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.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Tuesday, July 16th - a crazy week

This week was different, not only from the perspective of the wonderful tomatoes we had just about every night for dinner, but because of the rain. It seems, after so many year we are finally having a genuine monsoon.

While MLW was still languishing in Texas, I had a couple of nights and about 1.2" of rain to deal with. Nothing terrible, just an increase in flies and mosquitoes and some minor mud. This week though we had one grand storm that began with enough wind and thunder to provoke us to go out and bring in the little horses. It ended with 15 straight minutes of pea to dime sized hail and .7" of hard rain afterwards. We got trapped in the barn and so had a front row seat, spending our time trying to convince our boy Neo that the noise on the steel roof was preferable to standing outside and getting beaten up by it. He finally figured it out although he spent his time cowering in the doorway trying to decide if we were right. Miraculously the garden was not pummeled and aside from some shredded leaves on the big sunflowers, there was no damage at all. Just more mud and flies and mosquitoes.And puddles.

One thing that the rain did do was rejuvenate our Morning Glory garden. We've had them growing up wire attached to the porch along the driveway for years. This year though, with the late start we decided to skip a year so I rototilled the dirt, pulled up the edging and took down the wire panels. Less work is better, right? Well, a few days of run-off from the porch roof and now we have a beautifully planted Morning Glory garden, free of charge and free of thought. The amazing thing is that the distribution of the seeds - 100% at-will - is absolutely perfect. I could not have planted a more uniform garden on a bet. Of course it means more to water and a day spent replacing the wire (done) when we could have just let them die. But sometimes nature gives gifts and it's best to accept them with grace.

Besides, even if they only make it a few feet off the ground, it means we'll have a beautiful display of our favorite flowers in only a few month's time.

The sunflowers are coming into their own this week, with our largest surpassing 113" in height. Many though are blooming while still very short which leads me to believe that they bloom when they want and their height has to do with the quality of the planting and when they go in. This year's are a good foot shorter than last year's and so I guess it's to be expected. Some of the at-will plants are spectacular though, with bright orange blossoms, as many as 10 to a plant simultaneously. The best news on them perhaps is that they are covered with honeybees, our little friends who have been sadly absent up until now. It was very nice to see them working in the big flower centers, their pantaloons of fresh pollen brimming and bright yellow. Their plight nationally is heart-wrenching and so their appearance was doubly appreciated.

We spent a full day working on our potted plants replacing the soil, cutting out invasive tree roots and creating a sort of Zen Garden along the back of the house. Traditionally we have those pots filled with Gerberas and other kinds of annual Daisies but this year we thought we'd do something different and perhaps more permanent, choosing a three different kinds of native wild-grass valued for their ornamental appeal. It looks nice and we'll see how it shapes up as the summer wears on.

The hummingbirds continue to grow in numbers with the first Rufous making an appearance on July-11, joined by a second on the 13th. I had to go to a bigger feeder out back to break the habit of filling one every single day and that has worked out perfectly. The front porch feeder that had been getting a lot of traffic is suddenly abandoned, either because they're going somewhere else or because it's been claimed by some aggressive male. It seems early for this kind of numbers.

Lastly, the week-to-week photo show more growth and one tall sunflower 
that has finally grown out of the picture.

July 9
July 16

And a view along the pipe fence

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Tuesday, July 9th - The Banquet Begins

Last week I picked four cherry tomatoes and ate them one per day; I wanted to make the enjoyment last as long as it could. The produce always begins with a trickle and quickly transitions to a torrent but in the early days it pays to really savor each bite, knowing full well that 3 months from now we'll be back to eating pasty flavored blobs, grown in some hothouse along MX15 under the assumed name of "tomatoes." At this moment, the enjoyment is just about to begin.

This week, things continue to progress. There are perhaps a dozen eggplants ripening, an even mix between traditional purple and Asiatic white. Having had two minor visits from Rocky the Raccoon, it's clear that he has no taste for that particularly delicacy, good news as it leaves more for us to enjoy. I'm very impressed with the plants we have and really can't wait to get the first fruit on the grill, dusted with a bit of pesto and graced with some sliced tomatoes and fresh mozzarella. Our flowers continue to amaze with the very first Zinnias and Cosmos blooming. My orphan Mammoth Sunflower is just 2 inches short of 8 feet, a miracle considering that it was roughly transplanted from one of the walkways just as the heat kicked in and his four neighbors are all in the 6 foot range.

Last night we had our first dinner straight out of the garden. Caprese salad with the first Beefmaster tomatoes off of our plants and of course plenty of fresh basil. The initial bite reminded me of what a long trek through the culinary desert it is to go from October to July without a single fresh meal. We've had a few Mexican "heirloom" tomatoes this spring, no doubt manufactured to meet the growing fancy variety market and while they were good, they were not great. Dinner last night was great and I am so happy that it we are now in the season of many more just like it. In a month we'll be using the overflow to build a new supply of cheese-tomato quiche. A truly great meal, we just finished the last of last year's this past month. It had been baked and frozen on the 28th of October.

As you can see, everything is getting pretty big and green.

July 3rd
July 9th   
And a couple of flowers just because they are so very nice.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Wednesday July 3rd

While we sit and wait for our vegetable bounty, nature rewards us in another way - flowers. The wonderful things about them are that they last the season long and present something new and nice to look at almost every day. They come in waves, and each wave builds on the last. Here's what we have today -

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Tuesday July 2nd

The heat finally broke and thankfully didn't leave much floral carnage in its wake. When you have several days in a row with afternoons ranging from 102° to 108°, you wonder how the little plants can possibly survive. Yet they do. The last week of June has always been the hottest, at least in the time I've lived here but 100 was the topside, now it seems we're moving into a new era with heat earlier in the season and higher maximums.

We finally had some rain, the first since last October. A tenth of an inch this past Saturday and a drizzle this afternoon. It's so nice to step outside and smell the dampness and to see the dust uniformly coated. Even if the slightest scuff of your foot turns it over again. While it's early for the Great Southwest Monsoon, we can only hope these small storms are the scouts, looking for places to unleash a torrent. Although even that now comes with cost - the burn scars here in the local mountains are unstable that even a quick 1/2" of rain is capable of setting off devastating flash floods. No threat to us down here, but something for those who live in the foothills to definitely ponder.

Last week I was pretty whiny about the state of our vegetable production. This week is different story. Not only did I find the first 4 cherry tomatoes, but we have white eggplants and big tomatoes showing up all over the place. I found the cherries while taking a break from stringing some fences. We have a couple of chairs against the east fence that stay in the shade until just after noon. I was sitting there watching a hummingbird deliberately work its way along the rabbit fence, stopping where wires intersected and delicately dipping its beak into any spider webs that might be there. It was fascinating and so calming to watch this little bird working so slowly, picking off tiny insects I presume.  It went off and was replaced by two Lesser Goldfinches who were doing the same thing on my biggest Sunflower. That got me thinking about their relationship with that plant because in the fall the finches are all over the seeds. During the summer it must be the ants that work all day long on the stems, leaves and branches. Birds like finches and hummingbirds change their diet from seeds and nectar (respectively) to insects during breeding season because their broods need the extra protein that insects provide. So while the finches make survival use of sunflower seed heads throughout the fall, winter and spring, they truly have a year-around dependency that changes with their needs.

Speaking of hummingbirds, I have 5 feeders up this year and they are all being used. The most I've had in a decade. July and August are always busy due to the birds stocking up before heading to Central America but May and June are usually slow. Until the late summer migration begins in earnest, a feeder out back and one on the front porch are sufficient and often they go down very slowly. Not so this year, the nectar disappears on almost a daily basis.

One feeder out back is the private domain of a lone Black-chinned make. No one is allowed to eat there. A second feeder, perhaps 10 feet away is more communal, visited by a variety of males and females. Another along the east side of the house is visited less often. The real change though is the 32 ounce feeder on the porch outside the kitchen window. It was being drained daily so I added a second small one and now we've achieved some balance. The small one is depleted every other day and the big one lasts about three.

I'm at a loss to explain this, perhaps a neighbor quit feeding or maybe the warmer temperatures are forcing them to eat more frequently. Or perhaps our slow transition to the climate of Arizona is making it easier for them to thrive. Whatever the reason, it's nice to have them around.

 I had to switch to a wider angle lens for the weekly photograph. The orphan sunflowers in the back garden have grown out of the range of the 18mm. Good news I think.

June 24th
July 1st

And lastly, the at-will sunflowers continue to put on a show. Their friends, planted this year are making steady progress but it will be quite a while before they truly produce.