Ring Neck Snake

9. October 2012 16:56

Last week as we went to put the trash and recycle out by the street, my husband found a small snake outside the front steps.  It was pencil thin and perhaps 15 inches long.  The sun was already past the hill, so in the poor light it looked mostly like a plain gray color with not much in the way of markings.  Of course, we had to get a camera to take photos of this visitor, since we did not recognize him.   Apparently that was a bit threatening from the snake's perspective and he responded by coiling his tail into a cone and pointing the underside at us.  That was how we found out that the bottom of the snake was a dark orange red color and finally noticed that there was a band of the same color around his body behind his head.   So we were then able to identify this one as Diadophis punctatus, the ring necked snake. 

You can find more information about this species at http://www.californiaherps.com/snakes/pages/d.p.pulchellus.html

Arrival of Fall

9. October 2012 15:10

Usually I am aware that official change of season is close by on the calendar and start noticing the changes in the length of the days and nights.  Other things had my attention last month and it was a surprise to hear mention that it was the autumnal equinox already.  Sure enough, it was getting darker a lot earlier.  The weather started varying instead of the same thing as yesterday that is the forecast for the entire summer around here.  And no wonder the garden looked like it was well past its peak.  The veggies obviously were paying a lot more attention to the amount of sunshine than I was and it is time to harvest and store the results to have in the coming months.

There have been both successes and failures with the garden this year.  And a lot of learning experience which should help for next year's attempt.  There was just too much, too close together after a while and the peas fell victim to powdery mildew.  I did not take action quickly enough and it spread through the pumpkins and squash.  It was either that or an equally annoying result of vegetation crowding that has been killing the leaves and stems of the tomato plants.  While the peas were a loss, I got a decent crop of pumpkins - one white, three cinderellas, two plain ones so far, and two more still turning orange.  There was a giant pumpkin vine, but the two pumpkins that started growing, did not continue ripening after a point.  The spaghetti squash vine was quite prolific.  We have not had any of that yet, so hopefully when I try it later this week it will be as good as the acorn squash.   The acorn squash plants were supposed to be producing fruit just right for two people to shares, but the majority of them turned out a bit smaller than that.  Hopefully, that was just the result of the growing conditions and it will be more uniform next year.  And of course, there was the zucchini.  We probably got enough of that, but it has not been as productive as expected due to lack of male flowers for pollen.   I will give it a try again next year to see it having a better layout of plants in the garden will solve that problem.

The potatoes have also been harvested and we got a lot of small and medium sized ones, and a reasonable number of large ones.  No Costco sized monsters in the batch, thankfully.   We baked a couple of them last week and they were excellent.  The attempt to boil and mash was not so successful since  they started falling apart before they were done and were too watery to mash well.  They should do well boiled in their skins, the way my grandmother used to do them.  While there were a lot of potatoes dug up, I was actually hoping for more.  I think the soil mix used for the beds may be partially to  blame.  I have found someone who has a much nicer blend that we can use for the additional beds we are going to be making and will distribute this heavier mix around to the bottom layers where it will be fine.  At least it was good enough that earthworms had worked their way up into the beds.  While I was being careful to avoid poking the potatoes as I dug them up, I was also finding worms that I did not wish to injure.

The tomatoes are a partial success.  Like the corn, they seemed to take a lot longer than the catalog indicated to get ripe.  They have produced a lot of fruit despite the problems.  Yesterday I canned the first big batch and had seven and a half quarts.  There are a lot more still hanging on the plants so depending on the weather this week, I could be doing the same again next weekend.  The tomatoes that were supposed to be the ones for sauces turned out to be a problem.  They weren't just lobed like the pictures, but distorted shapes with all sorts of folds that made skinning a very slow process.  It will probably be easier with those to just core and then put through a food mill. 

The corn was the biggest disappointment.  The SE varieties were not supposed to need isolation.  However, apparently they did need to be separated from other types of corn.  When it was time to harvest them, one patch had a lot of colored kernels.  Most likely that was the result of pollen from the ornamental/flour corn.  That was listed as having a harvest time much longer than the others, but they all produced their silk and tassels at the same time.  And the normal corn was not as sweet as I expected.  I will try one of the super sweet varieties next year -- and definitely not let any other variety ruin it.

There are still onions and shallots growing.  They should be about done, but have not gotten the message that it is time.  With both I tried sets and seeds.  The ones from sets were a complete failure.  That was probably due to the huge tomato plants on either side.   For some reason, I did not expect to get much when trying to grow onions from seed.   They took a long time to get going, but now there are some very respectable sized onions out there.  I probably will not bother with sets again if the results in the kitchen match what it appears to be in the garden. 

According to the garden calendar for this area, I should have started a winter garden already.  Apparently garlic, leek, carrots, broccoli and other cool weather crops are better when started in the late summer, allowed to winter over and harvest in the late spring.  Maybe next year when the rest of the beds are in place I will give that a try.

(See additional photos of fall in the garden at http://gallery.vistagrande.com/album.aspx?aid=121&page=3)

Peter Rabbit

27. August 2012 03:46

For the past week or so, Peter Rabbit has been visiting our garden.  I have tried hunting him with the camera, but he is very shy and uncooperative.  The color of his fur seems a perfect match for the dry ground, so when he is still, he disappears into the background unless his white tail is visible. The fence around the garden is supposed to be rabbit and deer fencing.  It has very small spacing at the bottom to keep the little critters out.  However, I found a few places where the ground did not meet the bottom of the fence and have since filled in those spots.  Of course the gate presents easy access to the cottontail bunnies we have here.  There is more than enough room for them to get under.  In fact, a few nights ago as we finished dinner, we looked out and saw the rabbit was between the garden and the house.  Before I could grab the camera to get a picture, the rabbit dashed under the gate and ran into the garden -- and apparently escaped through one of those low spots on the other side.  So far, I don't think Peter has really done more than munched on a couple low hanging strawberries as they ripened.  I suspect we will be playing hide and seek in the garden for weeks to come.

The Corn is as High as an Elephant's Eye

25. August 2012 16:48

Maybe in just a few more days the corn will be ready to eat. The seed catalogs said these varieties should be ready to harvest in about seven weeks.  However, perhaps because it has been pretty cool here this summer, it has taken several weeks longer than that. Also, the catalog entry for one of the varieties indicated that it would be about six feet tall and that the other six and a half feet.  They got the first one correct, but half the other patch is more like eight feet tall.  Not that I care as long as they fill out lots of sweet delicious ears.

Meanwhile we got several pounds of green beans from the initial two square feet planted and have much of it in the freezer for later.  The bean plants are pretty much past their prime and I should probably pull them out next week.  A later second planting did not do so well because the growth from the first batch and other veggies in neighboring squares encroached on their space.  That is fine - we will still get enough from the second batch to have fresh picked green beans for a few meals. 

The shelling peas got a bad case of powdery mildew on the lower parts because the vegetation was too thick and close together on the shadier side of the beds.  It looks like they are a lot taller than expected and would have been better on a trellis or other support.  While the top half now seems like it will be producing nicely, the powdery mildew has spread through the squash and pumpkin leaves and makes for a not so pretty garden.  Hopefully, we will do better with how things are planted next year. 

(See additional photos of how the garden is growing at http://gallery.vistagrande.com/album.aspx?aid=121&page=2)

Nice Kitty

25. August 2012 02:06

Yesterday morning as I cleared my breakfast dishes from the table, I noticed a cat approaching along the back of the house. A very pretty cat that was not a stray or a neighbor's pet. It had short tail and pointed ears along with spotted markings on its fur. As I reached for the camera which fortunately was there on the desk, the bobcat came right up to the kitchen door and looked in. I had to take the photos through the door. I tried to follow outside as it moved on to get a few other pictures, but the photo op did not last and the cat disappeared into the morning fog.

Crime Scene

24. August 2012 17:54

This morning I found the area around the two red rump pair cages looking like a crime scene. Blood was spattered all over the cage, the nearby walls and ceiling. Apparently something had caused the birds to have a night fright episode and they injured themselves flapping around in the dark despite the night lights. The bloodshed was an indirect result of something that happened a few weeks ago. Then, I just found lots of red rump wing feathers scattered around. The birds managed to drop all of their feathers on one or both wings. It is likely a small earthquake had disturbed them in the middle of the night. So now, instead of having one or two wing feathers growing back in as they should with a normal moult, they have a wingful or two of growing feathers. While they are growing in, these feathers have a blood supply and, if broken, can cause serious blood loss to the bird. The first aid recommendation for broken blood feathers is to pull out the feather in order to stop the bleeding.

I have no idea if the birds managed to do that to themselves or if the feathers just came out as a result of the panic in the cages. The evidence on the floor this morning shows that both of the hens lost at least three blood feathers last night, while the other red rumps lost one each. Meanwhile the other birds housed in adjacent cages showed no signs that they were bothered by the disturbance.







14. August 2012 22:01

The honeybees are now including the garden in their daily routine.  We went from none to a couple dozen workers buzzing around the flowers.  No longer do I need to worry about zucchini blossoms getting pollinated.  I am back to the usual problem with zucchini -- what to do with so many of them.  The other squash and pumpkins have also started showing fruit as a result of the bees' efforts.  We should have several nice pumpkins for Halloween decorations and Thanksgiving pies.

If I ever had any doubt about the bees acting as pollination agents, it would have been removed by a bee I saw a couple weeks ago near the just opening sunflowers.  I had heard a buzzing and when I first caught a glimpse, I saw yellow and thought it might be a pesky yellow jacket.  But then it landed on a sunflower and I discovered what the yellow color was -- lots of pollen on the back of the honeybee.

the hungry caterpillar

2. August 2012 03:20

A few days ago I brought in a handful of parsley from the garden. When I rinsed it off, I discovered that there were two uninvited caterpillars munching on the leaves. I shook them off outside and finished.

The next morning when I went out to check the garden, I remembered the caterpillars and decided I should check to see if there were more. If my garden was being invaded by a bunch of ravenous crawlers, the sooner I discovered the problem and protected my plants, the better. After looking around, I found two more. They were a lot more interesting looking that the usual suspects -- black with orange spots. Were they bad guys I should feed to the birds or lizards or were these the juvenile form of a pretty moth or butterfly? I tried to identify them from an online reference but had no luck. Since the Master Gardeners have a volunteer in the agriculture commission office nearby on Wednesday, I decided to keep the caterpillars alive and eating until then and see if they could help with the identification.

This morning I was completely surprised by what I saw in the bug jar. They had changed their appearance overnight and now were black and green striped with yellow spots. And I was pretty sure I had seen something like that among the online photos. Sure enough, they matched the caterpillar of the Black Swallowtail butterfly . The information about the parsley family being the preferred host plant was perfect. I don't recall ever seeing a swallowtail butterfly around, but apparently they decided that my parsley was a good place for their babies to hatch. Now that I know they exist, I will have to keep an eye out for the adult butterflies. Meanwhile the two captives have been returned to the garden.

From Garden to Table

31. July 2012 03:42

For dinner tonight we had our first green beans from the garden. Instead of the classic Kentucky Wonder or Blue Lake snap beans, I planted a filet variety, Maxibel. I am not sure if the taste was as great as they said.  However, since these beans are a lot thinner than the other kinds, I suspect that the timing given for steaming them was too much and they were overcooked as a result.  If I had paid attention to all the details in the seed catalog description I should not have been surprised at how big the bean plants got -- the description does say the plants are tall. 

It is a Jungle Out There

28. July 2012 22:35

There had been a two foot wide path between the raised beds. And four feet between the beds and the fence. However in the last week the paths have begun to disappear under the vegetation. Everything seems to be a lot taller than I was expecting it to grow -- and I don't mean the extra almost a foot that the raised beds provides. I don't know what I was thinking. I guess I wasn't very optimistic about how well the garden would grow.

For a while, that seemed like the correct view. However, in the last couple weeks a critical mass situation must have arisen with the vegetation being sufficient so that the plants started blooming and putting out a lot more growth as well. The pumpkins are taking over one corner of the garden area.  And the tomatoes have claimed the opposite corner. The stakes I used for the tomatoes were overwhelmed by the plants and disappeared in the foliage. A few days ago I noticed that the tomatoes were starting to lean over to one side -- they were bending the stakes or pulling them out of the ground. I added more stakes by one set of problem plants and ran string around the whole thing to hold it in place.  No sooner than that was done then I realized another group was tilting. By time I went out the next morning, two tomato plants were laying on the savory and basil while a third when across the path to rest on the cornstalks.

The seed catalogs list these varieties as "indeterminate" -- thus no maximum height given. The slightly less than a foot depth of the raised beds was not enough to anchor the stakes for the now heavy plants. Even if there wasn't the hardware cloth gopher barrier below, I suspect I still would have had problems with the staking.  Now that I saw what happened, I have a sense of deja-vu. My first garden in Saratoga used stakes instead of cages for the tomatoes. I switched to wire cages and things were so much better in later years.

It is too late for wire cages this year. For now, 6 foot T-posts just outside the beds next to the groups of tomatoes will have to do. Between them there are four or five rows of jute string with the tomatoes captured in the middle. There were some crunching noises coming from the plants as I tried to get them upright. Time will tell if it the plants are completely broken or just badly battered. Next year I will have wire cages for the tomatoes and also as a trellis for the peas.

You can see more of my(garden) at http://gallery.vistagrande.com/album.aspx?aid=121&page=2.

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