Saturday, October 19, 2013

Another Solar update, 18-October.

Old Sol starts making some serious jumps and as a result, the days get shorter. Two months to the Solstice when he starts his journey back to the North.

19-October, The Final Gardenista for 2013

The first mild frost rolled through sometime around the 5th of October. As with all light ones, only certain things were killed, and in funny places. You sort of have to visualize the cold air like thin streams winding their way through the garden, taking a plant here and there. Sometimes only a half a plant gets blackened, others times it's laid waste. Our huge Basil plants were completely destroyed while the Cosmos were largely untouched. The last of the Eggplant fruit was long gone, but the plants themselves carried on. Tomatoes were a mixed bag with parts of most plants frosted but no fruit turned to mush. We picked the last of the them and put them in a dark room between layers of newspaper knowing that at least some will ripen.

Needless to say, what remains is a far cry from what we had in July and August.

We still had a half-dozen hummingbirds when we left for the beach on the 30th of September so I put 4 fresh feeders out on the day we departed. On return they were most empty, and I saw one bird on the morning of the 13th but that was it. He finally moved on or succumbed to the cold.

The Maximilian Sunflowers were all gone by the beginning of this month and so we cut them down this week.

The Morning Glories out back were killed by the 25° temperature a few days ago, but those near the house continue, blooming daily. September and October really seem to be their peak months. Another learning for the year.

All that remains now is a scrappy little garden, planted entirely by our resident squirrel whom we trapped and transplanted last month. A few Sunflowers popping up around the garbage can. A fitting end to a good season.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Wednesday, September 25th

The last two weeks have been all about rain. This time it didn't come in one giant downpour like it did on July 26th, instead it rained just about every day for a week. And an inch at a time giving us about 4.5". Which in turn made the place one giant mud pit. The big horses out back were standing on islands and we were forced to move the little guys into one of the bigger inside pens. I pumped  the lake out of one of the turnouts, only to have another inch of rain overnight reset that work to zero. The big guys spent a couple of days living in the west turnout until yet another storm made that impossible. We moved them to the riding arena until finally just bringing them into the barn.
As you can see, it was pretty bad. Not Colorado style flood bad, but enough to degrade our quality of life. As of today, we're dried out once again.

 We're down to 3-5 Hummingbirds which is surprising given that it's been 40-42° overnight. I guess they hang on by a thread and then warm up when it hits the 80's in the daytime. We haven't used the air conditioning at all for the past 10 days, it's been that nice.

The garden is pretty much done. We still pull a handful of cherry tomatoes out every other day and there are a few white eggplants coming on. Another surprise as I've not bothered to do any pollination for a long time. September is the month when it all ends apparently, now we just wait for the first hard frost to blacken the Basil bushes and to freeze the last of the Cosmos and Zinnias. And hopefully the hordes of Mosquitoes that came with the rain and have stayed to make it impossible to sit out back. Not that the sun is cooperating, it's shady and cool out there now, due to Sol's incessant march to the south. 1 hour and 24 minutes of less light daily and 35° less to the west. We've just passed the Equinox, on to the Solstice.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Monday September 9th

It's been a couple of weeks since I last gave an update and things have changed in the interim. Our tomato plants are pretty much tapped out - we did get some cherries and a couple of big ones this week but it's clear that their time is almost up. Interestingly, an "at will" plant, no doubt due to some fruit I rototilled in last winter, has a couple of tomatoes on it. We'll see if they make it. This past Saturday was the first time this summer that we purchased tomatoes at the grower's market for our weekly needs.

Eggplants are completely done and a bit of a disappointment. Next year, less plants and more specificity in cultivars with the purple globe style being the best for our climate.

Hummingbirds are down to 8-10 individuals now and I'm only refreshing the feeders weekly. I suspect that a few more cold mornings (it's regularly been 55-58° for the past week) will be enough motivation to send all but the hardiest stragglers on to Central America. They're still busy in the morning and throughout the day, but they hole up earlier in the evening now, about 7 instead of 9, no doubt to conserve energy through to cool night. We've had a half dozen or so Common Nighthawks overhead each night this week and I swear I saw and heard a Cactus Wren but I'm going to have to wait on binocular  visual confirmation before adding it to the yard list.

The main highlight this week are our Morning Glories that continue to put on a beautiful show each morning. And at no cost to us this year, given that they just appeared at the start of the Monsoons. It's simply wonderful to walk out back in the morning and stop to admire them slowly covering one of the arena fences.

Lastly, the sun is making its way quickly towards the south right now, taking giants leaps weekly. Similar to my Analemma project from last year, this time around I am merely tracking its position 1 hour before sunset. I began on June 21st, the Summer Solstice and will continue until the winter's equivalent on the 21st of December. It was interesting to see that it really doesn't jump much between June and August, until the middle to end of the latter. Between small degrees of change, and heavy rain clouds in the west throughout July, I didn't get any photos. But now you can really see the change.


Monday, August 19, 2013

Monday August 19th

We spent 15 minutes discussing the nuances of eggplant production with a young farmer at the Downtown Grower's Market on Saturday. We came away a tad more educated than we had been but the real finding seems to be that there is no easy answer as to when they're ready to be picked. Most of the internet lore is just that, and this guy said he picks them when he knows it's time for them to be picked. And that there is a lot of variation between cultivars. The most illuminating tidbit was this - plant a few kinds and experiment with their size and time in the ground and eventually you'll gain the skill to know what you need to know.

This week's bounty photo was taken on our outside tables, on the patio we call "The Bistro." My car was in the shop so my traditional white background picture couldn't be done. I know all of you thought that those past photos were taken on some fancy photo paper background in my studio with perfect lighting but in reality the white you were seeing was the hood of a 2007 BMW parked in our carport. This week's shot is nice, taken just as the sun was dipping and I think it conveys the wonderful light we get as summer winds down. Even though the high 90's we're seeing this week put pay to the idea of fall.

I discovered that I've been remiss lately in posting a week to week garden photo that shows the changes. Well, here are 4, taken almost exactly a month apart. You can see how things grow and in our case, get a bit out of control. Things rise, they flower and then they fade. It's so much fun to be a part of that cycle.

May 20
June 17

July 16

August 19

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Thursday August 15th

Last year we discovered a recipe for Cheddar Tomato Pie and tried it out with our homegrown tomatoes. The original recipe was simple - tomatoes, cheese and a concoction of mayonnaise, apple cider vinegar and a little sugar. We didn't really like the consistency so we added a few eggs and made it more like a quiche and in doing so, achieved culinary perfection. Making heavy use of our late crop - baking and freezing a half-dozen pies as the growing season ran down - we enjoyed them throughout the winter, even taking them with us on our trips to Mexico.

This year we've started earlier with a nod to the tradition of "putting vegetables up for the winter." This week we baked 5 and only ate 1, a testament to our willpower because trust me, nothing smells better than Cheddar Tomato Pie coming out of the oven.

It's simple to make -

1 frozen pie crust
Enough tomatoes (2 or three big ones)
1 cup mayonnaise whisked with 1 tsp of sugar and 1 tbsp of Apple Cider Vinegar
Enough grated sharp cheddar cheese (when I say enough, you put it in until the pie crust is full)
1 cup grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano or a mix of both
4 eggs whisked

Start with a layer of cheese, then a layer of tomatoes
Add a bit of the eggs
Add a bit of the mayonnaise mixture
Repeat with the cheese/tomatoes/eggs/mayo until everything is gone. We add the Parmesan in the last layer. Top with a handful of cheddar

Bake at  390°F for about one hour or until a toothpick comes out clean. Tent the crust at 20 minutes to prevent excess browning.

We've double-bag frozen them and kept them up to 8 months.

Trust me, it's worth the small amount of work.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Monday August 12 - Addendum

It occurred to me after posting the regular blog that I'd forgotten to include one of the weekly harvest shots. I really love these pictures - so much color and zest and implicit knowledge that the fruits of our labors will truly be enjoyed.

Plus it's fun to stage food photos on the hood of my car - click to enlarge.

Monday August 12 - The First Harbingers of Autumn

Well the rain has been coming on again and off again so we have been given a break from watering on a daily basis. It's also brought an unusually large population of mosquitoes.

In terms of vegetables, we've had eggplant a couple of times and a lot of tomato dishes including our first Tomato Cheese Pie of the year (one to eat, one in the freezer) and my latest incarnation of Tomato Caprese Salad which can be made with either chopped big tomatoes or halved cherries. The eggplants have been "interesting," very flavorful but with an almost unchewable skin. Either I've picked them too late or there is something about the variety (white egg) that makes them that way. However, if I'm willing to take the time to peel them, they are quite wonderful.

The hummingbirds continue to drain feeders daily and spend their time fighting when not eating. The big news though is the return of the Lark Sparrows. They show up every year in these few weeks and hang around the horse pens picking through the dried manure for oats that made it through the Hay Burners intact. I always throw a bucket of sunflower seeds oats out back on the ground and they hang around partaking along with a few House Finches and the occasional ground squirrel. This year though - for who knows what reason - I am seeing them in the garden  and even in the barn. Very odd.

I'm always happy when they show up because they portend the end of summer and remind me that they will be among the most common birds on my Christmas Count in Mexico, come December. It will take them the next 3-4 months to get there while I wait here and then spend 2 days making the same journey.

Click to Enlarge

Monday, August 5, 2013

Monday August 5th

The rains have continued, not as badly as the Friday Storm but a half an inch here and three-quarters of an inch there, on top of the already saturated ground, makes for even more work. We haven't had to water the garden in more than a week, a blessing I suppose given the state of our drought. But leaks in the house and on the porch, mosquitoes appearing in swarms and horses standing in mud makes one long with some small portion of guilt for the earlier part of the year when all we had was sand.

Some good pickings this week though with plenty of tomatoes both large and small and a few eggplants. As always, the photos are almost as good as the eating -

The big story of the week though concerns Hummingbirds who have now arrived in all their jewel-like splendor to spend their time fattening up for the long trip south. You often wonder how they accomplish laying on the pounds since they seems to spend more time fighting than eating. Some young male will move in, claim the feeders for himself for a couple of days only to see himself overthrown when so many cousins show up that he cannot defend everything. Then we have a couple of days of peaceful coexistence until the next bully-boy shows up on the scene and starts the cycle again.

We have four species that hang around in August. Most common is the Black-chinned which nests around our place. Next is the Broad-tailed, the red-throated western analog of the well known Ruby-throated. The Broad-tailed nests here in New Mexico, but only at higher elevations, and we see them both in the spring and fall on their way to and from. The Rufous Hummingbird is the chief bully, stopping by on his journey south from more northern climes and lastly we have the Calliope, North America's smallest bird and also a northern breeder. We are lucky to see one or two of them annually and their appearance is always a cause for a celebration. Added into those four types is a giant admixture of females, immatures and the emblematic males and you end up with a giant swarming mess that's difficult to sort out as they dive and climb and fight their way to a perch. 

This year, we've had a couple of lucky moments when birds chose to light on a tomato cage mere feet from where we sit and observe. One male Calliope who sat and preened and spread his lovely throat feathers for our viewing enjoyment. And one small immature that showed a dark patch on the side of its head, first thought to be feathers but identified as a wound when its photo was enlarged on the computer.

These few weeks turn out every year to be the true peak of our gardening, between the food coming off the vine, the visit of the Hummingbirds and the slightly cooler nights that allow us to sit out there as the sun goes down, enjoying both.

Click on the photos for a larger view

Immature male Rufous
Immature male Rufous
Female Black-chinned

Male Broad-tailed

Male Rufous

Wounded female Calliope

Male Black-chinned

Male Calliope

Male Calliope

Male Calliope

Monday, July 29, 2013

Monday July 29th - In the aftermath

We had our first eggplant this week, grilled with olive oil, pesto and Parmesan. It was sort of a hit or miss proposition, because nowhere in the whole giant space of the Internet will anyone tell you when to pick them. The general consensus seems to center on "when they're young, they taste better" but what constitutes "young" is largely undefined. Some say when you can leave a thumbprint, others when the fruit is glossy from one end to the other. I went with the glossy indication and once it was off the plant and in the sun, it was pretty clear that it lacked a continuous glossy sheen. The end was shiny, but the attachment point was dull. But it must have been close enough, because it tasted pretty darn good. The only indication that it might not have been picked at precisely the proper moment was a bit of green flesh under the skin. No matter, we enjoyed it.

Lots of nice sunflowers blooms during the last two weeks; every plant this year has been a mystery, either because they came up on their own or because I planted them from a jumble of seeds collected last year. So many beautiful blooms, all different and all inspiring. Our biggest plant topped out at 128" tall, not bad for an orphan transplanted from a walkway. Growing these beauties is such a nice summer time hobby, very little work and lots of enjoyment.


 The big news though was a storm we had on Friday the 26th. We had had a half inch of rain the night before, so things were a bit wet when the big one rolled in about dinner time. It's never a good thing when we get a big downpour on ground that is already saturated, we're on ancient clay riverbed and the water has nowhere to go. The result is puddles and mud, which makes managing the place and the animals tough. This one would turn out to be tougher than most.

As with all thunderstorms here, it gets dark, the wind picks up and then the rain starts in earnest. We watched the evening weather and the forecaster warned us that a big cell was coming in from the north. Not wishing to get caught in it, we went out and completed the horse chores and I even took a moment to go up on the roof to make sure the downspouts were clear. Before going back in the house, we walked up the drive and took a look to see what was coming. The northern sky was a most foreboding shade of blue-purple, and we could not see the mountains as they were already obscured by sheets of rain pouring down to our east. We went in and waited, and within a few minutes we had a small inkling of just how bad it was going to be.

It got very dark and extremely windy and then the rain came in blasts, followed by hail which actually began to accumulate making the front yard look as though it had had a brief snowstorm. The barnyard and driveway began to flood immediately, and then the power went out. It was 7:15PM. We stood out in the carport watching the rain and hail come down violently as the temperature started to fall rapidly. At this point, water started to pour in through the ceiling of our office, so it was time for pots and towels on all the desks and computers. Heading to the front of the house we heard water splashing and discovered the same thing in our library. More rapid response with buckets and flannel sheets. 

Those two emergencies addressed, we discovered water seeping in through our kitchen door - the porch and front yard were now completely under water. We took turns sweeping it away from the door and out the gate to lower ground before a couple of soaked towels stemmed that leak.

The barnyard and driveway were covered in water that was in turn covered with a green mat of shredded leaves. Out back, all the horse pens were now at least ankle deep from edge to edge, with the ponies bravely standing in it up to their ankles. It was a mess. 

Eventually the rain and wind lessened while the lightning continued on for a while. We sat out back and enjoyed a glass of wine and some music and waited while the storm blew itself out. Still no power. I saw a small frog swimming up the driveway. We went to bed in the dark knowing we had a giant mess on our hands. At 1:06 the power returned and all those lights left on jarred us awake. It failed again at 2:40.



 Saturday morning dawned sunny and humid. Much of the water had receded, leaving debris everywhere along with a coating of mud on all the gravel. The water in the horse pens had gone down a bit - everyone had some muddy high ground to stand on. We moved the big boys to our large arena which had mostly drained. The little guys were restricted to the alley between the turn-out gates, better than where they were but not that great. Everyone had a breakfast of hay only.

The garden was a mess, not destroyed but hardly the same. The tallest sunflowers were all either leaning over or topped, their big unopened blossoms hanging limply by a thread. The tops of most of the tomato plants were split and ripped, and the leaves on everything were shredded, in many cases with only the veins remaining. We used our stock of garden stakes to stand up the sunflowers, pruned the tomatoes and generally straightened things out. Not a complete disaster but a big disappointment nonetheless. 


 It only takes a few days for things to recover to the point where we are not severely inconvenienced. Out power was back on by 4:30 Saturday, an outage of about 21 hours. Nothing in the fridge was ruined and it was very nice to be able to use the faucets to wash our hands and faces after a day of cleaning up with bottled water heated on the stove. A couple of small showers on Saturday and Sunday night didn't add much to the mess (thankfully) and our host of Hummingbirds seems to have grown during the disaster. Today I used a pump to consolidate the water in two of the pens and if everything shakes out well tomorrow, the big horses can return to their regular homes. We were able to get the minis back into their pens last night.

Now we move ahead with our plants, grateful that all our hard work was not completely destroyed. Next week is shaping up to be the first big tomato harvest, the point in summer that we look forward to the most.