Friday, July 31, 2009

Happiness Is This, Is This...

It rained. Lovely, long, slow rain. Sort of between a heavy drizzle and a light rain, but it lasted about 40 minutes.

I sat on the front porch and just listened to it fall. What a nice front porch we have. It's got the two adirondack chairs Matt gave me for my birthday and Valentines and the fan we installed (which was good, because it wasn't a very cooling rain, but it was a very muggy one), and the landscape lights Mom & Dad gave us were lighting up the undersides of the crape myrtle leaves, and I turned off the porch light and sat in the dark, and it way very, very nice, very quiet, rather private, very nice.

Many people don't have a front porch, and many more have a sort of skinny fake front porch that's too narrow for actual use and is really just for show. This is a shame. A front porch, with a fan, and two adirondack chairs, and a big pecan out front, and a row of fat potted plants for privacy is a wonderful thing.

It pains me to acknowledge anything nice about this drought, but I have to admit three good things: (1) Fewer mosquitos (2) scarcely any tent caterpillars, meaning the pecans look unusually green and wholesome, and (3) on those rare occasions that it does rain, one really pays attention. People who live in Portland probably don't even look up from their newspapers, or Kindles, or whatever, when it starts raining again. But us, we cherish every grey cloud and worship every raindrop.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

As the Gentle Rain from Heaven

Project Mesopotamia: Phase I
After much travail, Matt got three of our watering zones fully automated. The hardest part, I gather, was finding a way to get the wires to go from the irrigation computer through the floor to the valves below. Poor Matt had to go under the house a lot, which is no kind of fun.

Matt ex machina

But the system finally works! O, glorious wetness! The lucky three are the shade garden and the two gazebo zones (the pecan side and the pond side). At present they're set to go off at midnight, one after another, but I may change that: I want to hear the posh-sounding hiss and gurgle of the watering system kicking on as I leave for work in the morning. The sound alone will make me feel happy and secure and adequately hydrated.

The new system may save the lives of the following plants:
  1. Oak-leaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) - has been wilting every 3 days
  2. Monterey Cypress (Taxodium mucronatum) - crashed a few weeks ago; copious watering seems to have pulled it back from the brink
  3. Spanish lavender (Lavandula stoechas) - hey, it's only 1/3 dead! It could still survive.
  4. Fern-leaf lavender (Lavandula multifida) - and this one's only 1/2 dead--no problem, right?
  5. Mrs. Burns Lemon Basil (Ocimum basilicum) - grown from seed--so little, but so spunky.
Also, the African hosta (Drimiopsis maculata) has been looking a little peaky, and the two Japanese maples, nurseryman's promises notwithstanding, have been crispy-edged and petulant. So the water should make a big difference for them as well.

Project Mesopotamia: Phase II
Next will be the bed around the front porch and the pole bed. This is particularly satisfactory, as the 'Yuletide' camellia has led a parlous existence ever since being transplanted from its pot, and the 'Ferdinand Pichard' has suffered dreadfully--possibly terminally--from Roundup drift. Both need regular water. Also, I've hooked our two 'Kimberly Queen' (Nephrolepis cordifolia) hanging ferns into the system, and so they'll give our front porch some privacy once they get enough water to really bulk up.

Fish Emulsion

Meanwhile, the roses have been growing and blooming, those enterprising creatures. For some of the plants near the foundation, the new growth is yellowy green between the veins. If memory serves, yellowness ("chlorosis") between the veins on new growth is a sign of iron deficiency. I'm guessing that the watering we've been doing has caused calcium to leach out of the cement and into the soil, where it ties up the iron in such a way that they plants can't access it. Sounds plausible, anyway. So I fish-emulsioned this morning, hoping that will help a bit.

I like organic fertilizers like fish emulsion because, among other things, they contain a wide range of nutrients. The bottle I was using this morning, for instance, claimed that it contained Nitrogen 2.23, Phosphorous 4.35, Potassium 0.30, Calcium 0.75, Sulfur 0.17, Glutamic Acid 8.03, Magnesium 0.04, Sodium 0.16, Iron 26.0 ppm, Manganese 3.0 ppm...

I also started on the manifold for the west-side irrigation zones (the roses, blue-and-purple bed, mutabilis bed, and trees). Yeah, that's right, I made a manifold. Sounds complicated; is simple. I had thought it was some sort of arcane automotive component, perhaps involving some sort of pleated fiber, probably manufactured by 3M. Not so. It just means "a pipe with several valves attached to it." Still, I got to work with PVC primer and pipe cement. The former is purple, and I love they way the two of them smell. Even better than permanent markers.

So we'll need one long pipe to get the water from the central point under the mudroom over to the west side's crawlspace access point, and then we'll attach the manifold to the end of the pipe. We'll run a bunch of wire to the valves in the manifold from the computer in the mudroom. Et voila! Automation! Again!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Water--My Favorite!

We got a surprise rain shower yesterday. (I say "surprise"--technically, we had a 40% chance of rain; but for the past two years, "40% chance of rain" has meant "pack sunscreen.") I was hiking with my friend Keith and there was some promising greyness, so we followed Matt's rain-summoning approach, which is to insult the weather. I opted for blasphemy: I shook my fist at the clouds and said, "By Jove!"

Apparently, Jove is much touchier (and more active) than I had ever imagined, because first there were a few intermittent drops, then there were more drops, then there was steady drizzle, and then there were violent gusts and great cracks of thunder.

I got soaked to the skin, which was lovely, and I was even (briefly) chilly enough to shiver. It was like living some place else entirely.

All of this has injected new life into my belief in this fantastical Shangri-La of which the old timers speak, called "Autumn." As a result, a young girl's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of... foundation plantings, winter recipes, and cool-weather vacations. I can actually imagine the seasons changing, the weather improving, and the need for warm clothes, flannel sheets, and hearty stews.

Where will we take our fall vacation? Last year we went to the Comfort area of Central Texas--maybe we'll do that again. And what will my CSA produce? Will they have bok choy? Mizuna? Oyster root?

As we're to be in the 100s all next week, these are not, I suppose, truly burning questions.

The park where we were hiking (in Webberville) got a good 40 minutes or so, but back home, the rain didn't entirely penetrate the mulch in the shade bed. Still, the plants look perkier.

And speaking of the CSA...

CSA: What Do I Do with All These... Eggplants and Cucumbers?

I made the CUCUMBERS into a cucumber yogurt soup and into Julia Child's Concombres Au Beurre (baked cucumbers; transcribed here). The former just didn't coalesce. Maybe it needed more salt, maybe less yogurt and more milk, almost certainly it should have been blended (grated cucumber floating in your yogurt matrix is unsettling)--anyway, no great favorite.

I kind of liked the Concombres. They were sort of like an incomplete pickle--a little vinegary, a little dilly, a little crisp, but without the intensity of most pickles.

Last week's EGGPLANTS became Greek Shepherd's Pie. I didn't even try the cucs on Matt--in marriage, as that bearded dude reminds us, you have know when to hold em and (more importantly) know when to fold em. But I did have high hopes for the shepherd's pie. The recipe called for 10 (TEN!) cloves of garlic, 3 cups of diced onion, 1 cup of red wine, 2 lb ground lamb, and a cup-and-a-half of parmesan. Plus, I threw in a can of whole hominy because Matt likes hominy. Then I boiled everything and subsequently baked it under a continental shelf of mashed potatoes. I should have been able to serve sauteed skunk in that concoction without him detecting it.

So. The moment of truth. How does he like?

(With a moue of disgust) "It tastes like eggplant."

My husband--the culinary equivalent of the Princess and the Pea.

To be fair, he quite sportingly faced down the eggplant a second time in the form of leftovers the following day. Perhaps he is developing a taste for eggplant?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Elgin's Elected Representatives

I've often wished I had a handy, compact list of my various elected officials. So I finally made one. Note that most of the links below are to online contact forms. Most of my state & national elected representatives don't have the stones to put their actual email addresses out there--instead, they want us to contact them through the more mediated and less convenient medium of their websites. Whatever.

(Don't live in Elgin? You too can find your representatives at: or at, which lets you search by address, in case your zip code is split, district-wise. Plus, it briefs you on all the top issues of concern to the Service Employees International Union. Handy!)

U.S. President - Barack Obama

U.S. Senators - Senator John Cornyn & Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison

U.S. Representative - Congressional District 10--Congressman Michael T. McCaul

Texas State Senator - Senate District 18--Senator Glenn Hegar

Texas State Representative - House District 17--Representative Tim Kleinschmidt

Texas State Board of Education Member - SBOE District 10--[the bat-shit crazy] Cynthia Dunbar

Elgin Mayor - Marc Holm

Elgin City Council - Ward 3 - Chris Cannon & Pat Frenzel

Use them together; use them in peace, as Arthur C Clark* exhorted. Mind you, he was speaking of Jupiter's moon Europa, not of some politician's contact info, but I think the message translates.


*Oh, bugger. It wasn't Arthur C. Clark. It was Peter Hyams, the guy who wrote the screenplay for 2010. Sounded a lot more impressive when I could legitimately claim it was Clark.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Drought Flowers

Either because our plants are just that badass or because we've been watering more heavily, we do actually have some that are attempting to bloom in the midst of the drought and the heat. Brave souls.

For the most part, they are strange, tortured versions of themselves, which is actually kind of interesting in its own way. For example, you would never guess that this was 'Lichterloh.'

The bleached and emaciated petals of 'Lichterloh' in July

Similarly, the normally delicate, genteel, and shapely blooms of 'Duchesse de Brabant' have become ragged and irregular.

A gasping, titanic effort from 'Duchesse de Brabant'

'Graham Thomas' conserves his resources by drastically reducing the number of petals he produces. Usually fat, golden, and fully double, he's become a pallid semi.

'Graham Thomas,' like Sir Eliot, reluctantly retrenches

The passionflower is bearing up well--it does indeed appear to be dark purple! Wonderful plant--so extravagant.

'Dark Purple' passionflower

The frill bursting from this passionflower bud looks like wayward bits of Silly String.

Interesting passionflower bud

And the most surprising and delightful news: one of the 'Ellen Bosanquet' crinums that we planted this May is actually already blooming. The buds are rather washed out, but the fact that it's blooming at all comes as a pleasant shock--I assumed it would take a year or two to get established. Of course, the bulbs Dad gave us were quite enormous--larger than softballs in some cases. They have an incredibly rich, heavy lily fragrance.

The precocious bloom of crinum 'Ellen Bosanquet'

Project Mesopotamia
(Simulating the Land Between Two Rivers) The irrigation project continues. Hopefully, we'll be able to hook several of the systems up to the computer this weekend. Getting everyone on a regular system is essential if we're going to survive August; otherwise, some plants will inevitably slip through the cracks.

We still need to hook up the shade garden and the two gazebo zones, change out the two heads by the pond, put mini sprinklers over the hanging 'Kimberley Queen' ferns and make the front porch a separate zone, and pipe the rose bed, mutabils, and blue and purple bed zones to the central location. We may also make the pole bed and pecan a separate zone and add lines out to the Eve's Necklace and the linden.

Irrigation Schedule
We also need to think about scheduling. I think all of the zones need twice-weekly watering until the heat breaks (~late September, I assume). The weeping yaupon (rose bed), baldcypress (blue-and-purple bed) and Montezuma cypress (pond/gazebo bed) probably need water three times per week, since they're in a fragile state.

If we start getting rain in September (as some people predict, pinning their hopes on El Niño), we can reduce everyone to once per week. If the weather really improves, we'll be able to take the rose bed, blue-and-purple bed, front porch bed, pole bed, and gazebo beds off irrigation altogether in November and just turn the system on manually as needed. I think we'll want to keep the mutabilis bed and shade garden on once-weekly water indefinitely, though.

Next March, we'll put everyone back on once-weekly to take advantage of the growing season and get everyone juiced up for summer. And if the summer isn't too brutal, we may be able to leave it at once a week the whole season. Imagine it: a garden robust with plump, healthy plants, getting enough water to actually grow steadily rather than just enough to stave off death, full of flowers and green leaves... a beautiful sight. And in the long run, very little need for watering at all, once the roots are nice and deep and assuming the current weather pattern is a hiccup, not a terminal case of climatic cancer.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Ug. I Did It Again.

We mulched and irrigated till 9 last night and till the afternoon today. I dug more trenches (I'm getting better at it). I laid metal edging. I bought miles of PVC. I'm actually slightly amazed at my own productiveness.

All of this virtuousness had made me headachy and disgruntled. Probably because while great strides have been made, nothing is actually complete.

I re-mulched almost all of our existing beds, but we need to dig several new beds around the trees and at the end of the kitchen patio. I pulled weeds, but there is still bermudagrass growing up through the rose bushes--I have no idea how we can ever get rid of that pernicious stuff. We've laid pipes, but the system still isn't automated. I mowed, but the yard won't look really tidy till it's weed-eaten. or -eated. or -ate.

And although the AC is on, I'm still hot. And it's 7 o'clock at night, but looks like it's about 3 in the afternoon--stupid planet with its stupidly tilting axis.

I can't even think of anything to take a picture of, if I were even willing to go outside in order to take a picture, which, in this heat, I bloody well am not. Everything looks crispy and stupid and stunted and joyless. We have a baldcypress that's warped, a weeping yaupon that's four-fifths brown, a '4th of July' rose that's bleached to pink instead of being a lovely deep vermillion, climbing roses that have stopped growing, an oak-leaf hydrangea that wilts every other day, and a bunch of herbicided bermudagrass that needs weed-whacking.

God, I'd better stop before I implode from the sheer gravity of my own grouchiness and turn into a little black hole, sucking happiness and light out of everything around me.

Hey--just remembered--the spider lily is in bloom. So that's a happy thing. Perhaps I can defer imploding for a few days.

Spiderlily. All that stands between me and the abyss.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

CSA: What Do I Do with All These... Eggplants, Zucchini, and Beets?

Not much news on the exterior. It's hot. Yuck.

On the interior, we've been continuing our adventures in vegetables.

EGGPLANTS are, to my mind, fairly easy to manipulate. I made an eggplant parmesan using the breading from Saveur and the fresh tomato sauce from Epicurious. I was pretty pleased with the result. I asked Matt, "So what did you think?"
"It's all right."
"Yeah, I thought it was pretty good."
"It was all right."

When it came time for leftovers, he favored beetloaf over eggplant parm, which I guess isn't all that surprising.

I'm running out of ideas for ZUCCHINI--I've already made them into bread and cookies--I can't really think of any more baked goods to hide them in. And we still have a loaf of (very tasty) chocolate chip zucchini bread in the freezer.

So I made my very tasty and hearty Spicy African Peanut Soup to eat for lunches (Matt won't touch that one--too vegetabley; very similar recipe here), and gave up and fried the rest. As there is a limit to the fried zucchini I can eat at a single sitting, I'm afraid many a zucchini spear went straight to the landfill. Also, it transpires that I prefer my zucchini sliced paper thin on the mandoline rather than cut into hefty, squishy, zucchini-textured spears.

On the BEETS, also, I raise the white flag of surrender: I can barely scare up a new beet recipe that I'll eat, let alone one Matt would endure. So I cooked them just for me. I roasted them and sliced them for beet-gorgonzola panini. I'll tell you: not a bad idea. A hearty, nutty bread is essential, however, to mask the beet texture and tame the flavor. I've got two left that I shall attempt to turn into carpaccio. And then attempt to eat. No promises on that one. I'm hoping the capers distract my tastebuds sufficiently so that I don't notice what I'm eating.

This week, mercifully, the beets, zucchini, squash, and chard seem to have given out. In fact, owing to the drought, I think, this week's box was a bit lighter than last. As I still have about 8 Oriental cucs from previous boxes to use up, and a bag and a half of okra, I'm really okay with that. Plus, everything in this box was stuff I like or can readily use: potatoes, tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, onions, garlic, and eggplant.

This week: chilled cucumber-dill soup, baba ghanoush, and baked cucumbers a la Julia Child.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Happy Fourth

We were feeling lackadaisical about the Fourth this year. Matt is never highly motivated by fireworks; just as he endures Christmas rituals as an indulgence to me, so he resignedly lets me bribe him with fried chicken to attend the occasional municipal fireworks display. But whether it's simply an off year for me, or whether the heat just crushed all enthusiasm out of me, I found the notion of battling traffic, trekking picnic accoutrements all over creation, jostling for a spot, and being hemmed in by hot, seething, boisterous crowds deeply unappealing this year. So we decided to stay home.

I vaguely remember having a surprisingly lovely Fourth last year: a brief burst of unseasonable cooler temperatures allowed me to lounge about in a hammock reading while Matt plied me with alcoholic beverages, and then we attended the relatively fuss-free but not insubstantial display in Taylor.

This year was not like that. As a last-minute tribute to the holiday, I decided to grill some hamburger meat that needed using up. We didn't assemble on the shade patio for grilling until 8ish, and even then, it was asphyxiatingly hot and heavy there on the coolest part of the yard. The intermittent breezes felt like the air from an oven door--instead of cooling, they just redistributed the heat rising out of the ground.

No sooner had I placed the top bun on my burger than we gave up on any pretense of celebrating the Fourth and fled with our picnic dinner to the air conditioning.

Halfway through dinner, though, we heard some loud bangs--Elgin hosted its own fireworks display for the first time since our residence, and they did it, conveniently, from the parking lot of Southside BBQ, which is less than a mile from our house. There is a tree-filled park between ourselves and Southside, so we only saw the top half of the modest but enjoyable display, but we felt that was a fair trade-off. I hope other, more motivated citizens attended the event in person so that Southside will feel encouraged to repeat it... so that we can watch it again next year from our back yard.

Perhaps we'll buy dinner from them by way of thanks. Did you know that they sell barbecued mutton? I find that intriguing and quaint. I wonder, is it a relic of some distant, mutton-eating phase of Texas history? Did the Southside owners immigrate here from some more sheep-centric locale? Or is it just that mutton is cheap, so that if you can render it palatable, the profit margin would be high?

CSA: What Do I Do With All These... Beets and Tomatoes?
The beetloaf (adapted from this) turned out quite well, I thought. Very moist, and to me the BEET presence was undetectable. Matt felt that it was on the edge--he claims that he could taste the beets. I slathered mine with steak sauce, so that may have helped.

Had better luck with the TOMATOES. I've been taking the cherry toms to work for lunch, but I just can't keep up with the inexhaustible flow of tomatoes from the CSA. So I made salsas to go with our 4th of July dinner (and to go in this morning's migas). Matt liked the pumpkin seed-pasilla salsa best; I lean more toward the fresh chipotle-lime salsa.

Pumpkin Seed-Pasilla Salsa (adapted from here)
Medium heat
10 'Black Plum' tomatoes or 5 regular plum tomatoes, halved
2-3 jalapeños, halved and seeded
a little olive oil
10 dried pasillos and anchos
2-3 tsp ancho powder or other powdered chile
1 Tbs kosher salt
1 tsp sugar
1-1/2 c water
2 Tbs roasted, hulled pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
3 Tbs white vinegar
1/2 c scallions
1/4 c cilantro, chopped

Heat the broiler on high. Drizzle a little olive oil in a baking pan. Place tomatoes and jalapeños in pan, cut side down. Char tomatoes and jalapeños until skins are slightly burned, ~7 minutes (check after 5).

Remove tomatoes and jalapeños from the oven and place them in a stainless steel pot. Add ancho powder, dried chiles, salt, sugar, and water. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook for 20 minutes, stirring often.

Add vinegar to tomato mixture and cook for 1 minute. Add toasted pumpkin seeds. Place mixture in a blender, and blend until smooth (it make take a while to get the pumpkin seeds sufficiently fine.)

Briefly whiz in scallions and cilantro. Refrigerate for several hours before serving.

Smoky and complex.

Fresh Chipotle-Lime Salsa (adapted from here)
Medium heat
1/3 cup fresh lime juice or more, to taste
4 cloves garlic
3 canned chipotle chilies in adobo sauce
1 Tbs adobo sauce from the chipotle can
2 cups peeled, chopped, and seeded tomatoes (boil whole tomatoes for ~1 minute first to loosen skins)
1 cup coarsely chopped onion
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
salt and pepper to taste

Squeeze lime juice into a blender and add garlic cloves. Blend until smooth.

Add chipotles, adobo, tomatoes, onion and cilantro. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Whiz briefly in the blender.

Refrigerate for an hour or more before serving to allow flavors to marry.

Limey and refreshing!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Garden at Night

Austin got a little rain yesterday and today. None to speak of reached Elgin, but we did get 2 days' worth of cooler weather. High today: only 89F--woo-hoo!

In celebration, tonight's blog will be all about happy things.

(1) Favorite Justicia (shrimp plant) cultivar, 'Fruit Cocktail', now beginning its third year in our garden, has taken on a particularly tight, compact, round little form--very cute.

A pleasingly plump shrimp plant

(2) A mere 13 years after originally propagating them via tissue culture, I finally get to see one of my 'Ellen Bosanquet' crinums blooming in my own yard. Almost blooming, anyway. V-e-r-y, v-e-r-y close now.

Crinum 'Ellen Bosanquet' buds

(3) Both the Echinacea and the '4th of July' roses are doing quite well, blooming and growing (and, unfortunately, clashing horribly. Didn't really think that color combination through when I initally plopped everything in the ground).

'4th of July' rose in the background; Echinacea in the foreground

(4) Our passionflower is about to put on its first blossom. Will it be the deep purple of my dreams? Or that washy pale periwinkle that I find so ho-hum? We shall see.

Our passionflower's first bud

(5) Despite the unprepossessing season in which it was planted, the snakeweed(?) Matt brought home a couple of weeks ago seems perfectly chipper--green and blooming. You can't tell in the picture, but the flowers are actually a nice medium purple.

Rugged little snakeweed(?)

(6) Miraculously, the 'Kaiserin Friedrich' rose lives! It was shipped to us late (the growers forgot our order)--in May, I think--in a very, very expensive 1-gallon ($40! Sheesh! It's a very rare cultivar, unfortunately, so I didn't have much choice) that was poorly rooted. We gave it a couple of weeks in the greenhouse to bulk up the root system, even though that meant planting it in the garden even later than was safe. It's had a few crispy leaves, but it's got plenty of new growth, lots of healthy green foliage--I'm amazed. This rose is named after a British princess who spent her adult life (poor thing) in Prussia--both rather brisk climates. Yet her rose is so far remarkably hardy here in the punishing heat of Central Texas.

Our little 'Kaiserin Freidrich' rose

(7) And finally, our red-leaved crinum has put on its first, eerie, decadent, spidery flowers of the season.

Red-leafed crinum in bloom, possibly C. procerum splendens
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