Saturday, December 23, 2017

Easy Strawberry Cream Cheese

I've been a label reader for years.  I normally check the ingredients on everything before I buy it.  I never worried about the strawberry cream cheese because all it should contain is cream cheese and strawberries, right?  Nope.  Silly me to trust multinational food conglomerates to have my best interests in mind. 

Notice all the extra ingredients in this store-bought brand..... Xanthan gum, guar cum, carob bean gum, whey protein concentrate, whey.  Then you also have color added and "natural" flavor.  Good Grief!

I checked a block of plain cream cheese.  Many fewer ingredients.  I think I can probably live with Carob Bean Gum.  

So, I asked myself.....Why not make my own strawberry cream cheese?  Here's how I did it.

Put 4-5 frozen strawberries in a food processor.

Give them a whirl.  You may want to let them thaw just a little bit.

Add a block of softened cream cheese that has been cut into 4 pieces.  You may also want to add 2-3 tablespoons of powdered sugar, depending on the sweetness of the strawberries.

Process it until it is the consistency you like.

Put it in an air-tight container and store in the frig.

This is so much better tasting than the store-bought kind.  One bag of frozen strawberries makes several batches.  Come to think about it, I have never checked the ingredients on frozen strawberries.  Surely they only contain strawberries?  Sigh.  I better go check.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Winter Walk and Frost Flowers

Winter has finally arrived.  Last night it was in the teens and today the high temp is supposed to be in the 40s.  However, that did not keep Sally and I from going on our morning walk.  This is Sally.

She is patiently waiting for me to get my shoes on.  Once that is accomplished, we are off.  We usually head out to the road through our front meadow.  We mow this 2-3 times a year, but always leave clumps of grasses to add interest in the fall and winter when the wildflowers are not in bloom.

The cat usually tags along, as well.

This morning the grass was frosty and we could see some deer trails through the frost.

I also noticed some small icy clumps in the grass.  I've learned these are called "frost flowers".

Here's a closer look at one.

Sometimes these form into "ribbons" and are really beautiful, like this one.

There is a row of cedar trees across the road from us.  The female trees have berries, like those below, which are a dusty blue color.  Beautiful!

Finally, I love this picture I took a while back of the road that goes by our place.

It reminds me of the old John Denver song, Take me Home Country Road.  

Monday, November 6, 2017

After the Frost

We had our first killing frost about a week ago.  That doesn't mean all plants were killed.  There are plenty of things that are still going strong.  The pictures below show some of them.

The sage (back) and rosemary (front) that I planted in the cattle tubs did fabulously this summer and were not damaged by the frost.  (See my blogs on our cattle tub garden:   Cattle Tub Container Garden and Cattle Tub Update )

The pots of plants on our south porch are still looking good.  In the foreground are tarragon and parsley.  I grew these in fabric bags made especially for plants.  I bought these several years ago and they work really well.  I may move these into the greenhouse when the temperatures get really cold.  Behind these are some petunias that are still happy.  On a the colder nights, I move them close to the wall of the house and, so far, they have yet to freeze.

These containers are at the corner of the greenhouse.  The large one in back is a pot of thyme that I have had for several years.  The pots in front used to contain petunias and basil.  The petunias got too much sun this summer and didn't survive, and the basil began looking sick when the nights got cool.  I pulled them out and the small fern-like plants that were left are chamomile seedlings that come up volunteer every year from the previous year's plants.  

In the garden, the comfrey looks great.  Comfrey is an herb that is suppose to have  medicinal properties that make it good for bruises, sprains and broken bones.  I've never used it for any of those ailments, but it has beautiful flowers in the spring which makes it well worth growing.  

Out in the field, we've planted Austrian winter peas and oats for a cover crop.  These will be tilled in next spring to provide organic matter to the soil and the peas will provide nitrogen.  

The chickens have been scratching in the compost pile and have scattered it out.  We need to get the tractor, scoop it back into a pile and turn it.  Always something to do.

The bees are settling in for the winter.  The bee-keeper has been over a couple of times to check on them and make sure they have enough honey to get them through the winter.

I've saved the best for last.  Last spring we were given some raspberry plants by some friends.  They did well this summer and grew like mad.  We are hoping to have lots of raspberries next summer.  They tend to be somewhat aggressive and will root where ever they touch the ground.  So, we may have twice this many by the end of next summer!

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Butterfly Metamorphisis

I enjoy growing leaf fennel because it is a beautiful plant with yellow flowers and fragrant foliage can be used in recipes.  It also produces fennel seeds that I gather and use in cooking and tea during the winter.  It is winter hardy and drought resistant.  A great plant for flower and herb gardens.

A side advantage of fennel is that it attracts Black Swallowtail butterflies like this one.

The butterflies lay eggs on the fennel and caterpillars, like this one, hatch.  They chow down on the leaves, stems and flowers, but do very little damage to the plant.

I've seen the chrysalises produced by these caterpillars, but have never caught a butterfly emerging from one of these.  So, a couple of weeks ago, when I found one of these I put it in a jar where I could watch it every day and hopefully see the butterfly emerge.

It is difficult to believe a butterfly could come from such a strange object!  Anyway, I put this in a jar and put it on our front porch.

 About a week later, I noticed the chrysalis began to darken.

The next day it looked like this.  You can actually see the wings of the butterfly inside.

I watched if for a while, but had to go to town on an errand.  About 45 minutes later when I got back, here's what I found.

I thought it would take the butterfly longer to emerge from the chrysalis than it did.  I may have to try this again.  I may have to carry the jar around with me if I want to witness the event!  However,  it is too late in the season to redo my "experiment" this year.  I've not seen any of these butterflies in several days.  It is the last part of September at this point and the forecast calls for much cooler weather in the next 24 hours.  I'll try it again next summer.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Native Orchid

I enjoy walking through our native prairie landscape that we have allowed to grow in an area between between our house and the road.

There are hundreds varieties of flowers and grasses out there.  Pictured above are clumps of bluestem grass and a variety of goldenrod called "Rigid Goldenrod".  But, those are not what this post is about.

A couple of days ago I noticed these small white flowers as I was walking out there.  

The flowers grew in a spiral design around the stem.  I fell in love with the little plant and immediately started trying to identify it.  I didn't have much luck on my own, so I posted a picture of it on a Facebook group called Oklahoma Native Plant Society.  Someone there quickly identified it as a native orchid called Ladies Tresses.  

Here's a picture that shows how the flowers spiral around the stem.

And a closer one of the delicate little flowers.

The stem appears to grow right out of the ground without any leaves.

What I've learned from the web is that the leaves of some varieties die before the plant flowers.  So, it must have had leaves at some point.  

This variety is Spiranthes lacera gracilis.  I found a lot of good information about orchids on this site:  North American Orchids

I'm delighted to know that orchids are not limited to the ones you see in greenhouses and that I have them growing in my own yard!  And to think that I've probably walked right by these little beauties many times and never noticed them!  The moral of this story is "Take time to go outside everyday and notice the wonderful plants and animals all around you". 

Sometimes you just need to look down.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Insects in Disguise

This summer I've come across a couple of very interesting insects......a Hoverfly and a Bumblebee Moth.  In each case, I thought these were different insects when I first saw them.  Keep reading and you'll see why.

When I saw the hoverfly, I thought it was a honey bee.  Here's a picture of it.

At first glance, its abdomen certainly looked like that of a honey bee.  But, it was a little bigger than the normal honey bee and then I noticed the green eyes.  A couple of years ago, we attended a a workshop for attracting native pollinators at the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture.  (See blog post Native Pollinator Workshop)  I recall them mentioning a fly that looked like a bee.  This disguise helps the fly avoid being eaten by birds.  Isn't nature amazing!

As it turns out, hoverflies are important pollinators and can be found feeding at flower blossoms or around aphid colonies, where they lay their eggs. The larvae of hover flies are important predators of pests, such as aphids, scales, thrips and caterpillars, rivaled only by ladybird beetles and lacewings.

A few weeks later, I caught a glimpse of what I thought was a bumblebee.  We have a lot of bumblebees.  It was feeding on Vitex (Chaste Tree) flowers near my garden.

I quickly realized it was not a bumblebee because of its elongated shape and the long antennae, but had no idea what it was.  A search of the internet revealed this to be a Bumblebee Moth.  A fitting name, don't you think?  Again, the coloration mimics that of a stinging insect and helps protect the moth from predators.

Bumble Moths are members of the Hawk moth family and are also known as the Snowberry Clearwings. This name refers to the wings, which unlike those of other moths, are translucent.  Like other moths, they have long, slender tongues that are rolled up when not in use which allow them to forage deeper into flowers than other insects.  The adults feed mainly on nectar from flowers, including snowberry (which contributes to their name) and, obviously, Vitex flowers.

Next time you are outside, slow down and take a closer look at the world around you.  There are all manner of fabulous things hiding just under your nose!

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

What's Growing - July 2017

We have consciously cut back on the size of the garden this year.   Because we are getting older and becoming unable to take the heat in the summer, we decided to limit most of our gardening to the spring and fall.  Except for growing a few tomatoes, peppers and corn for ourselves and family, our farmers' market garden is small this summer.  

I have pretty much limited my gardening activities to a small patch between a couple of our outbuildings.  It is close to the house and easy to water.  My intention is to use it mostly for perennial crops, such as elderberries, strawberries, raspberries, Jerusalem artichokes and asparagus, along with some herbs and things that the deer like to eat.  Here's what's growing.

Leaf fennel.  

It has beautiful flowers and attracts Black Swallow-tail butterflies.  In the fall I harvest fennel seeds which make wonderful tea and pastries.

I enjoy having some flowers, as well.  Here are zinnias that came up volunteer from  the six plants that I raised from seed and planted last year.

 Chaste Trees provide beautiful flowers that provide good food for bees.

The elderberry bushes we planted in 2016 are doing well.  We harvested our first fruit from them last week.  Yesterday, I started some elderberry elixir brewing.  It will take 6-8 weeks.  With the rest of the harvest, I plan to make jelly.

Okra is a favorite food of deer.  It is squeezed between the elderberries and asparagus patch, both of which are very tall.  So far, the deer have either not found the okra or are hesitant to go into such a confined place that is so close to human occupation.  At any rate, they have not bothered it.

We obtained these raspberries from a friend earlier this year.  So far, they are going great and I believe they are going to like it here.

Tansy was used in medieval times for medical purposes. I don't know how well it works as medicine but it seems to work great as an insect repellent.  It has lovely, button-shaped flowers, but it has a camphor-like smell.  My mother-in-law used to hang a bunch of it above her garbage can on her back porch. She swore that it kept flies away and I have to admit that I never saw any flies around her trash can!

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Sand Plums

In 2011, we purchased some trees and shrubs that would help provide food and shelter for deer, birds and other wildlife.  We purchased these from the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture - Forest Services Division.   Here's a link to their 2016-2017 packages, along with an order form.

Included in one of our orders were sand plum bushes, also called Chickasaw Plums.  These are very hardy shrubs. They are drought resistant and flourish in sandy soil or heavy clay.  When we planted them, they were just bare-rooted seedlings about a foot tall.  A year later they had grown into small shrubs.

Here are those same shrubs today.  They have created a couple of small thickets.

We have to mow around the them because they send up shoots from the roots and would take up more and more space if left unchecked.

The bushes have pretty white flowers in the spring.  

Even with the late frosts this spring, they still produced a bumper crop of juicy sand plums.

Sand plums do not have a lot of "meat" to them.  In fact, they are small and have a seed inside that takes up half of the fruit.  Even so, they make the most awesome jelly and are well worth growing.  You can see how small they are in this picture.

To make jelly, you have to cook them to extract the juice.  But, first they have to be washed and sorted.  Many of them will have black spots, like this.

There are insects that will bite or sting them causing these black spots.  However, if you cut the plum open, you'll see that it is just fine inside.  In this picture you can see the seed.

There are some plums that you will want to discard, those where the skin is split or have holes that are oozing juice, like these.

This week I picked a batch of plums.  The bushes are not as harmless as they look.  They do not have thorns, but they do have short, pointed twigs that will poke you and can draw blood!  So, it is wise to wear long sleeves when picking the plums.

This is my harvest.

Notice many of them are green or only partially ripe.  This is not a problem, however, because they will ripen quickly if left out on the kitchen counter for a day.  

There are many recipes online for making jelly, but I followed the recipe for plums that was in the Sure-Jell box.  And, here is my finished product.

I only used half the juice that I extracted from the plums.  It is summer and I hate to heat up the kitchen and overwork the A/C.  So, I froze the rest of the juice and will make jelly this winter when it's cold outside.