Getting Your Feet Wet

POND FROLICS

“Oooo that is definitely squlechier than I expected–!”

Either this juvie Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) thinks she just caught something or she’s just realizing bathwater with duckweed might not be the best choice….

Subduing an unfortunate young bullfrog? Carefully scraping off tiny, free-floating aquatic plants? Blocking out a new rhythmic gymnastics routine? We’ll never know.

From Heron Out

POND FROLICS

Lessee, what can I tell you about the Black-crowned Night-Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax)….

“WHOA, what was that back there? Gotta check that out….”

There’re small herons. They have blackish feathers on top of their heads. I guess you could call it a cap. A blackish cap.

“They were fast – as – light – niii-ing–!”

They’re the most widespread species of heron in the world, apparently. Noisy, social, not too fussy.

“Hey! What’re you lookin’ at, lady?”

Oh, and this is surprising: they do most of their hunting and such at night or in the dusk: evening and early morning. Herons of dimness. Darkling herons. Gloaming. Blackish-capped. Herons.
…Yep.

Puppy Time

POND FROLICS

Four silly yappi-yotes!

We viewed the latest batch of wildlife camera photos the other day and were treated to a stop-motion movie of young coyote antics in the back of the little pond. Every year, we’ve only had the evidence of crepuscular play, so it’s nice to finally get an idea of what shenanigans resulted in the traces left for us (I refer you to the episode of the Great Snake Vanishment). Critically, we gleaned important clues in the mystery of how the hose that tops up the ponds from the well got kinked; 12 hours we put the station on, and the pond level got lower!
Puppies, y’know?

* Yeah. We do good work. *

Our Native Insects

Squash bee

Honeybees are European. There are no native honeybees in North America. What we have instead are thousands of bees, wasps and flies that may not make honey, but are responsible for pollination.

Native wasp laying an egg in an aphid.

Here in dryland Southern California there are over 300 species of native bees just to San Diego. Here we live in an elfin forest of chaparral and other similar plant communities. Due to the lack of rainfall, alkalinity of the soil and water, and therefore smaller plants and flowers, many of our native insects are small as well. Some are the size of a fleck of dirt on your hand. Many of these little wonders predate on the pest bugs in your garden.

Tiny wasp.

Most of these insects are solitary rather than colonial like the honeybees. They live in the ground, in hollow twigs or holes in dead wood. Leaving habitat around for them, or creating a native bee house, or buying one such as SoloBee’s, will encourage them to stay and feed in your yard. Another way would be to plant plenty of native plants around your property, especially those with clusters of small flowers such as buckwheat (Eriogonum sp.) and ceanothus. These tiny insects need a tiny landing pad, a little sip of nectar they won’t drown in, and plenty of food sources close together. Allowing some of your mint, carrots, dill and basil to go to flower also gives them a food source. On a warm day look carefully over a patch of small blooms and you’ll be amazed at the activity flying around the flowers.

A species of Metallic Green Bee

If the non-native honeybee’s existence is being threatened, think about what effect pesticides – particularly systemics – as well as other chemicals, environmental factors and native plant clearance effects our indigenous little fellows and gals.

Stop using harsh chemicals outdoors, plant and maintain native plants, and take a very close look at tiny flowers. Helping the little ones helps all of us.

See more great insect photos under ‘photos’ on our Finch Frolic Garden Facebook Page.

Growing Cornmeal

Sweet corn is a wonderful summer treat; although you can freeze it, is never as good as picked, steamed and eaten within hours. However hard corn can be dried, ground and stored for use throughout the year. Some varieties that aren’t super sweet can be eaten fresh or left to go hard for grinding. Miranda and I have fallen in love with growing and grinding colored corn. They are not just for Thanksgiving decorations anymore!

We’ve grown Indian corn and small cute popcorn. We’ve also grown the lovely Glass Gem Corn, with its opalescent pastel colors that was all the rage for the last few years. It made a lovely lightly colored cornmeal.

Last year we planted Oaxacan Green dent and black corn. Wow. The black corn was the most successful, growing about 12 feet tall.

The black variety was Maiz Morado or Kulli Corn, from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. It had many aerial roots, which were black- actually a very deep purple- growing from several nodes.

The black corn began to peek out from the husks and it was magnificent.

We harvested the ears and let them lie on our warm porch out of the sun to finish drying. The stalks we tied up for Halloween and Thanksgiving decorations, and then they went into filling a raised bed.

When it came time to shuck the ears, we marveled at the color of the kernels. They were spectacular; so were the green dent.

Even better, the inside of the husks were colored, too. We dried them and saved them for tamales.

For New Year’s Eve, we stripped the dried kernels from the cobs; not a difficult process and one we could do in the evening after dinner while watching old Time Team reruns on YouTube.

When ground, the black corn meal was a light purple. We use our VitaMix’s special grain grinding container, but a normal one would work as well.

For tamales I guessed at a recipe, mixing half corn meal with half flour, a little baking powder and some vegan butter, and vegetable broth to wet. The mixture was very elastic and can certainly use work, but it was tasty and worked well to hold the filling together. The cornmeal turned a medium purple color when wet.

Soaking the husks to soften them was a treat, as their red color leached into the water making it look like wine.

For fillings I couldn’t help but go with the whole purple theme, so I steamed one of our Molokai purple sweet potatoes which are an amazing purple as well.

I also cooked up some of our frozen beet greens with onion, and used those two together with vegan cheese. A second filling was black beans mixed with cumin, oregano and our pickled carrots and jalapenos, and sweet corn with vegan cheese.

Miranda and I got such a kick out of all the colors, especially the purples. We couldn’t wait until they were steamed, which took about an hour and twenty minutes.

When the tamales were opened we were in awe. The black cornmeal had turned a very deep purple, and it was only half and half with flour! It was awesome. We enjoyed them with guacamole and, of course, our last Paul Robeson tomato because you just can’t have too many purple foods on your plate. The photo of the open tamale doesn’t do it justice.

We store the cornmeal in glass jars in the freezer. It makes excellent cornbread and cornmeal biscotti, as well as polenta and fried cornmeal mush. How fun and reassuring it is to use our own unsprayed, non-GMO cornmeal.

Coming up we’ll be planting black corn again, and a large patch of green dent as well; I want to see what pure green cornmeal looks like when cooked… maybe for Halloween dinner?

Always Time to be Grateful

Today, on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 22, 2018, as on every other day there is so much to be thankful for. For waking up, for food, clean water and shelter, for friends and family, for the opportunities to volunteer and the ability to do so. this year at age 57 I returned to school, taking Horticulture classes at a local junior college to update my skills and knowledge. I overdid it with four classes, so my time management skills have been as severely tested as my ability to memorize and learn new concepts. Without my daughter’s help it would be less successful. 

Finch Frolic Garden continues on and as we close the garden to the public for the winter, it remains open and thriving for wildlife seeking clean water, shelter and food as well. For my birthday, Miranda bought me a game camera which has recorded some interesting life in the bog area of the pond. Now we know why the irises are always smashed. The two glowing orbs from under the boat are just reflections, not a monster, but the ones from the pond are invasive bullfrogs. The juvenile red shouldered hawk has been walking around in the bog several times.  Pond life is full of surprises!

MOULTRIE DIGITAL GAME CAMERA

MOULTRIE DIGITAL GAME CAMERA

MOULTRIE DIGITAL GAME CAMERA

MOULTRIE DIGITAL GAME CAMERA

MOULTRIE DIGITAL GAME CAMERA

MOULTRIE DIGITAL GAME CAMERA

We didn’t burn this go round with wildfires. We are maintaining, and therefore are so grateful for everything that we have, even the troubles that we have as they are not as severe as so many other’s. I am especially grateful to have a permaculture habitat so that these animals can survive.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving everyday.

MVI 1384

Thanksgiving morning, September 22, 2018, at Finch Frolic Garden Permaculture pond. Pardon the squeaky camera lens and the leaf blower from somewhere.

We Host the Smallest Bats in the United States

Our seven year-old chemical-free food forest habitat became the release site for an adorable pair. Two young rescued brothers that had been cared for by Cindy, a Project Wildlife/SD Humane Society bat team volunteer needed a safe, comfortable, food-rich home. These two were Canyon bats, the western pipistrelle (Parastrellus hesperus) which are members of the smallest bat species in the United States. Their wingspan is at longest 8″, and their furry brown bodies are only about 6″ long.

These insectivores are crepuscular, meaning they feed around sunset and dawn rather than during the night. They are also not colonial bats, but are often on their own eating the mosquitoes, beetles, small moths and flies around your home. Females will usually bear twins, rare for a bat, in June, and live either by themselves or in a small maternity colony. Here in October, these two little bats were from an early summer birth and were more than ready to get out of the rescue flight cage and be off on their own. 

They were carefully allowed to crawl up into a bat house that had been hanging empty for five years. It was facing east so as to warm in the morning, and protected from the hot afternoon sun. The inside of the bat house had rough textured wood so the very tiny little feet had texture on which to grab. We made sure than there were no containers such as buckets or nursery cans facing up; many young bats fall in and can’t get out.

It was close to our chemical-free unlined pond for easy bug access at dining times, and which has enough open space for swooping across to get a mouthful of water. They may return to the bat house, or they may fly off to find a rocky nook or tree crevice that they like better, but we sure love them being released in our garden.

In permaculture, all the animals: bats, lizards, frogs, birds etc. are vital parts of the integrated pest management system and also contribute to soil fertility with their droppings, sheds, feathers, leftover meals and bodies. When you spray for insects you kill the food supply for these animals which has effects throughout the food chain. Gardens should be alive with native wild animals and insects, and not reduced to only a scavenging ground for invasive rats and domestic cats.

At dusk or early in the morning keep an eye out for bat species in your yard. They are working to keep the insect population in control. 

Project WildLife | Conservation Through Education & Wildlife Care

Project Wildlife is a non-profit volunteer organization of San Diego County. All types of wild land and sea birds, and land mammals can be helped by Project Wildlife.

Growing and Eating Seeds

We eat seeds everyday. Grains, nuts, beans and, well, seeds, are all seeds. A seed is an embryonic plant covered with a seed coat. A grain is a dried fruit. In this blogpost I’m going to concentrate on true seeds.

Grains are usually seeds from grasses, although there are common exceptions to that rule such as the amaranth below.  Seeds contain the magic that makes a plant out of a speck; a towering oak from an acorn. Seeds are highly nutritious for humans as well, but often are just used as a flavoring (think of an ‘everything’ bagel). Many have been used medically for relieving everything from eczema to mental issues. Some seeds such as grains are difficult to prepare for eating on a small scale, such as rice. Separating seeds from chaff takes a lot of steps that may not be practical for the handful of food at the end of the process. However there are many seeds that we commonly eat that are easily grown among the veggies, or even in a flower bed. Here are some that we grow at Finch Frolic Garden Permaculture:

Let’s start with one of my favorite flavors, the sesame seed. Sesame  (Sesamum indicum) seeds grow on small upright plants about 2 – 3′ high that have lovely tubular flowers. Bees love to crawl into them. Its a pretty plant and flower, so could easily be incorporated into an ornamental area. There are both black and white sesame seed plants; the white seed is really brownish as it has a seed coat. Sesame is also called benne seed. Once harvested sesame seeds should be stored in a dark cool place or refrigerated. The seeds can be used raw, or better still lightly toasted in a dry pan before sprinkling over your food. So very yum. Tip: sesame pods become tight as they dry and then split with force, throwing the seeds away from the plant. If you want to harvest any then watch the pods as they dry on the plant and then cut and hang in a paper bag to catch the seeds as they fly, or break open with your hands.

Amaranth:

Amaranth (Amaranthus spp.) is a very tasty, easily grown seed that is considered a grain. It was a major food of the Aztecs, and almost completely destroyed by the Spanish after their conquest of that civilization. Amaranth was too sneaky though and survived. It is easily digestible, high in protein and full of other nutrition. It has wild as well as  ornamental varieties, but all are edible (be sure what you are eating!)  Love-lies-bleeding is the dramatic name of the long red tasseled kind. 

All are great for birds as well as humans.

Pigweed and lambsquarter are its weedy relatives.  All of them have edible leaves, although some varieties are more tasty than others. Older leaves are better cooked. The tall varieties can grow 8′ tall or so, may need staking, and make good shade plants for others that need sun protection. When you start to see birds on the flowers then the seed should be ready. Another way to check is to gently rub the flowers between your fingers and see if seeds come off as well as the petals. If so, then over a clean, dry bucket rub the cut flowers between your fingers. Winnow the chaff away over a mesh screen or in the wind, or by gently blowing it away from the seed. Now you need to completely dry the seed in the sun, and then store in a dry, dark cool place. Use within six months for best results.

Poppy seeds:

No, not the opium kind, the lemon-poppy seed cake kind, although both are varieties of Papaver somniferum. Look for seeds for Breadseed Poppy varieties. This is another beautiful ornamental with striking seed pods that can be dried and used in flower arrangements. Poppies enjoy poor, disturbed soil. The seeds are tiny so need to be exposed to daylight to germinate. The flowers are beautiful; frail and feminine. The seed pods are rounded and have tiny holes at the top where the seeds come out of, so be careful when you are working around the drying pods or you’ll scatter seeds. Or just let some drop and they will come up next year.Allow the pods to dry on the stem and then carefully cut. Shake the seeds out into a jar and store in a cool, dark place. Use raw or lightly toasted. Be sure not to eat them before taking a drug test, or you’ll test positive.

Basil seeds:

Basil seeds aren’t well known for their culinary use in the US, but they are nutritious and useful. The seeds of the sweet basil plant (Ocimum basilicum) not Holy Basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum), when soaked make the water gelatinous, as chia seeds do, so are used to thicken drinks and foods. You don’t have to soak basil seeds to use them though. The flowers are delightfully edible as well. Use them for additional flavor and nutrition by tossing them raw into salads, salad dressing, breads, or just about anything. Letting some of the basil plant go to seed (while pinching other stems to keep it leafing) will attract small native pollinators to your garden. When the flowers dry, the seeds are ready to be shaken off into a clean, dry bucket or bag. 

Coriander:

You probably know cilantro or Chinese parsley as the love-it-or-hate-it herb found in salsas and many Mexican or East Indian dishes.  Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) seed is called coriander. Coriander seed is usually used ground and used in curry mixtures, soups and meat dishes.  It is an historical herb, being used in ancient India, China and Egypt. It has a kind of lemony taste that is unique. 

Celery seeds:

Celery (Apium graveolens) seeds are marvelous savory additions to soups, particulary tomato.  I grind it up in a mortar and throw it in soups and stews to round out the flavor. We grew celery one year -although I have no photos of it – and because of the warm weather the celery stalk flavor was quite strong. However the seeds were delightful. Celery is a cool-season plant and the stalks should be covered to keep pale green and mild flavored. Or just let them grow for the seed. There is a wild variety that grows in marshlands, but please be very careful if you harvest from it because it looks similar to the very poisonous water hemlock (Cicuta). 

Fennel:

If you’ve sipped ouzo, aguardiente or anisette, you’ve tasted the seeds of the fennel plant. Fennel  (Foeniculum vulgare) is the brother of anise, and both have escaped gardens to be a troublesome weed. Fennel bulbs are absolutely amazing lightly steamed, and then baked in vegan butter and topped with vegan Parmesan. The leaves are fantastic stirred into eggs or salads, and the seeds are incredible flavorings for baked goods, candies and obviously alcohols. Miranda candied fennel seeds for me. They have been used to try and mask cigarette or alcohol breath, but really… who is kidding who? They do make a great breath freshener chewed. The plants are frondy, tall and have pretty umbels of flowers that native insects love.  Grow some for the bulbs (protect them from gophers!) and let others go to seed. Cut and hang upside down to collect the seed in a bag or else you’ll have fennel everywhere. And that may not be a bad thing.

Sunflower

I don’t know anyone who isn’t familiar with sunflower seeds; certainly the shells were routinely spit out all over campus as a cool snack when I was in college and probably still are. At least they are biodegradable. Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) are one of the few edible seeds native to North America, and they are protected in an attractive hull. Some varieties are small, multi stemmed and ornamental, and others are grown for their fabulously large seed heads. Birds love eating the green leaves as part of their healthy diet, so grow extra. The seed heads should be left to dry on the stalk, and then cut and shaken to de-seed. Good pollination is important to produce seeds with good ‘meat’ inside. 

Eat them raw or toasted; they are full of good things for your body. (Miranda is 5’1″ in the photo, not tiny. I like that one of the heads seems to be checking her out.)

Dill

Dill (Anethum graveolens) is another double happiness plant. The leaves are tremendous used fresh or dried, and the seeds are fantastic as well. We use the whole seed heads in our dill pickle recipe. It goes well with fish, or in our case vegan fish. Grind them or use them whole, but definitely stir them into sauces, soups, dressings, dips, etc. Dill, like fennel, will reseed, but that isn’t a bad thing. They look pretty much like the fennel plant above.

Caraway:

We’ve grown caraway (Carum carvi) in the past, but I have no picture for you. Just refer to the photo above of the fennel and it will be close, as they are in the carrot family. You’ll find caraway in rye breads, liquors and cheeses, and in some areas the young leaves and roots are also eaten. They are dried and harvested just like the fennel and dill.

There are other seeds that we haven’t grown. We’ve tried to grow cumin and annatto seeds, but have failed to make them germinate; there is always next year. Some seeds are so small, such as chia, that you’d have to grow a lot of plants to harvest just a little seed. Seeds are such a vital nutritional and flavorful part of our diets, and so fun to grow that everyone should sprinkle edible seed-bearing plant seeds throughout their garden. As seeds dry and keep fresher longer than dried leaves (such as basil or dill), that fresh taste of the garden can last through until next year’s harvest time again.

 

 

Glorious Beet Greens

Did you know that beet greens are gloriously edible? That they are tender, not bitter, mild, easily cooked and full of nutrition? As I was never a beet lover, I didn’t know that either. I’ve loved Swiss chard with its slight bitterness, intense flavor, and huge leaves but I wouldn’t go near a beet until a few years ago. I would make vegetarian borscht (Russian beet soup) for my father but never taste it and hope that it came out well. Then I was gifted with a jar of pickled beets and I had to try them to not insult the giver… and I liked them. Strangely, pickled beets go really well with curry. So Miranda and I grew beets, and let some go to seed. This year we had hundreds coming up in the garden. Good thing that we found out about the greens. Now I’d grow beets just for their greens and pull some early for the root. Just keep cutting the greens and the beet root will continue to produce leaves, although the root will grow large and too tough to eat. Then allow it to go to seed. 

We planted many different kinds of beets, and although the roots tasted a little different the tops all tasted just as good. We also planted sugar beets, and they were so very sweet and yet earthy that I really didn’t care for them as a vegetable. My favorite beet root is chioggia which as lovely red circles when sliced. We purchased all of our beet seeds from Baker Creek Organics.

Beets have deep tap roots, therefore they are excellent ‘mining’ plants in a plant guild. They bring nutrients up from deep in the soil, and what leaves you don’t eat can be put back on or in the ground to create topsoil. 

Beet greens can be torn up and put into a salad raw or used in place of lettuce on a sandwich.  To cook beet greens, wash and tap off excess water, tear up and put into a medium hot pan that has a little olive oil coating the bottom. Stir until wilted. You can eat them from this point as they are not stringy. If the leaves are older I’ll put a little more water in if needed, turn down the heat, cover the pan and let the leaves steam for a few minutes. You don’t need salt or salty broth as the leaves have a strong enough taste. Eat them with vegan butter as a side dish, stir them into omelettes or frittatas, or use them any way you would spinach. 

Freezing beet greens is easy. Wash them, shake off excess water, and put into freezer bags. They aren’t mushy black when thawed and cooked.

Grow your extra organic beets and leave some of them just for harvesting greens. You’ll want to fill your yard and your plate with them!