path that goes through the arbor, which has been a hassle (worth it, of course).  After a few days she got used to me, and I could get pretty close without her flying off.  Then yesterday, while I was sitting at our desk, I happened to look at the nest at the right moment, when one of the parents was feeding the babies.  I’m guessing they hatched on Friday, which makes their gestation exactly 2 weeks, which is what I’ve been expecting based on my book.   Happily all three eggs hatched.  Since then, we have been watching them from the window and from the garden.  The boys, my husband, and I can now recognize both the male (Hector) and the female (Heloise) both by their behavior and their plumage, wherever they are in our yard.  Hector and Heloise play a tag team effort feeding and protecting the chicks.  After Hector feeds them he stands guard, whereas Heloise always sits on the nest (it’s getting crowded).  They are doing a great job, and even though the chicks’ eyes are still closed, we can see they are getting bigger and more vigorous.

This has been an amazing experience so far, to be able to observe so closely the breeding habits of the American Robin, harbinger of spring, and such a quintessential American bird.  We’re lucky that Heloise chose our yard, but it wasn’t entirely circumstantial.  About 6 years ago I certified my garden with the National Wildlife Federation as a backyard wildlife habitat.  I coughed up the extra bucks to get the sign (worth it), which amazingly is nailed to the gate right beneath where Heloise and Hector are tending their chicks.  It’s not hard to get certified as a backyard wildlife habitat, if you are already gardening organically, grow some native plants, and have a variety of plantings.  The key for us was getting a birdbath, because having a water source for wildlife is essential for the backyard habitat.  We’ve observed Hector and Heloise primarily hunting for, and catching, worms on our property, and bathing and drinking in our birdbaths.  Apparently they’ve found it to be a good enough habitat to raise their babies.  We’re hoping that they are successful, and that in about 2 weeks we’ll have 3 more robins flying around our yard (eating our worms and strawberries…).

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