Sunday, October 31, 2010

Chinkapin Propagation

After decades of breeding work, the American Chestnut Foundation is now making Castanea dentata nuts available that are likely to be resistant to the blight! There is hope! This news makes me glad in a profound way. But gads, the price tag is $350 per pair. No, I didn't displace a decimal point in that number.

But it's a good thing, I suppose, because I don't yet have enough experience to be growing such a critically endangered species. Those nuts are for arboretums and the Whitehouse and people who really really know what they are doing. The price should drop eventually as production goes up, and in the mean time, there are similar species that I could practice on, such as Chinkapin, Castanea pumila, pictured above. So, I ordered some.

And oh. Crap. I should have read up on these guys a little more. Sometimes, when conditions are right, they start germinating right on the tree. Unlike other seeds I have started over the winter, I don't have a few months to leisurely get them into containers. These little guys arrived already trying to grow.

So I posted a flier up at work explaining my need for containers, and entitled it "Help! My Nuts are Germinating!" My coworkers can't resist a good gag, so by the following day, my desk was covered in milk jugs and soda bottles.

(This prompted a discussion in which a male friend asked after my nuts, and I asked after his jugs, and we both walked off laughing our asses off. I love my workplace!)

The soda bottles, I cut like this.

And the milk jugs, like this.

This gives me maximum pot space in each jug type. With the milk jugs, it also allows me to hold the lid open easily with one hand, making filling easier.

In the Spring, I plan to cut the tops of the containers off, and continue to let the seedlings grow in the container they germinated in. Unlike the standard approach to winter sowing, I will not immediately be transplanting the seedlings. Each container gets only two nuts. One in each pot will be sacrificed next year.

This is me, using my fingers as a dibble.

And here is the final army of containers, ready to be sealed up with tape. The containers function as mini greenhouses. They will be left outdoors all winter, and with any luck, I will have more trees next year than I know what to do with.

I still have a lot more nuts, however. Hopefully my coworkers will continue to bring me plastic gifts.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Reptile Show on Halloween!

Wooooot! I just learned that Marla Issac will be giving a reptile show on Halloween! If you live in my area, I can't say enough amazing things about this woman. Go see her show. Take your kids and cameras! We'll see you there.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

How to Stop Junk Mail

There is a fantastic organization dedicated to removing unwanted junk mail from the world and from your mailbox: The next time you sort your mail, save a pile of the stuff you would rather not get any more of, go to this site, and fill out some information. The basic service is free, and includes tracking the replies of the companies you have contacted through them.

You can use Catalog Choice to opt out of mailings from non-profit organizations, too, and one of the reasons that you can specify for opting out is "I want to help the environment". I find it ironic that I have to use this environmental organizations who have proceeded to spend the entirety of my donation on asking me for more donations.

Catalog Choice even keeps score of how many trees and other resources you have conserved by using their service. As I well know from the games industry, watching one's numbers go up can be addictive.

Thank goodness for Catalog Choice, because my previous attempt to halt junk-mail was a total failure. The post office couldn't figure out my post cards, and most of them were sent back to me. Grrr.

I'll be upgrading to the paid version of Catalog Choice soon, I think.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

An Owl for Gabe

Late nights, and early, early mornings, we have been hearing a most magical sound. It's exactly what the owls in movies sound like: hoo hooo hoo hoo! We haven't seen the owl, but Massachusetts Audubon has a lovely report-an-owl-sighting page that includes recordings of owl calls. As it turns out, most owls don't make that distinctive "hoot". What we have been hearing is a great horned owl!

Being an elusive night visitor, we have no photos of our wild owl. Instead, here are some images of Merlin, a rescued great horned owl who was presented at a raptor show last year. (Click here to see photos of the whole raptor show.)

The funny side effect of hearing an owl is Gabe's reaction. I keep encouraging him to listen for the owl. So, one night, he turns toward the dark window and announces: "I eat the owl". He proceeded to stand there with his mouth open, as if an owl would fly in!

The owl has been a reoccurring theme for him ever since. Sometimes we joke about eating owls; at other times he announces randomly that he is afraid of the owl! But now he almost always follows up with "the owl is nice," because we want to teach him that our local animals are nothing to be afraid of.

But I suppose when you are two, an animal that eats mice might just seem big enough to eat you, too.

I'll have to show him this photo from the raptor show:

Thanks Merlin, you were a good sport!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Last Flowers of the Season

This was my last big hurrah of flower gardening for the year. I had let this bet turn into quite the mess, and I really like having a nice tidy garden up where the neighbors see most of the yard, so towards the end of September when I found myself stuck at home with a slightly sick child, I raided a local nursery for instant gratification plants.

I went with ye olde Autumn Joy sedums, New England aster (or something similar), some black-eyed Susans, and something in the mint family with purple flower that the bees were rioting over. Hyssop, maybe?

The bees and wasps were seriously nuts about that flower. They were actively fighting each other over it, which I have never seen before. But I didn't really pay attention until one of the bees came zipping over to the wagon and stung Gabe, unprovoked. I didn't get a look at what type of bee it was, but it left the stinger behind, so it was likely a honeybee. Such strange behavior!

Gabe was such a trooper. He yelled "Ow!" a few times and then looked at his arm with an expression of "WTF?" The nice woman running the shop, bless her, didn't have any ice, so she gave him a popsicle instead. It didn't last long as an ice-pack before Gabe just HAD to eat it, but boy did it make him happy!

That was his first bee sting. Hooray, no sign of allergy! And not even a tear shed!

The nice lady also enthusiastically waded into the bees to retrieve the plant for me, because, being as nuts as I am, I wanted the flower that attracts so many pollinators at this late time of year. And the bed by the mailbox is a good place for bees, since it doesn't get a lot of foot traffic.

I had to back off a few times when getting them into the ground, because of the bees. They must have felt Winter coming on.

Here is Gabe, upset with me for walking around without my shoes.

A row of two plants alternated is really not my style, but I was craving something extra-orderly after the mess I let this bed become. But at least I wasn't tempted to buy annuals. Please shoot me if I ever waste a penny on a chrysanthemum. Here's hoping that the road salt doesn't do all of these in over the winter. If half of what I planted comes back next year, I'll consider it a success. This is a very tough spot to grow things.

It's mid-October now. How did that happen? The flowers are mostly done for the year, and the few bees I've seen about have been very, very sluggish. It has been cold and wet. Some of the trees are looking bare. My ridiculous saffron crocuses are popping up, and one of them has even bloomed. That little flower is playing games with my sense of time! I plugged some daffodils into the front beds, and that's about it for me and gardening this season. Now I get to hibernate.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Garbage Disposal = Wasted Water

By far the simplest way I have found to conserve water in my home is to avoid using the garbage disposal. Here is a device that takes perfectly potable water and transforms it instantly into waste water. Plus it adds more gunk to wastewater systems that is already, in many areas, so overloaded that they overflow into rivers when it rains. Plus the disposal burns fossil fuels in the process. Plus it wastes perfectly good composting materials.

(This is my last minute oh-shoot-I-forgot-that-today-is-blog-action-day post.)

Thanks to wikimedia commons for the image.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Scarlet Runner Beans

I decided to grow some scarlet runner beans this year in marginal locations around the garden where they wouldn't have the best conditions, but would have plenty of room to grow. Based on this year they have definitely earned a place in a garden next year. When they are young they are amazingly tender and flavorful. Probably among the best green beans I've ever eaten. As they get larger they lose their texture and flavor, but you are rewarded with large beautiful beans. We still have to try the beans I've collected in a meal, but even if they aren't good there the tender beans alone are worth the space and effort.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


Autumn feels like a relief this year. As usual, I am more inclined to watch the season change around me than I am to document it. The trees are a bit muted this year anyway, due, I suspect, to the mercilessly dry summer.

There go the Canadian geese. Even from this distance, a hundred of them all at once make a lot of noise.

I know almost nothing about the migration of birds of prey. Three red-tailed hawks circled past just after I photographed the geese. I guess they are traveling together, but it surprises me to see them in numbers greater than two.

Perhaps they will be dropping back down to two, judging by the squawking and dive-bombing going on.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

American Chestnut at Franklin Matters

I put up a post on American chestnut trees for Franklin Matters.

I've been getting in touch with TACF members to learn more about the Idylbrook breeding site. The biggest surprise? Most of the trees are going to be cut down next year. But this is a good thing! The trees have started to reach maturity. They have been exposed to the blight, and by next year, the breeders will be able to tell which ones are worth breeding. The rest are to be eliminated from the gene pool.

Even though it is an entirely logical step, the thought of these beautiful, healthy-looking American chestnuts being deliberately killed makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck.

They will be needing volunteers at some point, but nothing has been scheduled yet.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Child's Play-Garden Failure

Having built one myself, and having watched it be played on and in unexpected ways, and having first-hand seen how it fails, I sympathize when a play-garden for children doesn't work out as intended. But this failure takes the cake. Obviously a lot of money went into it, but neither the designer, the builder, the homeowner, nor the American Society for Landscape Architects recognized the danger of a steep grass hill next to the exposed pointy corners of granite steps.

Additionally, this garden is located in San Francisco, where the scarce water supply will have to be used to irrigate all of that grass. And some poor schmuck will risk a nasty fall every time he mows the hill.

The ASLA gave this garden a big award, despite their very own code of ethics, which states that "The profession of landscape architecture, so named in 1867, was built on the foundation of several principles: dedication to the public health, safety and welfare, and recognition and protection of the land and its resources." This is a perfect example of artists losing sight of everything except aesthetics. Being a product of art school myself, all I can do is sigh. How very typical.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

To the asshat who dumped eight gallons of diesel fuel into our ground water. . .

Your solution to accidentally filling your car with diesel was to empty the tank into a storm drain? But, ah, you weren't born with enough brains to commit a crime out of the eyes of the public. You even told a resident that you would put *him* in the storm drain if he didn't mind his own business. Have they tracked you down yet, asshole? I hope it takes them a few weeks, to give your ulcer time to grow. They know which company your rented car came from. It's only a matter of time. You're going down, jerk.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Rabbits Dance Farm

I have a habit of compulsively seeking out garden information now. And somehow, this impromptu research is starting to fill my head with useful information. The extent of my garden geekery was made clear this evening at Garden Club, when a farmer gave a presentation on growing garlic, and I already knew most of what she had to say. I felt bad at one point for contradicting her when she suggested growing garlic from bulbs purchased at the grocery store, since I have read that chemicals are sometimes used to inhibit sprouting, but hopefully this led to more people buying her garlic at the end of the presentation. I brought a pound home myself, by way of apology, and because I want to support my local farmers, and because at the rate we are eating up last year's garlic crop, we need a refill to plant with.

The farmer is Kristin of Rabbits Dance Farm, and, alas, she is giving up on farming! She ever-so-nobly ran a CSA for a few years, and even trained some farmers-to-be, but ultimately decided that teaching yoga and running a veggie garden consulting service was where her heart lies. And, as she put it, farming is ten times harder and earns ten times less than just about any other job. I shake my fist in frustration for small farmers everywhere, and wish her the best in her new business endeavors.

I seem to be all out of photos again. Time to take more!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Acorn Bread

So, I had two cups of shelled acorns. I neglected to get a photograph of them, in part because acorn oxidizes a bit once it is out of the shell, so those beautiful ivory nut meats didn't look so photogenic. Perhaps I should have put them into a bowl of water as I shelled. Oh well.

I needed two cups in order to make acorn bread according to this recipe. So, following the recipe, I boiled the acorns in several changes of water. This is to remove the tannins which cause the bitter flavor. Sure enough, the nuts turned the water a murky brown. By the fifth boil, amazingly enough, those ivory nuts were still turning the water brown, but the nuts themselves were quite tasteless.

These are the soft, boiled acorns, and some of the brown water they produced in the first boiling. That brown water is reputed to have a healing effect on poison ivy rashes. It can be used to dye cloth, if another chemical is used to make the color permanent; and it can be used to wash clothes, if you don't mind them becoming a little brown in the process.

I must at this point mention that I am pregnant, and as such, my senses of taste and smell are both a bit wonky. The odor of boiling acorn didn't sit well with me. It smelled, to me, like a rotted, wet chunk of old stump, mushrooms and all, had been put in a pot and boiled. It wasn't a fecal smell, or a rotting flesh smell, but neither was it an appetizing food smell. But I can't trust my sense of smell right now, so I stuck with it.

Chris said it smelled better than the time I boiled a dessicated pigeon head, which isn't the most glowing of recommendations. He has a keen nose, so it just may be that this process is a little smelly.

I stuck the nuts in the refrigerator, poured out the stinky water, and called it a night.

I had mentioned in the previous post that the best nut meats came from germinating acorns. The drawback of these, however, was that the inner shell had a tendency to cling to the nut. This inner shell floated loose during the boilings. I had intended to pick it out, but I forgot, and into the fridge it went. Then, oops again, I chopped it up along with the nuts. Drat.

Oh well. These are the chopped nuts. I didn't have a good means of grinding them, but a knife worked reasonably well.

I'm sorry to say, but the resulting stuff looked a lot like wet catfood. But thankfully, unlike catfood, it had no smell, and not much taste, either. The tastelessness concerned me until I realized that most staple foods are unremarkable on their own.

Hoping for the best, I loaded up all of the ingredients and gave them a good stir. It made a nice, sticky dough. And as it baked, it smelled good! What a relief.

The moment of truth: it smelled delicious, and looked beautiful. We were starting to run late for our Sunday dinner gathering. I rolled the loaf out of the pan, and disaster! The top of the bread came off, exposing the middle, which was still gooey. I rolled the top of the loaf back into the pan and popped the pan back in the oven. But not before breaking off a corner for us to taste.

Yum! Just the right amount of crust on the top; moist and soft underneath. No overwhelming flavors at all; just a mild nuttiness and a subtle sweetness from the maple syrup. All three of us liked it.

But ugh; the last fifteen minutes in the oven overcooked the loaf. The final product was tougher, heavier, and more dry. Either it caused the large nutmeats to harden, or the inner husks toughened up, because every few bites there was something unpleasantly crunchy in the bread. And once again I could smell a shadow of that boiled stump aroma.

Of the dozen people who tasted it, I was the worst critic. Some of them may have been just being polite, but more than one person went back for seconds.

I am sure that the flaws in this batch of bread are due to my cooking, and not to the fact that I was cooking with an ingredient that most people in our culture think of as squirrel food. I believe that with experimentation and refinement, there is quite the culinary treat to be had with acorns. Too bad I didn't get it right on my first try, because it will be a while before I have both the desire and the ingredients to do it again.

Gathering and Smashing

Yesterday, Chris got busy constructing a device to hold firewood (made from recycled lumber), and loading it up. While he did all of that manly lifting, I did some traditional women's work. . .

. . .shelling acorns! Yes, that's right, for eating. Humans around the world have eaten acorns as a staple for far longer than they have eaten today's cultivated grains. I had never tried acorns before, but I hated to see our tree's last crop wasted.

Behind me is the rest of the tree, all chipped up for mulch.

How to shell acorns: find round rock. Hit acorn.

This is what a bad acorn looks like. Silly me, I stored my first batch of acorns indoors in a sealed tupperware for a few days. This cause many of them to get yucky like this. Acorns need to be dried in the sun immediately, or perhaps soaked in water, or refrigerated.

Now this acorn looks yummy! Being a white oak, these acorns should be sweeter than red oaks, but I still found them to have an unpleasant raw flavor. The texture is lovely, though - soft like a chestnut, but less grainy.

I had to put down my rock and forage for more acorns to get the two cups of nutmeats that my acorn bread called for. Alas, the wildlife had cleaned up most of the nuts, and those remaining had been out in the rain, and were busily germinating. I was frustrated until it occurred to me to crack open a germinating acorn. Voila! Perfect nut meat. And of course: a living nut wouldn't be rotting, would it?

Two hours got me two measly cups of nutmeats, which felt even more pathetic in comparison to Chris' filled wood wrack. But oh, look at how much wood he has left to go! And I can't help him with the lifting, since I am pregnant. Sorry Chris!

Next: acorn bread!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Ground Cherry at Franklin Matters

This week's Native Plant post is up at Franklin Matters. This week: Ground cherries! I need to rummage around the weeds by the shed and see if mine are ripe now.