Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Elusive Soldier Fly

There have been a few soldier fly sightings in our yard before, always near our compost bins. But I've never gotten a photo because the large wasp-like creatures always fly off at the slightest disturbance. Today I managed to take several pictures -- with a flash, no less -- of one that remained determinedly in place on our little rosemary shrub, without even a twitch of its antennae.

Perhaps it was a female laying eggs?

The adult female Hermetia illucens or Black Soldier Fly (BSF), likes to lay her clusters of tiny eggs near a food source for the hatched-out larvae. Although she herself does not eat and does not even possess mouth parts, she is irresistibly drawn by the availability of decomposing kitchen scraps.

Thus, the rosemary shrub near the compost corner makes an excellent site for planting the next generation. I know that our local Hermetia moms make good choices because our bins always have an ample supply of larvae feeding on the freshest, juiciest layer of new compost material -- their preferred diet.

After first discovering these fascinating creatures, I have found myself irresistibly drawn to reading articles with titles like "The Bioconversion of Putrescent Waste" and watching videos on YouTube of proud gardeners showing off piles of garbage seething with fat Hermetia grubs. (It's amazing what an innocent hankering for tasty vegetables and beautiful flowers can lead to.)

The adult flies live only about a week, just long enough to reproduce. They are quiet, elusive, do not feed on anything and do not carry disease. They are quite common nearly everywhere, like the housefly; but most people are not aware of their existence.

Just start a compost bin that meets their standards, though, and see what happens. You will discover the grubs and be horrified. Then, as you learn more, you will become profoundly grateful for a free composting service rendered by Mother Nature. During their one to three month life span the grubs consume quantities of fresh waste. They work so fast that bacteria don't have a chance to make everything smelly and other types of flies are not attracted. They quickly establish what the experts call "niche dominance" and discourage the presence of fruit flies, blow flies, houseflies, and ants. Last but not least, or even last, the residue they leave behind when they crawl away to pupate is just right for redworms, who carry the breakdown process into the next stage of creating rich soil for your garden.

So if you see a shy BSF in your yard, treat it with all due respect.


Monday, October 1, 2012

Last Chance Zucchini

The zucchini vines have been moldering on the compost pile for some time now. It seemed early to pull them out but they looked so sad I had to put them out of their misery. Nonetheless, the zucchini season lingers on. Last weekend, I was surprised to find a few actual zucchini tucked away in the back of the refrigerator. They looked fine and I felt gleeful: here was a last chance opportunity for Zucchini Flatbread  which we haven't made since the summer of 2011.

We got the recipe from Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day (pages 208 and 209) and follow it more or less as given except that I don't really measure the zucchini, parsley, and scallions very closely. Our final batch of zukes, coarsely grated, came to four cups and I used all of it, plus a big handful of backyard parsley, finely chopped, and several scallions sliced thin. And, although the official recipe doesn't call for garlic, I don't feel capable of heating olive oil in a pan without adding several cloves of smashed garlic and swirling them around to infuse the oil with that indispensable earthy essence before putting in the main ingredients.

When the mixture gets soft and the zucchini juices have mostly cooked off (too much juice makes for soggy bread), it's time to throw in a couple of big handfuls of finely grated Parmesan cheese and let it melt gently into the mix.

On impulse I took a look at the website that goes with the book to see if there were any updates, tips, or video instructions for that particular recipe. The most recent post, just the day before, presented a new take on Zucchini Flatbread, jazzed up with roasted cherry tomatoes. Serendipity! And the whole recipe was explained in detail with plenty of big, clear photos. No excuses for messing this up.

It was a simple matter to gather some cherry tomatoes from the yard and put them under the broiler for a few minutes until they started to collapse in on themselves and change color.

Meanwhile, B. was working on the bread part of the recipe. He uses the "five-minutes-a-day" system, and unlike me, follows the instructions carefully. Since he already had a container of dough in the fridge for the next batch of regular bread, all he had to do was pull off a grapefruit-sized lump and squeeze it and shape it into a smooth ball.

Everything came together once he had the dough rolled out and fitted onto our handy oven peel. All I had to do was spread the zucchini-cheese mixture evenly over the surface, sprinkle on some pine nuts (thank you, CostCo!) and dot the roasted tomatoes here and there -- forgetting that you are supposed to hold them back and add them after the flatbread comes out of the oven. Oh, well.

B had preheated the oven to 450 F in plenty of time to warm up the baking stone, about thirty minutes ahead. Then, with an experienced deftness, he slid the decorated flatbread smoothly off the oven peel and onto the heated stone. The long handle on the peel makes this maneuver easy to do despite a really hot oven, although it takes some practice to learn just how much uncooked dry polenta to sprinkle on the peel under the pizza so it will slide off, and just when to give the peel a sharp jerk to start the slide.

The final result was just as delicious as we remembered from the first time. And all the tampering with the recipe -- too much zucchini, added garlic, cooking the tomatoes twice -- turned out just fine.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Do I Dare to Eat a Pear?

It's a sparse year for pears -- the entire reachable crop is ripening on the dining room table. There are still a few unpicked beauties clustered at the very top of the tree, but for general purposes, what's available this season is in hand now.

Though lacking in numbers they make up for it in size and in perfection of color and shape. A single blushing pear in a blue bowl is almost too beautiful to eat.

But eventually flavor wins out over beauty. When they are at the peak of ripeness, I've never tasted such delicious pears. Last year, at the Heirloom Exposition in Santa Rosa, I studied the array of varieties laid out on long tables in the vast exposition hall, trying to figure out what is growing in our backyard. Our pears do resemble the Barletts; some of those on display had a reddish blush. But that's just a guess.

Fortunately, not knowing the variety doesn't impair the taste.

The best way to eat these pears is the simplest: cored and sliced into a bowl so there's nothing between you and the sweet juice and slightly grainy texture.

They are also delicious with a simple garnish of yogurt and walnuts: my current favorite afternoon snack.

And we don't like to let the summer pass without at least one Tarte Tatin made with our own pears. It has become one of our ritual recipes.

This year I tried making some pear sauce as well. Not too bad, though not as good as homemade applesauce. It would be an OK way to preserve the crop if there's too much to eat fresh.

The experimental pear leather was better than the pear sauce, but not nearly as good as the plum leather. Another fall back method for handling a large crop.

Another great year for pears is almost gone. Each year we get a little better at doing them justice.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Making Plum Leather

Plum trees grow like weeds in our town, often springing up unbidden. At peak season ripe plums drop onto sidewalks and you have to step around the sticky paste of crushed fruit. Maybe that's why we've never paid a lot of attention to the little copse of plum trees in our backyard once the burst of bloom in early spring wanes. For so many years we've let the fruit drop on the ground and rot away in the ivy.

This year there has been an abundance of especially delicious and juicy purple plums. The easiest way to enjoy them is to stand by the tree and eat the fattest, purplest, sun-warmed specimens within reach. A bowlful on the dining room table make a nice accent and an occasional snack.

But so much goes to waste. What to do with this bumper crop? Even though the season is pretty much over, it seems a shame to let it pass without making an effort to preserve some of the bounty. Make jam? It takes too much time, is really messy, and needs a lot of sugar. Hmmmmm . . . . . what about plum leather? It can't be that hard to make. The only ingredient is ripe fruit. There is a dehydrator gathering dust under the bed.

Step 1: Gather the best and ripest fruit you can find. Wash it thoroughly.

Step 2: Remove the pits by squeezing the fruit between your fingers and picking out the pits from the gooey pulp. Be sure to capture all the liquid.

Step 3: Puree the pit-free mass of pulp and skins in the blender.

Step 4: Push the blended pulp through a strainer to remove the skins. Possibly you could do this before blending, but letting some of the skins mix into the pulp adds color, and perhaps adds nutrients.

Step 5: Brush some olive oil onto the drying rack in the dehydrator -- not too much or the end product is too greasy. You need a special drying rack for making fruit leather.  

Step 6: Gently pour the strained puree onto the drying rack, using only enough to completely coat the surface of the rack. Store extra puree in the fridge for the next batch. Alternatively, invest in more drying racks because they stack and you can do several at once. (I haven't tried that.)

Step 7: Optional -- sprinkle on some grated coconut.

Step 8: Put the top on the dehydrator and set it on the highest temperature (155 degrees F). After a couple of hours, turn the temperature down to 135 degrees F and keep it going until the puree is thoroughly dried out. It helps to set things up in an out-of-the-way place like the garage, so the continuous noise doesn't drive you batty. The puree takes a long time to dry out. Turn the machine off at night, of course, if it takes longer than a day.

Step 9:  Periodically test the puree by touching it gently with your finger -- if it's the least bit sticky it's not done. When finally done (hooray!) lift the lovely, translucent wreath of plum leather out of the machine. Plums have lots of natural pectin so the final material is firm and stretchy.

Step 10: Cut the wreath into pieces and wrap the pieces in waxed paper.

Step 11: Roll up the covered pieces and secure them well.

Step 12: Store in a covered plastic container in the fridge. Eat some right away and marvel at the fresh, fruity taste -- a much more concentrated flavor than the fresh fruit itself. Essence of plums. Share some with friends to hear their delighted response.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Season of Plenty

The blooming of the pink lilies signals the season of plenty in our backyard. As the blossoms gradually opened this week, we brought in several harvest baskets of lush produce:

Dona tomatoes
Better Boy tomatoes
Sungold cherry tomatoes
Padron peppers
Fairy Tale eggplant
Prosperosa eggplant
Ronde de Nice zucchini
Emperor's Jade zucchini
Genovese basil (the best for pesto)
Summertime lettuce
Michelle lettuce
A few stray leaves of volunteer arugula
Assorted leaves of volunteer yard chard
Purple plums (last few of their waning season)
Yellow plums (more than we can deal with)
Pears!!!!!!! (See below).

And that's not even the full roster. Still to come are:

Roman Stripe paste tomatoes
Indigo Blue tomatoes
Sweet Million cherry tomatoes
Pimento peppers
Lemon cucumbers
Blue Lake beans
Fortex beans
Volunteer mystery squash most likely descended from the Trombetta di Albenga of previous summers (judging by the size of the vines).

The lilies bloom in early August, announcing the all too short season of feasting on our summer specialties: Insanely Great Pasta Sauce and the inimitable Pear Tarte Tatin.

When the lilies bloom the pears are ready to drop. It's time to start watching the pear tree carefully because pears, counter-intuitively, should not be allowed to ripen on the tree. When the first one falls the whole harvest must be picked at once.

This year we got impatient and didn't wait for that first plopped pear before sending H. up on a ladder to gather in whatever he could reach -- everything but a few fat ones clinging to the topmost branches.

I think the blooming lilies are now so strongly associated in my mind with the season of plenty that, like Pavlov's dog, I start to salivate when I see them! Fill the harvest baskets; it's the time of fruiting and feasting!

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Incredible Exploding Thistle

On a recent sunny afternoon, I noticed a mass of white gossamer fluff on the giant bull thistle that stands seven feet tall in one of the garden paths. It had not been there that morning. The mass consisted of spidery whorls of white threads, each carrying a tiny oval seed at the bottom. Some of the whorls -- "light as thistledown" because thistledown is exactly what they were -- were already lofting away on the breeze.

Uh oh.


I pulled out a handful of fluff, marveling at how neatly and densely the seeds were packed in -- dozens wedged into one small round seed pod about an inch across. No wonder the thing burst open.

In botanical circles there is a technical term for exploding plant parts: dehiscence.

I couldn't let this particular bull thistle go on exploding. There were enough seeds in one little pod and enough pods on a seven foot plant to eventually turn the whole yard into a thick thorny forest.

Already, the floating seeds were finding resting spots in quiet corners of the yard, ready to set up shop and bring forth new generations of towering bull thistles.

Before going after the plant with pruning shears and thick gloves, I took some final photos of the magnificent purple blossoms, full blown and feathery, or wilting, fading, and folding into themselves. Thistle blossoms are sought out avidly by bees and butterflies, and thistle honey, of course, is much prized. That's one reason I let the plant live out most of its span of time.

On YouTube I found an amazing video of a swallowtail butterfly feeding greedily from a thistle blossom for a full two minutes, in a scene I have never witnessed directly but fondly hope has occurred in our backyard and will occur again.

Monday, July 9, 2012

It's a Ronde de Nice!!!

Mystery solved. The unknown "round kind" zucchini from Green String Farm is a Ronde de Nice -- a coveted French heirloom from the southern Provencal region facing the Mediterranean and abutting Italy. It is so delicate, so easily bruised it doesn't show up in markets very often.

Despite the exotic heritage, the fancy name pretty much amounts to saying "round thingy from Nice." Welcome to our garden little round thing! May you be as happy here as on the Cote d'Azur.

The first zucchini harvest this year consisted of a couple of  "long kind" Emperor's Jade beauties on June 25. It took a few days more for the Ronde de Nice to size up to what my uneducated eye considered harvestable size. At any rate, with all the data in hand, the records for the zucchini chronicles can now be brought up to date:

Seedlings planted:

2009 May 10 (Green Racer)
2010 Not sure, but later than May 10 (Green Bush)
2011 May 8 (Cocozelle, Zephyr)
2012 May 12 (Ronde de Nice, Emperor's Jade)

First blossom:

2009 June 8

2010 June 13
2011 June 12
2012 June 19 (Ronde de Nice); June 20 (Emperor's Jade)

First harvest:

2009 June 14
2010 June 21
2011 June 25
2012 June 25 (Emperor's Jade), a few days later, about June 29 (Ronde de Nice)

We had plenty of zucchini on hand for a driveway picnic on the Fourth of July. The grilled veggies were definitely a big hit, as was the rest of the menu: corn with basil butter grilled in the husk, tofu dogs, deviled eggs, and a red white and blue fruit salad of raspberries, blueberries, and yoghurt. The zucchini and basil were the only items from the garden, but nobody was complaining.

 And there was still plenty of zucchini left for the first batch of summertime green soup on July 9.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Zucchini Time Is Here Again!

It's always a thrill when the first zucchini blossom of the summer season opens for business! Adding to the thrill is the mysterious identity of this year's first bloom.

Some weeks back at Green String Farm I was looking over a long wooden table of seedlings: squash and melons with generic labels like "zucchini" or "cantaloupe." The young intern on duty couldn't tell me which variety of zucchini was being offered for sale. "I think it's one of the round kind, but I'm not sure," she said. "It could be one of the long kind."

Just starting your internship, eh? I thought to myself. No matter -- the timing was right, the garden space was available, I love trying a new type of plant, and we all need to support the next generation of idealistic farmers. I bought two sturdy seedlings and, on May 12, transplanted them into one of the cucurbit beds in the northwest corner of the garden.

On June 19 the first sunshine yellow crepe paper blossom unfurled at the end of its long thin stem -- a lone male flower, testing the summer air of this new season.

As yet unopened, the first mysterious female flower was a tight green bud with a baby zucchini, distinctively round, at its base. So, it's one of the round kind -- but which one? I decided to let it grow a bit before beginning my online research.

The neighboring bed with three plants of Emperor's Jade zucchini from Sweetwater Nursury via Whole Foods was also planted on May 12. Nothing was blooming yet but a baby zucchini was in evidence beneath a bud furled tight as a folded umbrella.

By the next morning, June 20, the mystery squash had opened its first female flower.

And the Emperor's golden flags were flying too, both male and female standards.

Male flowers on both varieties are quite similar in the formation of the anthers, the pollen bearing parts, but there are subtle differences in the convoluted surfaces of the female stigmas, which receive the pollen.

So far it's a good year for zucchini, unlike last summer's spider mite disaster, a most demoralizing episode. I had to buy zucchini for green soup, feeling very furtive about it. If you can't grow zucchini you might as well turn in your trowel.

I think we will be able to pass the zucchini test this year.

Data from the last several seasons shows a pretty consistent pattern of growth even though I planted different varieties each year: Seedlings set in the ground in early May start to bloom about a month later, more or less. Perhaps, all in all, it doesn't matter a lot whether it's the round kind or the long kind. Zucchini is zucchini is zucchini. But that won't stop me from tracking down the mystery squash, for the record.

Seedlings planted:

2009 May 10 (Green Racer)
2010 Not sure, but later than May 10 (Green Bush)
2011 May 8 (Cocozelle, Zephyr)
2012 May 12 (mystery squash, Emperor's Jade)

First blossom:

2009 June 8

2010 June 13
2011 June 12
2012 June 19 (mystery squash); June 20 (Emperor's Jade)

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Freesias in the Rain

A miracle of water has been falling out of the sky! We have had currents in the gutters, rushing streams, fallen blossoms pasted to the sidewalks, and in the backyard, plants bent down with the weight of accumulated moisture. In the middle of this happy hulabaloo the first freesias of the season quietly opened up their golden throats and took a gentle drink. I photographed them the morning of March 13 after several days of rain with more rain following.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

First Plum Blossom!

The first plum blossom in our backyard inspired some haiku thoughts:

Spring makes a bargain
With the cold air of a bright day:
First white plum blossom.

Buson, when dying,
Hoped for plum blossoms of
Eternity's dawn.

Where every morning
Is the first morning and the
Blossoms never fall.

Buson, the cherished 18th century Japanese poet and painter, is said to have composed his final death-bed poem hoping to see the first iconic blossoms of early spring before he died and comparing them to what he hoped to see after he died.

Perhaps he was making up for an earlier verse with a less transcendent message:

"In nooks and corners
Cold remains:
Flowers of the plum."

(Translated by R. H. Blyth)

It's true that a large part of the haunting beauty of the fragile white flowers that spring suddenly from dead branches arises from their vulnerability and fleetingness. Storms may come; there might be frost. The brave new blooms could be littering the ground as quickly as they appeared.

But they also hold a promise of more beauty to come. Slow, hidden processes are coming to fruition and even though the petals may fall, life goes on and, perhaps, like a poet's prayer, merges with eternity.

That's why, although there have been blossoms all over town for several weeks -- flowering cherry, quince, tulip magnolias -- the first pale plum flower in our own backyard stopped me in my tracks. It's a surprise even when I know it's coming. Usually I'm not looking for it but just happen to notice it while walking by with other tasks in mind.

Something always impels me to note the occasion. I used to jot it down on my calendar. Now I take pictures with a digital camera that records for posterity the date and time.

According to my informal data of the past several years, the first plum blossom appears sometime around Valentine's Day, mid-February, when the seasons are shifting back and forth from day to day. The data is very informal since the "first blossom" is the one that I happen to see -- i.e. it's more or less at eye level, not way up on the high branches.

Let the record show that the first plum blossom of 2012 was photographed on February 17.

First blossom of 2011: February 13.

First blossom of 2010: February 7.

That's as far back as my photographic evidence goes.

Each year this momentary "first" seems more momentous.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Tweet Mob of Robins

All day long the robins have been in a state of high excitement. This morning the neighbors' redwoods and eucalyptus were shaking and fluttering with hidden activity and the sunlit air was alive with loud, rowdy birdsong. It took me a while but eventually I figured out what was going on, based on previous experience with robins and ivy berries.

I've seen it before. When the ivy is fruiting, the robins go crazy over the myriad clusters of small dark berries packed with nutrition and quick energy. The continuous twittering of the first arrivals seems to draw others and soon there are crowds of them swooping here and there. A tweet mob for sure. Occupy the ivy!!!

I could see thick twining vines of ivy snaking up the tallest redwoods -- that's where most of the activity was centered as fat birds dove in eagerly, dislodging others who flew up onto nearby eucalyptus branches.

Because neither redwood nor eucalyptus drop their greenery in winter it was hard to see the birds except in flight. But when I went back out in late afternoon the action had shifted to our yard. The skies had clouded over and, in the bare branches of the locust tree by the garage, plenty of plump, chesty silhouettes were visible against a luminous grey field of light. 

The mood was much quieter. Most of the birds were too stuffed to do more than chirp -- or perhaps burp -- contentedly and wait politely for their turn to fly over to the small, ivy-covered plum tree.


Just a few birds at a time held sway in the spindly branches of the plum tree, occasionally dropping down into the mass of ivy for a few last tidbits. A fine closing to a fine day.