Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Stop and Smell the Zinnias

The garden is so colorful at this time of year. A profusion of orange cosmos covers a five-foot area, makes a sharp right turn at the fence, and continues down several more feet before tapering off in a bed of almost-blooming marigolds.

Cosmos make fabulous bouquets. I've been combining them with dill and queen anne's lace in mason jars all over the house. The dill makes the air delightfully spicy.

Next to another patch of cosmos, my phlox is blooming nicely. I've got lavender...

...and white. Bees and butterflies love it!

My rose of sharon bush is ready to burst into blossom. The flowers are big, floppy, and ungainly, but I do like these tidy little conical blossoms that cover the bush every morning.

The queen anne's lace is glorious...

...and my russian sage is drawing bees from all over the city!

Even my oriental lilies have bloomed. I like to cut off the blossom heads and place them in tiny, three-inch vases. I've got them scattered all over the house, too.

Of course, I have my zinnia hedges, which by now are nearly 8 feet long and four feet wide. They're so easy to grow and each year I plow up more and more yard for them. Someday they'll have a very important place in my cottage garden!

It's easy to give them a quick glance and take pleasure in the beautiful flowers, just as they are.

Each one is so unique.

But sometimes, I like to get a little closer. The other day, I brought out a garden mat and burrowed into one of the hedges. The sun was out and the bees hummed steadily. It was very pleasant, and I felt perfectly happy there, waiting and watching. At first I just saw the insects on top of the flowers, like this honey bee.

But I waited patiently, and soon my eyes adjusted to a smaller world. Before long, I saw a tiny crab spider in one of the zinnia blossoms. Crab spiders don't build webs, although they can spin thin "drop lines" to help them move from flower to flower. They prefer to lie in wait and ambush insects that visit the flower for pollen.

What at first I thought was a discolored petal moved and became a shield bug. Shield bugs, so named for their distinctive shape, are common in gardens. They are plant feeders, and release a noxious odor when handled. I made sure to give him plenty of space.

Little gnats and flies soon returned to the zinnia leaves all around my head. Each one is so unique and interesting, but I despair of ever learning their identities. There are so many of them.

To my surprise, I saw several small praying mantises motionless beneath flower heads. Despite all the mantises that left the oothecas this spring, I have only seen one or two full-grown ones in the yard, and I thought they'd been picked off by birds. But no, they're just experts at not being seen. Like the crab spiders, they wait patiently for an insect to visit the flower, and then pounce.

Two flies found this zinnia stalk a perfect place to mate.

This fly has the most beautifully patterned eyes! Amazing!

I stayed outside for about an hour. The little creatures became used to me and crept out of their hiding spaces, and I watched them scurry about. What a nice, peaceful way to spend a morning!

Inside, things are a little more sedate.

I finished a knitting project recently, a cardigan for a friend's daughter. It's Kate Davies' Mini Manu and I learned several new techniques...

...such as pleating. Kate has an adult version of this cardigan that I might cast on for someday!

I decided to embroider some tiny flowers below the pleats, to match the vintage buttons I found. Pretty cute!

A few weeks ago, I bought some clearance bakeware at JoAnn Fabrics. I normally don't like to bake with this rubbery material, but you couldn't beat the price. So, I became the proud owner of a mini loaf pan.

I knew just the recipe for its maiden voyage!

Lemon Fruit Yogurt Loaf
From Smitten Kitchen
Makes 4 loaves

1 1/2 cups white flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup yogurt - vanilla or plain
1 cup + 1 tablespoon sugar
3 eggs
2 teaspoons lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 cup fruit (blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, etc.)
1/3 cup lemon juice

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Grease your mini loaf pan. Sift your flour, baking powder, and salt into a bowl. In a separate bowl, mix together the yogurt, 1 cup of sugar, eggs, lemon zest, vanilla, and oil. Gradually add the flour mixture to this wet mixture, and then mix in the fruit. If you're concerned about your fruit being untidy and discoloring the batter, you can always mix it with a little flour before folding it carefully into the batter.

Pour into mini loaf pan and bake for 30 - 35 minutes, until golden.


You're not done yet! Mix the remaining tablespoon of sugar with the lemon juice and warm until sugar has dissolved. Once your loaves have rested for about 10 minutes, poke some holes in their tops and drizzle the sugar/lemon juice mixture over them.

These are so moist and delicious...probably one of the best dessert breads I've ever had. The nice thing about these mini loaves, too, is that they're easy to tie up with fabric and give to friends.

I hope you'll give some away soon. Have a great week!

Monday, July 18, 2011

A Quick Peek at Eagle Creek

Indiana is in the middle of a heat wave, and Todd has been working nonstop on his dissertation. We're both feeling a bit tired, and so together decided to take a break - one day to shirk our responsibilities and have free time to do whatever we wanted. As it turns out, what we wanted to do was get out of the house and go hiking. Followed, of course, by a big lunch out and a multi-hour board game marathon!

Eagle Creek, the fourth largest city park in the nation, is a mere twenty minutes from our house. It contains a 1,400 acre lake, and hiking along the shore, in the shade, is a really relaxing and peaceful experience.

Beautiful wildflowers are growing everywhere.

A spotted cucumber beetle (Diabrotica undecimpunctata) finds plenty to do on this dog rose. Spotted cucumber beetles only live for 8 weeks, so several generations might plague a region in a single summer. They're quite destructive. Not only do they eat tender seedlings and later attack full-grown plants (mainly vegetables), some harbor a bacteria called Pseudomonas lachrymans. Lachrymans is similar to the word lachrymose, which means tearful or given to weeping. Farmers must feel this way when confronted with plants affected with Pseudomonas lachrymans, because it infects and then rots leaves and fruits.

Many berry bushes are growing along the water...

...which does not interest this tree swallow in the least. Especially in the summertime, tree swallows eat insects. They prefer to nest around water and are quite social, sometimes forming flocks of thousands. This tree swallow wasn't a bit afraid of me and let me get quite close.

Small fish and minnows hug the banks of Eagle Creek Reservoir. We've seen many herons on visits here, who make regular meals of them.

After circling the lake, we crossed a small stream to enter the forest.

A great many birds nest at Eagle Creek and we saw some beautiful feathers.

A line of fungus crawled up this tree trunk. This particular fungus, which looks like smoky bracket fungus, probably got a toehold here through an open spot on the trunk - maybe a slash caused by an animal, or an open area left from a falling limb. The fungus absorbs sap, water, and nutrients from the tree, causing rapid decomposition.

It must be high season for assassin bugs, because we saw several on low-hanging branches. I think they're such beautiful insects, but they do have a nasty bite, so we steered clear.

Above all, I was impressed by the spiderwebs. Orb weavers create perfect circles.

How do they do it?

But even more interesting were the webs created by grass spiders, a member of the funnel web spider family. Look at this one...a conical web within a web. Amazing!

And this one...a sort of twisted, inverted web that must have been two feet long. Absolutely incredible!

Grass spider webs aren't sticky, so insects blundering across them aren't caught in that way. Grass spiders are fast. They have a complicated system of 'alarm threads' that let them know the second their web is disturbed. They are upon the insect before it knows what happened!

At the edge of the forest we found a small, moss-covered pond. To me, that means one thing: frogs and dragonflies! I scoured the perimeter and heard the tell-tale plops of frogs slipping beneath the surface of the pond, but I couldn't seem to catch sight of any. Not in the water, anyway...

A large shock of vegetation grew at the water's edge, and I was astounded to see the leaves covered completely...with tree frogs!

Some no more than an inch long and completely unfazed by our presence, the frogs remained motionless on the leaves.

They looked like some kind of prehistoric creature!

These tree frogs don't really live on trees. They are easy targets in water, too, so they tend to live near water, on vegetation like this.

I didn't see any dragonflies, but when I got home, I found one in the back yard! Odd, since we don't live around water. This is a blue dasher dragonfly. Dragonflies are great to have around because they eat mosquitoes. They're quite quick...they can reach speeds of 35 miles per hour! It's good that they're such champion fliers, because despite having legs, they are unable to walk. Their eyes, too, are amazing. They have a nearly 360 degree field of vision!

Dragonflies were once known as "the Devil's darning needle." Parents would tell their children that the Devil would come in the night to bad children and use the dragonfly to stitch their mouths closed while they slept. That's quite an incentive to behave!

All in all, we had a wonderful day off and felt ready to get back to the daily grind.

Since it's been so hot lately, I've been focusing on small knitting projects, like this pair of ringwood gloves. I'm using Misti Alpaca yarn in a deep red color, which I've been saving for something special. These gloves are so soft. Their construction is unique - a seed stitch cuff, with a switchover to ringwood stitch for the body of the glove. Ringwood stitch is easy. You simply knit two rows, followed by a row of knit one, purl one, all the way across. Repeat these three rows and you'll have ringwood stitch, a really interesting texture.

I like the cuff, too. One down, one to go!

Last week I posted about pie crust. Now, you're almost certainly going to have leftover dough after you make your pie. Trust me, you want leftover dough. I came up with a really basic recipe for a miniature apple pie. I make mine in a shallow 5 x 4 inch dish, but you could use tart pans, or ramekins, or whatever you've got!

The recipe is really simple.

Two-Apple Pie

2 apples, peeled, diced
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
1 teaspoon vanilla

Mix all ingredients together and cook on stovetop for about 15 minutes, until soft. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease your containers, lay your dough within, and spoon your apples on top of it. Cover them with another thin sheet of dough and crimp the edges. Pierce with a fork a few times and bake for about 20 minutes.

It is so good. Forty minutes to homemade apple pie? Oh, yes!

Now that I think of it, I've got a few apples in the refrigerator...I think I know what I'm making for dessert tomorrow! :)

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