Thursday, July 29, 2010

Nasturtiums

Not much needs to be said about nasturtiums. Perhaps the easiest annual plant to grow and one that provides beauty all summer long. You can eat the leaves and flowers, but I am averse to picking the blossoms. I prefer them in full flower in the garden. During this long, hot, dry July, when other more demanding plants are drying and fading, the rich colors of nasturtiums remain.

These "jewels" come in brilliant shades of crimson, orange, yellow, salmon, and peach. Their leaves are equally lovely in shades of green, some solid some variegated, all resembling lily pads. I almost expect my little spring peeper of last week to be hanging out here. But nasturtiums like full sun, a hot spot for a little frog.

Here is a colorful mix of nasturtiums from the garden. In the still, humid air of a July morning, I feel cool and refreshed just looking at them.







Thursday, July 22, 2010

Hummers

We have a couple hummers in our yard. Animals not cars that is. A female ruby-throated hummingbird visits the red beebalm daily. She zooms in, hovers nearby, and if I am too close she zooms off. Another, smaller creature hums and hovers and flies fast among the beebalm. It is not a bee or a hummingbird, but a moth, a hawkmoth. A hummingbird clearwing (Hemaris thysbe) to be precise.

This moth is active in bright sunlight, unlike most other moths which are active at night. The mostly clear wings give the moth its name, along with its hummingbird-like behavior.


This hawkmoth is a beautiful olive and burgundy color. Its legs, antennae, and proboscis (for sipping nectar) are long.  The hummingbird clearwing is a welcome sight among the beebalm, phlox, and other perennials.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Tiny Frog

At least three times each day I walk around the yard, a jar partly filled with soapy water in hand. I pause at the beaked hazelnut, the wild raspberries, the comfry -- all the plants visited and favored by Japanese beetles. I push, cajole, or drop the beetles into the container. So far, I've collected a couple hundred beetles. I prefer this manual treatment for a pesky invader to the use of chemicals. It is direct, safe, and effective.

When I walk about with the jar in hand my search image is focused on these shiny green and rust colored beetles. This afternoon I was on my usual saunter through the backyard flicking a few beetles into the jar from a raspberry bush, when I noticed a small tan blur out of the corner of my eye. At first it looked like a piece of dead leaf. Fortunately I was carrying my reading glasses, which are essential if I want to identify anything small. Otherwise it really is a blur.

To my great surprise and delight it was a spring peeper. Less than an inch in length, this tiny frog was barely bigger than my thumb nail.  I rushed back inside for the camera. The peeper sat patiently while I snapped pictures.


I returned about an hour later and the peeper was still there, although it had shifted positions; perhaps an insect or other potential meal wandered by. It was not until I downloaded the pictures that I noticed the "daddy longlegs" nearby; look to the left and behind the peeper in the photo below. This looks like a harvestman  -- an arachnid but not a true spider. Spiders make up nearly 50 percent of a spring peeper's diet and harvestmen are also a food item. I hoped the little frog was also eyeing the Japanese beetles, but maybe those are not on the peeper's menu.


For such a tiny amphibian, the springer peeper emits a very loud peep. They are loud in spring, but quiet down during the summer. The spring peeper has relatively smooth skin compared to its close relative the gray treefrog. The skin color varies from brown to gray and the peeper can rapidly change colors depending on the background. I must say that this peeper resting on the raspberry leaf was a beautiful light tan with a silvery sheen. The X pattern on its back -- a key identifying feature -- was subtle.


The spring peeper is a "treefrog" and has large toe pads to help in climbing.


By the time Srini arrived home at 6:30 pm the tiny peeper had moved on. Surely it could not have gone far on those little legs.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Skippers

By mid-day the coneflowers (Echinacea) in the perennial garden are in full sun and bustling with activity. Bees, flies, butterflies, hummingbirds, bugs of various sorts are gathering nectar and pollen or hunting for food.


Although less glamorous than the Brushfoots that I mentioned yesterday, the skippers are lively among the flowers. They skip from flower to flower with quick, perky flights, hence their common name. Their bodies are large compared to wing size. When resting or basking, they hold their forewings vertical and hindwings are spread. Most all butterflies hold both sets of wings either vertical or spread when resting, so skippers can be confused with moths, but butterflies they are -- family Hesperiidae.


If you look close at the photo above (click to enlarge) you will note a few other skipper features: large eyes, long proboscis, and hooked antennae.

Yesterday afternoon the skippers were busy gathering nectar. While feeding they hold both sets of wings vertical.


These, I think, are Dun skippers, Euphyes vestris. They are uniformly dark gray/brown and about once inch in size. Despite their dull colors, they still look lovely among the coneflowers.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Pearl Crescent

The Pearl Crescent. That sounds like a ship that Captain Jack Sparrow might commandeer in the Caribbean. But this pearl is in our backyard and there are many. The pearl crescent is a small, beautiful black and orange butterfly.

Pearl crescent, Phyciodes tharos

With wings spread the butterfly is about one and one-half inches. The name comes from a white "pearl" or chevron on the trailing edge of the hindwing's underside.

 The underwing of the pearl crescent showing the white "pearl" or chevron

There is another very similar butterfly -- the northern crescent. The two are hard to tell apart and were once considered the same species. The northern crescent lacks the white chevron on the hindwing and occurs more commonly in northern New England and Canada. However, I took the following photo today along with the pearls and it looks to be lacking the chevron, so many both species are flitting around our yard.

 Northern crescent, Phyciodes selenis
(lacks the white chevron on the hindwing)

The pearl and northern crescents belong to a very large family of butterflies -- the Brushfoots. Now that name sounds straight out of The Hobbit. Apparently about one in three butterflies worldwide is a brushfoot - about 6,000 species in all. You might recognize some other members of this family: great spangled fritillary, question mark, mourning cloak, as well as ladies, admirals, and monarchs. These butterflies all look very different. What brings them together into a common family is, well, their tiny brushy or hairy forelegs on the caterpillars. David Wagner, in his fabulous guide, Caterpillars of Eastern North American, gives the key family feature a more technical description: "the presence of a minute filiform seta near the base of the scolus on A9." I prefer "brushy feet," although caterpillar legs or so small you'd need a strong lens to pick out the hairs, let alone finding the little caterpillars at all.

Keep an eye out for the Brushfoot butterflies. They surely visit your yard too.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Meals from the Farm

My favorite time at New Roots Farm is after I finish the morning's work - today we planted cabbage and lettuce seedlings -- when I walk around the farm harvesting my week's share of food. As I wander the farm gathering each vegetable I think about how to use it in a meal, and plan the week's menu.

The lettuce is for my lunch salads, topped with the young white turnips and red beets chopped raw, sliced cucumber, and sugar snap peas from our own garden. The flying-saucer like patty pan squash are delicious in a saute of vegetables served over penne tossed with basil pesto. Now that the basil is ready, I make a batch of pesto each week for just such a meal. Along with the squash I saute minced fresh garlic, red pepper flakes, sliced carrots, chopped sugar snap peas, and chopped Swiss chard stalks. The color is gorgeous and with a pinch or two of salt a nice summer dinner.


The beet greens are going into an Indian side-dish called pachidi. I often make this with spinach, but beet greens is what I have so beet green pachidi it will be. I just picked the first batch of green beans from our garden for tonight's dinner of pachidi, green beans thoren, rice, and some leftover kofta made from local beef.


Let's see what is left in the harvest basket. Swiss chard leaves. Once again I'll use these instead of spinach in an onion-Swiss chard quiche. Last week I brought home a slightly over-sized zucchini. Once the weather cools a bit I'll make zucchini bread. Okay, so that takes care of the week's harvest. The fridge is full of veggies and another three quarts of blueberries that I picked yesterday -- more for our granola, ice cream, blueberry crisp, scones, and any extra for the freezer.

When I arrive home from the farm, I wash all the veggies before stowing them in the fridge. It is less overwhelming dealing with a weekly harvest, since I've thought about a use for each and look forward to many fine meals from the farm.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Too Humid

I think everyone around here agrees that it is too humid and has been so for about two weeks. My hair curls and thickens by the inch with each 10 percent rise in humidity, or so it seems. It is really bushy now! I wonder if other people gauge the weather by watching how their hair responds.

This humidity is enough to make anyone squirrely. Speaking of which, this is the year for squirrels and chipmunks. And with what looks like a bumper nut crop, this trend will continue into next year. Kodi and I walk a loop around the neighborhood morning and evening. He's looking for squirrels around the base of trees and among the stone walls, but they all seem to be in the treetops dropping acorns from red oak trees. The roadside is littered with the nuts. Many are ground into the pavement by passing cars. Today we picked up a green branch full of acorns. Kodi dragged it home (as with many such things I carried it part-way for him).

After I finished taking some photos of the acorns, Kodi shredded the branch. These are his favorite "toys" -- things we find. We can buy him something expensive from the pet store, but he'd rather tear into a stuffed animal (especially if it squeaks) from a yard sale or a plastic water bottle from the roadside, or other discarded item (preferably plastic). Interesting, currently his favorite toy is a stuffed squirrel!

Anyway, I am thinking that the squirrels are dropping the acorns much earlier than usual or the acorns are ready sooner. The timing of natural events is also a bit squirrely this year -- doesn't prolonged hot, humid weather usually come during the dog days of August? I already noted that the blueberry season is early as is the garlic harvest. The deer flies are thick and pesky; unfortunately one species that absolutely loves humid weather. On a good note -- the first green beans are ready for harvest.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Blueberries

Almost an inch of rain fell yesterday. The ground was very thirsty after weeks without rain and following days of 90+ degree heat. We were all parched. When I arrived at New Roots Farm on Wednesday at 8:00 am for my weekly volunteering, the temperature was already well over 70 degrees and the regular farm help had been gathering produce since 6 am to beat the heat. By then we'd had day after day of hot weather.

One tradition that we started about a month ago at New Roots Farm is that we take turns bringing a snack on Wednesdays. Each Wednesday we break at about 11:00 for rhubarb pie, blueberry scones, or last week Emily made blueberry crisp with vanilla ice cream. She had picked the organic blueberries at Inkwell Farm, just a few miles away. As this is my source for blueberries I took note that the crop was ready to be picked. So, after lunch , despite the heat, I headed over to Inkwell.

The owner was out picking among the rows and rows of blueberry bushes. She and the flock of guinea hens were the only ones stirring. Even the mosquitoes were absent. The blueberries were so think and so sweet that I picked five quarts in just over an hour.


I returned with a friend on Friday at mid-day, and again we were the only ones picking, along with the guinea hens and chickens that sometimes poke around your feet to gather up any that drop. This time I picked seven quarts. With the bushes so full it is hard to stop. Last year at this time my in-laws from India were visiting. Amma loved picking blueberries. She would be beside herself if she were here this week with so many berries to pick.

This morning I made blueberry crisp and blueberry scones. We eat them daily on our breakfast granola and on ice cream on hot days. Some berries from last year are still in the freezer -- Amma picked a lot! I've been making blueberry smoothies with frozen berries, a banana, a splash or two of orange juice, a bit of honey, and a 1/2 cup or so of yogurt. They say to eat lots of blueberries to maintain your eyesight. I am doing my part to test that theory.

The blueberry harvest must be a week or two early; everything seems a few weeks early this year.  Farmers are pulling their garlic a week or more sooner than last year. Gray and red squirrels are already dropping small acorns onto the road -- in July. The heat and humidity makes it feel like August. Well, must be time for some blueberry crisp and ice cream. You can never have too much of that on a hot day.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A Burst of Summer

Summer is busting out all over. Wildflowers seem to be blooming earlier. The sugar snap peas are fading fast in the heat and humidity; it might reach 100 degrees today. The lawn is browning, while the peppers are happy.

Wildflowers, such as these black-eyed-susans, look radiant under the summer sun.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Eating Peas and Watching Clouds

Kodi is off playing with his dog pals at the Yellow Dog's Barn. Srini is at work and so am I, except that I work from home. By mid-afternoon I quit (for the day) and wander out to the front yard with Aria. We both laid down in the grass close to the pea patch.

Aria loves sugar snap snow peas -- it might be her favorite food. We struggle to get her outside for a walk these days; we assume her arthritis causes too much pain. But for fresh peas, she trots to the patch. Aria would pick the peas herself if she could see well. Instead we pick them for her and drop them into her mouth so she doesn't bite our fingers (by mistake) in her hurry to eat the pea pod.


While Aria waits for more peas, I lie back and watch wispy clouds float by in the blue sky above. Laying in the grass, eating peas, and watching clouds. We both sigh happily at our good fortune.