Friday, May 30, 2014

Spectacular Lightning Bugs and Fussy Kitchen Cabinets

I really wish I could have taken a good picture of the lightening bugs at the farm last Sunday night.  They were spectacular!  I've never seen so many at the same time.  I don't know if it is because we have acres of tall grass, or if this year is some sort of firefly phenomenon, but as the sun began to set the fields came alive with flickering lights.  When I would focus on a single point in the distance, I was sure I could see patterns of trailing lights in my peripheral vision, but if I tried to follow the pattern, then I couldn't see it anymore.  What are you trying to communicate to me you tricky bugs?!  

Imagine white Christmas lights set to blink one after another in long runs, only this was acres and acres of Christmas lights all set to different patterns, crisscrossing themselves to form a lightning bug blanket about three feet off the ground as far as you can see.  I had no idea it could be like that!  It sort of made me giddy and dizzy.  Brandon and I walked up and down the yard and the driveway just so we could experience it from different angles and so we could see if the neighbors property, which gets mowed, had as many as ours. I like to think that we had the most.  I doubt the neighbors realize they were in a lightning bug competition, which is just as well since we were winning anyway.  That's how it works - some farmers have agriculture, and some farmers have lightning bugs.  

There were so many lightning bugs, that they even made their way into the house, and I fell asleep watching a half a dozen of them flashing on the inside of the bedroom window.  Who needs a night light when there are phosphorescent insects in the house?  It may be time to invest in some screens for the doors and windows now that we stay overnight when we can.  

While we were there over the holiday, I began what I'm sure will be a long process of painting metal cabinets for the kitchen.  The house came with a few metal cabinets - the kind that were popular in the 1950's.  I bought two more at the Habitat for Humanity Resale Store for cheap, but they are in as rough shape as the original ones that I have from the kitchen.  

After taking a cabinet apart and scrubbing it with steel wool and soap, I tackled the rough spots and rust with the sander.  I thought they were sanded perfectly, but Brandon took a break from his electric work to check my progress, and I'm pretty sure he sanded them again, even though he said he just wanted to do a touch up.  Ha!  Now I know I don't have to work so hard since he's going to redo everything anyway!   What's that saying - "work smart, not hard"?  I don't mind to be the smart one and let him do all the hard stuff.  

After sanding, I gave everything three thin coats of spray on primer.  I got a cramp in my finger from holding the spray button down.  Poor me, right?  This may be a very long process, since it took me all day to prep just one of the cabinets, and I have five more to go!  

I was disappointed that I didn't get to apply the first coat of paint to the cabinet before it was time to leave.  I struggle to have enough patience for jobs like this.  From what I've read, if I don't want to do a hack job of this, I really need lots of patience for doing the prep work before I paint, and I have to actually wait the recommended drying time between coats (lame-o!), do lots of very thin coats instead of several thick ones, to prevent drips, and take the time to remove all particles before I spray on paint.  I guess I'll find out pretty quick if I'm up for the challenge.  But really, how bad could it look if I just give it a good coat and skip all this fussy stuff?   

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Pontoon Boat Floor

Have you ever seen the film Babies?  It's a film that follows four babies from around the world - Namibia, Mongolia, Tokyo, and San Francisco.  It's a film with no words, only moments of their lives captured on film.  I watched it on Netflix a few years ago, and it made a big impression with me.  I remember thinking I could identify with the baby from Mongolia, whose family are nomadic farmers, surrounded by open landscapes and cows, goats, and chickens.  That of all the babies, I envied his life the most.  There's a great scene where the baby from Mongolia is lying awake in the yurt, and a rooster comes wandering in.  The baby calmly watches the rooster for the few moments he is on film.  When I talked to a friend of mine who watched the film, who is an urban person, he had the opposite response, and said he felt that growing up in Mongolia would be lonely, that there was too much open space, and that the scene with the rooster near the baby made him nervous.   I thought of this when I took the photo above, of my baby cousin sleeping peacefully on mom's porch as one of the hens breaks the rules and tried to join the party last weekend.  I wonder if when my cousin grows up, she will watch Babies and enjoy the rooster scene too?  

Not everybody got to lounge around with the chickens last Saturday.  Some of us were busy putting a new floor on mom and dad's pontoon boat.  And by some of us, I don't mean me, although I did frequently check in on the progress and offer refreshments and encouragement to those that were working.   In the photo above, Byron is working to remove the railing from the boat, after already taking out the console and roof.  

Once the old carpet was ripped up, the floor was sanded and the leaf blower was used to blow away all the dust.  Good job, Leigh!

Brandon and his team of child laborers assistants used wood putty to fill in some of the cracks in the plywood floor.  

Then the fun part!  While Jamie poured out the glue "Jackson Pollock style", Brandon and Byron used rollers to spread it over the floor.  

Once the glue was applied, the vinyl floor (MeriDeck brand) was spread out and smoothed with a push broom.  

The photo above is the "before" picture.  

This is the "after" photo.  Looks good, right?  This project was proposed as a birthday present for mom, and the whole family, including cousins, assembled for the installation.  Byron, Jamie, and dad started early Saturday morning, and by the time Brandon and I got there around noon, they already had the console taken out, which was a big job.  Taking the boat apart was the hardest part of this project, because sticking the vinyl down went pretty fast.  By dark they had the floor on, but it was the next day before everything was put back together again.  

Now, if only the motor would run!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Garden Tasting Tour and Chaos Pallet

An entire bowl of strawberries from the garden this morning!  How sweet is that?  We ate them for breakfast, right out of the bowl, and it was the perfect start to the day.  It's good for me to have sweet garden moments like these occasionally, to help me muster enthusiasm for weeding.  My strawberry patch got a good weeding early this spring, but I haven't paid much attention to it since then, so searching for the strawberries in all that green was like a little treasure hunt.  

In addition to the bowl of strawberries, my early morning harvest also included a handful of chard and kohlrabi leaves.  I blended these into a smoothie, with some overripe bananas and some frozen blueberries, which is my first green smoothie of the season made with my own greens.  It's also the first time I've ever eaten kohlrabi, and I have to say it's becoming one of my favorites.    

In this bed you can see some broccoli (with chicken munched leaves), several leaf lettuces, and some frilly fennel leaves, near the back.  I've tried growing fennel in the past, and this is the first time I've managed not to kill it before it was barely more than a sprout.  Jamie and I did a garden tasting tour last week, and we decided the fennel was so tasty that it deserved it's own mixed drink.  For our drink invention, we crushed some fennel leaves in a glass (muddling?), added ice cubes and a shot of wild turkey, and filled the glass with lemonade.  It was the perfect follow up after the tasting tour, and we definitely needed something to drink afterwards.  If you have ever visited my garden, you may have been coerced into taking the tasting tour, but if you haven't, then you are missing out on being forced to look at and eat a bite of everything I have growing and tell me how much prettier and better tasting it is than anything else you have ever seen or eaten.  It's fun!  

We decided that we should start with the mildest flavored plants and work our way up to the strongest tasting.  Since Jamie isn't as familiar with the plants and herbs as I am, I enjoyed giving him a bite and watching his reaction as he tried to figure out what it was.  Here is the order we taste toured: strawberry, asparagus, lettuce, broccoli leaf, fennel, parsley, beet leaf, kohlrabi, chard, carrot top, thyme, oregano, dill, and cilantro.  I know Jamie doesn't like cilantro, so I saved it for last, and his reaction was particularly fun to observe!  He did admit that after burning his taste buds on fresh oregano, cilantro didn't taste that bad.  That's what I like to hear.  

I took the photo above this morning since the flowers surrounding my front gate seem to have magically appeared in the last few days.   

The peony flowers along the front fence no longer have tight spherical buds, but instead are weighted down with giant pink blooms.  They don't last long once they hit the ground, which is a great excuse to cut them and fill a vase inside.  

The climbing rose looks particularly pretty right now.  

Unfortunately the rose has some kind of fungus that causes black spots on the leaves, which causes it to loose it's leaves shortly after blooming every year.  I've tried to treat it with sulfur, but I'm never very good at keeping up the applications and it washes off with the rain.  So, I just admire the roses while they last.  

I like the way the purple spiderwort looks with the yellow sundrops.  The sundrops are so aggressive that they crowd most things out, but the spiderwort is strong enough to hold it's own.  When I read about garden design, most folks seem to think it's a good idea to pick a color scheme, so there isn't visual chaos with too many colors vying for attention.  Uh oh.  It even seems like real gardeners, with sophisticated taste and an eye for elegance, prefer mostly white flowers.  White? No way.  No one could ever accuse me of elegance, and I must be comfortable with chaos based on the condition of my office desk and my floral pallet.  

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Bronte's Chicken and a Tomato Story

I'm reading The Professor by Charlotte Bronte right now.  When the main character, William Crimsworth, meets his sister-in-law for the first time, this is the description he gives to his friend in a letter: 
"She spoke with a kind of lisp, not disagreeable, but childish.  I soon saw also that there was more than girlish - a somewhat infantine expression in her by no means small features; this lisp and expression were, I have no doubt, a charm in Edward's eyes, and would be so to those of most men, but they were not to mine.  I sought her eye, desirous to read there the intelligence which I could not discern in her face or hear in her conversation; it was merry, rather small; by turns I saw vivaciy, vanity, coquetry, look out through its irid, but I watched in vain for a glimpse of soul."  

Remind you of anyone?  

The charming but childish and vain person that comes to my mind, when I read that description, is Mrs. Hall.  After I read this passage to Helen, while she and Mrs. Hall helped me plant tomato plants a few days ago, we both sought Mrs. Hall's eyes, searching for that glimpse of soul.    

Mrs. Hall was offended by the attention to her "irids" and stalked off to investigate the compost pile, leaving me to plant my tomato plants alone.  

Even without Mrs. Hall assistance, I managed to get nine tomato plants in the ground and in cages.  In this raised bed, I used black plastic tree mats, which are perforated to allow water through, but not weeds.  Tomatoes are supposed to love warm soil, so I hope using the black plastic will warm their roots nicely.  

The tomato cages are some of my most prized possessions.  Most of them belonged to my father-in-law, and I think of him every time I use them.  I think of him whenever I plant tomatoes anyway, because my very first garden plants were some tomatoes he gave me.  He started them himself, from seeds, and they were growing in some soil in an old flower pot.  I was supposed to divide them while they were still small, and plant them in the garden I wanted to start at our newly acquired house and lawn.  

Of course, I never got around to starting a garden that year, and the tomatoes grew so big in the flower pot that their roots were hopelessly entangled, and in an act of desperation I shoveled a flowerpot sized hole in the grass and stuck the whole thing in.  A half dozen plants in a single hole!  Back then we didn't even have a privacy fence, much less the tangle of vegetation I have now, so a single clump of tomatoes sticking up from a blank slate lawn looked sort of strange.  

I bought one of those dinky conical shaped tomato cages and installed it in the mass of tomato vines.  I didn't realize until someone pointed it out that I put it upside down, not that it would have done much good with that many plants anyway.  Over the summer the green mass grew weeds and tall grass because there wasn't a border and Brandon couldn't mow very close since the vines were stretched on the ground.  I thought it was a disaster, when I thought about it at all, which wasn't often.

Then, one day, I happened to glance inside the tomato tangle, and saw something red.  I got down low, and really started to look and realized there were tomatoes in there!  More than one, and they tasted great, just like a tomato!  After that, every day I would harvest a few tomatoes.  Now look at me, my plants are all in different holes, there's a border so Brandon knows where to mow, weeds are suppressed with plastic, and each plant has it's own cage.  In the end though, all that stuff if for my own benefit, because the the tomatoes were happy without it, and they tasted just as good before I started making all this fuss.         

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Something is Different

If you have only visited the the little farm house via the blog, you may not notice the thing that is different about the front yard in this photo.  To me, the difference is major.  We cut The Stump.  

The photo above shows The Stump as Brandon is cutting it.  When we bought the place, over a year ago, I was surprised to find that one of the first comments from men, when they came to visit, was usually about how the dead tree will need to be removed.  They would comment about this this even before they commented on the tarps that functioned as siding, or the general dilapidated state of the house.  I could almost see the gleam in their eyes as their muscles began to twitch as they imagined what power tools and heavy machinery would be involved in stump removal.  It must be a law of male lawn maintenance that a dead tree can not be allowed to stand.  

I was unconvinced for a long time, which is why cutting the stump didn't happen until now.  I had already moved the irises that were growing on our mysterious dirt mound to the base of the stump, and was contemplating how I could get a flowering vine to grow up it.  When we would sit in the yard under the shade of the pear tree, the stump was often a topic of conversation as we tried to decide what, if anything, we should do with it.  

The decision was finally made to cut the stump to a lower height, thereby reducing it's visual impact for those of us that felt it was an eyesore (Brandon), and freeing up the view of the neighbors lovely pond from some of the best sitting places.  This was not a decision that was made lightly, and I hope it's not one that I will regret.  I kind of liked The Stump just the way it was.  

Stump cutting wasn't the only thing happening around the farm last weekend, there was also lots of electrical work inside the house, mowing, and some tomato plant planting.  Finally.  I'm behind my garden schedule, as usual, but was happy to see that the garden carpet technique is making planting things as easy as I hoped.  In the photo above you can see the dark soil matted with nice organic mulch as it was when I rolled the carpet strips off.  The soil was moist and crumbly, and filled with earthworms.  Perfect dirt, and easy as pie to dig small holes and plop in some tomato plants.   

I even learned to use the weed eater just so I could knock back the weeds in the garden.  Despite my not so careful planning, not all of my beds are far enough apart to drive the mower between them, which leaves weedy patches ready to drop seeds in the garden beds.  The weed eater is not fun on the arm muscles or the back muscles, but the worst part is getting the stupid thing to start and stay started!  I now have so much more appreciation for anyone who uses a weed eater.  I have a feeling that if left up to me, I would learn to love weedy edges or use a pair of scissors.  Once the weeds were knocked back, I was pleased to see the garlic, turnips, and radishes were still thriving.  

When I showed Brandon my very fist garden harvest from our new garden, he was super excited.  I could tell because he said "thank goodness it's more radishes."  Just what I thought, too!  

While the photo above looks like it's a picture of weeds, it's really a photo of my new asparagus bed.  I had given up on the asparagus and was getting ready to chop up all the weeds when a frilly little frond caught my eye.  See it in the foreground, right in the middle, looking like a teeny pine tree?  That's asparagus!  If you look closely in the weeds, you can see even more.  I can't believe they are so small.  I don't remember my established asparagus being so small when I first planted it, but it must have been.  Aw, cute little babies!

This bed of kale is out of control.  I broadcast the kale seeds, from some I saved in years past, and really put it down thick since I wasn't sure if the seed would sprout.  They must have all sprouted, because I have about five kale plants for every square inch.  I dug some up to transplant, and I also pulled it out of the ground by the handful to make room for some of them to get larger.  I cooked up some of this baby kale, but I should have removed the stems, not just the roots, because even baby kale has a tough stem.  

Can you see what's different in this photo of the back of the house?  I'll give you a hint.  There are two of them, and they are illuminating!  We have exterior lights at both the back door and the side door now.  So exciting.  The lights have motion sensors, and Brandon and I were so pleased with working light fixtures that we sat in the back yard at dusk so we could admire them.  When the lights would switch off I would walk forward until they would detect me and turn back on just so we could watch it get dark while our lights were on.  Nerds, huh?  

Brandon has been very busy with electricity these days.  I'm missing most of the action, since I still have to go to work, but he is off for summer vacation, and as he says, he spends his days pretending he is electricity traveling to and from the breaker box through the outlets and light fixtures trying to make sense of the electrical pathways.  He's getting very good at it, and sends me progress report texts like this one, which I received last week: 

"2 outside lights, 3 live wires attached to switches for interior lights, 4 switches, one high/low fan switch, 6 outlets (5 of which are GFCI - one of those is an outside plug in weather proof box), one bathroom heater and three new breakers.  All 100% operational.  Not bad."

I agree, not bad at all.  

Friday, May 23, 2014

Decapitating my Friends

These pink and yellow irises were given to me by a friend years ago.  She brought them to me in a plastic grocery bag, and told me that they were tough, and I could just stick them on the ground and walk away.  I did like she said, and since then the irises have multiplied and are some of my favorite blooms.  

My friend moved away and we've lost touch, but I think about her every year , when the irises bloom.  Flowers are nice that way. 

These purple irises were "rescued" by myself and another friend, a friend I worked with for years.  He and I spent many days working out of town together, and doing field work in the mountains of eastern Kentucky.  We were working in a hollow that was going to be filled with dirt and rock excavated from a new highway, and the people had already moved from the houses, which stood empty and lonely looking.  It was early spring, and the irises were just poking out of the ground in what used to be someones yard.  I had a yard for the first time, and had plenty of room, so we decided to rescue the irises from being covered by the hollow fill, even though we didn't know what color they were, so I could plant them at my house.  

We found an old broken clothes basket in the ditch, and my friend pulled the rhizomes out of the ground with his hands for me, and loaded them in the basket.  I no longer work with him, and I see him from time to time at conferences and workshops, but I don't get to spend time with him like we used to.  I think of him and some of our adventures every time these rescued purple irises in my front yard bloom.  

These purple and blue irises were given to me by another person who I no longer see.  I received two bulbs in a package from a store as a gift, packed in moss with directions for how to plant them.  This person loved the color purple, so it was no surprise to find that the irises have lovely deep purple falls and delicate purple streaks inside light blue standards.  

The two bulbs were given to me about eight years ago, and each year a new one comes up with the last, so even though I no longer see the person who gave them to me, her irises are with me more now then ever before.  

All my irises are the bearded variety, which are not native to Kentucky.  The beard is that fuzzy bee landing pad on the petal that hangs down.  

My red and yellow irises came with the house, so they don't remind me of long lost friends, but they do help me remember the surprise I got when they showed up the first time.  We bought our house, which is our first house, in the late winter, and all the vegetation was clipped close to the ground and was not very impressive.  It was exciting to watch things appear throughout the spring and summer.  I still get excited as I wait for the irises to bloom, but now I know what color to expect, so it isn't quite as surprising as that first year.  

Knowing that the bees can see the ultraviolet spectrum, I recently looked at some ultraviolet images of irises on the inter web, to see what the bees are seeing.  The "landing pad", shown above on the lower red petal in the area with the fuzzy beard and the light colored stripes, looks dark, nearly black in the ultraviolet images.  If I were a bee, I guess I would hone in on that dark area, land on the nice fuzzy landing strip, and crawl forward following the stripes toward the nectar deep inside the flower.  On my way, my back would rub against the stamen under that little flower petal flap, which is placed at exactly my height, and I would share the pollen from my last flower with this one (hold on, if I'm depositing flower sperm, what does that make me in this scenario!?), and on my way out I would get dusted with pollen from this flower.  It's a dusty job, nectar gathering, but I gotta eat, right?  

It kind of blows my mind that such a complicated structure, with nectar, landing pads, perfectly sized pollen applicators and removers is produced by a plant just to attract a bee.  Talk about sex drive!  And the whole apparatus is attractive looking to me too, so I'm encouraging them to live in my yard, and multiply.  Wait, did I just get manipulated by a plant!?  It happens.

I have a tendency to anthropomorphize my plants anyway, so I don't know if I've watched Alice in Wonderland too many times, or if irises just have more personality than other plants, but particularly for those which remind me of the people who gave them to me, I definitely have a soft spot for my iris buddies.  I like their company so much I cut their heads off and bring them in the house so they can keep me company!  "Mwa ha ha ha ha!" (evil laugh)  

Monday, May 19, 2014

Moth, Bean Teepee, and Pizza in a Pan

I walked out of the office last week and found this polyphemus moth in the parking lot, laying right behind my car.  Why the poor thing chose the dirty parking lot in the middle of town as a resting place, I can't imagine, but I appreciate that it allowed me to have a few moments of bug photography at the end of a long office day.  

These photos don't really demonstrate how big this moth was.  The wingspan was at least six inches, and the body was quite heavy.  I read that the big fuzzy antenna are used by males to detect the pheromones of unmated females, their mouth parts are not functioning so they can't eat, and that they only live for a week as moths.  This moth had huge antenna, so my guess is that this was a male.  He was still alive and uninjured but he didn't seem to have the will to fly, which makes me think his allotted one week of mating was at it's end, and he had exhausted himself and was giving it up, right there in the parking lot.  Of course, if human males only had one week to live and mate, I would probably find them passed out in the parking lot after exhausting themselves at the downtown bars all the time, so maybe it wasn't so strange to find this male there after all!  

After our brief photo shoot I placed him in the bush honeysuckle hedge so at least he could die with a background of green, even if it was an invasive exotic species instead of a majestic oak, or some other forest plant.   I probably inadvertently fed him to the starlings, feral cats, or house finches, so I hope he wasn't just taking a nap when I disturbed him.

I'm surprised that I didn't find more insects and wildlife in the massive tangle of green that is the wisteria on our back porch.  It was so overgrown that I would not have been surprised expected to find a variety of beasties living in it.  Brandon and I managed to chop, saw, hack, and snip it into a temporary submission this weekend.  I was waiting to prune it until after it bloomed, but I think our late cold spell must have ruined it's buds early, because I only saw a few blooms.    

Not only did we tame the wild wisteria, we also got serious about cutting back a silver maple tree on the back fence that likes to drop leaves in my swimming pool.  That big patch of sky in the photo above wasn't there before Brandon wielded the chainsaw and reclaimed it.  We cut the big limb behind his head in the photo too, which really opens things up and improves airflow.  The light has returned, hooray!!  This maple tree is one that seeded itself at the base of the fence about five or six years ago, which I allowed to grow so it could provide a privacy screen.  It's amazing how fast a silver maple tree can grow!  From seed to massive chore in just a few years.  I did learn that if Brandon cuts a large limb, and I am supposed to be directing it's fall with a rope and it starts to fall toward him before he realizes, I shouldn't just squeal "Oo! oo! oo!", because he doesn't understand that I mean RUN!!  Now I know to be more explicit.    

Doing dangerous things with the chainsaw was the fun part of this chore. The hard part was figuring out what to do with all the debris we generated.  After lopping off all the small limbs, we were left with several very big sticks and a massive pile of leaves and twigs.  The sticks were inspiration to to build a teepee for a green bean trellis.  With a scrap of twine, Brandon created a lovely teepee in the corner of the garden in the place of last summers tangle of morning glory vines.  I hope to prevent the morning glory take over this summer, but if they defeat me once again, at least they will have something fun to climb.   

Underneath the teepee, I spread the small limbs, twigs, and leaves, with the hope that they will act as mulch, and smother the weeds.  I think I can poke bean seeds into the soil through the leaves and twigs, and the beans will climb out and up the teepee.    

To fuel our tree trimming and teepee building muscles, we baked pizza's for dinner.  Perfect pizza's.  I'm not trying to brag (at least not more than usual) but if you are like me and have tried every kind of pan to bake your pizza's in, like flimsy cookie sheets, special "airbake" pizza pans that let crust crumbles fall all over the counter, and even heavy pizza stones which are impossible to store conveniently or wash without straining your wrists, you may like to know that our new favorite way to bake a pizza is in a cast iron skillet.  Our skillets get a lot of use these days, so they are well seasoned, but pizza's baked in these skillets turn out perfect every time (ten minutes at 500 degrees).  And because they are personal pan sized, we don't even have to agree about the toppings!  So long, pizza stone.  
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