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Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The Last Tomato...

Snow came to the Valley today, wet, heavy stuff that stuck to the ground until early afternoon. It's November and the swirling bunny tails serve to remind us that the winter solstice is just around the corner. From the kitchen window I watched the white tufts sift through the bare branches of the backyard maple. A handful of summer tomatoes lining the window sill seemed to shiver at the spectacle outside. This reminded me...

Just yesterday in the produce section at Fred Meyers, I rolled my shopping cart past a lady shopper and couldn't help notice a half dozen tomatoes among the other items in her basket. During gardening season a smugness comes over this Valley gardener whenever I see shoppers buying produce I harvest daily from the backyard garden. Smugness? Perhaps "sense of gratitude" is the better phrase: "smug" seems condescending and a man who labors in the soil should be above such thoughts. Agreed?

I think about the lady's tomatoes, how looks can deceive: they appear to be top rate produce: "vine ripened," perfectly shaped...for all appearances not unlike my remaining windowsill crop. But I know from experience, flavor, like beauty, is only skin deep. Since mid-August we've gathered vine ripened tomatoes from the garden patch: fruit encouraged by Valley sunshine and river bottom soil, each ruby orb gushing rich tomato flavor. Those tomatoes in our lady's basket? Hothouse or hydroponic produce, most likely...bland, dry, pasty textured. And as the windowsill crop dwindles, our winter salads sadly will soon be like hers.

The garden went in late this year. As the corn farmers of the mid-west would say, "Too wet to get in the fields." Such was the case here. I figured with our short growing season chances for harvesting a decent tomato crop were nil. That brought to mind a Garrison Keillor Lake Woebegone tale about the late frost that took some neighbors by surprise and brought on a tomato famine come harvest time. "Well, didn't you cover your plants? (Now there's smugness for you.) We covered ours...suspected there'd be frost that night. Didn't you know? Help yourself to some of ours. We have plenty." Oh, the indignity for the backyard gardener! Tomatoes from a neighbor! I'd sooner steal the plastic ones from that lady's shopping cart than accept tomatoes gifted by a fellow gardener.

Fifty-seven days without rain saved our bacon, (or should I say "our BLTs"), retained my pride, kept me from committing petite tomato larceny. My go-to variety, Early Girl, set a bumper crop. As Early Girl tends to be susceptible to late summer blight, I took some proactive measures in mid-August, applied a copper fungicide (Certified Organic) and a week or two later sealed the deal by removing most of the blight-prone foliage from the vines. By early September I was harvesting two to three pounds of fruit a day.

For two or three weeks the steam and pressure canners labored hard to keep up with the jars of sauce, salsa, and stewed tomatoes. Every so often I'd give the kitchen range a break by quartering, bagging, and freezing zip-loc bags full of flavorful fruit. We juiced tomatoes; we sliced tomatoes into our evening salads; we layered tomatoes on toast for our lunch repasts; we ate tomatoes fresh as one would apples; we stirred tomatoes into dollops of cottage cheese; we dipped tomatoes in egg wash, flour and corn meal, and fried them. The tomato crop did indeed runneth over....

As of this post a solitary tomato is all that remains of the summer crop. We used two of the remaining three this past weekend: salsa verde with garden jalapenos and onions and lime Doritos for dipping while we watched the home team struggle for naught on the gridiron. One last salad for the sole remainder of the crop and then eight and a half more months of those plasticized tomato impostors from Freddie's.

But for now--at the risk of sounding smug--our pantry and freezer brim with tomato bounty, surplus enough to tide us over until next year's vines are laden once again.


Sunday, September 17, 2017

Musings Autumnal...

Today I took down the butter dish to prepare the foundations for my lunchtime sandwich. To my surprise the butter was hard, not the malleable, soft collapsed mound it's been all summer. And I had to don a sweat shirt this morning. It seemed just a few short days ago, my first chore of the day was to open all the windows and screen doors to let in the cool of the morning; I knew in the afternoon even with the ceiling fans whirring away the house would be uncomfortably warm. Today I opened the same around noon to let in some heat from the outdoors. Now that I think of it, last week I even tried on some long pants hoping to find a pair that fit, a sign my summer short pants are soon to be retired. And that hankering for an iced coffee? It's been a few days now....

Just a couple weeks back, it seems, I groused because I had to stay up past my bedtime to wait for the chickens to roost so I could coop them for the night. These days they're snug in the coop by the time I finish dinner. The Stellar's jays, those raucous marauders, pests I haven't seen all summer are everywhere now, sorting hazelnuts, culling the empty ones, making daily forays to the walnut tree to scope out the season's crop, cussin' me every time I exit the house. The squirrels have returned, romping here and there about the place, hoping to give the rascal jays some serious competition. Despite entrance reducers, hornet activity is frenetic around the hive entrances, voracious little scavengers seeking drone and worker carcasses, winter's meat, sustenance for their overwintered queens.

Like thin red lines of heroes, tomatoes line the windowsills awaiting their transformation into salsa, juice, and sauce. The steam canner and pressure cooker are on high alert. The garden is pregnant with produce: corn, peppers, cabbage, tomatillos, squash, beans, beets, eggplant...time for the ants to ramp up their industry because they--we-- all know just what's lurking around around the corner.

2017 to date has been one for the record--or records: record breaking rainfall last spring; summer, one of drought, fifty-seven days without measurable rainfall (the record? 51 days set in 1951, last century; never before have I hauled so many buckets of water to thirsty plants, shrubs and trees). The streak for most consecutive days of temps above seventy degrees just a memory as of this summer. Yesterday morning I headed to the coop to let out the girls and was amazed to see what I thought was a light blanket of frost on the hay clippings in the neighbor's field. The touch test confirmed my suspicions. "9/15/2017: first frost" I marked on the calendar, the earliest date Ol' Jack's made an appearance in the forty-six years we've lived in the Valley. (Thirty-nine degrees at 7:30; a week ago morning temp was seventy degrees). Climate change, shifting Gulf Stream currents, El Ninos, La Ninas...whatever...this has been a year that challenges memory. One can only guess what further surprises Ma Nature has in store the remaining months of the year.

And while I've yet to see hordes of woolly bear caterpillars looping their way across the Tualco Loop asphalt, I've seen other signs the Earth has tilted: the bedroom is still dark at 6:30 a.m., the porch light still aglow. Loads of firewood trailer by the place daily. The chill in the house this morning prompted me to haul and stack a ton of wood pellets in the garage .

Tomorrow promises nearly an inch of rain and a rainy week to follow. I have pullets that have yet to experience the wet stuff that falls from the sky. I wish them well. And as for the rest of us, it's time to rummage about the house, dig out those dusty umbrellas and shake loose the moths. Happy Autumnal Equinox, Valley folks. And good luck wrestling with your long pants.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Technology for the Birds or the Whistlin' Gypsy...

Midday and a hot July one here on our slim acre. Between the obnoxious rumblings of the weekend Harleys riders we heard repeated shrill whistles issuing from the trees along the property line. Our first thought was someone at the horse barn next door was whistling dog commands, some sort of canine training in progress.  But the whistles came at regular intervals, were too precise, too perfect for human efforts, tuned only in a way Mother Nature would program a bird call. We had never heard any such sound on the place before.

I went out back to investigate, thought maybe the new neighbors owned some exotic bird and this hot day had set its cage outside to enjoy the shade.   (The other day I had seen them carrying a newly constructed cage to the backyard.) A parrot perhaps, or a cockatoo, myna...some mimicking type of bird? The whistles seemed to issue from that general area. As I prowled around out back, whatever creature produced the shrilling moved down the property line whistling as it went. I followed the sound back to the house where, I-Phone in hand, my wife was waving at me. "Is this what we're hearing?" she asked, holding out her "hand held device" from which issued the selfsame whistle coming from the trees next door. "bob white! bob white! bob white." I could hear it clearly now, as if a stranger were whistling in my face. She had solved the mystery. Ah, technology! The whistlin' mystery bird was a northern Bob White quail.

For years I've kept a backyard bird tally, a checklist of all the avian species we've seen either on or from our property and while I've checked off one quail species, the California quail, a few of which we've seen over the years, I have yet to check off a Bob White. Besides, my Washington State field guide does not even list the bird whose normal range is in the southeastern states. Seeing is believing, the saying goes, and I had yet to see our visiting Bob. How to get the bird out of the bush without frightening it away was the challenge.

The next hour was interesting, a reprieve from what had been an otherwise uneventful day in late July. Our whistlin' visitor was "bob whiting" from a big leaf maple adjacent to our bedroom. I crept carefully to a vantage point hoping to glimpse the bird among the foliage. Meanwhile, my wife quietly slid open a bedroom window and propping her phone on the sill, played the You Tube recording of a Bob White's whistle, hoping to coax the bird into the open. The quail began a dialogue with the phone and its replies came closer. Suddenly it rocketed out of the maple in characteristic quail fashion and flew in the direction of the front lawn. It landed at the end of our landscaped mound and quickly scurried behind it. And that was that, we thought.

It turned out not to be so. We still wanted to see the bird up close and personal if possible, so we cranked up the I-Phone again, looped the You Tube video, moved the phone to the front bedroom window, and waited. A short time later "bob white, bob white" echoed from the rhody bushes under the window. We sneaked a peek through the window screen and there the little fellow was, echoing the electronic bird: the phone would tweet and Bob would retweet . I wanted a photo record of the bird's presence but knew it would jet away at any movement. After all, he was a "quail," wasn't he?

For a quarter of an hour we let the electronic bird and quail whistle at each other. We felt a twinge of guilt at having duped little Bob as he no doubt was lonely and longed for some Bob White companionship. For an hour or so after we shut off the phone, he continued to whistle, which saddened us a bit. The whistles came less often and from farther away until they ceased, leaving us with a hot afternoon and the ever present roar of those Harleys.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Someone there is who loves a wall...

Walls have been much in the news these last several months and The Ripple is proud to report the Valley has not lagged behind in this arena. I've been watching one go up at the stately residence that is the Broers' Family Farms. Boulder by boulder, each especially chosen and cherry picked into place like pieces of a Stone Age puzzle, fit and snug, the wall stretches the entire length of the berm upon which the residence rests.

The old wall had been all but swallowed up by a verdant bank. Years of "wave action" from seasonal floods lapping at the foot of the wall and a Valley soil that never seems to rest (moles: those pesky soil shifters?) I assume had either compromised the wall or rendered it sub par to the Broers' rigorous aesthetic standards. Thus Broers' new wall is the latest stage of the ongoing restoration and upgrade of this old Valley farmstead.

As of this post the landlocked (at this season), trim little farmhouse now perches like a seaside cottage atop a boulder-butressed  "seawall,"daring a flood-plained Valley to throw its best diluvian punch which, like the"waters off a duck's back," it will easily repel.

There is a time and place for walls. (After all, they support the roofs of our homes, don't they?) In   Broers' case it's wall against wall: that of stone against that of water. The Ripple is all in favor of walls that retain. Walls that restrain...well, not so much.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Valley Resident Deported...

No doubt you've heard it said that the criminal returns to the scene of the crime. That commonplace phrase lends credence to the truth of the matter, the matter, in this case, being the "egg missing in broad daylight." It turns out I didn't have to puzzle over the mystery long. No need to hire a private investigator or arrange for a video camera stakeout...the brazen perp returned to the chicken run the very next day. There he was in all his gray glory, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, scurrying about "in broad daylight," a trespasser clearly embarrassed at being discovered in the chicken run.

I never did see the squirrel's escape route; I was too into the moment wondering just what means of prestidigitation a squirrel could employ to make a grade AA egg vanish without a trace. And the squirrel had to be the culprit...too coincidental, a vanished egg and a gray trespasser. To corroborate my suspicions, I needed to do a bit of forensic research, and where better to find evidence of squirrels behaving badly than the internet. Video after video on You Tube showed squirrels raiding hen houses, cradling the eggs in their forelegs and sashaying away with them; some robbers had no qualms about scooping an egg from beneath a setting hen and then making their getaway. I learned, too, that squirrels eat all sorts of eggs...apparently shell and all.

Once Mr. Bushy Tail exited the chicken run, he nonchalantly parked himself on a round of firewood and flipped his tail at me a time or two, gestures I interpreted, if not obscene, certainly defiant. Murderous thoughts crossed my mind and I was tempted to return with the shotgun and ventilate the gray varmint's thieving hide. Experience told me the culprit would most likely be gone by the time I returned for revenge, so I wandered to the house mulling over my options. I had to do something: my breakfast poached eggs were in jeopardy.

Now my environmentally sensitive friend Nancy L is an old squirrel trapper going way back. I fired off an email to her in which I made clear my problem and in less than two hours she appeared on our deck carrying a live trap baited with a stale peanut. After educating me to the mechanical workings of the trap, she left it along with a brusque directive that should I catch the thief, I was to transport it a few miles up Ben Howard Road, release it where it would be someone else's problem. Under no circumstances was I to let it loose on her side of the river, nor was I to release it in the park by the bridge. Her opinion was there were too many squirrels in town already. Later that afternoon I set the trap and placed it on a scrap of plywood just beyond the chicken run.

The next day, around noon, we returned from an errand in Everett. First off, I went out to check my "trapline" and found it full of squirrel, eyes as big as saucers, tail inflated whisk-broom size. Let's just say there was a frenzy of activity in a very small space, Mr. Bushy clattering around in the trap like rocks in a can kicked down the road. I placed the gyrating trap and the incarcerated in the bed of the truck and with Nancy L's "Take him way up Ben Howard" still fresh on my mind, headed north.

Six miles later I found an abandoned road approach next to a grove of budding cottonwood, a small wilderness any squirrel would love. I carried the trap to the edge of the grove, set it down and opened the trap. The squirrel shot out and vanished into the brush like a wisp of gray smoke.

I would like to say "and that's that," but this morning there was a pair of gray gangstas foraging for birdseed under our backyard maple. I baited the trap with a fresh stale peanut, reset it, and there it sits...awaiting its next passenger.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Curious Case of the Egg Missing in Daylight...

I awoke in the middle of the night thinking about that egg, one of those little mysteries that should make life interesting, but not so interesting it   keeps one from a good night's sleep. The mystery started out not as a mystery at all, an anomaly, rather: a single egg beneath the chicken coop, not in one of the two nest boxes where the girls usually leave payment for their room and board. Accidents happen, I thought. Maybe one of the ladies was taken short: the egg was on its way and the nest box too distant for deposit. Like on the evening news: those roadside freeway birthing events where impatient baby declines hospital and delivery room and opts for an impromptu roadside "coming o". There was precedent for a mislaid egg: when the girls were pullets, one of them laid the first egg under the coop, a "pullet surprise," you might say. But if memory serves, that first effort was the only "extra-coop" deposit for the two-year olds.

I passed by the chicken coop in mid-afternoon and noticed the egg lying all by its lonesome next to one of the coop post supports, thought it a bit odd, but an egg's an egg, right? I would have to enter the chicken run to retrieve it and thought I'd wait until I let the girls out in late afternoon for their daily free ranging.

Later that evening I went to gather the eggs, fully prepared first to enter the run, hunker under the protective netting and scoop up the errant egg. To my surprise, the egg was gone, nowhere to be seen. No trace that it was ever there. No eggshell debris field. Nothing. Vanished. Thus the mystery of the missing egg. It had so disappeared I began to question my sanity. Had I ever seen the egg in the first place? Yes, I had: twice at least, its presence so real, I even hatched a little plan to retrieve it. But as the old saw states: the best laid plans of mice and men....

The little mystery was too big to keep to myself, so I shared it with my wife and we became team Sherlock Holmes/Dr.Watson of the Valley, bent on solving the case. Motive, of course, would be food, hunger, sustenance. That's what the chicken scenario is all about, right? Heretofore we had been the only principals in this arena. Now, however, it appeared we had competition. But we were clueless: no yolk spatter, no shell casings left scattered about. Footprints? Obliterated by chicken feet. The crime scene had been sanitized. And this was not just some thief that came and went in the night, but a brazen act perpetrated in broad daylight.

No suspects in custody, so we conducted a virtual lineup. Topping the "most wanted" list were rats. Unlikely, we thought, a rat could carry an egg out of the run. Weasels are egg suckers, leave shell behind. Skunk? A striped kitty leaves a dis-stinky calling card. 'Possums...not likely because of their size and the secure construction of coop and run. Crows and jays are human-wary, and we're around the place most of the day. Squirrels? They're nut marauders and vegetarians as far as we know, and how could they roll an egg down the coop ramp without breaking it?

The investigation is on-going. As of this post none of the above are beyond suspicion. And given the   season, even the Easter bunny has not been ruled out.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Pollen...By the Basketful...

Despite the calendar's proclamation, spring has yet to arrive here in the Valley. At last the pussy-willow is blooming out--almost a month behind schedule. Last year at this time leaf buds were greening on the bush by the compost heap out back. Now the catkins are flush with golden pollen and the bush a frenzy of bees looting their golden plunder. The gold rush is on and the bees are desperate to stake their claims.Weather permitting, of course. The late winter pollen has come and gone: alder, hazelnut, crocus... all sluiced away by rain. The spring pollen supply is essential to spring buildup, the protein boost needed to ratchet up egg laying and brood rearing. And now the bees are playing catch-up.

Just what to call our pussy-willow these days? The spouted twig I planted a half dozen years ago is now twenty feet tall, thus it seems an insult to call the willow a "bush." What height must a plant reach before it qualifies as a bona fide "tree" escapes me. A pussy-willow tree? Surely we have one now.

Pollen. "Bee bread" I've heard it called, the bees' protein source. Mixed with sucrose, whether it be nectar or sugar refined from cane or beets, it becomes the essential pap for larval sustenance, crucial nourishment for young bees destined to become the work force that will gather the summer's nectar for the season's honey crop.

Pollen collection is solely the jurisdiction of the worker bee whose hind leg is especially designed for the task. The concave configuration of the third leg, the corbicula, which is surrounded by a bulwark of stiff hairs, serves as a basket for pollen loads. Fore and middle legs "rake" the pollen to the hind leg where the sticky substance is formed into a pollen pill.
When its two "baskets" are flush with pollen, the laden worker beelines it to the hive where its two-pack payload is tamped into cells for future use.

I had hoped to trap some pussy willow pollen this spring as there is a demand for local pollen; some allergy sufferers believe pollen is nature's panacea for spring allergies. A delicate shade of pale gold, pussy-willow pollen is pleasing to the eye, especially when packaged in glass containers. The bees are relieved of the fruit of their labors by means of a pollen trap, an especially designed device that forces the pollen-laden workers to enter the hive through a small gauge mesh.

As they crawl through the wire one leg at a time, the pollen pill is dislodged from the "basket" and tumbles into a muslin-lined collection tray where it is harvested by the beekeeper. It is always with a slight sense of guilt that I deprive my bees of their beebread and butter and am careful not to be too greedy. Two, three consecutive days at the most I restrict the pollen flow and then allow the pollen bearers full access to the hive. This season's weather embargo on pollen foraging has sidelined my pollen collecting. Perhaps in a month or so from the maple and dandelion, but by no means now.

This pollen trail has led me astray of the post's original intent. The Ripple wonders if anyone in the blogosphere would consider it possible to compute the total annual pollen yield of a twenty/thirty foot tall pussy-willow tree. Yield in pounds would be preferable, but if the metric system is your measurement of choice, I''ll settle for an estimate in kilos.

For the beekeeper who wishes a bounty of pollen for his bees' spring buildup, I suggest he plant a pussy-willow or two in his landscape. Pussy-willow is easily rooted: half a dozen twigs in a water-filled quart jar or a pot of wet sand will do the trick. When planting the rooted twigs in their permanent location, exercise a bit of caution: willows are vigorous plants and will easily take over a garden spot if not kept well pruned. Please note, too: willow root systems are "divining" roots; they seek out water, so don't plant a willow near a septic drain field as the system most certainly will become root bound.

I would recommend using willows only in horticultural pursuits...not advisable to put a pussy-willow to use in the manner Imogene Herdman suggests in the delightful Christmas story The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. The fractious little urchin bullies the prim and proper Alice Wendlekin ("I am always Mary"), whose role Imogene covets, with the scare tactic: "And next spring when the pussy-willows come out, I'm going to stick a pussy-willow so far down your ear where nobody can reach it. And it'll sit there and grow and grow and grow, so for the rest of your life there'll be a pussy-willow bush growing out of your ear."

Bad enough to have to prune and trim one's ear. And to endure all that humming and buzzing every spring. But for pollen-starved bees, what an unexpected windfall.