Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Cat and Mouse Games

Even with temperatures still in the 90s, there are definite signs of fall. I've seen a few leaves with deep, rich autumn colors.

My Autumn Sedum burst into bloom, right on time.

Orb weaver spiderwebs are appearing everywhere.

There are some benefits from this unusually long and hot summer. My tomatoes keep producing, and producing, and producing!

I had a "National Geographic" moment recently when I caught this caterpillar preparing to pupate. He carefully attached himself to a fence board with a sticky, silky substance. Within 2 hours, he'd gone from this...

...to this!

Caterpillars shed their skin, or molt, once they are securely attached in their chosen location.

Underneath is the hard shell that will protect them from the elements while they mature.

I decided to hatch one for myself! I put some leaves in a clean jar and covered the opening with plastic wrap, perforated in several areas to allow air flow.

After about a week, the chrysalis turned black, and I worried that the butterfly had died. However, just a few hours later, he emerged...

...leaving behind a dry, empty shell.

It was another buckeye, once of the most common (and beautiful!) butterflies around here. After he'd rested and gathered strength, he was ready for his (her?) maiden flight.

It was truly remarkable to watch this process from beginning to end.

Speaking of butterflies, I saw a strange sight in the garden earlier this week...piles of butterfly wings scattered around the base of a marigold patch.

It wasn't long before I discovered the culprit...a large female mantis, who'd taken refuge amid the tall stalks. It was an ideal location, really...protected on all sides, and with a virtual buffet of bees, butterflies, and moths to feed from.

I spent a lot of time watching her. Mantises are perfectly suited, anatomically speaking, for the task at hand...killing. They have baggy folds beneath their arms, which allow remarkable mobility. They can flash out at lightning speed to capture prey. Excess skin on their long necks...

...allow the twisting motion needed to consume prey efficiently.

Their grasping forearms can hold a bee in place easily. Lacking "fingers," they utilize their ridges and spikes. This bee didn't have a chance.

They really are remarkably efficient, peeling off legs and wings and devouring everything else.

I was really pleased to see this assassin bug in a neighboring marigold patch. They're such interesting creatures.

This Cabbage Looper moth (Trichoplusia ni) rests comfortably on a split tomato.

The Cabbage Looper caterpillar is a nice green color with white stripes. They don't crawl like most caterpillars but move with the scooting, jerky movements of the inchworm.

They are terrible for gardens, but I don't have a lot of vegetables for them to damage. Besides, the moths, close up, are awfully pretty.

This small field mouse found a new friend (ahem) in Clarence.

Not sensing the danger, he burrowed beneath Clarence, whose impassive, half-lidded expression didn't change. Out of the frying pan, into the fire!

I sat silently, and the mouse eventually felt safe enough to venture out. However, he didn't get far.

Still casual, Clarence scooped him up and headed for a more comfortable location, where he could feed at leisure.

He was a little too casual, lazily batting the mouse until, warmed by the sun, he fell asleep. The mouse crept away and hid in a small deposit nearby, briefly, until he felt well enough to make his escape.

All's well that ends well!

I finished a knitting project this week that I really wanted to complete before fall...Hawthorne.

I'm pleased with it. I used Rowan Felted Tweed, which complemented the pattern perfectly.

Now I really can't wait for cooler weather to come!

Because of the heat, I haven't done much baking lately...just some french bread loaves.

They turned out perfectly. There's nothing like a warm slice of bread with a little butter and honey!

Another brief blog hiatus for me...we'll be out of town until the first week of October. Goodbye, blazing sun, and hello, ocean breezes!

Quick disclaimer: In case any criminals are reading...yes, there will be someone in the house while we're gone! :)

We're headed west, for a leisurely road trip down the Oregon and California coasts. This is a trip I've made many times, but I never get tired of it. Plus, we'll get a preview of our new home! Stay tuned for details...and lots of pictures!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

In The P-"ink"

The beautiful blue skies I've been seeing can't mask the undeniable fact that the weather is finally cooling down. Our long, hot summer is nearly over.

There's a delightful cool, refreshing feel to the early morning air. Autumn is close! Already, I can see signs. The morning glories are much slower to open, remaining tightly furled until warmed by the late morning sun.

Every creature seems to be either eating, like this fox squirrel (Sciurus niger)...

...or this spotted cucumber beetle (Diabrotica undecimpunctata), or...


It's especially easy to find carpenter bees, seemingly paralyzed by the cool mornings, clinging stiffly to various blossoms. Only female carpenter bees inhabit dens. Male carpenter bees must find shelter on their own, wherever they can find it. I've found them hanging from marigold blossoms...

...clinging to stalks of phlox...

...grasping satiny morning glory petals...

...and sleeping soundly in sunflowers.

This butterfly (in the Nymphalidae family) was sleeping in the curve of this leaf before I walked by and startled it. I found other small moths and butterflies clinging to tall grasses nearby. I love watching the world wake up!

Fall means more spiderwebs in the garden.

The egg sac of a Araneus marmoreus , which resembles a small, crumbled paper bag, hangs suspended in midair.

Mother, with her beautifully marbled abdomen, waits nearby.

My Autumn Sedum is getting its first blush of pink.

The American Yew bushes have, in a few short days, gone from this...

...to this! The berries have plumped up beautifully.

The pokeberry bushes that have been growing amid my lilacs are displaying curved arcs of deep red berries. It's the perfect time for harvesting! Pokeberries are amazing plants. Many people think of them as weeds, but the seeds have to go through an arduous journey just to germinate. Birds eat them...

...and the seeds must pass through the body of the bird and drop to the ground before having a chance of germination.

I love the deep maroon color of pokeberry juice. Sometimes I use it to make ink, which is a lovely pink color that fades to a light brown over time. Some say that the Declaration of Independence was written with pokeberry ink (naysayers point to gall ink, made with rusty nails and tree gall, as the more likely candidate). Regardless, many old letters were written with pokeberry ink, and have proven its long-lasting capabilities.

I decided to make pokeberry ink this weekend. A warning, all parts of the plant are toxic, so handle with care!

First, I picked about a half pound of the ripest pokeberries I could find, and then mashed them. I mixed in a rounded tablespoon of yeast, covered the bowl, and let it sit for a day. Next, I heaped the mashed berry mixture into a strainer lined with cheesecloth, and let it drain for several hours. Easy!

Once I had extracted every bit of the juice, I discarded the remaining mush and drained the liquid into a clean glass jar.

Now I can pull out my little jar of ink whenever I want to write a letter, using my old fashioned "feather" pen. Letter writing is an art that's been lost in our modern times, but I much prefer writing a letter to composing an email.

My pokeberry ink letters lightly stain the stationary page. It makes writing a delightful experience!

I've been busy with my knitting this week, too. I unraveled the cuffs of my first toe-up socks and reknit them, this time using Jeni's Surprisingly Stretchy Bind-Off. I was amazed at the difference! These socks have been successfully salvaged!
I also finished my thrummed socks. Turned inside out, you can see how warm and soft they must be to wear.

They are perfect! I hope the recipient likes them as much as I do. I'm thinking about making a pair of thrummed mittens for winter. They're perfect for our cold climate.

I also started a new project. This is Hawthorne, from Twist Collective's Fall 2010 catalog. It's a beautiful shawl that I've decided to knit with Rowan Felted Tweed in a soft sage green color. I've already finished the lace section at the bottom. Instead of continuing on in garter stitch, which the pattern calls for, I've decided to knit the top in stockinette. I'll be so excited to have a beautiful warm shawl to wear on cool autumn walks!

I've been baking more this week, too. Fall is a wonderful time for being in the kitchen. In honor of the cooling weather, I retrieved my Williams-Sonoma acorn mini muffin molds for a late afternoon treat. I have a pumpkin muffin recipe that seems too good to be true...only three ingredients! It's healthy, too. Most pumpkin recipes call for up to a cup of oil. I wanted something lighter.

These tender bites taste like a combination of pumpkin pie and pumpkin bread. They are light and delicious and I prefer them to all other muffins. The recipe is well-known in Weight Watchers circles, although its origin is unknown.

Autumn Pumpkin Muffins

One box of spice cake mix
One can of pumpkin puree
One cup of water

Mix all ingredients together. Lightly grease muffin tins and bake at 350 degrees for 15 - 20 minutes (regular muffins) or 8 - 12 minutes (mini muffins).

If you don't have spice cake mix at home, it's easy to make...a cup of sugar, 1 3/4 cup flour, 1 teaspoon baking soda, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon each of cinnamon, cloves, allspice, and nutmeg.

Perfect on a cool autumn morning. Enjoy!