wildlife


The garden, and gardening tasks, have definitely moved into a new phase during the past week.  Since writing my last post, I have harvested a pound of string beans and 2 pounds of squash.  Plus about a pound of cabbage and 2 cups of basil.  Oh, and 1 small yellow pepper, one jalapeno, and a scallion.  Plus a bunch of those little red onions, purplette, about twenty the size of a dime.  Still manageable, but I fear the worst.  Since Friday, the garden has required daily harvesting.  It’s amazing how quickly both green beans and squash can go from being not quite big enough to way too big.  Today I went out early, before the worst of the heat started, and after dinner.  In that time several squash went from too small, to just right, about 6-7 inches long.  You can let everything go for a day or two, but you will start to get beans and squash that are way too big.  Some stuff holds well in the garden, such as peppers and all the root vegetables.  But the beans, cukes, and squash need daily vigilance.

This summer I have made a commitment to myself to use my produce, give it away, or compost it.  Tonight while prepping the beans for a delicious string bean and carrot salad, I tossed several overgrown and too small beans straight into the compost bowl.  You have to harvest too large beans, or they will slow the production of your plants.  But you don’t have to eat them.  Last night while thinking about starting the Fall garden (not time yet, but soon), I read in The New Organic Grower, by Eliot Coleman, that bush beans are easier, and quicker, to harvest than pole beans, and I completely agree.  I tried to grow pole beans for a couple of summers, and found them completely annoying to harvest. With pole beans you have to keep going up and down, but with bush beans you just get down and work the patch, without the calisthetics.  The string bean and carrot salad that I made tonight, roughly based on a recipe from Soup makes the Meal, by…, used up all the beans, the yellowish pepper, and the scallion.  I steamed the beans, shredded 2 carrots from the fridge, chopped up the pepper and scallion, and then made a quick honey mustard vinagrette (with Dijon and cider vinegar).  I’ve been mashing a garlic clove into a paste for my vinagrettes lately, I think it adds a nice pungency.  Now I just have to figure out what to do with the squash.

While out in the garden getting parsley for the salad, I found a caterpillar!  It was on the parsley and teeny.  We’ve been observing the black swallowtails around the yard for a few weeks.  Not a lot, which is too bad.  I definitely noticed about 2 years ago that the butterfly population crashed.  I have several butterfly bushes and they used to be swarmed with butterflies all summer.  Not anymore.  Well, we’ll give this one a bit of protection from predators, at least.  In my parsley post I mentioned that we lost a caterpillar to drowning last summer, so this was a concern for me.  My solution was to use a bottle with a small mouth for the parsley, like a bud vase.  I’ll let you know how it turns out.

This is high season in my garden, it’s hard to know what to write about.  For all my loyal readers, I have to let you know that I’ve been having computer problems for the past couple of weeks, plus DH has been home in the evenings a lot for the past 3 weeks, which is unusual.  Thus my posts have fallen off a bit.  But I haven’t given up, we have an appointment at the Genius Bar this weekend, plus DH is back to his usual schedule.   I thought you’d all like an update on Robin’s Nest 2.  The above photo is of one of the current clutch who fell out of his nest this morning.  I heard flapping from the hops early in the morning, but didn’t get a chance to investigate until around 3 pm.  And there he was, although he was gone by the time my almost 10-year got a chance to check it out at 7:30.  He wondered where the baby Robin could have gone, and we can only hope that he finally got his wings and is in a tree somewhere.  He might have found a better hiding spot low down, or heaven forfend, a cat got him.  It was really hard to just leave him there, but that is what the experts recommend.

Today was also the first day that raspberries were ripe.  I probably could have left them for another day, they were a little tart.  That raspberry patch is probably the best thing I have done in the garden.  Every year around this year I get the most amazing raspberries, and there is nothing like the flavor of sun-ripened raspberries eaten off the brambles.  Because of how I have them planted, along a fence, most of the birds have a hard time getting them, so I have little competition.  The catbird is most expert at eating raspberries, and it really is a specialized skill.  We had one catbird who was here for years, enlivening our yard every summer with his charming song.  He was quite fearless of us, swooping in over our heads to gobble up raspberries.  I think he’s passed on, though he’s left behind some progeny.  We have a beautiful, young catbird now in residence, but I don’t think he’s quite mastered the art of eating raspberries.  Last summer I recall a baby catbird who tried really hard to eat the raspberries, but wasn’t too successful, and I think it may be the same bird.  Raspberry brambles are a lot of work to manage, plus they are very prickly.  For 2 weeks of summer bliss, I think it’s worth it, but be forewarned.

At the end of last summer I had moss growing in my main veggie bed and was concerned that I may have had a pH problem.  In February I got a pH and nutrient (NPK) test kit, and tested all of my veggie beds.  It was a huge project, but I discovered that the acidity was in the right range (6.5 to 7.5).  However the tests showed that the nitrogen was nonexistent and through further research I discovered that low nitrogen can cause moss.  So I went on a campaign of fertilizing my main be, adding all of our kitchen compost, plus Steve Solomon’s Complete Organic Fertilizer.  It wasn’t until later that I read that you can’t test soil for nitrogen too early in the season, because before the microorganisms kick into action with the warmer weather, little nitrogen is released.  Well, the fertilization seems to have done the trick.  That bed is simply out of control, everything growing in it is supersized.  I just noticed today that I already have beans forming, and each bean plant has about 40 blossoms.  And the squash, holy cow!  For those of you interested in the great sqash borer campaign, I will tell you that I have been spraying them religiously, after every rain.  It’s getting to be really hard, though, as the squash plants get huge.  I found myself hugging them today, those prickly devils, wondering if there isn’t a better way.  Maybe getting all my squash needs met at the farmer’s market?

Shortly after the first clutch of baby robins flew to the Mulberry Tree, I noticed Hector and Heloise “sneaking” nesting material into the hops vine on the opposite side of our yard from their 1st nest.  I know how territorial birds are, and also remembered reading that if the habitat is particularly good, birds will have multiple nests per season, so I wasn’t surprised.  This site, Project Nestwatch, says that Robins usually have 2 clutches per year, the second right after the first set fledges.  Which is just about what our Robins did, although I find it totally irritating that they chose the site that they did, because you cannot see the nest, it is so deeply buried in the hops.  I guess we annoyed them when we were incessantly watching and photographing them from the window for the last batch.  This current site does not to seem to me to be such a great spot, either.  It is right next to our driveway, and although we don’t drive down it, the kids ride their bikes and play right there, as well as I have potted tomato plants, and we kind of go in  and out and hang out right near the nest.  We were driving them absolutely nuts today, while I was trying to photograph them.  Too bad.  If they are going to nest in such a busy place, they are just going to have to get used to us.

One of my most cherished childhood memories is of finding wild blueberry bushes in the woods surrounding our campsite in New Jersey when I was about 8 years old.  I was already a lover of blueberries and to find them just a step away from our tent was a real thrill.  As an adult it has always been a dream of mine to have my own blueberry bushes.  My mother planted some (3, as recommended for cross-pollination) about 7 years ago, and they are 6 feet tall and provide all the blueberries she could want, with plenty left for the birds.  Birds love blueberries, especially bluebirds.  I know when my berries are almost ripe because they start hanging around.  If you don’t want to share your crop with the birds, you can easily net them since they do not get too tall.  However, I think their benefit to the wildlife is so important that I don’t mind sharing with the birds.  Right now my bushes are too small to produce much, so the birds are getting most of them.  But I can envision a future when there will be more than enough for us to get a share.

It took me a while to figure out where the best place to plant blueberries was in my yard, since they do get very big.  I discovered the variety, Northland, though, that only grows to 3 – 4 feet tall, which I am using in my foundation planting.  In addition to their culinary, wildlife value, blueberries also have fantastic fall foliage.  The different varieties have different colored foliage.  My favorite for fall color is is Jersey.  I’ve read that the flavor of the berries isn’t the best out there, but the color of its leaves are spectacular, rivaling burning bush.  In fact, it is recommended that one replaces their burning bushes with blueberries, since burning bush is actually a non-native and invasive.  Blueberries, on the other hand, are natives, and honestly, we can’t have too many!  Blueberry bushes are also easy to care for.  They do not have thorns and do not need much pruning.  Special care should be taken at planting to incorporate plenty of humus and amendments to the soil.  Blueberries thrive in acidic soil, so you may need to add sulfur to your soil to acidify it.  I did not do this, and I had some yellowing of the leaves until I added it.  You can also use peat moss when you plant your shrubs.

Ever since I started eating the fresh, local, in season blueberries from the Farmer’s Market I have not been able to eat supermarket blueberries.  Our Farmer’s Market is on Saturday, and yesterday I woke up with the need to go and get the blueberries.  I’m glad I did, it is high season and the farm I buy my berries from always has perfectly ripe, beautiful berries.  I bought 8 pints, and have frozen 6 of them to use offseason, especially in winter.  There’s nothing like them in blueberry muffins.  I like to think I make excellent blueberry muffins, and I know it’s because of these blueberries (oh, and a stick of butter).   I freeze the blueberries in a layer on a cookie sheet, and then transfer them to a ziploc freezer bag.  Last June I froze a lot more than I used this year, so I have a lot of left over now.  We’ve been talking about making smoothies with the extras, and I am contemplating jam.  I won’t just keep last year’s, though, because you have to figure the quality will suffer after a year.  I am looking forward to the day when I will have enough of my own blueberries to freeze for winter muffins.

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.

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!

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.

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