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Where have the houseflies gone? September 3, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben was busy in our home office when I noticed a small, winged insect buzzing around. At first, I thought it must be a young housefly, those annoying nuisances that always seem to find their way into the house in warm weather, no matter how hard you try to stop them. (Thus flyswatters, flypaper, and the like have been with us for a very long time; try as we might, we just can’t seem to keep the critters out.)

Eventually, I realized that the buzzing noise wasn’t housefly-like; the insect was something else. But it made me realize that, unlike past years, I hadn’t seen a single housefly, in or out of the house, this year. Not one. I wondered if America had been struck with housefly decline. For once, global warming couldn’t be to blame, since the flies love hot weather, but maybe last year’s super-cold winter killed them off. Or maybe, like the poor honeybees, they’d been struck with some dreadful malady. Our friend Ben decided to head to my good friend Google to find out.

“Housefly decline” didn’t bring up anything, so I went on Wikipedia to see what it had to say about houseflies. Yowie kazowie! I learned three things I didn’t know about houseflies. First, that the females can lay 9,000 eggs (yes, you read that right) over a lifetime, producing many, many generations in a single year. (So, where are they?!) Next, that once flies emerge from their pupal cases, whether they’re huge or tiny depends on how much food they got as maggots (which feed on rotting food and rotten or decaying flesh, as well as manure, yum). In other words, little flies don’t grow into bigger flies; little flies just didn’t get enough to eat in their maggot (sickening white, worm-like) stage. And last, that houseflies can carry diseases like cholera and tuberculosis (and plenty of others).

That’s sort of the opposite of all those movies like “Gladiator” where you see maggots eating away at rotting flesh on living men and saving them from infection, gangrene, and death. Which reminds me of the fourth thing I didn’t know about houseflies: They’re not just here in the good old USA, but occur around the world, and apparently always have.

So what’s become of them? Have you noticed fewer (or no) houseflies in your home this year? Let us know. I have to say, this is one creature I wouldn’t mind seeing on the decline.

Emergency preparedness: Buy toilet paper. September 2, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, critters, homesteading, pets, wit and wisdom.
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There may have been something funny about the theme of this year’s Disaster Prevention Day in Japan, “Let’s stockpile toilet paper!” But there’s nothing funny about the disaster that prompted Disaster Prevention Day, held every September 1st. One Spetember 1, 1923, the Great Kanto Earthquake struck an area of Tokyo and killed more than 140,000 people. Most of the lives were lost due to fires sweeping through the area and burning down the closely packed buildings, which were made of wood, bamboo and paper and used flames for cooking, heat, and light. In a country prone to earthquakes and tsunamis, being prepared for a disaster makes a lot of sense.

Our friend Ben also approves of stockpiling toilet paper, tissues and the like for emergency purposes. The Japanese government suggested keeping a month’s supply for every household member in reserve; in Japan, they sell special emergency rolls that are something like 460 feet long and are rolled so tightly they look like those big rolls sold in the U.S. I wish we had those here!

I’d take this even further. Of course you could blow your nose with toilet paper if you ran out of tissue. But if you’re dependent on a well for all your water, as we are here at Hawk’s Haven, if the electricity goes out, your water stops running. Normally, we try to never use “picnic products” like paper plates and bowls, paper or plastic cups, and plastic knives, forks, and spoons. But we keep a supply on hand for emergencies, and actually used some of them when the power went off for almost a week last winter. When you have to drink bottled water, use it to brush your teeth, and use it to flush the toilet, you don’t want to waste it washing dishes! Paper towels and napkins are lifesavers here, too. Not to mention extra toothpaste, soap, and so on.

Even if you’re on a sewer and get city water, if something contaminated your city’s water supply so the water was basically unusable for drinking, bathing, etc., you’ll want a backup supply of bottled water. Those big gallon jugs are great for flushing the toilet, but we find that, over time, they deteriorate and spring leaks. We use them in our greenhouse and to water our raised beds and container plants, but always keep an eye on them and recycle any that spring leaks. We also keep some on hand for the toilet, but keep an eagle eye on them to make sure they’re not leaking on our mudroom and laundry room floors! For permanent, leak-proof water storage, our friend Ben recommends those perfectly clear plastic jugs that a lot of “spring water” is sold in. They’ll never leak unless you step on one. And for drinking water, we get cases of real spring water in glass jugs, which we’ll also use for tooth-brushing in an emergency.

Besides toilet paper, the Japanese government recommends stores of food and water, a portable toilet, and a first-aid kit. I don’t know what they mean by “portable toilet,” but our friend Ben doubts that it’s a Port-a-Potty. Instead, it’s probably one of those sturdy buckets with toilet seats that are sold at camping, hunting, and sporting-goods stores like Cabela’s. You put a plastic bag (like a plastic grocery bag) inside the bucket, anchoring it with the lid, then go when you need to go and toss the bag when it’s full.

If you have a lawn and garden, you might think about buying a chamber pot (a porcelain receptacle for urine) at a flea market and pouring the nitrogen-rich urine on your lawn and flowers (not your food garden!). Urine has been known for eons as an excellent natural fertilizer.

Here in scenic PA, we’re in the path of the aftereffects of major environmental disasters rather than on the front lines. We won’t have to face off against earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, or other terrible acts of nature. But we could certainly suffer their effects, as well as terrible droughts and winter ice and snowstorms. It’s always best to be prepared.

We always have a cord of wood curing for our woodstove, since if the power fails it could mean the difference between frozen pipes (and frozen us) and reasonable warmth. Our gas stove can be lit by matches if the electricity goes off, so we can have warm food, even in winter (you can also use your outdoor grill if you have one). But we also have canned food that we can eat cold if we must, along with food that’s durable and fine at room temperature like crackers, nuts, dried fruit and cheese.

Since we’re not in the eye of a storm or other catastrophe that would force us to abandon our home, we’ve basically tried to disaster-proof our home so we could continue to live in it in the face of a power disruption, ice storm, or whatever. But we have stocked our cars with durable emergency items (including first-aid kits and space blankets, toilet paper, bottled water, tissues, sani-wipes, condiments, utensils, etc.) just in case.

Last but by no means least are your pets and critters, who’ll find themselves cut off just like you. Making sure you have extra food (and litter, in the case of cats) for your pets on hand at all times just makes sense. We keep our cat, dog and wild bird seed in big pest-proof tins and our parrot and parakeet food in pest-proof glass jars. The chickens’ scratch grains and egg-layer pellets are stored in metal garbage cans in the chicken yard, safe from invasion.

“Be prepared” is more than a Boy Scout motto. It could be a lifesaver!

Monarch butterflies: The next passenger pigeon? August 31, 2014

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Our friend Rudy sent us a wonderful article about passenger pigeons (this year marks the 100th anniversary of their extinction). It was packed with fascinating facts about these once-plentiful birds, such as that they once numbered in the billions, comprising as much as 25 to 40% of America’s total bird population, and that their flocks, numbering millions of birds, could blot out the sun for hours. (People who’d never seen a passenger pigeon flock before, hearing the thunder of millions of wings and watching darkness blot out the sun, feared that the End Times were upon them, or at least that a tornado was bearing down on them and making their personal end time imminent.)

Another thing our friend Ben learned from the article was that, unlike something like, say, the ivory-billed woodpecker, people knew exactly when the passenger pigeon became extinct. Martha, the last living passenger pigeon, died at a Cincinnati zoo in 1914 and was shipped to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History for preservation and study. Poor Martha! From billions to just one. Then none.

Human behavior drove the passenger pigeon extinction. People had always eaten the abundant birds, a cheap (or free, if you were a good shot) source of protein. But Dan Greenberg, one of the experts quoted in the article, blamed their extinction on two inventions that would appear to have nothing to do with birds: the telegraph and the railroad. The two had to come together to make the extinction happen: the telegraph, because its miles of wires gave the birds a convenient place to roost, which they would do in huge flocks. On the wires, they were easy to find, and they perched so close together that a single shot could down multiple birds. And the railroad, because the birds could be packed on ice and shipped to major urban areas, guaranteeing an insatiable market of poor urban laborers desperate for some cheap meat.

The extinction of the passenger pigeon, and the awareness and acknowledgment that human actions were responsible, helped launch the conservation movement, and probably saved the buffalo (hunted for their tongues, considered a delicacy on the East Coast) and the beaver (whose fur was used for fashionable top hats) from a similar fate. So at least the pigeon didn’t die in vain.

But the aspect of the article that really snagged our friend Ben’s attention was when the interviewer asked another expert, Steve Sullivan, what he’d consider to be today’s passenger pigeon. And he answered, “the monarch butterfly.”

You probably used to see monarchs all over the place, floating through your yard, drifting along roadsides. I’ve even seen them migrating south at nearby Hawk Mountain alongside the hawks and other raptors. You might even have been lucky enough to see one of their beautiful sea-green chrysalises, in which the monarch caterpillar transforms into a butterfly. But in recent years, I’ve seen fewer and fewer monarchs, and I’ll bet you have, too. (Unless, like our friend Mark, you mistake the brown-and-orange admiral for a monarch.)

The catastrophic decline of the monarchs is also directly related to human activity, and also to a one-two punch like the one that brought down the passenger pigeon. Every year, more and more herbicides are dumped on farm fields, lawns, and gardens. GMO crops are specifically bred to withstand the ever-increasing use of these poisons, so vast acreages of corn, soybeans, canola, cotton, and the like can take even stronger herbicide applications. What can’t withstand the herbicides are the “weeds,” which is to say, the diversity of plant life. And some of the weeds that herbicides kill are milkweeds, the only source of food for monarch butterfly larvae.

Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood make room for plenty of milkweeds here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home we share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. But even so, our monarch populations have dwindled to the point where I think I saw one so far this year. (We also have pawpaws for the zebra swallowtail larvae, which are totally dependent on them.)

I urge everyone to have a butterfly garden in their backyards, or in containers on their deck or apartment balcony, to try to save our beautiful butterflies from the onslaught of herbicides. Milkweeds have gorgeous flower clusters that last a long time (Asclepias tuberosa, the very popular “butterfly weed” that brightens sunny, well-drained gardens and wildflower meadows with clusters of yellow, orange, and red flowers, is a milkweed). Butterfly bushes (Buddleia davidii) sport beautiful plumes of blooms in colors from white through mauve and purple to maroon, and during their summer bloom season, there’s lots of added color from visiting butterflies. (We planted one called “Miss Molly” on our beloved golden retriever Molly’s grave.) And there are many, many more.

But monarchs aren’t just threatened by America’s obsession with herbicides. As you doubtless know, they migrate south for the winter and cluster by the thousands on the trunks of trees in pine and fir forests in their wintering grounds near Mexico City—trees that are being decimated by illegal logging. The monarchs depend on their winter habitat being there. After all, they’ve just flown thousands of miles to get there, and they have a collective memory of the forest where they overwinter and return to it. What if it isn’t there?

Monarch populations have crashed in recent years due to this combination of herbicides and loss of winter habitat. In 1995, they covered 44.5 acres of trees in their wintering grounds in Mexico. Last winter, their population was so reduced that they only covered 1.65 acres. How much more will they have to decline before the last “Martha” is on display in some zoo’s butterfly conservatory?

Please plant butterfly-friendly plants, refrain from herbicide use, and try to urge your neighbors and your community to do the same, to create corridors where butterflies can move and eat freely, as safe from herbicides as any of us can be in this day. Let’s hope it’s not too late.

Greens: Cooked or raw? August 30, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. I’m mostly an equal-opportunity greens fan; I love them raw (in salads and sandwiches), semi-cooked (in hot sandwiches like cheese panini with tomatoes and arugula), and cooked (in pasta, soups, dal, sauteed, or steamed). Pretty much the only greens I won’t eat are the ones that taste like dirt (beet greens, Swiss chard), the ones that are prickly (radish greens, turnip greens), and the ones that come from cans. (Just give me the beets and radishes and Japanese turnips and let me enjoy the colorful chard as an ornamental.) If I knew how to grill, I’d doubtless love the grilled halved Romaine lettuces and halved radicchio that have become popular.

I love to make a big pot of greens, including the “supergreens” kale and collards, along with spinach, arugula, and methi (fenugreek greens), cooking them down with a tiny bit of water clinging to the leaves, and then make saag paneer, the delicious, Indian dish that uses their equivalent of farmer’s cheese/fresh mozzarella, paneer, with a simply luscious mix of sauteed onion, spices, and cream. Served over basmati rice, which soaks up the sauce, it’s pure heaven.

Greens prepared this way are also a great base for soups and a great filling layer for lasagna. (You can tuck them in between the lasagna pasta and the ricotta or Greek yogurt, then top with sauce and shredded cheese.) So are greens that are added to dishes like pastas at the last moment. I love sauteing diced sweet onions and minced garlic in extra-virgin olive oil, perhaps with sliced mushrooms and diced red, orange or yellow bell pepper, a dash of crushed red pepper, Italian herbs (a mix of basil, oregano, rosemary and thyme), salt (we love RealSalt and Trocomare, hot herbed salt), and fresh-cracked black pepper. Then I add arugula when everything else has cooked down, use pasta tongs to immediately add cooked spaghetti to the sauteed veggies, and toss the pasta with the veggies and my choice of shredded cheese before serving it up. Yum!

But I’d still want to serve my pasta with a crunchy green salad. I really love salad, from a Caesar (yes to hard-boiled eggs, no to croutons and anchovies) to the famous iceberg wedge (I like mine with chopped sweet or purple onion, diced tomato, crumbled blue or Gorgonzola cheese, and an olive oil-lemon dressing, with plenty of salt and fresh-cracked black pepper).

There are so many salad variations that I can’t understand why everyone doesn’t love salad. One of my favorites has a crunchy Romaine base with arugula, radicchio, Boston (Bibb, butter) lettuce, watercress and frisee giving texture, flavor and color, with shredded carrots, diced bell pepper (red, yellow, and/or orange), diced red onion, cherry tomatoes (my favorites are the orange Sungold tomatoes), cucumbers, red cabbage, shredded white sharp Cheddar and/or blue or Gorgonzola cheese, sliced hard-boiled eggs, black olives, scallions (green onions), and pepitas (roasted pumpkinseeds) for nutritional value and crunch. I’ll add avocado and/or jarred artichoke hearts in oil for an especially decadent salad. With so much going on in the salad—especially if I mix in fresh basil, mint, cilantro, or another fresh herb—I like to keep the dressing simple: good olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

But not all is well in the raw greens world. I had a very sad revelation a few months ago when I read that eating raw kale was damaging to people with thyroid issues. I love raw kale in salads, but I guess I’ll be eating all my kale cooked from now on. A dear friend reminded me that the oxalic acid in spinach is bad for people with arthritis, and can not just accumulate in the joints but contribute to the formation of kidney stones. And if, like my father, you’re on blood thinners to prevent heart attack or stroke, your doctor will probably tell you to avoid all greens and salads, since leafy greens are rich in vitamin K, a natural blood thinner. Bummer!!! Not to mention that you need to eat some oil with your greens to release their nutrients in the body, preferably a healthy oil like olive oil.

The real divider in our household, though, is spinach. Our friend Ben likes it raw in salads, I like it cooked. I find the texture of raw spinach both limp and dusty—no crunch, and this dreadful musty, felted texture. (I feel the same way about raw mushrooms, and won’t eat them in a salad, either, although I love cooked mushrooms.) I, on the other hand, love cooked spinach (again, cooked down with just a few drops of water) with balsamic vinegar. OFB hates it. His exception is spanakopita, the Greek phyllo pockets filled with spinach and feta. We’ve finally found common ground with spinach sauteed in olive oil with minced garlic or onion. OFB will eat it if I add crushed red pepper, and I can discreetly add a splash of balsamic vinegar to my serving. And yes, I do buy baby spinach for his salads when I remember!

‘Til next time,

Silence

How to use chopsticks. August 28, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. If the only experience you’ve had with chopsticks is watching Pat Morita catch flies with them in “The Karate Kid,” it might be a little intimidating to go to a restaurant and see everybody else using them. And embarrassing to have to say “Could I have a fork, please?”

As a chopstick novice myself, I’ve managed to learn how to eat vegetable tempura rolls and things like stir-fries and General Tso’s tofu with chopsticks, but still can’t manage soft, slippery things like mapo tofu or tiny things like grains of rice. (Hint: In “The Man with the Golden Gun,” a James Bond movie set in Hong Kong, they showed a family basically holding bowls of rice to their mouths and shoveling the rice in with their chopsticks. Made sense to me!) I was once served a soup-like porridge at a Zen monastery which I was expected to eat, along with the rest of the meal, with chopsticks. Yow!!! Fortunately, we were able to serve ourselves and I took a tiny portion of porridge and somehow managed to down it all, as was expected. Never again!

Anyway, one restaurant, a wonderful Sichuan (Szechuan) restaurant in State College, PA, called Sichuan Bistro, has come up with a discreet way to help chopstick-challenged diners: chopsticks that come with directions. The directions, printed on the red paper chopstick cover, are straightforward: Take one chopstick, tuck it under the thumb of your dominant hand, and hold firmly. Add the second chopstick and hold it between your index finger and thumb, as you’d hold a pencil, while still holding the first chopstick wedged down between your thumb and hand. To eat, hold the first chopstick still and move the second one up and down to capture and immobilize food.

I certainly wouldn’t agree with the printed directions that “now you can pick up anything” with chopsticks—I’m still not going for the porridge or rice—but this technique really does work. Try it and see for yourself!

‘Til next time,

Silence

Fantastic stir-fry (or pasta) in a flash. August 27, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. I have a guilty little secret, and that’s that I just love the cut-up combos of vegetables that you can find in the produce section of pretty much any grocery store. Why is that, when I actually enjoy chopping vegetables? It’s because those packages of multi-hued veggies are so pretty, so colorful. Their siren song is impossible to resist. Poor our friend Ben tries, in vain, to pull me away from the prepared produce section when we’re out grocery shopping; after all, I’ve already bought several shopping bags full of fresh, whole produce by that time.

Needless to say, that precut, precombined produce isn’t out there just to show its pretty face. It’s there for those nights when you’d really enjoy something fresh and healthy but don’t have time to stand for an hour or so chopping vegetables. If you’re in that boat, here are two suggestions for absolutely luscious main dishes that take almost no time to cook.

Fast, Fantastic Stir-Fry

First, buy as many packages of pre-cut veggies as you think you’ll need, depending on how much you eat and how many of you there are. We like the ones with red onion, red, yellow and orange bell peppers, mushrooms, broccoli, and snow or snap peas. We love onion, so we buy an extra carton of diced red onion, and we also buy an extra red bell pepper to dice into the mix. Next, we get Iron Chef Sesame Garlic Sauce in the International aisle, and pick up a bottle of Frank’s RedHot Sweet Chili Sauce from the condiments aisle if we’re running low. Finally, we get a package of pressed smoked tofu from the health-food store next door. (You could sub extra-firm tofu from the grocery if your health-food store doesn’t stock pressed smoked tofu. In that case, I recommend pre-cubed to save time.)

Once you’re home, if you got the extra-firm rather than the smoked tofu, put the cubes (or cube it and then put the cubes) into a marinade of the sesame-garlic sauce and the Frank’s hot sweet sauce, adding salt and enough boiling water to just cover. As you prepare the other ingredients, turn the tofu cubes several times to make sure both sides are coated.

In a rice cooker or pot, make enough basmati rice so each person can have a full cup. While the rice cooks, heat up canola, olive or peanut oil in a wok or deep, heavy pan like a Dutch oven (I love my LeCreuset Dutch oven for this, since I can cook over much lower heat than a wok and it retains heat). When the oil is hot, toss in about half the container of diced red onion, then your diced red bell pepper, then a tablespoon of minced garlic or some garlic granules or garlic salt. Then add your veggies, making sure they’re coated with the oil. Finish by adding the tofu and sauce (if it isn’t smoked). If you are using smoked tofu, cube it while the veggies are cooking. Add the sesame-garlic sauce and the Frank’s RedHot Sweet Chili Sauce to the veggies, then slide in the cubed smoked tofu.

When the rice is done, spoon the hot veggie-tofu mixture over the top and enjoy! It’s actually not just the easiest but the best stir-fry I’ve ever had. (And to make things even easier, you can always just pick up rice from the local Chinese place on your way home from the grocery. Their rice is always perfect!)

Moving on, let’s look at the pasta:

Asparagus-Mushroom Pasta

Our groceries offer packs of cut asparagus, sliced baby Bella mushrooms, and red onion. On its own, one of these packs would probably be delicious roasted with olive oil drizzled over the top. But I’m always craving pasta, and I had a carton of whole button mushrooms and a couple of red bell peppers that needed to be cooked. So I heated some olive oil, diced a Vidalia onion, the carton of mushrooms, and the bell peppers, and sauteed them until the mushrooms cooked down and the onion clarified. Meanwhile, I heated up a big pot of water for the pasta.

Once the water was boiling, I added the package of asparagus, mushrooms, and red onion to the other veggies, then added the pasta to the pot of boiling water. When the pasta was ready, I added black pepper and salt (we like RealSalt or Trocomare) to the veggies, then stirred in shredded sharp white Cheddar and allowed it to melt. (You could sub shredded mozzarella or a Cheddar/mozzarella mix.) Finally, I used tongs to pull out the pasta and add it to the sauce, stirring to coat well.

Yum! This pasta was delicious. All we needed was a nice, crunchy salad to have a complete and luscious meal. OFB and I are now officially hooked on both dishes. So easy, so good! Try them and let us know what you think.

‘Til next time,

Silence

Don’t throw out those fish and frogs! August 26, 2014

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When our friend Ben moved to scenic PA after grad school, I set up a goldfish tank in my new apartment. One day, I returned from work to find my biggest goldfish, Agamemnon, lying stiff, dry, and to all intents dead on the floor. (After that, I always put a hood on my aquariums. It never occurred to me that anybody would try to jump out.) Picking up the seemingly lifeless fish, I decided that there was nothing to lose, so I threw it back in the tank. Within minutes, Agamemnon, now aka Lazarus, had revived and was swimming around as if nothing had happened. He lived for many more years.

Our friend Ben was reminded of this today when I went into the kitchen and saw one of our two aquarium frogs lying stretched at full length on the floor in a pile of our dog Shiloh’s fur. It looked like a poster frog for rigor mortis, but I picked it up and began removing the dog hair. Eventually, its legs started moving, so I tossed it back in the tank. (Our current aquarium has a tight-fitting hood, so I have no idea how it escaped.) Soon enough, it was swimming around with the other frog and the fish, seemingly unfazed by its misadventure.

If you have an aquarium, or are thinking of setting one up, my advice to you is this: If something dies in the aquarium, it’s dead. But if it “dies” outside the aquarium, it ain’t necessarily so. Put it back in and see if it revives. And always put a hood on your tank!

Storebought tzatziki sauce. August 25, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. I wrote about making your own “semi-homemade” falafel sandwiches in a previous post, and blithely assured readers that you could find falafels and tzatziki sauce, the Greek yogurt-garlic sauce, ready to heat (falafels) and spread (tzatziki) on your warmed pitas. I had found falafel patties and Sabra tzatziki sauce at a local Giant grocery, even here in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. But things change.

For the last several months, I haven’t seen any Sabra tzatziki sauce. There are a couple of other options, but one contains gelatin and another contains fish oil (!!!), both no-nos for vegetarians like me. It’s not tough to make your own tzatziki sauce, but what if what you’re looking for is just a simple throw-together sandwich that’s healthy and tastes fabulous?

I decided to opt for Oikos Cucumber Dill Yogurt Dip, made with thick Greek yogurt (like tzatziki sauce) and readily available in the refrigerated dip section in your grocery’s dairy aisle. But I thought it could probably use some punch. So I bought a container of matchsticked radishes and one of diced red (Spanish) onion in the produce section, plus a container of crumbled feta cheese, and when I got home, I mixed all three into some of the Oikos dip to punch it up. Then I proceeded to put my falafel sandwich together.

I drizzled the falafels with olive oil to crisp them up, then heated them at 250 degrees F. in our convection/toaster oven. Meanwhile, I halved thick pitas (not the thin Lebanese pitas that don’t hold ingredients in pockets without falling apart but are best used for scooping them). When the falafel patties were hot and sizzling, I flipped them and set the halved pitas on top of them to warm up. When everything was nice and hot, I smeared my tzatziki sauce thickly inside each pita half, then added two falafel patties, then mashed in shredded carrot and red cabbage to add texture, body, and nourishment. Yum!!!

If you can find Sabra tzatziki sauce, it will save you some time. But if not, the Oikos dip works well with minimal effort, and also makes a great dip for crudites, with or without the added onion, radish, and feta.

‘Til next time,

Silence

Naturalizing bulbs. August 24, 2014

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Following on my previous post, “Why are tulips so short-lived?”, our friend Ben would like to talk about an interesting way to naturalize bulbs and perennials. “Naturalizing” basically means encouraging plants to come up all over the place in random arrangements, rather than planting them singly or in ordered groups. It works best for plants that tend to spread and multiply on their own, like daffodils, many of the little bulbs, and wildflowers.

The usual advice for naturalizing daffodils is to simply toss the bulbs into the area where you want to plant them and planting them where they fall. That way, you don’t unconsciously space or arrange them. But who wants to bruise the poor bulbs?! Not our friend Ben.

So I was quite intrigued to read a technique in an e-mail from Peony’s Envy, a wonderful peony nursery in New Jersey, about how they naturalized their woodland peonies (Paeonia japonica), which are the first peonies to bloom and thrive in the woodland garden settings that support ferns and other shade-loving wildflowers. (Peony’s Envy sells their plants online and on-site, and hosts open garden days throughout peony bloom season.)

The Peony’s Envy folks suggested taking as many tennis balls as you had plants and tossing them in the general area where you wanted the plants to go, then planting where the balls fell. That way, you’re not tossing plants or bulbs around, but are still getting random planting patterns. Mind you, this technique works better if you’re planting six woodland peonies or autumn ferns or hostas or Virginia bluebells than if you’re planting 100 daffodil bulbs (er, golf balls, anyone?). But the general idea is still intriguing. And if you had more plants than tennis (or golf) balls, you could always plant in cohorts: Toss the balls, plant; turn to the next area, toss the balls again, plant; and so on until you were done.

Thank you, Peony’s Envy! Great tip.

Why are tulips so short-lived? August 22, 2014

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The thing about bulbs is that most of them are so long-lived. Plant them once, and they either come back reliably year after year, or come back and multiply year after year. They’re one of the easiest and most dependable flowering plants, something you can plant once and look forward to every spring thereafter. This is true of daffodils, grape hyacinths, hyacinths, crocuses, glory-of-the-snow (chionodoxa), star of Bethlehem, snowdrops, Siberian squill, and numerous others.

Planting them is ridiculously easy, too: If you’re planting a sizable group of bulbs, dig a trench deep enough to cover the bulbs (shallow for small bulbs, deeper for daffs) and long and wide enough to contain the number of bulbs you’re planting, set the bulbs in root-side down, put the soil back over the bulbs, firm the soil by walking over it, the end. If you’re just planting a few bulbs in an existing bed, tucking in some grape hyacinths, snowdrops, crocuses, and/or daffodils, a narrow trowel will open a V-shaped slit in the soil (again to the appropriate depth) and you can just drop the bulb in (making sure the root end is facing down) and step on the slit to firm the soil over it. This avoids the big holes that “official” bulb planters gouge out of the soil, potentially damaging the roots of nearby perennials, and saves the steps of inverting the bulb planter after each bulb, knocking out the soil, and then replacing it in the hole.

So, our friend Ben wondered, what’s the deal with tulips? Once planted, daffodils grow and multiply for decades without further effort from you. But tulips? Apparently, most tulip hybrids bloom for one or at most two seasons. So-called “perennial” tulips, such as the Darwin hybrids, bloom for at most five years, typically blooming for three before declining. Yet they’re at least as expensive and as much trouble to plant as daffodils. Many gardeners simply treat them as annuals, planting them every fall, then digging them up after they bloom and discarding them.

This wanton waste didn’t sit well with me, and besides, I wondered why they behaved so differently from the rest of the spring bulbs. I consulted my good friend Google and found an answer from ornamental horticultural expert Rob Proctor. He pointed out that in their native land, tulips endured poor, rocky soil, cold winters, wet springs, and hot, dry summers. In these conditions, they were true perennials, just like daffodils, returning to bloom every year. He compared the climate to Colorado’s.

Apparently, our problem is that we cosset our tulips to death. We water their beds all summer, encouraging bulb rot; we feed them or plant them in rich soil (or both); our climate isn’t cold enough in winter or hot enough in summer. Our friend Ben read a fascinating tip, that in Britain, where summers aren’t known for being hot and dry, gardeners dig up the tulips when their bloom cycle has ended and their foliage is starting to decline and bring them inside hot, dry greenhouses to “cure,” then replant them in fall, thus encouraging many years of bloom.

Of course, this still sounds like a lot of work, and you’d need a greenhouse to pull it off. Is it worth it? Er. Our problem would be trying to remember where we’d planted the tulip bulbs, what they looked like versus the daffodil bulbs they were interplanted with, and how on earth we could dig them up without exposing our entire bulb border, a major undertaking. We had such a gorgeous display of daffs and tulips interplanted in our border last year it was breathtaking. But Silence Dogood and I have agreed that we’d better leave everything as is for next spring and see what happens. Maybe we won’t get a single tulip, or a single blooming tulip, but at least our daffodils can stretch out. And if we do get a few more tulip blooms, that will be great.

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