frog release!

Thanks to my gardening frenzy over the last couple months, I've completely neglected to update the status of our tadpole raising project. A few weeks ago our three remaining tadpoles finally turned into little tree frogs. Even though the kids knew what was going to happen they were really amazed and astounded to see the transformation–from fish-like creatures to actual hopping, wall-scaling frogs!

Their metamorphosis also ushered in a dietary change. The boiled and frozen lettuce we were feeding the tadpoles wasn't enough nourishment for the frogs so we switched over to live fruit flies. The frogs' speed and accuracy in gobbling these up was so intriguing to the boys they started calling feeding time "Frog TV."

The whole process of raising these creatures was fun for all of us, but now that they had come to maturity we didn't feel right about keeping them in captivity. So yesterday we decided it was time to release them into the wild.

The creek where our friends originally caught the tadpoles had dried up (thanks to California's third year of drought) so we went to another larger creek close by. It was exciting (as well as a little scary and sad) to see our tiny frogs jump out of their safe home into a new environment. It's always hard to let go of something you've cared for but I hope they have a good life out there. Good luck little frogs!

quail in the garden

A large part of my enjoyment in the garden comes from watching and listening to its animal life. I can sit for long periods watching squirrels eating seeds out of my sunflowers or just listening to the sound of a woodpecker boring holes in the walnut tree. Though with the exception of my chickens (who I realize I haven't said much about lately) and the occasional lizard, I don't usually stop to photograph or write about my animal observations. I guess because animal-watching tends to be a very quiet "in the moment" kind of meditation for me.

My kids are also really into animal identification and observation. Last summer I made them "animal logs" for tallying what they could find in our yard. Our garden is fenced but right outside it's commonplace to see deer, hare, and coyotes.  Inside the yard there are squirrels, lizards and a wide variety of birds. One of my favorites to watch are the quails. There is a male-female couple who I've been observing for quite awhile. They have a very touching and protective relationship and go everywhere together; I've never seen one without the other very close by.

One of the first things I learned from watching them was that the plume on their heads is actually six individual feathers. It surprised me that it was always six and not a variable amount. When I'm gardening they are sociable companions and I like listening to their chattering pips. I also love to watch them take their "dust baths" by burrowing into the dirt and ruffling their feathers just like the chickens do. I'm not sure why it's so entertaining, but this–and their high speed run–just make me laugh.

Unfortunately the one downside of the quail is that they love to eat my young seedlings (arugula is one of their favorites) so I've had to use netting to keep them out of some areas. But now that we've worked out our boundaries, we are coexisting quite nicely. I'm glad to be growing food for them and having their company in return.

Update 7 July 09: About a week afer writing this I spied the whole quail brood with lots of tiny new chicks! They are extremely cute but unfortunately I haven't been able to get near enough to take a decent photo.

the summer squash glut begins

I can't believe it's only been two weeks since my first zucchini harvest and already I'm starting to have that panicky "I can't find enough ways to cook squash" feeling. After so many years of growing summer squash, I don't know why I'm still amazed at how fast and furiously those plants produce. By fall I will have run through a crazy number of recipes for them (including a surprisingly wonderful chocolate zucchini cake) until I can't even look at another squash. But for now I'm still happily enjoying the typical savory dishes.

Last night I made a delicious zucchini and potato gratin (with the Yukon Golds I harvested at the end of last month). The recipe is from one of the food blogs I read regularly, 101 Cookbooks. Besides being a great way to showcase my freshly picked squash, the recipe also includes a tasty and versatile parsley-oregano sauce. I made a double portion of just the sauce so I could have more on hand. Today I drizzled it over an open faced tuna sandwich for lunch and then also added some to a white bean and red pepper "hummus" that I made this evening.

Any other favorite summer squash recipes out there?

happy accidents

Recently a blogger who I enjoy reading (Hank Shaw of Hunter Gardener Angler Cook) wrote a post about success and failure in the garden. It's something all gardeners, no matter how experienced, can relate to. Every season there's some crop that does amazingly well right next to something else that's a complete disaster. Whether it's because of the weather, pests, or simply "operator error" it seems that no one is immune from the fate of nature.

This year I've already had my share of disappointments and things not going as planned. A big part of this was due to my wheat-growing experiment which dramatically delayed the planting of most of my summer crops. That caused a domino effect–in order to not fall too far behind I started some seeds (like my beans) inside. Unfortunately they got so mature and root bound before the wheat was done I ended up giving them away to my friend Amy for her garden.

Then I started another batch which didn't germinate well. When I finally was able to harvest the wheat, I planted the new scrawnier bean seedlings but in a few days they were completely decimated by pests (not sure what yet, but my current guess is earwigs.)

Beans have got to be one of the most foolproof crops to grow in the garden (usually my kids are the ones to plant them!) so it's hard to believe that I'm now nursing half-dead plants and hoping for the best. (Also set out beer traps tonight to see if it's earwigs or not.)

But for every mind-boggling disaster there are also many gifts. Sometimes they even come together. Another mishap this season was my zinnias. Again, one of the easiest flowers you can possibly grow but it just goes to show–no matter how experienced you are you can't get cocky with Mother Nature. I started a whole flat of these inside but for some reason none of the seeds germinated (I have no idea why.) By the time I accepted the failure it was really too late to start over, so I resigned myself to not having my annual zinnia patch this year.

Then this past weekend I was out in the garden weeding my gravel pathways (which are getting filled with thistles and other unwanted plants) when I noticed some small familiar leaf shapes among them–was it? Could it be? Yes, zinnias! They had obviously self-sowed from last year. The more I looked, the more I found. I was able to uproot and successfully transplant 32 zinnias from the gravel to the flower beds. Hurrah!

Another happy accident is the photo at the top. All winter I had what I thought was an enormous weed growing right by my front door. I kept letting it grow, partially because I was too lazy to deal with it and also because I was curious to see exactly how big it would get and what it would turn into. Being much more of a vegetable gardener than a floral expert, I had no idea this "weed" was a volunteer Hollyhock! Imagine my surprise and delight when it burst forth with these tall stalks of beautiful yellow flowers. It looks stunning against my brown house and seems like it was intentionally planted. Many thanks to the bird or the breeze that carried the seed.

Of course (as always) I can't help but take the lessons learned in the garden as life lessons as well. I've recently had to deal with some seriously unpleasant "weeds" in my personal life. But who knows, with time maybe these too will turn into beautiful flowers. Or like the zinnias that failed only to have a second chance by seeds from the past. During dark times it's good to remember that we never know what gifts life has yet to give us.

the purslane patch

Last February my friend Carla wrote a post on her blog Local Forage about the amazing nutritional benefits of purslane. I love to forage for wild edibles like this but I also like growing new things in the garden. So last spring I ordered purslane seeds online (I found them at Sand Mountain Herbs and Territorial Seed) and planted them in my lettuce beds. I ended up with a vigorous crop for most of the summer and was happy to share a big bag of it with Carla (which we ended up eating as an impromptu picnic salad during a show at the Greek Theater in Berkeley.)

Since then I've learned why this plant grows wild; it's really a very hardy weed. This year I didn't sow a single seed and it's now growing vigorously all over my yard. At this point I have so much I haven't quite known what to do with it all. Even though purslane is a tasty (and very nutritious) plant, there's only so much I can eat or share with friends. But today (in an incredibly delayed thought process) it finally dawned on me that I should feed it to the chickens. Doh!

A couple months ago I wrote about starting my "poultry garden" with several plants that would be beneficial for the chickens. I followed this up a few weeks later by also planting rue. I'm not sure why the purslane never crossed my mind. It will be a healthy treat for the pullets now but once they start laying it should be even more beneficial. It's not only the richest source of Omega-3 fatty acids of any green,
leafy vegetable but it's also high in magnesium, iron, calcium, potassium, and iron. That's got to result in better tasting eggs! 

I tossed an armfull in the run this morning and the girls devoured it. They've been decimating my chard so this is good news all the way around. Hooray! Apparently purslane was Gandhi's favorite food, and now that it's performing so many useful functions in my garden I'm really starting to understand why.

fried zucchini flowers

For the past few weeks all my interesting and adventurous cooking projects have fallen by the wayside as I've been completely focused on the garden. But yesterday the balance shifted back to where the garden starts to return the time by making cooking easier and more inspired.

When I got home I had no idea what I was going to make for dinner until I noticed that there were about five zucchinis ready to harvest. Even better, there were also plenty of male blossoms–one of my favorite treats of summer!

When I was a child my mother used to fry up the blossoms straight from the garden which instilled a lifelong craving. I know it's downright cliche to talk about how much better tasting home grown food is than the usual market fare, but in the case of of zucchini blossoms it's really the only option. The flowers are so delicate that the time off the plant and transport really damages them. When I've ordered them in restaurants I've always found them over-handled and overworked, often stuffed (with ricotta or another cheese) or in a heavy batter. I just don't think there's any version that's as fresh and delicious as when they are picked and fried, as is, within minutes.

So yesterday the boys and I harvested our first zucchini of the year and (of course) the coveted blossoms and headed straight for the kitchen. I made a quick flour and water pastella (very light batter) and fried everything right up. The boys sat at the kitchen counter and gobbled the flowers and zucchini slices as fast as I could make them. Perhaps the beginning of a new generation with a lifelong zucchini blossom craving?