Thursday, October 30, 2008

wild robins

I haven't been posting as much naturey stuff as I used to. Partly because this summer was kind of crazy and I didn't get out as much as I'd like, but also partly because I have been giving too much credence to probloggers who go on and on about how a "successful" blog post should always have photos (and bullet points, and short, snappy, googleable text, and other things I don't really care about). So I start to think that if I don't have a photo it's not worth it to make an entry. But there is something to be said for good writing, too, and a lot of apparently successful blogs, with their bullet points and SEO and stock photos, are also kind of boring. And really, I spend too much energy as it is doing what I think I "should" do, rather than what I want to do. I should be writing the kind of blog that I would want to read.

So I went out to Hartley yesterday, and came upon a flock of about twenty to forty robins, feasting on a large grove of chokecherries east of the pond and behaving like, well, like wild birds, not the half-tame yard birds of summer that I am more used to. They were hopping around the trees, making this weird clucking/barking noise I don't normally associate with robins but which I'm told is an alarm/contact call. They were skittish and wary of my presence at first, but I stood still and they eventually moved in closer, and more and more kept coming in. The robins passing through Duluth now probably summered in the fields and forests of Alaska and northern Canada. Before migrating they probably haven't had to spend much time around people or civilization, and they were instead free to be the wild, woodland thrushes that they are.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

bringing the outdoors indoors

It's always sad when the temperatures start dropping and garden stuff starts to wither up, especially in Duluth where the growing season is so short, and especially for me because I guess I'm just not very good at container gardening because the plants don't start to mature until right about when the frost hits. So this year I thought I'd experiment and try to extend the season a little bit, so I hauled my most robust tomato and pepper, the parsley and basil, the strawberries, geraniums, and the stupid cabbage that were just starting to form heads now, and I put them on the indoor landing outside my apartment and set up my old lightbox in front of them. It didn't really work for its intended purpose, but it is a Very Bright Light, and I thought maybe it could at least ripen a few tomatoes.

That was three weeks ago, and I'm afraid the experiment was not much of a success. The basil is dying very quickly now, and the tomato is going brown now, too. There was an old article in Mother Earth News about overwintering tomatoes, but I don't think mine are getting enough light, even with the lightbox. The pepper is still hanging on (and still flowering!) but it looks kinda sickly and I doubt I'll get any fruit off it. The cabbage are still trucking along, but I doubt they'll turn into anything edible (the leaves are as thick as burlap). The parsley still looks beautiful, and I carried parsley through the winter last year, too, so that's a small success. The strawberries, oddly enough, still look really good too, even though I later learned that I "should" put them back outside or in the garage or something so that they can go dormant and I can replant them next year. (And I really should do that, and not try to force them to flower and fruit in the winter, because if they're not allowed to go dormant they'll almost certainly die in the spring then. But it's kind of temptng to carry on with the experiment just to see what happens.)

But the geraniums are soldiering on, too, and both of them are putting out flowers now, so they might make it though the winter. I think I'm going to ditch the lightbox and bring the geraniums in the apartment, once I find a sunny, cat-free place to put them.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

chokecherries, Thoreau style

Today I got a chance to try some chokecherries Thoreau style--dead, ripe, and a little wilted. I've recently been reading "The Forager's Harvest" by Samuel Thayer, which is an amazing book on wild foods, highly recommended, and in it the author extols the virtues of chokecherries. He says he regularly eats chokecherries fresh off the bush and like to make chokecherry fruit leather without any sugar. I read that and shook my head, thinking, "Chokecherries without any sugar? I am not that hardcore."

But today I got brave. Mr. Thayer writes, "The puckering mouth that [chokecherries] induce is a sensation, not a flavor. If you can learn to not let it scare you off you will be free to discover that the flavor behind the pucker is really pretty darn good." We've had a few light frosts recently, and I've read elsewhere that winemakers will wait until after a frost to harvest the grapes, because the cold sweetens the fruit, and I've also noticed that flowers, particularly sweet clover and tansy, smell sweeter after a frost.

So I picked a few chokecherries from a neighbor's bush on my way to the bus stop. The fruit was soft, and more purple than black now, and it really did taste sweet, with a sugary flavor and gooey texture just like cherry jam. They do still fur the mouth, however.

Friday, October 3, 2008

I made potatoes!

Last spring I had some sprouty Yukon Gold potatoes, and rather than just throwing them away, I decided to put the in a pot to see if they'd grow. (I tried the same thing with garlic last year but didn't have much luck. I stuck the cloves in the dirt and waited, and all summer they didn't really do anything (I think a few put up feeble little stems) so in the fall I just put the pot back in the garage and forgot about it. The following spring when I started getting ready to plant stuff again, I went to get my pots out of the garage, and *then* the garlic was growing, after half a year with no water and minimal light. I tried to keep it going but it didn't last. What I didn't realize at the time was that there is garlic that you plant in the spring to harvest in the fall, and then there is also garlic you plant in the fall to harvest in the spring, so I probably planted fall garlic in the spring and just ended up screwing with its little garlic head.)

But I've grown potatoes before, and they're easy and fun. You don't need seeds or anything, just a sprouty potato, and you don't actually bury them in the dirt, you just nestle them in on top of the soil and then heap a bunch of leaves or straw over the top. I've tried burying them in the past, but they grow better if you don't. The plants shoot up like weeds and put out pretty white flowers and then they die. The tubers are ready to harvest when the tops have died back completely.

So I dug my potatoes yesterday. I had them in a big pot, maybe about 16 inches across, and I think I squeezed about seven or so sprouty taters in there, which is seriously overcrowding them, and I probably would have harvested more if I'd actually planted fewer. But I still dug up 21 potatoes, ranging in size from four inches to 1/4 inch.

I don't think I'll be eating the 1/4 inch one. How would you cook it?

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

free catnip

Mint is great for a lot of things, but it's kind of a pain in the garden because it has no sense of boundaries and, given the chance, will spread everywhere. Which is why I, and a lot of other gardeners, usually grow mints in pots, to try to keep it at least a little bit contained.

But apparently in the past somebody at my apartment building was not so cautious. Next to the patio out back, there's a few inches of grass that escaped the lawn mower this summer, and in that grass some catnip and other mystery mint has sprung up. I pulled up the shorter stalks of catnip for my kitties, but I left the mystery mint and any flowering stalks out there for whatever pollinators are still hanging around. I know there are still plenty of bees and flies, and I've seen some white cabbage butterflies and last week I saw a monarch. Mint flowers are tiny (about 1/4 inch) but they grow in clusters, which make for convenient nectar gathering. There aren't a lot of flowers left this time of year, and mints are good nectar sources.

The catnip must be pretty primo stuff, since both the kitties went nuts over it, rolling around on the floor and tossing the catnip leaf up in the air like it was a mouse. Also, it makes Emily a little paranoid.

I let both the kitties have a few fresh leaves, but most of it I just hung up to dry. The oil rubbed off on my skin and my fingers still smelled like catnip for hours afterward, and whenever I tried to pet the cats they would wrap their paws around my hand and start licking or biting me.