My first mosaic, first day's progress

From Monarchs to Mosaics, Always Something New to Learn

Once again I seem to be having difficulty finding time to come inside, sit at the laptop and tell a story. This despite the fact I have a gazillion photos I would love to share and next year when I look back I’ll wish I’d written more! Ah well, here I am with enclosures full of Anise and Giant Swallowtail chrysalides and one caterpillar of each kind chomping their final meals. I’ve got one monarch eclosing today (whoops, eclosed, a healthy female) and one last chrysalis after that, which will bring my total released monarchs to somewhere around 40. It has certainly been a butterfly-filled summer!

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Female monarch on Pink Ice Protea

You know what’s really on my mind though? I’m learning mosaic! This is very exciting for me. I have actually had very few art classes in my life, which is weird considering I have a degree in Fine Arts and am a professional artist. Somehow though, I managed to squeak by without much proper schooling. So now my wonderful friend Irina is showing me how to mosaic and I couldn’t ask for a more amazing instructor.

Detail of Irina Charny Mosaic

Irina Charny Mosaic – Look at all this detail!

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Deformed Anise Swallowtail

The Swallowtail Who Stole My Heart

I’ve been away from my blog for a month and I have no excuse except that I have been tending to my caterpillars. I have so much to share about my recent experience raising swallowtail butterflies, but first and foremost I must share an experience that brings tears to my eyes even now. It’s a story about a swallowtail. And me. And true love. And magic.

My first healthy Anise Swallowtail!

My first healthy Anise Swallowtail!

First let me say that raising swallowtails is so much easier than raising monarchs! They don’t seem as susceptible to nasty parasites or diseases, and they eat a lot less. Less food means an easier feeding schedule and a lot less poop to clean up, both of which I appreciate. Nevertheless, there is always a chance that something can go wrong, and this story begins with a poor Anise Swallowtail who was stuck in her chrysalis.

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Scarlet Emperor Beans the perfect size for cooking and eating whole

Where Have You Bean All My Life?

Beans. I know I say this every time, but beans are possibly my new favorite vegetable to grow. How is it that I’m constantly surprised by how fun it is to grow things? I planted beans for the first time this year, throwing 5-6 varieties I’d been storing for years around my gazebo in the hopes of creating a bean-covered wonderland. Unfortunately a lot of my beans were several years old and my sprinklers weren’t yet set up, so for various reasons my first beans were unimpressive at best.

Heirloom Scarlet Emperor Beans

Heirloom Scarlet Emperor Beans

Luckily I was able to hit up a gardening friend for new beans and I will be forever grateful to her for introducing me to heirloom Scarlet Emperor Pole Beans. They are beautiful, vigorous, prolific producers of gigantic beans. Not only that, the pretty red flowers attract hummingbirds, so if I’m very quiet I can hunker down in the gazebo and watch my little hummers flit from flower to flower. It’s pretty cool.

Pole beans climbing the gazebo

Pole beans climbing the gazebo

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Beautiful recently hatched Monarch Butterfly San Diego

The Monarchy Rallies On (Raising Monarchs, Part III)

When I sat down to write this post it was headed in an entirely different direction. I planned to talk about the monarchs migrating north and my little hatchery switching gears, but as I jotted down what I thought would be a couple final musings on the subject and tried to select a couple favorite photos I realized I had a lot more to say on the topic. So here it is, newly revised, an update on my monarch babies.

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So far I’ve hatched nearly thirty healthy monarchs and I’m hoping they are on their way north to overwinter before visiting us again next spring. I did unfortunately learn from experience that monarch caterpillars have many threats. I knew about their normal threats – predators such as wasps and birds, lack of food, loss of habitat – but who knew the evil tachinid fly would lay their parasitic eggs on my gorgeous stripey babies? And what the hell is oe??

Having fun growing milkweed in a box that says Monsanto. Just my way of saying "Suck it, Monsanto."

Having fun growing milkweed in a box that says Monsanto. Just my way of saying “Suck it, Monsanto.”

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First Zapotec Tomatoes

Later to ‘Maters? Maybe not just yet…

Ugh. For all my planning, swapping, hoping, reading, writing, digging, tilling and composting, this was a pretty dreadful season for tomatoes. I’ve had several crappy years in a row with tomatoes but I keep thinking things will improve if I just do things better. I started my good, strong, organic heirloom seeds back in February. I had big plans for canning San Marzanos and filling the freezer with homemade pasta sauce for winter. I imagined gorgeous, deep red homegrown Beefsteaks sliced and layered with basil leaves and fresh mozzarella. I vaguely recall visions of Baker Creek’s smoky Vorlons grilled, salted and spread generously on hunks of crusty bread. At first it looked like things might turn out. The plants were full of tomatoes! They were healthy and strong! I have evidence!!! Just look at that gorgeous green stem and those beautiful baby ‘maters:

First tomato babies of 2014, Heirloom Beefsteaks

First tomato babies of 2014, Heirloom Beefsteaks

But then the wildfires took their toll, leaving behind stressed out, wilted plants. Continue reading

scraphound studio vulture

Blog Writer’s Process Tour

One of my favorite parts of blogging is meeting new people who are doing and making and writing things that pique my interest. The more bloggers I stumble across, though, the harder I find it to keep track of them, matching names with blogs, recipes, stories etc. But once in a while someone comments on a post or shares a story and in a few words and images they paint such a clear picture of who they are that it all gels and, miraculously, sticks in my brain. One of these elusive creatures is Stacey Bender, who writes a darling blog about her life with hubby Tom and two doggies Ginger and Buddy. She calls her blog 10 legs in the Kitchen, which anyone with dogs (who love to be underfoot while anyone is doing anything in the kitchen) can relate to.
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Green California Wonder Bell Peppers

Piles of Peppers

I’m trying to catch up with my 2014 garden notes so I have to take a break from watching my monarch caterpillars for a moment, which is not as easy as it sounds. They’re so stinkin’ cute! But in the interest of having something to look back on when planning next year’s gardens I need to get this stuff down.

Today’s update features the lovely Capsicum, better known here in the states as peppers. Delicious, nutritious, crunchy, smoky, spicy and sweet, peppers offer a huge variety of flavors, textures and uses. Sweet red bell peppers, especially roasted or grilled, have always been at the top of my list but now, having managed to grow my first successful pepper crop from a variety of seeds gathered through swaps, I’m stretching my tastebuds a bit. Continue reading

Zucchini, Striped courgette and squash blossoms

Cukes and Zukes

Tis the season for cucumbers, zucchini and other summer loving members of the Cucurbitaceae family. Since cucurbitaceae is a mouthful I’m just going to call them cukes and zukes. I’ve had mixed results with these in the past so I’ve been watching and waiting to see what we’d get this year. I’m pretty happy so far, but my English and Armenian cucumbers are struggling, either from too much sun, not enough water, lack of vitamins or any combination of the above. They’re weak and yellow and spindly but I’m hoping I can revive them.

Cucumbers growing on trellis made from recycled umbrella frame

Cucumbers growing on trellis made from recycled umbrella frame

Lemon Cucumbers, shown here on our fancy umbrella-frame trellis, have done much better despite their sickly appearance. Normally you can find me squealing in adoration as each new baby veg has appears in my garden. To me, baby veg are akin to puppies and kittens and a firm hitch above human babies. Well, I have finally found a baby vegetable that doesn’t make me squeal. Sorry lemon cucumber but you look like a tiny unshaven Hep C victim.

Lemon Cucumber baby

Lemon Cucumber baby

Fortunately they shaped up quickly and I am pleased to see my lemon cukes are growing into very pretty little fruits. They really do look like a lemon! Their flavor is like a normal cucumber, if a bit milder, but it’s so hard not to imagine the tiniest hint of citrus when eating it.

Ripe Lemon Cucumbers

Ripe Lemon Cucumbers from my organic San Diego garden

Baby zucchini, on the other hand, is quite lovely, especially with its blossom attached. Normally a squash plant starts with an abundance of male flowers but my first plant shot out a couple girls. I know, they don’t look like girls, but I assure you that’s actually a female that did not get pollinated.

Zucchini Courgettes with blossoms

Zucchini Courgettes (unpollinated) with blossoms

The female flowers only open for one day, so with no males in the vicinity and no chance for pollination I decided to eat them. Sounds harsh but they’re sooo yummy! You’ll see these sometimes at the farmers markets, often labeled courgettes and going for a hefty price. I sauteed them lightly in olive oil, blooms and all, and sprinkled with sea salt. They have a really sweet, delicate flavor and don’t require much seasoning. Most people like to stuff the blossoms with goat cheese but I love them lightly coated with panko and parmesan and fried in olive oil. Last week we even grilled a couple and put them on grass-fed beef burgers and it was maybe the best burger I’ve ever eaten. Of course, the homegrown grilled Anaheim chili, lemon cucumber and Cherokee purple tomato didn’t hurt. Sadly there was no time for a photo shoot. That sucker was G-O-N-E gone.

Squash Mountain

Squash Mountain is thriving with bonus nasturtium, which seeds itself everywhere in our yard.

As for squash, I planted some new varieties this season including heirlooms sent to me from friends across the country. Being the impulsive gardener I am, I decided it would be fun to plant a random assortment, throw away the packets and just see what popped up. This seemed like a good idea at the time. Later my brain kicked in and I realized they’d all be cross-pollinating, effectively ruining their ‘heirloom’ status. I also forgot some are supposed to be picked young and others not and I don’t know which are which, but hey, what’s gardening without some surprises and lots of guesswork?

And so we built “Squash Mountain” in the middle of the front yard using extra dirt from our shop construction and brick things from around the yard. There’s even a Squash Mountain song we sing to the tune of “Moon River” but I haven’t quite worked out all the lyrics. Mostly we just wander around singing “Squaaaasshhhh MOUN-tain” in our best baritones, cracking ourselves up.

Zucchini, Striped courgette and squash blossoms

Zucchini, Striped courgette and squash blossoms

We’ve gotten several nice zucchini already and a few striped courgettes. I’m starting to see signs of something yellow sprouting but I really can’t remember what it’s going to be. Patience, grasshopper.

And since I started this blog in part to help me keep track of my garden successes and failures from year to year…

Squash & Cucumbers (Harvested June 18 to July 10):
Zucchinis: 5@ 1 lb. ea, 3 courgettes, 12 squash blossoms and 6 lemon cucumbers.

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Releasing the monarch

Monarchs are GO! (Raising Monarchs, Part II)

I cannot believe this is my first time witnessing this! Watching a monarch butterfly go from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly has to be one of the most enchanting, most mesmerizing things I’ve ever seen. How did I survive 43 years without being remotely aware this was happening? Continue reading

Monarch caterpillar

The Monarchs Are Sprouting! (Raising Monarchs, Part I)

While my veggies have had some ups and downs, one thing has been growing like gangbusters… monarch caterpillars! Yay! Ever since planting milkweed a few weeks ago these adorable stripy creatures have been hatching like crazy. I have spent many pleasant hours watching them contentedly chewing their way through my plants. They basically spend their whole caterpillar life – two weeks, give or take – munching milkweed, gaining nourishment for their transformation into butterflies.

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