Monday, August 30, 2010

Caterpillar Pile Up!


I went outside today to check on the newest batch of monarch caterpillars and had to laugh when I spotted this. It looked like a three caterpillar traffic jam. I just hope the birds don't find them!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

A day in the garden...

School has started, which leaves me less time to blog so I thought I'd just post a few pics of the garden and the flowers speak for themselves.

























A wonderful friend of mine gave me a few obedient plant (phytostegia virginica) seedlings, which I've let go to seed. I've ended up with a large patch of plants and will be sharing a few with friends this fall. I love plants that gently take over because it has allowed several of my friends to create gardens out of plants I've gifted them!



















I don't know how this stem was knocked over but it looks pretty growing along the dwarf glossy abelia. Both the odedient plant and abelia grow in my front yard.


Obedient plant is a southeastern native that can reach 4 ft tall. It likes a bit of bright partial shade and moist soil. The bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds love them.


























This is silphium, commonly known as cup plant. It's leaves form a cup that catches rain water, serving as a "cup" for birds. They also love it's seeds, which look like they are about to shoot out of the flower like a Gatlin gun.



Silphium can grow over 6 ft tall, although mine is in a dry spot and is much shorter.


I just can't resist a reddish orange zinnia!




















This is oregano 'Rotkugel', a favorite of the bees. It grows near a patch of dwarf solidago, callirhoe, and a 'Purple Dome' aster.



















Yellow chrysoganum 'Quinn's Gold' and plumbago both do well in dry shade.













The plant in the front of the photo is an east coast native, spigelia marylandica, commonly known as Lipstick plant. It grows to about 2 ft and is much loved by hummingbirds. It's hard to find and I always end up ordering it from either Niche Gardens or Lazy S's Farm Nursery. It's in a moist spot with bright shade and is really happy. It grows alongside a big patch of 'Chester Thornless' backberries  and some purple milkweed seedlings that I sowed last fall.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Rain Barrel Awesomeness

The area where I live has three types of summer rainfall: all, nothing, or pratically nothing. For the entire month of June, it was hot, sunny, and dry, dry, dry. I found myself obsessively checking weather.com and scanning the skies for storm clouds. I wanted rain like a toddler wants a toy and I wanted it NOW! Frustrated but undaunted, I unrolled the garden hose and didn't bother putting it back. There was no need. It would be running almost every day until the skies opened up and it rained. Daily, I moved the hose from bed to bed, lifting it briefly to fill my watering can, before plopping it back onto the mulch, the flowers gulping the water as quickly as it flowed. I was hot, irritated and dreading the water bill.

During our summer droughts the water bill is best opened with a stiff drink in one hand and a match in the other. Our only saving grace was our five rain barrels, which by mid-June were empty.
















My very supportive husband gave me a rain barrel for Christmas and I was thrilled but stunned. Rain barrels require a bit of installation, which he doesn't enjoy. Long work hours combined with a miserable commute don't leave him hankering for a hammer on the weekends, but install the barrel he did. I am a practical gal and was so excited I bought myself four more for my birthday. The barrels were indispensible in helping keep down an already huge water bill for June. Several storms have kept them full for the past six weeks and we've barely had to use any supplemental city water. They also serve to reduce the amount of water flowing into the storm drain and out to the fragile Chesapeake Bay.

























This is our biggest barrel, the Big Daddy. That's not it's official name, but it should be!! It holds 156 gallons of water and is fully collapsable. It was also the most affordable at $120. One of the things I really love about this barrel is that I can unzip the top and fill up my watering can without having to deal with the hose. The 10 ft hose didn't come with the can and was purchased at Amazon.com. I think it was called an extension hose.



















Okay, here's the picture I took today of the Big Daddy. During our last big storm, one of the plastic legs cracked and bent, sending 156 gallons of water into the grass instead of my garden. Frustrated, was I? Oh yeah!!!


























Here's a picture of the new Big Daddy rain barrel that I took today. We had a massive thunderstorm rip through the area last night and filled this to the top. There is a little black gadget on the top that is supposed to funnel the water into the barrel, but because the barrel is poorly designed, we opted to hook  two long tubes to the down spout and channel the water in that way. It's effective and fills the barrel really quickly. This barrel is pretty obvious but it's on the side of my house and I'm more interested in keeping my garden watered than making the HOA happy.

























To solve the problem with bent rain barrel legs, we hammered pieces of rebar into the soil and then placed the cheap plastic legs over them.  We were trying to get it done before the storm and didn't have time to measure everything. Because the fabric has already started to rip, we'll be fixing the problem this weekend.

























The plants around the barrel are called Painters Palette (Persicaria virginiana). They were given to me by a friend and thrive on total neglect in moderately dry soil in bright shade. They are still a bit smashed from where the first barrel collapsed. The clematis on the fence is a native clematis, clematis crispa, that I bought from Brushwood Nursery. Cick on the link for a beautiful picture of the inside of this tiny flower.




We have four other rain barrels that hold 50 gallons each. Three of the barrels are beige and blend into our house. They are mildew resistant and made from recycled plastic.

 

Here is one of the rain barrels in our front yard. This picture was taken in late spring. Here's a picture I took today. Today was drizzly and overcast.


You can barely see it behind the obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana). I often use the water in this barrel to water the hydrangeas to the right, which are always thirsty.


 Here's a side view. The shrubs in front of the hydrangea are dwarf variegated glossy abelia. The one in the picture is more green than variegated while the two next to it are pink, cream, and green. They are tough as nails and require almost no care at all. 



Here's another of the beige rain barrels that are in the front of the house and visible from the street. This one came with black tubing. The Prague viburnum and bright lantana disguise the barrel so it's not as obvious.


This barrel is tucked in between a huge American Cranberry bush (Viburnum triloba) and a pair of  'Miss Kim' lilacs. You can barely see it.


This rain barrel is the easiest one to use since the top lifts right off. When it's full, I add a 16 oz bottle of kelp meal and a little bottle of Super Thrive to the water. As it ferments, it smells weird, but it gives the plants an extra boost. You can also throw in a shovel full of compost and let it brew for a few days. You'll end up with an awesome compost tea that your garden will love.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Peach Cobbler, Anyone?

This is a repost from last summer. Peach cobbler is a summer staple in our house and this recipe is easy and really delicious.

As much as I love to garden, I truly love to bake and every summer I make peach cobbler. I don't grow the peaches and avoid buying them at the grocery store if I can. Our local grocery stores specialize in selling peaches that are hard, green, and smell more like a tennis ball than a peach. A few years ago in my quest for a peach that tasted and smelled like....a peach, I discovered Hollins Farms in Virginia. For a few bucks I could wander the orchards and stuff my bags full of white and yellow peaches, pick berries, tomatoes, etc. I was hooked and on Sunday headed back to the orchard.

Instead of writing about my garden I thought I would share my peach cobbler recipe. It's very easy and features a sweet biscuit topping. If you don't have access to great peaches, use nectarines. They're just bald peaches!
PEACH COBBLER


Peach Filling:
12 very large peaches or 24 small to medium peaches (You can mix white and yellow peaches.)
3/4 - 1 cup sugar (See Note Below)
4 tbs butter
3 tbs cornstarch
cinnamon and ginger to taste

NOTE:

Here's the deal with adding sugar to a fruit desert - fruit releases its own natural sugars as they cook. The more sugar you add, the more liquid they release. While this sounds ideal in theory, if you add too much sugar you'll end up with a very sweet, liquidy syrup that overpowers the flavor of the peaches and doesn't thicken correctly unless you add extra cornstarch. However, if you add too much cornstarch, you'll end up with a cobbler that tastes/looks like it's full of jam instead of peaches. If you are adding berries to the cobbler, add an extra 1/4 cup sugar to offset their natural tartness. This isn't a precise formula, however. You can vary the sugar from 3/4 cup to 1 cup depending on how sweet you like your desserts.

Peel the peaches and cut them into slices. I hold the peaches in one hand, peel them with a knife, and then just slice them up while holding them before plopping them into a large pot. It's messy but efficient. I give the peach peels to my worms.

In a small bowl combine the sugar, cornstarch, and spices. Add it to the pot and mix gently. Fresh ginger is excellent! Just grate it right over the pot of peaches.


This pot is full of white and yellow peaches.

Cut the butter into chunks and add it to the peaches. Cook the peaches on medium until the peach syrup begins to gently boil and changes from a cloudy brown to a clear brown. Don't cook the peaches on high heat or you'll burn them to the bottom of the pan.  Trust me on this one!!! As soon as the mixture bubbles, thickens, and looks clearer, the peaches are done!

Turn off the heat and pour them into a 13 x 9 pan or two smaller pans. If you are adding any berries, such as blackberries, blueberries, or raspberries, add them now. Mix them in gently so you don't smash them. By cooking the peaches first, you don't have to worry about the topping cooking before the filling. This method works well for apple filling, too. Avoid using a pan that's too large. You'll end up with a dry cobbler because the filling will have spread out so much that when you cut into it, there's little to no syrup. However, if you use a pan that's too small, the syrup will bubble out of the pan, onto the oven heating element, and potentially set your oven on fire. Yep, trust me on this one, too!! 


Cobbler Topping:

This recipe makes A LOT of topping! If you are making one cobbler, you might want to just make a half portion of topping. This recipe isn't written for a stand mixer, although I'm sure you could use one.
   
1 cup butter, cold and cut into cubes
1 cup half and half or milk
1/2 cup sugar
3 cups flour (I use White Lily - See Note Below)
1 tsp salt
1 tbs baking powder (The fresher, the better!)
 
NOTE:
 
Not all flour is the same. Well, okay, maybe you already knew that. White Lily is a soft southern flour. What does that mean? It means it's made from a type of wheat that is naturally low in protein. Low protein flours create less gluten in the finished product, which gives you a softer, lighter baked good. A high protein flour will create a chewier baked good. If you don't have White Lily, try King Arthur All Purpose flour. Or just use whatever's in your cupboard!!
   

In a large bowl, mix all the dry ingredients. Add the butter to the bowl and with a pastry blender cut the butter into the flour until it's in pea sized chunks. When the butter cloggs up the pastry blender, just use a knife to clear it off and continue cutting it into the flour. This can be done in a food processor, but since I don't have a processor big enough to make a dough in, I always use a pastry blender.


Pastry blenders are very old school and can be found very cheaply at Walmart, Target, etc. They just continually slice up the butter until it's really tiny and is incorporated into the flour. The weird looking thing with the blue handle is a pastry blender.


Here's what the butter looked like after I sliced it into submission with the pastry blender.
 
Now add about a third of the milk/half and half. Pour some of the liquid around the edges of the bowl and some into the middle. Using a fork, gently pull the liquid and flour towards the center. Do this all around the perimeter of the bowl until you have a thick blob of biscuit dough in the middle. There will still be flour around the edges and probably under the biscuit blob, so go ahead and continue pouring the liquid and pulling it toward the middle. Resist the urge to take your fork and mix it in circles!!! You'll overwork the dough and end up with tough topping. Ugh! Once you have a incorporated all the liquid into the flour, let it rest for a few minutes.
 
Using your fingers drop little blobs of topping on to the pan of cooked peaches. Add as much or as little as you like.
 

When the pan is covered, sprinkle it with sugar and bake at 425. How long you bake it depends on how big the pan is, but check it after about 20 minutes. Cobbler is amazing served warm with vanilla ice cream but is also awesome for breakfast!
 

Enjoy and let me know if you liked the recipe!!

Friday, August 6, 2010

What's Wrong With My Iris??

I have a patch of iris that have grown well for the past several years in the ever increasing shade from a huge Heritage river birch. Every spring I look forward to their light blue and creamy yellow flowers. Last fall I covered them in compost, thinking that would help make up for the vast amounts of nutrients being siphoned from the soil by the river birch. They repaid me by sending up one meager bloom before collapsing into a leafy heap. I was also under the delusion that the iris held such names as "Cesare's Brother" and "Cream and Eggs", but it seems that I'm wrong about that, too!!

What is wrong with them?? Do I need to divide them? Are they feeling insecure being so close to a huge river birch? Do I need to explain that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes?? 























Iris with hostas and river birch - Spring 2009























"Who Am I?" Siberian Iris spring 2009




















Iris bed of misery and shame - summer 2010
























Ugh!! Utter iris despair! What's a gardener to do??

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Eastern Swallowtail butterfly caterpillars

My last post on Monday showed two really tiny Eastern Swallowtail caterpillars that I discovered in a pot of mostly-gone-to-seed parsley. I was so surprised!! I normally only have swallowtail caterpillars in the spring. Here are a few more pictures of how fast they're growing:


















Caterpillars on Monday, Aug 2, 2010



















Just 24 hours later on Tuesday, Aug 3, 2010. They are significantly larger and instead of looking like wiggly black bumps, they are starting to become more yellow as they stretch out and grow larger and longer.




















By Thursday, Aug 5, they were at least twice the size they were on Monday. The parsley is in a pot with a Stokes Aster (stokesia) that wasn't doing well in the garden (too dry) and was transferred to a pot to recover. Note to self: transplant the stokesia to a moister spot!!


















I love this picture because the caterpillar is so busy chowing down on the parsley. What looks like a green antennae popping out of its head is just a piece of parsley it was shoving into its mouth as fast as possible. I think there's a distinct possibility my two teens might be caterpillars in disguise.... My 6'5" 18 yr old tears through food like every meal is his last and my daughter came home from a week at the beach 1/2" taller!

Monday, August 2, 2010

More caterpillars!!

Hooray!!! I have more caterpillars in my parsley!



















These are Eastern Swallowtail caterpillars. After the first caterpillars hatched in the rue in early summer, I didn't think I'd see any more swallowtail caterpillars and thought I'd have to wait until late summer for the monarchs. Parlsey is a biennial and I always let it go to seed so I have more plants the following year. These little caterpillars were happily munching away on the unopened flower heads. I've had a lot of swallowtails in my garden this summer and I'm hoping more caterpillar eggs are hiding in my other plants!