Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Beetle Mania

Under the watchful eyes of the cats, things are happening in the garden.

The zinnias are beginning to open up. Yellow, pink, white, red, maroon, and orange...zinnias come in an amazing array of colors and are drought-resistant. Perfect for a hot, dry spot in your garden. Bees and hummingbirds love them!

A sprawling, segmented weed that sometimes grows under my lilac bushes, the asiatic dayflower (Commelina communis), produces this pretty blue flower. It's an invasive weed here, but in Japan the blue petals are used to make dye, and in China it's prized for its antibacterial qualities. It's frequently used to treat sore throats, as a diuretic, and as an anti-fungal treatment.

A type of wild onion joins the dayflower there in the shade.

My bee balm is just starting to bloom. Bee balm is not only for bees and hummingbirds, though. It provides shelter for other insects, like this lightning bug.

My herbs are ready for harvest. Sage, parsley, thyme, and dill...yum! I just picked a big bunch of parsley and dill, diced it, and added it to a mustard sauce. I then coated roasted potatoes with it for extra zip. Delicious!

Frequent rains have caused the growth of various types of small mushrooms in the yard. These are a type of Psathyrella canolleana. What causes mushrooms to grow in yards? Mushroom spores are typically spread by wind. The fungus 'roots' and eats decomposing roots and other bits. The mushroom you see is the 'fruit' of the mushroom fungus. It contains the spores that are waiting to be spread to continue its cycle of life.

My tiny snapdragons are finally growing...

...and my Russian Sage is getting tiny, furry purple blossoms at last.

This robin is hunting for a tasty worm. He lunges forward...

...grasps the worm...

...and has a nutritious meal in no time!

A few of these shy green cricket-like insects are out and about now. Their abdomens remind me of light-colored cucumbers.

Don't be fooled by this fly. He looks very similar to a bee, which sometimes fools birds that would otherwise be tempted to eat him.

From the back, especially, it is easy to see that this is a very successful trick!

The Japanese beetles are back! This year, thankfully, I've only seen two so far. They are beautiful but incredibly destructive!

I was surprised to see that this ladybug-lookalike is in fact an Asian beetle and not a ladybug at all. These are the types of 'ladybug lookalikes' that infest houses and buildings in the fall of the year. Like ladybugs, though, they do eat aphids and other garden pests.

This Asian beetle is poised for flight. Asian beetles (and ladybugs, too!) have a hard outer covering called an elytra.

When it's ready to fly, it opens up its elytra to reveal the second set of wings, the alae.

The alae can move up to a hundred times per second, in all directions. It can propel the Asian beetle forward very quickly.

During our recent rainy days when I couldn't work in the garden, I focused on a house project. Our third bedroom was deemed a 'bonus room' when we briefly listed our house for sale last year, because it lacked a closet. Todd recently built a closet, and I decorated it to show people that although it's a bit small, it would make a nice nursery or child's room. I bought some lovely paint that reminded me of pale sea glass. Regrettably, I didn't test the paint against the color card before painting, and the resulting room looked like it had been painted with my minty Crest toothpaste instead of my sea glass-colored paint. I decided against repainting it. I would have to find ways to make the color work. I remembered my mint-colored sock yarn and had an idea. I knit up five or six teeny tiny socks.

People sometimes knit these up for Christmas ornaments. They're quick and easy to make.

Completed, they fit easily into the palm of your hand. They're quite charming!

For .99 at Goodwill, I found a type of accordion-style wall shelf. I tied the little socks to the hangers. The mint of the socks is not exactly the same color as the walls, but close enough.

I think it was a successful experiment!

Even though it's summer, and strawberries are ripe, and blackberries, and blueberries...I had a craving for a different type of dessert. A fall dessert. One of my favorites.

I posted another apple crisp recipe last year, but this is its perfected form, pulled from bits and pieces of other recipes and refined.

My Favorite Apple Crisp

6 apples, peeled and diced (any kind!)
3 tablespoons brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
1 teaspoon vanilla
a dash of cardamom, if you've got it (optional)

1/3 cup flour
1 cup brown sugar, lightly packed
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
1/2 cup oatmeal
3/4 stick butter, cold, sliced

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9 inch pie pan (or an 8 x 8 baking dish) Mix filling ingredients together and place in pie pan.

Mix all topping ingredients but the butter together, and then cut in butter until mixture is crumbly and butter bits are smaller than pea-sized. Sprinkle on apples and bake for 25 - 35 minutes.

This is SO GOOD! You could make it healthier, of course, by decreasing the brown sugar to 1/2 cup and decreasing the butter to 1/2 stick. I don't think you'd lose too much flavor. But if you can...go whole hog.


Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A rose (of Sharon) by any other name....

We've had some pretty torrential rains lately. In between the flash flood warnings and lightning strikes, even the squirrels have taken shelter to get out of the wet...

Sometimes, though, it's AFTER the rain when the action really starts. A few days ago I went outside after a particularly heavy downpour. It seemed that only one bedraggled squirrel was stirring...

...but I knew better. The broad, sturdy leaves of my Rose of Sharon bush provide great shelter for many interesting creatures.

A common blowfly (Calliphoridae) vibrates his wings to throw off any clinging drops of water.

This fly, from the Dolichopodidae family, waits silently for the sun to re-emerge. Dolichopodidae are beneficial to have in the garden...besides adding a little beauty with their lovely iridescent bodies, they also eat invasive insects like aphids.

One of my favorite spiders, the daring jumping spider, maneuvers its way around the puddles of water on a leaf.

Male daring jumping spiders have shiny blue green fangs, called chelicerae. They use them, in part, to help attract a mate. This spider's fangs are brown, meaning that it's a female.

She's a beauty!

Crouching beneath another leaf is this common brown spider. She's waiting for things to dry off so that she can construct another web.

Another small web weaver has already gone to work, snagging a gnat for now...

...and one for later.

A colorful leafhopper sits motionless near the center of this leaf.

Look closely. These tell-tale 'horns' give away the identity of who's hiding beneath this leaf.

An earwig!

Underneath another leaf I found a snout moth, Microcrambus elegans. Snout moths are so named for their feathery antenna that appear to make a long 'snout' in front of the moth's face, instead of riding atop their heads. I love snout moths for their antenna, but also for their funny bulging eyes.

Water droplets make beautiful patterns on feathery-leaf plants like my bronze fennel.

The frequent rain and alternating hot, humid days have caused rapid growth of these plants, which are slowly unfurling...

...and getting ready to open.

Insects hide here, too, like this green bush cricket (Tettigoniidae).

This tiny slug might be the reason why my zinnias are so nibbled this year!

It looks like there's been a little too much action for this small spider, who came out for a look around but quickly headed back where he came from! I love all the life that hides just beneath the surface in my back yard.

Speaking of spiders, I just finished these socks recently. They were a gift for my mother-in-law, so I couldn't post them before I'd given them to her! The design is a pair of garden spiders on the back of the socks...

...and various vines and leaves on the front.

This was a challenging project for me...toe up socks, and for the first time I had to work off of two charts at the same time (one for the front and one for the back of the sock). I finished the first sock and had to take a 2 month break before tackling the second one!

Because it's been so warm, I decided to make a light, summery dessert last week. Strawberries are in season...

Strawberry Summer Cake
from Smitten Kitchen
Serves 8 - 10

6 tablespoons room-temperature butter
1 1/2 cup white flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup + 2 tablespoons white sugar
1 egg
1/2 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 pound strawberries, cleaned and halved

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Mix together flour, baking powder and salt and set aside. In another bowl, beat butter and 1 cup sugar together for about 3 minutes. Add egg and beat well. Add milk and vanilla and mix until just combined. Gradually add your flour mixture and combine until no streaks are visible.

Grease a 9 or 10 inch springform pan. Place strawberries in a single layer on top, cut side down.

Sprinkle remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar over the top. Bake for 10 minutes at 350 degrees, then reduce your temperature to 325 degrees and bake until golden, 40 - 55 minutes (depending on your oven).

This is so good and just perfect with a dollop of whipped cream.

I'm not a big strawberry lover, but this was delicious. The cake was moist and sweet, with a nice crispy top. It was absolutely wonderful. YUM!

I hope you give it a try. Have a great week!