Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year!

When we were kids, my Granny would often babysit us on New Years Eve and let our parents go out to celebrate.  I'd think it was extremely witty to kiss my parents farewell and say wistfully, "See ya next year!"  Well, I was only eight...

On some occasions,  poor Granny would have a couple of her children's offspring all gathered at one household - a mini party for us. Granny had nine children and all of them has had their own family - there are twenty-nine of us in my generation!  We cousins had great fun together, though back in those days I do recall a certain level of bickering, a slightly dilute form of sibling rivalry.  As the third oldest of them, I still feel that the youngest are so, so young (even though some of them are now mothers themselves), and in a weird extension of big-sister-hood, I'm so proud of my cousins.  I've watched many of the younger ones grow up, or have lived through life's ups and downs with those in the same age bracket as me...And why, might you ask, am I talking about cousins on New Years Eve?

Well, the whole event just serves to make me nostalgic.  I've done my sisters head in all week on the phone, trying to rope her into deep-and-meaningfuls.  Easy for me at this end - not so much so for her with her two young boy's rough and tumble in the back ground.  And thats my point, to some degree.

How things have changed since the days when we rung in the New Year with Granny.  First, we got to an age when instead of our parents going out, we where the ones who just could NOT miss the New Years Eve Disco at the parish hall (Ballymacnab Disco!  And - yes- I really did live in a place called Ballymacnab.)  Our poor parents gave up their own nights out to become our taxi drivers.

Then we left home and didn't much notice what our parents did for New Years, BUT we'd never miss being in just the right bar at just the right time (said bar was often too packed and the prices of the drinks hiked up, but that didn't matter as the queue to the bar was so long that you'd only get the chance to buy two drinks the entire evening anyway).

Approaching our thirties, we remembered that not only did we have parents but that they were pretty cool people, and it was fun to spend New Years Eve actually with them. Parties shifted from packed bars to packed houses.

Last week, I heard that my Mum offered to babysit my nephews and let my sister and brother-in-law go out to party, thus closing the circle!

So that's looking back - what about looking forward?

New Years Resolutions

1. Eat less.
2. Exercise more.
3. Weed more.
4. Write more.

Nothing very exciting - I think I much prefer the nostalgia than the resolution thing!
Pacific Ocean, Marin County, California

Byddi Lee

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Storms, Solstace, Eclipse and Christmas - all in one week!

What a week it's been!  It all kicked off last weekend with the biggest storm we've since moving here two and a half years ago.  We had just put up our Nativity scene (or "The God in Box" as its been nicknamed), and I was sure it was going to be strewn all over the street, but it was fine.  Karla was ready to declare it a miracle until I pointed out that it was in a fairly sheltered spot to begin with.

We already had the grow-in-the-ground Christmas tree - our Douglas fir. My husband build a little stable for the figurines which we bought on line from the Catholic Supply Shop.
When I got them (last year) the Joseph statue had his face smashed in.  I called the vendor straight away and they asked if the rest of the order was okay.  Having not unpacked it all, I told them I'd call them back.  I opend up the whole box and saw that the Mary figurine and the baby Jesus figurine were intact, so I called the Catholic Suppy Shop back and got the same woman.

"I'm happy to say that mother and baby are both fine!"  I told her.  We had a laugh at that, then she said "We'll send you a new Joseph."

"Do you want me to return the broken one?" I asked.

"No need to, " she said.

"Should I send you a photogragh of the damage then?" I said.

"No," she replied. "We're in the business of believing!"

Cute or what?

We bought the hay for $5 at Dave's Hay Barn in San Jose.  He doesn't have a website, but he does have a massive barn with 14 different kinds of hay, and extra friendly staff.  We'll be back next year - the hay will go on the garden when we take the Manger down.

So back  to the storm...
At first I though someone was outside throwing buckets of water at the bedroom window.  It's been a while since I experienced sideways rain, (an Irish specialty, alongside Guinness and crackling peat fires - in fact all three go fabulously together!) and despite spending many winter nights enjoying lying in bed listening to the howling winds back in Ireland, here, it seemed a lot more scary.  For one, the Irish houses feel studier, built as they are from solid brick.  The Californian house, of wood and stucco, felt flimsy by comparison - though I'd say a welcome feature in the event of a major earthquake.  Being sited on top of the hill, I thought we were going to get blown away at one point.

Next day the damage was evident, but thankfully, mimimal.  The lemon tree took a hit.
In the end we lobed off this branch.  I was planning on removing some of the lower branches anyways, so this made my decision for me.
The peas and the broccoli "tree" were blown over.  Fortunately, the pea plants did not break, and I've just put them back and re-staked them.  I'm not sure what will happen to the broccoli. It won't stand up by itself.
On Monday night, we sat up and watched the eclipse of the moon.  It was fun experimenting with the camera, a Nikkon D5000, and I reckon we got some fairly good shots.  Here are the top ten!

I'm sure with more knowledge and experience we could do better - perhaps by the next eclipse.....

December 21st - the turning point of the year in terms of light.  The days start to get longer and spring will soon follow.  I'm lucky in that I enjoy each season and look forward to the next.  And as we wait for spring to get started we still have Christmas to enjoy.

I hope you have a wonderful Christmas, and if like me, you are unable to be with your family, that you are at least able to spend the day with people you love - as I am lucky to be able to do.

Byddi Lee

Friday, December 17, 2010

A word on weeds and a little something for those of you with snow covered gardens...

I'm linking in with Garden Bloggers Bloom Day this week at May Dreams Gardens. Many of the blogs posted have gardens under snow.  Even the usually milder, wet Irish climate has been delivered a wallop of white so that my mother's garden (and the whole island, from what I hear) is knee-deep in the stuff. So this post is for all you snow bunnies...

First, I'll show you some of the lovely flowers that are defying the frosty nights and still blossoming, in the hopes that that will cheer you up.

Above is a snap dragon, and below are some dianthus, followed by close-ups of them as I felt this first picture did not do the individual flowers justice, and those of you who are bloom-starved might like to feast your eyes on them.
Do you notice a color theme going on? I can't help myself with pink!  Even my Primulas are pink...
I've always loved fuschias.  The blossom reminds me of a ballerina in a tu-tu - the stamens and style are her legs...
My petunias are bravely soldiering on too - I planted these as annuals in June.  They are starting to behave like perennials!
Allysum reminds me of my Grandmother - she used to have lots of it growing in her rockery.  I like how this one catches the winter sun...
Another plant bought during the summer, and expected to be a shorter lived annual - I think its a verbenna but I've lost the plant label for it...can anyone confirm that for me?
And then there is the Bird of Paradise - I can't claim credit for these - they were here when we moved in, and they just do their thing.  This year, I might even fertilize them!
If all this only serves to make you jealous, I'll demonstrate the downside of all that growth - Weeds!

My word on weeds is "Therapy"!  For some gardeners that may mean they need therapy when they see a garden full of weeds.  For me, strangely enough, the process is therapeutic.  Am I crazy?  Don't answer that.  But many gardeners I've met say the same thing.  It gives us great satisfaction to pull out weeds.  Mind you, most of the people I've discussed this with were weeding voluntarily with the Edgewood Weed Warriors at the time of the conversation, so perhaps my surveying methods were flawed!

I've been very vigilant about keeping the veggie garden weed free, since last year when I tried to convince myself that it was really a "green" mulch and that I'd dig them back through as "green" fertilizer!  That did not work out so good - especially for the poor over-run beets that never quite took off.  In the end, I had to weed and then cover them with compost mulch during the summer, and that has kept me on top of things here. Now, the raised beds look much smarter...
The wood chip mulch is doing a pretty good job at weed control in the front garden, and now that I've planted the as-yet-baby-plant natives, the front garden looks clean and weed free.
In the foreground, the Deer Grass is looking happy. In the background, I have the aromatics planted close to the path - Cleveland Sage, Coyote Mint and Desert Lavender (from bottom of picture up).  But look closely at the bright green patch just beyond the railings.  A totally different story!   That is the long forgotten side yard, and the weeds have been having a jamboree.  They've invited all their friend round too!

So - getting back to my word on weeds. I do love to look back on a patch of ground that I've cleared of weeds, and the denser they grow, the greater my gratification with the job.
The trick with weeds is to not let yourself get overwhelmed by the task at hand. Set yourself a target and work a little bit a day - ten minutes, thirty minutes, an hour - whatever works for your concentration span and what your back can manage.  Don't worry if you don't get it all done in one sitting. Those blighters aren't going anywhere - more's the pity!

It's best to get them out by the roots. I think that there is an optimum weed pulling size.  Too small and it's way too fiddly ( and not quite as satisfying)  Too big and the roots are too hard to get - I like my weeds about two inches long.

Each day, I roll back the weed frontier by a couple of feet.  I like to keep it geometric and work in foot wide strips each time.
There is a big rain storm on us now, so the weeds will think that they are winning.  But in the end they won't, because we may not have come here for the grass, but we certainly did not come here for the weeds either!

Byddi Lee

Friday, December 10, 2010

Irish wheaten bread with a Californian twist

It's that time of year again - the Birds of Paradise flowers are blossoming, capturing the winter sunshine and giving it an extra vibe. The pomegranates are ready to harvest, though this year, we've had a disappointing crop.  Here is a picture of exactly two thirds of the produce.
The other third of the harvest was consumed when my Mum came to visit.  Last year, we had heaps of fruit from this tree, and I made juice and jelly.  The kitchen resembled a crime scene afterward, with all the splashes of the red juice. I pruned the tree in late January, and the leaves flourished during the spring and summer.  We even had quite a few flowers, so I don't know why the crop failed.  My guess is that it may have been due to the unseasonably cool summer we had, or a pollination problem as a consequence of that weather.  What ever happened, we only got three pomegranates!

On the up side, the lemon tree, that I vigorously pruned last year, has blossomed at long last.
I had threatened to cut it down and replace it with one of my cherry trees.  It obviously overheard me - there really is something in this talking-to-plants lark.  My orchids are thriving now after that showdown!

The orange tree is laden with fruit too. 
We have tried some, but they are still bitter.  Last year, we didn't harvest them until January, so we will sample one each week until they are how we like them.  When we harvested them last year, we were able to eat them from the tree until March, but then we had a glut of them.  

Unwilling to let them go to waste, we spent a day picking, peeling and juicing them, then froze the juice.  The orange pulp looked too nice to throw away, and I didn't want to waste it, so I froze it until I came up with a use for it.

Californian wheaten bread!

I adjusted a recipe that I use all the time for (Irish) wheaten bread (in the US it may be referred to as brown soda bread).

  • 4 cups whole wheat flour
  • 1 cup white flour
  • 2 cups orange pulp (after juicing)
  • 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1-2 cups of sour milk or buttermilk - Actually, I use almond milk with a half teaspoon of baking powder in it, but you can do the same with ordinary cows milk.
1.   Preheat the oven to 450o F.
2.   In a big bowl, sift the dry ingredients together making sure the bicarbonate of soda is evenly mixed.
3.   Add the orange pulp.
4.   Quickly add the milk and stir to get a soft, raggy looking dough.  Don't spend too long mixing as speed is important here.  As soon as the bicarbonate of soda gets wet, the chemical reaction begins that causes the dough to rise, so you don't have to knead this bread at all.  In fact, more than a few seconds will cause the loaf to be tough, so the good news is - less is best.
5.   Turn the dough out on a baking sheet that has been lightly dusted with flour.
6.   Shape it into a slightly domed circle about 6-8 inches in diameter.
7.   Use a sharp knife to cut a cross right across the loaf to about half the depth of the loaf.
8.   Gently (sudden jarring may disturb the developing carbon dioxide bubbles that help it rise) set the baking sheet into the oven and bake at 450o F for 10 minutes.
9.   Then, turn the oven down to 400o F for 35 minutes.
10. Tap the bottom of the loaf - a hollow sound means it's done.
11. Put on a rack to cool.
12. Serve with butter (ideally melting and dripping of the bread), homemade Meyer lemon marmalade and a big mug of Barry's tea.

If you don't have orange pulp substitute with a half cup of oatmeal and another cup of the milk.  It is a very forgiving recipe.  The bread should be heavy - not light and fluffy.  It can also take the addition of raisins or for a savory touch Jalapeno peppers - basically, experiment then share your conclusions!

Byddi Lee

Friday, December 3, 2010

What's in the inside matters too.

They say that beauty is only skin deep.  With plants, that's true to a certain extent too.  Take orchids for example.
Without blossoms, an orchid is simply foliage.  Boring foliage at that!
I've been looking at the biggest of these, for two years now, without blossoms.  I was good to this orchid.  I potted it up. I fed it blue colored food designed especially for orchids.  I talked to it.  But nada.  And not only was it on strike, but it cajoled the other two orchids I owned into joining forces with it.  They dropped their blossoms and never re-bloomed either.  My orchids were revolting!

I called my cousin in Ireland.  She always seems to have beautiful blossoming orchids, all the time. 

"You're being too good to them," she told me.  "I never feed mine, and I only occasionally water them.  And I never, ever repot them.  Treat 'em mean and keep them keen."

Wow!  Orchids needed to be treated just like men.  The more you feed and pamper them the lazier and thankless they become.  No more Mrs Nice Guy....

I presented my orchids with an untimatum.

"Here's the deal you guys - I'm kicking you outta this lovely cozy environment, without any food and no more new pots until you blossom - even a flower spike will do."  They were quite literally "in the dog house".  Okay - sunroom - to be exact.

I sent them there in late september.  One of them suffered some sunburn until I repositioned it under the table.  I felt bad everytime I looked at them, but I stayed strong.

"Just one flower spike!"  I told them.  I dribbled a little water on them when they looked thirsty - orchids are great at looking thirsty and pepping up after a wee drink.  If their leaves look a little wrinkled, they need more water. 

The sunburnt one lost its damaged leaves and started to look better.  The temperature at night dropped by the required 10 degrees ( I wasn't sure if we were talking in Fahrenheit, so I went down in Celsius too, to be on the safe side!) as suggested on eHow's page on "How to Make an Orchid Bloom".

Everyday, I checked them.  Nothing happened.  I stopped checking them every day.  It was down to once a week, if even.  I upped the stakes and told them it was either blossom or die - I was running out of room in my house for foliage!

I think I must have scared them into it - at the end of November, just as the night time temperatures were kissing freezing point, I noticed not one but two spikes appearing on the first orchid.  I gave it a couple of days though.  This guy had fooled me before by pushing out grey green aerial roots that got me all excited, untill they turned downward and withered up. Now, what's a gal supposed to do with that?

But no, this time it looks like the real thing.  Two upward spikes and a nice aerial root for comparison.
And to my great delight the second one followed suit with one spike. 
Orchid number three had a promising branch from the old spike, but disaster struck - I knocked the little branch off!
Still, it had kept up its end of the bargain, so I kept the three amigos together.  Today, they'll get their first feed in over two months.  There is supposed to be some fancy-pants blossoming feed, but I'm just keeping it simple.  They haven't finishe the food I already bought them, and it was expensive.  No point in slipping back into bad habits and spoiling them again.

If these aren't flowering spikes, all three have been threatened with the compost heap!  If only we could threaten men like that...

As for foliage - this plant, that my neighbor  Laurie gave me back in July, is thriving.  The little new leaves are so cute, compared against the full-sized ones. 
And my spider plant is having so many babies I can't give enough away...
Beautiful red leaves on the poinsettia make a wonderful seasonal centerpiece on the little shelf beneath the glass table.
And my peace lily has blossomed. 
I'm leaving you with a puzzle this week.  I have this mystery plant I picked up in Orchard Supply Hardware last June.  When I bought it it had beautiful lilac, bell-shaped blossoms on flower stalks.  I lost the tag telling me what it is.

 The underside of the leaf goes purple, as does the flower stalks.
I'd also appreciate any tips on how to force it to bloom again....

(P.S. For the record - no husband has been hurt, starved or made to sleep in the sun-room in the making of this post!)

 Byddi Lee

Friday, November 26, 2010

Frost and foremost

Honest to God, you'd think it was the end of the world here.  The News has carried it every night in their headlines, urgent voices warning of the destruction that is imminent, and whilst it's not quite the end of the world, it has been the end of my zucchini, eggplant and pepper plants - FROST!

When I gardened in Ireland, I never held much hope for a winter crop.  I was too cold and too lazy to plant anything in the autumn, and when the freezing temperatures, hit I did not much mind what happened to the garden.  Springtime would come and I'd start again. 

Here it's different.  If I'm careful, I can have stuff growing all winter that I couldn't grow in Ireland.  But the question is, what will survive the frost and what won't?  I'm looking froward to the Master Gardeners program to get a more definitive answer to that question.

Last year, I took precautions when we had the one and only frost warning of the year in December.  I put bubble wrap over the lettuce, and they did really well surviving well into the hottest part of the summer before bolting. I'd heard that if peppers are protected from the frost they can be perennial, so I decided to wrap them in bubble wrap - some of them still had fruit on them.  I also wrapped up the egg plants too, more as an experiment than anything.

I also covered the little potato plants that had sprouted.  Notice the cherry tree growing in this plot.  I pruned this off a cherry tree that was dying and in the end needed to be cut down.  I used the cut branches as supports for peas and they blossomed!  It is still growing strong, and I'll move it, and three others like it, in Janurary. 
I had heard that you just need to cover the plant to protect it from frost, and that frost drops straight down. So I didn't worry about the pots that sit along the front under the eaves of the house.  I did experiment with other covering devices, like upturned buckets,
 and even garden chairs.
I made sure to cover the lettuce and bok choi. Only because they seem to me to be fragile, and therefore frost would make a difference - to be honest, I'm just guessing at this stage.
And so I went to bed content that I had done the best I could for my little garden. 

Why is frost and low temperatures so damaging  to some plants?

Well, when water freezes it swells, so if a plant freezes the water within the cells expands, bursting the cell walls.  That is why when the plants thaw out, they just flop over. 

The night before last the temperature dropped to 28F.  The zucchini wasn't covered and it bit the dust.

Where the basil was peeking out from under the bubble wrap, it got damaged, (right hand side of photo) but those leaves under bubble wrap seemed okay.

 The cilantro was very happy snuggled under its covers.
The bok choi were also well protected.
On close inspection the spuds were slightly damaged - you can see where the leaves have turned a darker brownish color.
 The leaves beneath seem okay and so my plan is to just leave these alone and hope that they recover to some extent.  I've also read that some other plants might recover too, and its best not to prune off the frost damaged parts.
Despite being covered, the peppers and eggplant took a a hit - that's how it goes, I suppose! I did however come across a website with great tips on frost protection (which you can read for yourself by clicking the link) that said to avoid covering with plastic - perhaps the bubble wrap was not as clever a plan as I had thought.

But the arugula was thriving.
 And the lettuce...

But wait a minute - I forgot to re-cover that patch of lettuce last night - so how did it survive the low of 29F?  After a garden fence clinic, (which usually occurs when I catch Al in his garden and quiz him on gardening matters over the fence) it transpires that, in fact, the lettuce is fairly frost resistant.  This was totally unexpected.  I turned to the internet for a second opinion and discovered that lettuce does survive a light frost. So, was all my nurturing in vain - those varieties that died were doomed - and covering those that were not susceptible, a waste of time?  

Not necessarily - the BBC website suggests covering lettuce when a frost is likely. Admittedly, British frost and Californian frosts may drastically differ, but if it does get cold enough, damage will be done. 

So, what makes a plant frost resistant? Apparently if a plant has a high content of salt in its cells, it is more frost resistant. This makes sense as adding salt to water lowers its freezing point. That why it is used on roads in the winter - not just to make them taste better for crazy people who may want to lick the road!
One thing I love about researching a question is that I tend to pick up lots of other useful titbits along the way.  From the same website I read,

"Growing tips

  • Winter salads traditionally have a strong, robust flavour that can sometimes be a little bitter. If you find that your salad leaves are too bitter for your tastes, try blanching the leaves by covering the plants with an upturned flowerpot.
  • Left like this for a few days before harvesting, the leaves will become paler and less bitter."

I'm going to try this with my arugula.

As for my kale forest - yummy - frost should sweeten the leaves!  A silver lining in every cloud.

Byddi Lee