Friday, December 31, 2010


We had our annual holiday dinner with the Ks in mid-December. Last year, we had a Flaming Feast--everything, from cocktails to salads to dessert--was flambéed.

This year, inspired by the egregious but amazing cherpumple, our theme was Food Inside of Other Food.

The idea was that you stuff one food item with another complete food item--not with a filling or a sauce, but with another made food.

For the entree, I ordered a turducken, which we had never had before. To my delight, it came packed in dry ice. I've also never had dry ice before. I poured water on it, and it filled the sink with fog, which poured out over the side of the counter.

The Ks brought appetizers and cocktails. The appetizer was a "cake" compounded of other appetizers, then frosted in cream cheese. Not only layers of appetizers, but also layers of irony: it looks like dessert, but isn't, and it's made of things they thought were very cool and highbrow in the 1950s, like ham rolls and meat paste. Presumably, these are things that accompany martinis well, can compete with the taste of cigarette smoke, and are easy to clean off of mink stoles. They are also surprisingly tasty, especially all at once.

And Keith invented a cocktail for us that really took the theme seriously--it's cooled with ice cubes flavored with rum extract, among other things. Inside each ice cube was a piece of fruit, and inside of that was a rum-soaked raisin. It was a bit sweet and fruity, which is good for me, but not too sweet, which is good for everyone else. If I get the recipe from him, I'll post it here.

Kate also had the challenge of making a stuffed salad and sides. She made a spinach salad inside an apple and a baked bell pepper stuffed with sausage, rice, and--the kicker--stuffed mushrooms.

The recipe with the most promise for future development was the po-chiles--baked potatoes with jalapeño poppers inside. I think the challenge is to get a potato small enough to not overwhelm the popper, yet big enough to retain its structural integrity when hollowed out and stuffed. The other challenge is to cook the popper enough beforehand to take the raw edge off, but to leave enough rawness that chile/cheese juice soak into the potato as it's baked.

The very best of the sides was an almond in a date wrapped in bacon. It was like candy plus bacon with extra crunch. Perhaps you think you've never wanted something to taste like candy + bacon? My how behind the times you are! See candied bacon, Mo's bacon chocolate bar. It lights up almost all of your gustatory pleasure sensors at once.

And, finally, the piecaken.

The original recipe, the cherpumple, is made with a cherry pie, a pumpkin pie, and an apple pie.

This combination doesn't appeal to me, so I made some readjustments and dubbed my towering Frankenzert the "piecaken." (What's the -en stand for? asked my inquisitive husband. It's made out of pies and cakes--there's no -en. I told him it was a reference to the turducken, and he said But there's no chicken in it either. I give up.)

Here it is in its pre-frosted glory, the layers glued together with a whipped ganache.

Here's what it's made of: a brownie pie baked inside of a marzipan cake; a Russian cheesecake baked inside of a chocolate-sour cream cake; and spirited brown sugar pecan pie baked inside of a Madeira cake. Whipped chocolate ganache between the layers, mocha French buttercream frosting the outside.

Ay caramba.

Matt is awed and appalled by the piecaken. I used corn cob holders to keep the saran wrap off of the frosting.

And here you can see all the layers. I thought I had a high tolerance for sweet stuff, but seeing this much piled together actually made me faintly ill. Individually, the components were yummy; together they project a dismaying image of death and tooth decay.

Still, it does look pretty. And if you've got the twelve or so hours to spare in preparation, it will certainly amaze your guests. It also embodies every worst stereotype about Americans (it took 3 trips to the grocery store, so its carbon footprint is something awful), so I would recommend hiding it away if any Europeans drop by for a visit. A small throw blanket should suffice to cover it. Or a queen-sized sheet, at the most.

For the innocent, the eager, and the doomed, here is the recipe for the piecaken.

Bake the pies a day in advance and allow them to cool on the counter (not in the fridge).

ONE. Bon Appetit's Spirited Brown Sugar Pecan Pie

1 7.5-oz pie shells, room temp
2 c dark brown sugar, packed
4 lg eggs, large
1/4 c unsalted butter, melted
1 Tbs Scotch whisky
2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp cinnamon
2 c pecan halves
whipped cream

Preheat oven to 350°F. Line 9-inch glass pie dish with dough. Crimp edge decoratively. Whisk sugar, eggs, butter, Scotch, vanilla, and cinnamon in large bowl to blend. Mix in nuts. Pour filling into dough-lined dish.

Bake pie until filling is slightly puffed and set in center, covering edges with foil if browning too quickly, about 40 minutes. Cool pie completely at room temperature. Cut into wedges and serve with whipped cream.

TWO. Gourmet's Russian Tea Room Cheesecake

2-1/2 8-oz pkg cream cheese softened
1-1/4 sticks unsalted butter softened
1-1/2 c sugar [reduce to1c]
8 lg eggs, large separated
2 tsp lemon zest
2 Tbs lemon juice
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp orange-blossom water
1/2 tsp almond extract
1/4 c cornstarch

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Butter bottom and side of springform pan. Line bottom with round of parchment and butter round. Butter 1 side of parchment strip and fit unbuttered side of strip against buttered side of pan. (Strip will extend 2 inches above rim of pan.)

Beat together cream cheese, butter, 3/4 cup sugar, egg yolks, zest, juice, vanilla, orange-flower water, and almond extract in a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium speed until creamy, about 2 minutes in a standing mixer or 3 minutes with a handheld. Add cornstarch and mix at low speed until just combined.

Beat egg whites in another large bowl with cleaned beaters at medium speed until whites just hold soft peaks. Add remaining 3/4 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, beating, then increase speed to high and continue beating until meringue holds stiff, glossy peaks, about 2 minutes in standing mixer or 3 minutes with handheld.

Fold one fourth of whites into cream cheese mixture to lighten, then fold in remaining whites gently but thoroughly.

Line outside of springform pan with foil (covering bottom and about 1 inch up side) to waterproof. Pour batter into pan and gently smooth top. Bake in a hot water bath in middle of oven until top is golden but cake trembles slightly when pan is shaken gently, 55 to 65 minutes. (Cheesecake will rise in oven, but then will fall slightly and set as it cools.) Transfer springform pan to a rack to cool completely, then chill, loosely covered, at least 8 hours.

THREE. The Family Kitchen's Brownie Pie

1 pie shells
1/2 c Flour
1 stick butter melted
1/2 c cocoa powder
3 eggs, large
1/2 c sugar
1/2 c dark brown sugar
1/4 tsp Salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 c pecans chopped, roasted
1/3 c chocolate chips milk or dark
caramel sauce warmed

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Roast chopped pecans in preheated oven for 5 -7 minutes, or until fragrant.

2. Combine sugars and melted butter in a large bowl. Whisk until well-incorporated. Add eggs, one at a time, until incorporated. Add cocoa powder and whisk until incorporated. Add flour and salt, whisk until incorportated. Add vanilla and whisk again.

3. Roll out pie crust in a pie plate. Trim and crimp edges. Pour brownie batter in pie crust. Bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes. Pie is done when toothpick is inserted into the middle of the pie and comes out clean.

4. Just as soon as the pie comes out of the oven, top with chocolate chips, pecans and caramel. Warm caramel first in the microwave before drizzling on top of pie.

Once one of the batters is made, spread a little at the bottom of a springform pan whose bottom is lined with parchment paper.

Carefully release the pie from its pie pan, and smear some batter along its slanty edges. Then place the be-smeared pie right-side up in the batter in the springform pan. Top with remaining batter.

Bake according to cake recipe.

FOUR. Williams-Sonoma's Marzipan Cake

1 c sugar
6 oz marzipan
1-1/2 sticks unsalted butter room temp
1/4 tsp almond extract
5 eggs, large room temp
3/4 c all-purpose flour plus 2 Tbs
1-1/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp Salt

Preheat an oven to 350°F. Butter an 8 1/2-by-
4 1/2-by-2 1/2-inch loaf pan and dust with flour. Tap out the excess flour.

Using an electric mixer or food processor fitted with the metal blade, pulverize together the sugar and marzipan until the mixture is in fine pieces. If a food processor was used, transfer the mixture to a large bowl.

Add the butter and almond extract and mix until light and fluffy, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition until thoroughly combined. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt over the egg mixture and beat in just until thoroughly blended.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean and the top springs back when lightly pressed, about 1 1/4 hours. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and let cool for 15 minutes. Run a knife blade around the edge of the cake and invert onto the rack. Lift off the pan and cool the cake upright on the rack for at least 30 minutes before serving. Serves 8 to 10.

Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Seasonal Celebration Series,Spring,by Joanne Weir (Time-Life Books, 1997).

FIVE. Williams-Sonoma's Sour Cream-Chocolate Bundt Cake

2-1/4 c all-purpose flour
1 c unsweetened cocoa
2 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp Salt
2 sticks unsalted butter
1-1/2 c granulated sugar
4 eggs, large lightly beaten
1 tsp vanilla extract
1-1/2 c sour cream
6 oz bittersweet chocolate melted and cooled

Have all the ingredients at room temperature.

Position a rack in the center of an oven and preheat to 325°F. Grease and flour a decorative 10-cup Bundt® pan.

To make the cake, over a sheet of waxed paper, sift together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda and salt; repeat until well blended. Set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the flat beater, beat the butter on medium speed until smooth and creamy, 30 to 45 seconds. Reduce the speed to low and gradually add the granulated sugar, beating until blended. Increase the speed to medium-high and continue beating, occasionally scraping down the sides of the bowl, until the mixture is light and fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the eggs a little at a time, beating each addition until incorporated before adding more, until the mixture is thick and creamy, 1 to 2 minutes; stop mixer occasionally and scrape down the sides of the bowl. Beat in the vanilla. Reduce the speed to low and fold in the flour mixture in three additions, alternating with the sour cream and beginning and ending with the flour, until just blended and no lumps of flour remain. Then gently fold in the chocolate.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan, spreading the batter so the sides are about 1 inch higher than the center. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, about 1 hour. Transfer to a wire rack and cool the cake upright in the pan for 10 minutes.

SIX. Madeira Cake (source?)

175 g butter, unsalted room temp
175 g sugar
3 lg eggs, large
250 g flour, self-rising
1/2 tsp baking powder
pinch Salt
3 Tbs whole milk
1 lemon lemon zest
sugar for topping (skip)
candied peel for topping (skip)

Preheat oven to 350F (180C)

Cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time and beat thoroughly to incorporate after each addition. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together into a bowl then fold into the creamed butter and egg mixture. Add the lemon zest and mix in well. Add enough of the milk to form a soft batter then turn into a 15cm cake tin that's been thoroughly greased.

Sift a little caster sugar over the top of the cake then place in an oven pre-heated to 180°C and bake for about 20 minutes, then lay the slices of peel on top. Return to the oven and continue cooking for a further 45 minutes, or until the top of the cake is golden and a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake emerges cleanly.

Allow to cool in the tin for 10 minutes, then turn onto a wire rack and allow to cool completely.

SEVEN. Mocha French Buttercream

8 egg yolks 2 tablespoons instant powdered coffee
1 pound unsalted butter, preferably espresso
softened ½ cup water
1 ¼ cups sugar 2 tablespoons dark rum

Beat the 8 egg yolks in a large bowl with a whisk or rotary or electric beater until they are thick and lemon colored. In another bowl. cream the pound of softened butter until light and fluffy.

Combine the sugar, coffee and water in a small saucepan, and bring to a boil Over moderate heat, stirring until the sugar and coffee dissolve. Boil briskly without stirring until the syrup thickens and reaches a temperature of 236 on a candy the thermometer, or until a drop spooned into cold water immediately forms a soft ball.

Immediately pour the hot syrup in a thin stream into the egg yolks, beating constantly. Continue beating for 10-15 minutes longer, until the mixture cools to room temperature and becomes a thick, smooth cream. Then beat in the creamed butter, 1 tablespoon or so at a time, and finally stir in the rum. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, or until the cream is firm enough to spread easily.

EIGHT. Whipped Ganache

About 18 ounces good quality dark and bittersweet baking chocolate
an equal quantity of heavy cream

Chop chocolate and place in blender.

Bring cream to a boil and pour over chocolate. Let sit 5 minutes. Blend until smooth.

Cool in the fridge to something approaching room temperature. Beat in an electric mixer a long time till fluffy.

Put bottom pie-cake layer on cake plate. Smear top with half of whipped ganache, making sure it is level.

Top with second layer, and smear that with remaining ganache.

Top that with third layer. Smear entire thing with Mocha buttercream. Eat. Or not.

There you go. Easy peasy.

The Ks spent the night, so the following morning we got to introduce them to Dos Amigos' pork carnitas tacos, one of the best things in the known universe. Have you been to Dos Amigos on a Sunday to try their pork carnitas tacos? No? Go! Go!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Mager Cemetery

"The Mager grade school once stood adjacent to this cemetery. The water supply was furnished by the well which still stands south of the cemetery. The school house had also served for a [??? as a place?]"

Matt & I like cemeteries. We're not big-time hobbyists taking rubbings or doing systematic regional surveys--not that there's anything wrong with that--but we just have a casual but long-term affection for old cemeteries. New ones you can keep, with their sharp-edged headstones tidily flush with the ground so that the dead in no way impede the lawnmowers of the maintenance crews. But old ones, with their curiously mawkish or curiously morbid inscriptions, their often puzzling imagery, their fascinating old names, and their decades-old plantings thriving on human fertilizer--old cemeteries we quite like.

We were in a roving sort of mood today, so we decided to motor off into the countryside and see what we could find. We were going to start in Coupland just because it's close, but their cemetery is treeless, which Matt disapproves of, so instead we turned east of toward Beyersville.

(Yeah, you know, "Beyersville." No? Actually, we've been here 3 years, and this is the first time we've heard about it either. Nor its sister metropolis, Structure. I doubt if together they have a population of 50 people. We never found Structure (or else we drove through it without realizing?) but Beyersville appears to be a tiny knot of ancient clapboard houses on a hill and--inexplicably--a mini-storage business. That's it.)

Anyway, long story short, we stumbled upon this neat little German cemetery just outside of Beyersville. In its suburbs, as it were. It's called Mager Cemetery, and it has a nice grove of nearly leafless trees, a pretty view of an unassuming little swale and some rolling pasture, and a bunch of naturalized old bulbs.

The light was so intense that photographing was rather difficult, but everything was brown or leafless or spare, which made the whole thing interestingly desolate and lonely.

It's all empty farmland out there for miles and miles--very few trees, very thinly settled.

Sam Wernli[?], 1859 - 1916

The area was settled by Germans (Mager was a German family that founded the cemetery), and some of the tombstones are actually in German, like that of little Reuben Wm. Mager, who died in 1926, just a few months old. It says (I think):

Shlaf wohl von deinen / Lieben fern, bis wir uns/wiedersehn, beim Herrn

Little Reuben William Mager, 1925 - 1926

Babelfish, ever helpful, translates this as:

Sleep probably of yours/love far, until we/again-long yourself, with the gentleman

Very touching sentiment.

A few of the tombstones have attracted lichen, though the organisms evidently draw a heavy distinction between the rough decorative finish in the center of this stone and the smooth finish in the margins. Headstone designers, take note: rough stone around the edges, smooth stone where the writing is would be a better arrangement.

Sophie Harms, Mother. 1886 - 1906.

One of the many things I like about old cemeteries is how people were able to mark graves with a living tree or shrub, instead of one of those awful sterile little metal vases sticking up out of the ground holding plastic flowers. And since the people were buried in things that were capable of decay, and they were, themselves, allowed to decay instead of being pumped full of nasty chemicals, fifty or a hundred years later, their plants still flourish. Though the people are gone, their substance has been reabsorbed into the living, breathing world around them. Much better than being mummified in a horrible cement bunker, though I suppose Nefertiti and Hatsepshut and Akhenaten and all the rest would disagree with me about that.

In this cemetery, a century after her premature death, little 4-year-old Clara Walther has transubstantiated into a glossy-limbed crape myrtle.

Clara Walther, 1906 - 1910

And a couple of folks have sprouted venerable old rose bushes, including one that I suspect is a swamp rose (Rosa palustris).

Long-lived Barbara Thonig, 1832 - 1922

I don't know what kind of rose this is, nor whom it marks--I'd like to take cuttings of both, though, and return in the spring to see them in bloom.

Karl Shlenfeldt, 1879 - 1908

Mager was our big find for the day--Coupland, Butler, and Structure (if we ever passed it) didn't turn up anything good, at least not from FM 1468, 419, or 696.

However, when I looked up Beyersville back at the house, I found a list of nearby communities:
  • Beaukiss, TX (6.8 miles SE)
  • Carlson, TX (9.3 miles SW)
  • Conoley, TX (10.1 miles ENE)
  • Frame Switch, TX (8.5 miles WNW)
  • Lund, TX (8.2 miles SSW)
  • Noack, TX (3.6 miles NNE)
  • Norman, TX (9.9 miles W)
  • Normans Crossing, TX (9.7 miles W)
  • Rices Crossing, TX (8 miles WSW)
  • Sandoval, TX (9.3 miles NNE)
  • Shiloh, TX (7.6 miles E)
  • Siloam, TX (6.4 miles SSE)
  • Thrall, TX (6 miles NNE)
  • Type, TX (4.7 miles SSW)
  • Waterloo, TX (9.6 miles NNW)
  • Wuthrich Hill, TX (8.2 miles NNW)
Surely, there are bound to be a few more good cemeteries in Type, Frame Switch, or Noack, right?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

WHAT a Nice Weekend!

It was beautifully Novermbery this weekend--very grey and dull gold. The sky was all mottled and sulky, and all over town leaves are turning. A good color scheme for the sort of chic, minimalist, neo-60s interior design I would never have. It would make a very elegant sofa.

Yesterday, Matt shoveled all the remaining crushed granite around the flagstones on the terrace. He does a much better job than I do: somehow, his section is much firmer and stabler than mine. (Matt is generally better than I am at manipulating and arranging physical objects--he just knows how to make them go.) In this case, I think he used water to help pack the granite in and fill in any voids.

Meanwhile, I installed the remaining landscape lights--we replaced the uplights on the Montezuma cypress and 'Purple Robe' black locust with lower wattage lights (the existing lights were a little too... much) and added a few more pathlights.

What this means is: the terrace is done! Huzzah! The entire pond project still has several more phases, but the terrace part: finis.

Our friends Kate & Keith joined us for dinner to celebrate the inauguration of the terrace. Matt's grandfather had given us a whole bunch of frozen venison, including three "doe hams." So we had grilled venison ham with asparagus and mushroom Israeli couscous and spinach-cranberry salad. Keith handled the grilling of the venison while I finished the couscous, which turned out to be a good thing. Venison ham is a weird cut. I think it's actually any of several cuts of meat from the deer's haunches, since the first doe ham, which we marinated and roasted in the oven last week, was a solid chunk, while the one we served the Ks was a sort of long thin chain of meat, shaped kind of like a sirloin flap for fajitas, only lumpier. I knew I was going to have trouble using a meat thermometer with such a thin, irregular piece of meat, and I was afraid of overcooking it. Keith managed it nevertheless, and it turned out very tender and flavorful.

Then we sat around the fire, listened to the fountain, and chatted about this and that.

And then this morning Matt & I biked over to Dos Amigos for some delicioso pork carnitas tacos.

The weather was beautiful all day, so while Matt worked on his greenhouse, I tidied the climbing roses a bit and painted some stones as markers for some of the crinums and tender perennials.

All in all, a very good weekend.

Grilled Venison Ham Recipe
Marinate the venison for 8 hours in ~1/2 c olive oil, ~1/2 c wine (I had white on hand, but red might make more sense), 5-6 sprigs rosemary, 1-1/2 tsp salt, and 1-1/2 tsp ground black pepper.

Using a very sharp knife, lard the ham with chunks or pieces of bacon. (We used bacon chunks that we bought last spring at Dzuik's in Castroville.) Larding involves cutting small (~3/4") deep incisions in the thick part of the meat and then stuffing a piece of bacon into each.

Heat the grill to medium-high. Grill until a thermometer inserted in the thick part of the meat reads 150F (medium).

Let the meat rest for 10 minutes, and then slice thinly.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Just Me and Mr Shovel

There were big doings around the pond last weekend. Here is a hint:

Something has changed--but what is it?

To be a little more explicit, this is what it used to look like:

Great big honkin dirt pile on right--4 cu. yds.

Now it looks like this:

That dirt pile is ALL GONE.

Where did it all go? In the new beds around the pond:

The new beds wrap around the pond, are interrupted by the baby bur oak, and then follow the walk around to the shade patio

We plan to put the barbecue pit here, behind a trellis.

We've been having fires on the terrace at night.

And I moved it all by myself. Zoiks, that was a lot of hard labor. And we have to do it all over again with the crushed granite to fill in the patio. :-(

Worth it, though. Love, love, love the pond, terrace, and beds.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Awesome Freaky Rose

A couple of days ago, I wondered on this blog which roses would end up populating our still-in-progress pond beds.

The answer came a little sooner than expected: deliciously weird floribunda 'Wedding Cake' (Ralph Moore, 2006).

It's rather rare, but Rogue Valley Roses offered it as wait-listed. It wasn't much of a wait, though, because I signed up yesterday and got an email offering the rose today. I hadn't actually meant to commit quite so soon, but what the hell.

Here's one of the very few pictures I was able to find online:

Photo posted by the_dark_lady on gardenweb. You can see a few more pix at

Isn't it nifty, with those odd greeny undertones near the center?

It is a modern (that sound you hear in the background is Matt pretending to gag--he doesn't think much of moderns) and a relative unknown, so it's a bit of a risk, but as rose dorks I think we have a responsibility toward the peculiar and fabulous. And I, for one, do my duty.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Scary Black Foam and Other Pond Endeavors

We put it off as long as we decently could, but it was finally time to dismantle the waterfall that came with the property and rebuild it in a new, shiny, more waterproof fashion.

The three key elements for this project were:
  1. a large scrap of pond liner
  2. a lever + Matt's muscles
  3. pond foam
You can see all three (minus the muscles) in the pic below. We used the liner scrap to make a sort of diaper beneath the top layers of rock. The hope is that any water that doesn't drop straight into the pond will collect in the diaper and drain into the pond from behind the waterfall.

The waterfall rock pile, in the middle of our reconstruction efforts.

Many months ago, Bob from Draco Gardens had suggested the use of puffy foam-in-a-can to stick the rocks to the edge of the pond. It was only later that I discovered that foam-in-a-can actually comes in a special pond flavor (i.e. black) to blend in with the liner.

It's like Easy Cheese, only black!

It's useful stuff, but watching an oozy black blob suddenly erupting from within the crevices of the waterfall is a little unnerving. Reminded me of some low-budget horror film about The Thing from the Swamp (actually, I think it was Creepshow II. How the hell I know anything about Creepshow II is a mystery to me, but there it is.) Ultimately, we will need to cut off the excess foam, but we're letting it cure first.

So after putting the diaper in place and using the foam to create a channel on the main tongue of the waterfall, Matt worked on levering the massive top rock back into place. What's weird is that this actually worked. One man and a stick. Moved that giant rock several feet. Kind of amazing. Am now so unimpressed by ancient Egyptians and their weenie little pyramids.

Matt, showing the ancient Egyptians how to get stuff done

We still need to put more rocks on the waterfall tongue, cut off the extra foam, and put more foam inside the waterfall to control the water, and there are more big rocks to be levered into place somehow. Nevertheless, we're very close to having a working waterfall here. How the fish will enjoy all that water circulation and oxygenation!

At the same time that Matt was levering like mad, I was shoveling. We bought 4 cubic yards of topsoil from Bert's Dirts and 3 cu yds of crushed granite to finish off the terrace and build up the bed around the pond. Matt didn't want my help with the boulders (he seems convinced--perhaps not entirely without reason--that I would find a way to drop one of those 400-lb boulders on my own head. I'd argue the point, but I've still got a knot on my right foot from where I dropped a flagstone on myself a month ago. Ouch.) So I worked on the dirt. I shoveled about 1.5 cu yds of the soil into the new bed (will add pic later), which filled the existing part about 2/3. We still need to edge about as much space again, so there is more shoveling in my future.


7 cubic yards of stuff that needs to be shoveled. Oh my God.

But after that--more roses! Will it be the eglantine rose? 'Abraham Darby'? 'Mme Wagram'? 'Bayse's Purple'? 'White Pearl in Red Dragon's Mouth'? 'Wedding Cake'? 'Honey Dijon'? 'Tipsy Imperial Concubine'?

(Actually, I can pretty much guarantee that it will involve 'Tipsy Imperial Concubine.' That's a name too good to pass up, nevermind that it's a rather prettyish old Tea rose.)

Unrelated Addendum: Guess what's happening right now? It's raining! For the first time in over a month! I love rain!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Llama Poop, Firepit, Farewell to a Fish

Something like 10 years ago, my husband had access to a copious supply of llama manure. He used it on his gourd vines, and they grew an absolute treat.

Now that we're adding new beds, I thought I'd see if I could find a local source for the good stuff. The South Central Llama Association was able to hook me up with some charming local farmers and their fetching camelids who let us shovel away all the brown gold we wanted. I think they were slightly disappointed that we didn't take more.

Llama poop

Llama poop is funny stuff. It comes in large, dry pellets that smell like a petting zoo (much less stinky than cow, horse, or chicken poop, for instance--more like goats or sheep, I guess?). They're very compact, and they neither squoosh nor crumble when stepped on. Kind of remarkable, really--might be suitable as insulation on the space shuttle.

The poop isn't composted. This seems risky, but there will be a lull of at least one or two months before the plants start to go in, so it should at least be weathered by then. Also, interestingly, the llama farmers actually grow their tomatoes and peppers in raised beds filled with nothing but fresh llama poop and a little sand! Apparently, it doesn't burn the way other kinds of manure do. Odd, but convenient.

You can see the poop in action below: we're wrapping a new bed around the pond, and we've sprinkled the area generously with llama offerings. Next paycheck (probably) we'll buy topsoil and mulch to raise the bed to the level of the pond ledge and hide all the black pond liner.

I can't remember if I've actually shown any pictures of our rock in action. Lovingly hand laid by local artisans (i.e. Matt & me). It was not quite as much work as it looks like, but it was fully every bit as expensive as you might imagine.

We put down groundcloth to keep back the weeds, added 1-2" sand, and laid the rocks on top. In that same paycheck in which we buy topsoil, we'll also buy crushed granite to fill everything in. Till then, the patio's a little dangerous--the rocks aren't at all stable yet, and they like to suddenly pop up and tip you over, as my scraped ankles and elbows attest.

Matt & I have started using it, all the same. The nights have been so beautiful all month that we've been lighting up the fire pit and sitting out by the pond. So serene. It's so strange to really do nothing--not read, not mess around on the internet--nothing. Just look at the stars, watch the fire, and listen to the water. I think it might be good for me.

Our other essential pond project is a modest amount of landscape lighting. We don't often get random drunks or zombies straying across the property, but should one lumber on over, I don't want them falling in the pond. Also, it's slightly easier to balance safely on the flagstones if you can see them (the flagstones, that is, not the zombies. Though those too, come to think of it).

We've got the transformer, wires, and a handful of fixtures, but we need about 10 more path lights and we still need to hook it all together. Still, you can see the two that will go at the edge of the terrace in the picture below. Hopefully, they'll be fairly unobtrusive but still effective. I'm not looking for the full-on LET-THERE-BE-LIIIIIIIIIIIIGHT!!!! Effect--just some subtle glowy spots to prevent bloodshed.

Meanwhile, amidst all this progress, some sad news: I can't find Safety First anywhere. I've looked for him every time I've been out there, but no sign so far. We haven't lost any of our adults up to the point--I wouldn't have thought the cautious Safety First would have been the first to go. But perhaps he sacrificed himself heroically, distracting a voracious heron that was eying the small fry. If so, it was not in vain--I counted over 30 baby/adolescent fish yesterday. You may be gone, Safety First, but your legacy lives on.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum

San Francisco Trip, Part 2

Eucalyptus bark. I couldn't believe how huge these things get in CA. And they're everywhere.

Our other big hort excursion in SF was the San Francisco Botanical Garden at Golden Gate Park. Wow, was that humbling. In general, I'm glad that I majored in horticulture rather than botany, but on trips like this, I remember the drawbacks to a horticentric education: my plant knowledge is so location specific. If I had spent more time studying plant taxonomy & morphology, I wouldn't be so utterly bewildered when dropped in an alien ecosystem.

Fortunately, the signage at the SFBG was really pretty good, and we were able to identify most of the plants were interested in. And these were many. Most would probably fry in our heat, but I'd like to try at least a few.

We started out in the prehistoric plants section, where, interestingly, the plants are said to be microchipped.

Presumably, some are so valuable that people steal them. Perhaps this nifty sago--I know big cycads can be worth a lot of money, and this one has an especially ferny quality to it.

Cycas pectinata. Tight like Fort Knox?

Or this neat tree fern--someone would pay a lot for that black quill-like bark, right?

Dicksonia squarrosa

There was also a dwarf equisetum in this area. It's native to only the very top of the US, and it's listed as endangered in a few states. This blows my mind. It's possible to endanger an equisetum? How? With plutonium?

Equisetum scirpoides: adorable, grass-like, and ancient

Elsewhere in the garden, we found this Cuphea nudicostata, which Matt would like to grow. It has the nicest deep cherry red flowers. Green is my favorite color, but I never do get tired of deep cherry red.

Cuphea nudicostata - unusually large flowers for a cuphea

In a similar vein, I was delighted by the big fuzzy spikes of the red velvet sage, Salvia confertiflora.

Salvia confertiflora. That has to grow here, right? All salvias grow in Texas.

Then there's this elegant Kashmir cypress, Cupressus torulosa var. cashmeriana.

Cupressus torulosa var. cashmeriana

Dave's Garden only has two members growing this one, but one is in Houston. So there's hope! It's got the most artistic-looking flat zig-zaggy leaves, and I love its graceful droopiness.

Kashmir cypress leaves

Then there are the plants I'm not even going to try. This beautiful dome-shaped tree, Maytenus boaria. It's from the cloud forests of Chile. It looks like it doesn't know the meaning of the word "August."

The delicately ferny foliage of the Maytenus boaria

This exuberantly flowered little tree with the absurd moniker of Fremontodendron. It goes from sulphur yellow (in the background) to that awesome peachy-orange in the foreground. Despite the leathery leaves, it just doesn't feel to me like it could live here.

Fremontodendron 'California Glory'

And finally, awesome though it is, I have no hope at all for this beautiful and unexpected orange passionflower, Passiflora parritae. Apparently, it drops its flowers once the temperature reaches 90 degrees F. Beautiful, but wimpy.

The beautiful but finicky Passiflora parritae

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Falling Piers, Muir Woods, & the Taxodiaceae

San Francisco Vacation, Part 1

We just got back from our vacation to San Francisco--phew! There was a lot to see in a small space of time. I wore holes in my feet and caught a cold, but we saw a lot of lovely things, at some scrumptious food, and enjoyed just being in a place that was so very different from our everyday lives.

Being plant dorks with a limited time, we managed to miss Alcatrez and Chinatown, but we did see Muir Woods and the botanical garden at Golden Gate Park.

I think this was Matt's Favorite Thing from the whole trip:

It's a sign that warns you not to walk on the rickety old part of the pier because it could fall down under your weight... and then pieces of it might hit a passing swimmer. Please: Think of the swimmers.

And I made an exciting culinary discovery within the first couple of hours of being in the city: Vietnamese pancakes, or banh xeo.

I've never noticed them on the menus of local Vietnamese places, but they're scrumptious crispy crepey confections, just slightly sweet, with a stir-fried savory filling. Yummy.

Butmy favorite part was probably Muir Woods. We took this pretty road to get there.

Muir Woods is populated by coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens), which are the tallest trees in the world. They are not, however, the most massive trees in the world: those are their cousins, giant redwoods (Sequoiadendron giganteum). Giant redwoods are the ones you can drive cars through. While coast redwoods are no slouches in the diameter department, the tree below may be the widest we saw in the park.

I was interested to see that the National Park Service still describes redwoods as members of the Taxodiaceae. That family was named for one of my favorite tree species, Taxodium distichum or baldcypress. Sadly for the honor of my favorite tree and my home state (it's the state tree of Louisiana), recent genetic research caused that family to be dissolved into the larger cypress family, the Cupressaceae (for the curious, here's a phylogenetic tree of the Cupressaceae, showing the genera it currently contains).

But baldcypresses and redwoods share a certain something or other that sets them apart from their cypressy cousins, like junipers, Italian cypresses, and arborvitae. Even baldcypresses have an august, primordial quality, and that same narrow, linear form. Below you can see an impressive example of the deeply furrowed bark that is characteristic of the former family.

And this tree--in addition to being covered in interesting aqua-colored lichen--exhibits the same graceful flare at its base as baldcypresses do.

Nevertheless, folks who know a great deal more than I do about botany, plant physiology, and genetics seem persuaded that the new classification is the most accurate. And it does now put the tallest tree, the most massive tree, and the longest lived tree (Fitzroya cupressoides) in the same family, which is kind of neat.

We took the main trail, which is paved and very congested, and took the first turnoff (Ocean View? Something like that). That trail goes up the mountain by way of a bunch of steps and is WAY quieter than the main trail. It's less lush, but there are no joggers up there (there were joggers on the main trail! Galumphing along, getting underfoot, and generally harshing the redwood mellow). The Ocean View runs into the Lost Trail, which takes you to the Fern Creek trail, which, by innumerable knee-jarring stairs, takes you back down to the main trail. The beauty of this route is that you get lots of quality alone time with the trees, and at the end of your exertions, you're rewarded with the best of the trees--the ones in the part of the trail that runs along Fern Creek at the base of the mountain. These are the biggest, most lush, and most mossy and lichenous of the lot. And the creek's beautiful too.

Many of the trees in the park are hollow, which doesn't seem to bother them one bit.

And, of course, there are fallen trees, which form an important part of the forest ecosystem. They also look really neat.

There were other interesting plants in the park. These dessicated ferns glowed in the dim forest light.

And there was moss everywhere, making everything look soft and green and fertile.

...More to follow...

Bob asked if we saw any Pacific black-tailed deer while in Muir Woods. In fact, we did (or at least we saw a deer with a black tail--presume it's the PBTD), and we even snapped a picture:

Click picture for larger version

It looked at us inquisitively, determined we did not have any food, and slouched off in a huff. Or something like that, anyway.

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