Up Late with the Raccoons

I’m awake and it’s late. I’m waiting for them to come back with their little squeaks to each other. I’ll be laying in bed half asleep and hear them with my semi-conscious mind and then I can’t sleep. They’re coming to rip up my plants. They’re raccoons.

They invaded last summer when it got really dry. The condensation exhaust pipe from our air conditioner provided them with some water.  I’d be willing to live and let live, except they didn’t. They ripped up my plants so much that some plants are still recovering.

Then a week or so ago I saw the evidence again. The birdbath on the ground full of greenery had been pawed through and the turtle toppled from all the rooting around, garden markers bent in odd directions, and a few plants trampled:

I’ve tried cayenne pepper. I’ve tried fox and coyote urine granules. I’ve tried guard flamingos. This year I’m trying country music and a dog dish for them to drink from. Nothing seems to keep them from wrecking things. It’s pretty frustrating.

On the plus side, I found a great plan B for the next time I can’t get enough blackberries from Patchwork. I decided that it just wouldn’t be right not to have blackberries in my freezer, so I followed someone’s recommendation and went to Fairview Orchard near Wadesville.

Wow!

Their blackberries were as big as my thumb! And tasty too!

My garden is feeling the heat and is experiencing its annual contraction. It seems like the perennials aren’t as vibrant as they were in June (even factoring out the racoons).

I am getting some pretty produce from the vegetable garden, though. I enjoy the beauty of things I grew myself like these:

With food looking this good, it was a pleasure to fix something nice last weekend. I cut up the multi-colored carrots from my garden, summer squash from Patchwork, two varieties beets from my garden and Patchwork, and onions then roasted it all with rosemary from my garden.

That turned out well but was completely overshadowed by the tasty pasta bake I made up. I took a box of pasta and cooked it, added it to a baking dish, then covered it in:

  • several fresh tomatoes from the farmers market chopped
  • sausage from the River City Food Co-op
  • about 5 cloves of garlic from my garden, onions, and summer squash from Patchwork that were all sauteed with the sausage
  • lots of fresh basil from my garden
  • homemade ricotta cheese that I’d made earlier that day
  • 2 cans of tomato sauce
  • extra shredded Italian cheese on top of it all

We baked it for about 20 minutes until it looked done and it was amazing. The ricotta was particularly wonderful along with all the other freshness. Here it all is while being prepared…

And there are other small bits of beauty in my garden. There are more of the photogenic cucumber curls…

And a little gift from the garden to me. A fern that appeared all on its own growing on the side of one of the bricks piled in my yard.

Bowl Full of Awesome

It’s shaping up to be a less than amazing year for blackberries at Patchwork. The bush is having a lighter year, then the overly exuberant kids stripped off everything remotely ripe during Art Garden Week II. Great for them…not so great for me. In the week since Art Garden I’ve had plenty of competition from other blackberry pickers. Fair enough…it’s not my blackberry bush, it’s a community garden, but shouldn’t it count for something that I am Patchwork’s legendary blackberry harvester? No? Oh well then. I’ll adapt.

The blackberries in my garden have been doing well this year–at least until yesterday when a couple of catbirds discovered them and chewed up every berry. Next year I’ll have to get out the bird netting.

My blackberries are all starts from Patchwork’s berries. I had a second variety last year and had eagerly awaited the first ever berries. Then I realized that the other variety literally tasted like vomit: sour, acidic, and just a little sweet. Blackberries’ flavor changes quite a bit when you cook them, becoming more mellow and less “green”, so even the barfy berries were just fine cooked. But,  I didn’t want to mistake one for the Patchwork variety if I was eating them fresh off the vine, so I killed them off. The Patchwork variety has taken over well since then.

While the blackberries at Patchwork aren’t overly abundant this year, the plum tree is loaded so I picked some of them. They’re a beautiful yellow with a blush of red when they’re ripe. I cut up some of them, added some local peaches and some of the blueberries I picked a few weeks ago, brought a few sweet cherries out of the freezer, and threw in a precious handful of the blackberries I’ve gathered.

From that beautiful bowl of fruit I made a fruit platz. It’s kind of like an un-flipped upside-down cake. There’s a nice cake layer on the bottom, a layer of fruit, and then a crumbly topping. It’s the first time I’ve tried this recipe, but it was a good use of my mixed fruits. It’s not the blackberry cobbler I’m famous for, but it tasted amazing. Not too sweet, very fruity, with a hint of spices. I think I can adapt quite well to fewer blackberries.

That, and I really need to keep my freezer stocked with vanilla ice cream all summer so that I’m prepared whenever the mood hits me to make some fruit dessert. Also good with the platz: cardamom flavored ice cream I got at Evansville’s Fresh Market.

I’ve saved up the limited blackberries I have been able to get my hands on so I could make at least one batch of blackberry jam. Last year I discovered that the strainer I’d gotten to make applesauce also had a berry attachment so I could pulp and seed blackberries. It was a significant innovation for me!

Unfortunately, last year I thought my jam tasted too sweet and the sugar obscured the solid berry flavor of the blackberries. This year I tried a different type of pectin that’s supposed to work with much less sugar. It’s called Pamona’s Universal Pectin. I got it at the River City Food Co-op so it’s officially alternative pectin.

I just finished the batch and now I’m listening to the jar lids ping as they seal. The bites I’ve sampled taste perfect. Very berry yet still sweet. This year I also tried adding some sage to the berries make an even more complex flavor. I was afraid to overdo it, so I don’t think I added enough. Sage and blackberry go together so well.

Garden Art: the Postscript

I finished one final artful addition to my garden this weekend. Again inspired by the art in Patchwork’s garden, I decided to add some color to my blackberry trellis. It adds a little pop to the vegetable garden. I’m curious what it will be like during the fall and winter when there won’t be so much color everywhere.

If any of you have seen the color options John and I have been considering for our office, the colors on the trellis should look familiar.

As I’ve spent many hours quietly working on all of this garden art, I’ve gotten to know much more of the lives of the birds in my back yard.  About a month ago when I started working on my birdbath mosaic, I realized that there was a cardinal’s nest up in a mass of dead vines near that corner of the yard. The mother and father cardinal would periodically zip in to feed the two baby birds or sit and guard the nest. It was fun knowing the secret life in the corner of my garden.

Then tragedy struck. It was about a week later and I was out working on the mosaics when there was an explosion of shrieking and tweeting all around the nest. I looked over and saw a squirrel up in the tree by the nest and the two parent cardinals flying around it ferociously. The drama continued and I heard the fast cheeping of a baby close to the ground. I tried to see what was happening, but when I went to look through the honeysuckle to the yard next door, the mother cardinal flew at my face.

One of the babies had fallen out of the nest/been attacked by a squirrel and was so young it could barely fly. The cardinal parents split up. The father stayed with the baby in the nest while the mother desperately chirped to the fallen baby to try to fly to a perch further from the ground. I thought for sure that the neighbor’s cat Nala was going to have an easy kill, but somehow by nightfall the baby bird had flown in short bursts across my yard and into my other neighbor’s.

Since then, I’ve listened for the baby’s fast and excited chirps to its parents for food and from those sounds I’ve deduced that the little bird continues to thrive. It’s getting big by now, and I’m pretty sure it’s going to be a girl.

The other baby stayed in the nest with the father cardinal, but then the nest went silent. I thought for a little that the baby might also have left the nest to move across the yard, but I haven’t seen it, so I think maybe the squirrel came back for dinner. The squirrels have been much more active lately and I wouldn’t put it past them.

Meanwhile, I’ve fed a family of downy woodpeckers all summer. They’re fun to see on the suet. Last week I had a wren and I thought I heard the red bellied woodpeckers again after starlings forced them out of their nest this spring. This weekend a brown thrasher was back. I haven’t seen them since early spring.

Meanwhile this is happening:

And what tasty food am I making? I harvested some beets from my garden:

And sauteed them plus some red beets and summer squash from Patchwork’s garden plus some onions. Then I added all that to some pasta and pesto that I’d frozen from last year. It was tasty and the beets gave the pasta a pleasant and unique pink glow.

A Garden Photo Feast

We just finished our summer children’s activities at Patchwork, and I had the fun of documenting everything that was going on around the building, in the studio, and in the garden. I love taking photos of the garden plants and the food that we create from those plants. I end up with more plant photos than I can ever use anywhere at Patchwork, so I thought I’d share some of my favorites here. You can read more about the other activities going on in and around the garden on Patchwork’s blog.

I was tickled that this year I even made it into Susan Fowler’s memory sketch of the week. To the right is my little corner of it.

The Claw Commeth for You

This morning I heard the tell-tale thunking of caterpillar treads and looked out our back door to see a backhoe headed for one of the only houses remaining across the alley from ours. In less than an hour and half the house was just a pile of rubble.

Houses are going down everywhere around ours these days. This particular house had families living in it three years ago when John and I moved in. Now it’s gone.

Our house was one of the earlier built on the block. I imagine it standing in the middle of what once was farmland as the neighborhood grew around it. Now it’s standing as the neighborhood comes down around it and returns to pastures. Actually, there are a lot of wheat seeds in the straw that they spread on the empty earth sores where the houses once were. Since the lots frequently are not mowed in a timely manner, they create little wheat fields.

Of course, I was not gawking like my neighbor Ted who you see in the photo above. Of course, I was gardening.

Right.

To appear busy, I attempted to string up my cucumbers to give them better space to grow in. We’ll see if it works. They weren’t too happy by lunchtime.

Of course today was incredibly hot and humid and it was uncomfortable even this early in the morning. The official high for the day was 101 degrees. Check out the humidity at about 7:00 am (the “indoor” was actually outdoors, and it wasn’t foggy, I just couldn’t keep my lens from steaming up):

Tastes Like Summer

My garden’s in a slow spot right now. My beans, kohlrabi, carrots, beats, basil, cilantro, cucumbers, peppers, and tomatoes are all growing fine but there’s not much promise of produce any time soon.  The blackberries are juuuust about ripe, but the birds and squirrels are already helping themselves.

Lucky for me I’ve got access to other gardens where plenty of things are ready to eat. After seeing several friends’ Facebook posts that they were picking blueberries last weekend, I decided to find more myself–and I was successful!

Patchwork’s garden is also growing well, so on Saturday I ventured over to pick a few things including red beets, purple beans, sage, and blackberries. They all look so good together…

I also picked some summer squash at Patchwork. I’m surprised, but last summer won me over on summer squash. Before then I wouldn’t particularly have chosen to eat it, but then John and I shared a CSA share with Jane Vickers. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten so many vegetables in my life.

It started out fine. Each week it was so exciting to pull open our box of vegetables to see what treats had been growing for us. I felt pretty in-tune with the seasonality of the particular produce as the lettuces transitioned to potatoes and summer squash that then changed to melons and winter squashes. But, by the end of the summer we all started thinking, “Please, please make the vegetables stop!” But then yet another box of vegetables would arrive for us.

Summer squash featured heavily into the blessings and curses of the CSA share. Not having had a fondness for it, I didn’t really have any recipes ready for it. Then we got squash after squash after squash. By the time they disappeared from our weekly CSA share, we had gotten plenty creative with it. A lot of ideas came from Simply in Season. I highly recommend the cookbook, by the way. With all the produce during the Summer of the CSA, my copy got quite the workout.

This year we opted not to be part of a CSA, but I miss the summer squash–just a little. I’m glad I can pick a couple over at Patchwork. They’re great sauteed with onions and added to pesto and pasta.

John and I have been making other tasty things recently. On the Fourth of July we grilled Honey Glazed Chicken, Peach, Sweet Potato, and Onion skewers. They were incredibly good. We added a bottle of some Argentinian white wine and it was perfect.

Last night we grilled burgers and brats. The burgers were dressed with some of the last of my lettuce, local tomatoes, and some fresh mozzarella. We also had roasted new potatoes from the River City Food Co-op and some of the beans from Patchwork’s garden. For dessert? Homemade caramel and toasted almond ice cream with blueberries!

Garden Art Weekend

This weekend I’ve been hard at work on some art projects for my garden. It’s not particularly fine art and it’s not exactly creating a backyard environment like this or some of these, but it feels like an ongoing and worthwhile art project to me.

I started with the birdbath on which I’d created a mosaic in 2009. It was the  first mosaic piece I made for my garden.  It started life as a regular concrete birdbath and then I added ceramic tiles that I’d made myself. I also added glass beads and mirror fragments. This is what it looked like when I first finished it in 2009:

Pretty! Unfortunately I didn’t use the right glaze and the tiles couldn’t be high fired. Close enough, right? I’ll tell you, Mother Nature and Old Man Winter are harsh art critics.

By this summer the birdbath looked like this because ice had split apart so many of the ceramic tiles:

So I took a hammer and busted out the remains of my ceramic tiles and the grout between them. I decided that for the replacement I would stick with what seems to work well: grouted glass. While I miss all of my fun tiles, I think this should hold up to the weather better.

I also added mosaic to the top of a little table near the birdbath.

Meanwhile, I continued to work on the bench/planter combo on the other side of the garden. Here they are looking very unassuming in 2009:

I started in 2009 with the top of the bench, added the bench legs and the planter in 2010, and now I finished the plant stand this year. The ceramic tiles I made have held up better here, but now I’m still using mostly glass beads. This year I also used some of the brown tile we tore out of our bathroom about a month ago. Voila!

This is all reminding me how much I don’t like to do mosaics though I do like the results. It all starts out fine, but by the time all the bits are glued on and I’m trying to get the grout off the front of the tiles, I’m wishing I never started. It takes me a year to forget the pain enough to attempt more. This year it’s taken me about two weeks to get all this done.

A couple other garden art projects from this weekend:

I added a few coats of paint to the purple chair. It was purple before, but now it’s an even better tricked out, color shift purple. It’s hard to capture the effect with a camera.

I also attempted to add some artfulness to the “guard flamingos” that I got at the end of last summer when I was desperately attempting to keep the squirrels from eating all my tomatoes (my neighbor swears by his guard flamingos). I’m not sure what I think about the result. On this project I used the silicone caulk mosaic technique that Jane often uses at Patchwork.

I also tried adding a smattering of glass “gems” on the concrete wall around my perennials. I’ll be interested to see what it looks like once the plants die back. I’ll be able to see it all winter from my back door so I’ll have plenty of time to think about whether to add more or to take these away. Depending on what I decide, it may be an art project for next March or April before the plants take off again.