Thursday, July 24, 2014

Mid to Late July 2014 - Never a Dull Moment - Bobcat Attack!

We've had some excitement around here this summer in the form of predators.   We found a non-poisonous snake in our vegetable garden that was very aggressive and who kept hissing at us.  We decided to move him to an uninhabited area just in case he decided to bite us.  It is likely that if he showed up in a neighbor's yard he probably wouldn't survive.  We believe he is a Louisiana Pine snake.  Apparently this snake is not very common - I'm glad he survived.
http://www.nwf.org/wildlife/wildlife-library/amphibians-reptiles-and-fish/louisiana-pine-snake.aspx




Unfortunately we had a another kind of predator get in our yard and chicken coop yesterday and last night.  We lost 3 hens!  This is the crime scene that we found this morning.  We had kept the door to the chicken tractor open to allow the girls to find shelter under the trees and bushes during the heat of the day - we knew it was a risk leaving it open, but we still weren't prepared to lose 3 chickens in a 24 hour period. We are very sad about it.

Although we are surrounded by neighbors with dogs, we believe it is unlikely a dog would have crawled up in the top of the tractor to kill 2 of the 3 hens and then drag them down the stairs.  Owls and hawks would also not have went up into the top of the coop.  This is more likely the work of a possum, raccoon, bobcat, or fox.

Our Black Australorps hen, Jonie is very upset right now - she keeps calling for her hen flock.  In addition to seeing her flock get attacked and killed, now she is all alone.  We are keeping her locked up in the chicken tractor until we can try to find out what attacked the other hens.  We set up an IP camera (see in foreground) so we can look for the chicken thief should he come back for another meal (hopefully he can't get in).

The camera we set up yielded 3 visitors to our coop in the evening.  The first was our little dog Festus.


The second was the black & white neighborhood cat who I named "Diana the Huntress" because she is such a good mouser.  


And last night we identified the chicken thief!  A Bobcat!!!   I'm honestly surprised - I thought it was either a raccoon or a possum.  A warning to my neighbors if they have outdoor dogs and cats!


On to happier subjects, I saw this beautiful dragonfly the other evening in my garden.  Luckily I captured a picture.

Here is a deceased dragonfly I found on the back porch - I wanted to share its lovely red color. 


Now on to the flora - the most showy flower in the garden now is the Trumpet Vine.  It is very popular with Hummingbirds.

On to fruits, nuts and vegies - we harvested our first Almonds from our Almond tree this week.

We didn't harvest very many - but here they are.  We were happy that the cold winter didn't freeze them.



The Fig tree is loaded with fruit this year.  This tree is about 3 years old. 

This is the first night that ripe figs were ready to be picked. 

Cantaloupe will soon be ready.

Watermelon


Crepe myrtles are in full bloom - even in drought.  They are the only thing besides the trumpet vine that looks pretty right now.

And finally, a Gray Hairstreak butterfly on Butterfly Weed

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Not So-Lazy Days of Summer - Our First Canning Experiences

Early July finds us very busy around here - it is harvest season for some of our produce.  The past two weekends have been spent canning peach preserves and garlic dill pickles.  This was our first time to can but the end product turned out pretty well.  We learned some lessons and will improve our products next year.

Making Peach Preserves.
Place ripe peaches in boiling water for about 1 minute and then transfer them to ice water and then remove from water.  This exercise helped us to peel the peaches easily (we also do this to remove skins from tomatoes easily).  We found a recipe for making peach preserves that was recommended by the Georgia Peach Council.  http://gapeaches.org/recipes/homemade-peach-preserves/

I decided on this particular recipe because it called less sugar per 4 cups of peaches than the Ball Canning Book recommended.  Basically 5 cups of sugar per 4 cups of peaches.  The Ball recipe called for 7 cups of sugar to 4 cups of peaches.  Regarding the sugar versus peaches ratio - I found an interesting article regarding the ratio of sugar to peaches.  Sugar increases the shelf life, but we are eating the preserves so fast that they will be gone in 6 months so we have no worries about needing a very long shelf life.  Here is the article for reference.  http://foodinjars.com/2012/07/canning-101-sugars-role-in-home-preserved-food/


Getting our supplies together.


 We sterilized the equipment.


1/4 cup Lemon juice per 4 cups peaches is added to keep the peaches from turning brown.

For each 4 cups of peaches, the recipe we used called for 5 cups of sugar.

 1 package Sure Jell per 4 cups of peaches for thickening.

 5 cups sugar per 4 cups peaches

Adding Sure-Jell to the peaches.

Bringing the peaches and Sure-Jell to a boil and simmer.

Add Sugar and boil for an additional minute - here is another mistake we made.  We cooked the peach preserves with sugar too long and the mixture darkened (caramelized).

 The sterilized equipment is ready.

After pouring the preserves in each jar, we placed clean lids and rings on each jar until finger tight and boiled the jars for 15 minutes (make sure the jars are covered in water - at least one or two inches above the top of the jar). The link I provided above says 5 minutes but we increased the time based on other recipes we found.

See our finished project.  We made 24 pints.  The preserves are delicious.  We are already on our third pint.  However, note the dark color - as I said before, we cooked them too long and they caramelized.  However, the darkening did not affect the taste at all. 



Making Garlic Pickles

Slice cucumbers.

 We found this recipe for Garlic Dill Pickles we are going to try.
 

Apple Cider Vinegar

Necessary ingredients.

 Using up last year's garlic in this recipe.  We used more garlic than the recipe called for.

 

 Boiling the  jars.

 Adding Brine solution to the slice cucumbers.

Smashing the garlic to release the flavor in the pickles.

Adding the brine solution to the pickles - leave 1/2" head space.

After pouring the brine solution in each jar, we placed clean lids and rings on each jar until finger tight and boiled the jars (make sure jars are covered with at least an inch or two water) for 15 minutes.

See the finished garlic pickles - 11 quarts total.

My husband also pickled 3 quarts of eggs (laid by our lovely hens) in back.  However, even though the pickled eggs are canned - we will keep them in the refrigerator and plan to eat them quickly to ensure no potential problems with botulism.

The next morning, although I was very tired from standing all day canning, I woke to this beautiful sunrise in my neighborhood!






Saturday, July 5, 2014

Bagworm Infestation in North Texas!!!

Its not all rainbows and butterflies around here this week.  Our Bald Cypress trees are under attack.  I planted 9 trees total in my front and back yards over the past 12 years based on recommendations from area gardening experts.  Bald cypress are considered hardy trees for North Texas.  I work in downtown Dallas and the building I work in has been planted exclusively with these trees to create a lovely environment.  They are also planted extensively in landscapes around the metroplex (e.g., Town East Mall in Mesquite, TX).  Imagine my surprise when we realized this past week that my trees are being eaten alive by bagworms, a caterpillar that eventually develops into a moth.  I'm pretty tolerant of insects and try to live in peaceful coexistence.  However, this particular caterpillar has crossed my threshold and we have elected to go to war (at least this season).  Here is a link to a picture of the bagworm moth - Note:  I have NEVER seen this moth flying around.  http://bugguide.net/node/view/122

Texas A&M is my "go to" resource for gardening problems.  Here is a link to information provided about this pest.  http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/newsletters/hortupdate/hortupdate_archives/2007/sep07/Bagworms.html

In addition, the Dallas Morning News had a local article about it. 
http://www.dallasnews.com/lifestyles/columnists/howard-garrett/20140806-north-texas-homeowners-are-seeing-bagworms-on-eastern-red-cedars.ece

Readers of my blog posts know that my philosophy is to make gardening easy by using native plantings in the landscape that are hardy and need little water.  We typically don't use herbicides and pesticides (exception - fire ants).   I firmly believe in survival of the fittest.  However, these trees have done well in my yard up to now, and trees typically add to property value.   We are truly torn between letting the bagworms take them out or trying to save them.  We discussed and debated the issue and finally elected to try and save them this season.  Here are some photos of our very serious problem.

My son and I fought the first battle by handpicking as many of the beasts as possible on Day 1.  After handpicking them, I mowed as close to the ground as possible to maim and kill as many as I could that were still on the ground.

Notice their ingenious "bags" - made from the needles of my Bald Cypress!  If I wasn't so irritated at them killing my trees, I would be complimentary of this incredible use of their surroundings to protect themselves from predators.


HOW DARE THEM CLIMB UP MY TREE!!






We got a bucketful of the nasty critters.

 Day 2 after discovery - my husband sprayed the trees with an organic pesticide.  It had no effect at all.
 




Note his protective gear - for eyes, nose, mouth, and skin.  Whenever you spray with pesticides (or herbicides) you cover yourself.  Do this even if you are using "organic" products.

Day 3- he sprayed the trees with the traditional pesticide.  This had a better net effect - there were some kills - however, on Day 4 when we went out and checked, we concluded at least 75% SURVIVED!!



Too bad neither spray seemed to work.

Now what?  I went out this morning (Day 4) and picked more off the trees, but clearly it isn't working.  I'm keeping the trees watered - hopefully they will be able to fight back but according to the articles we've read, bagworms are a true killer when they invade and it is difficult to keep them from killing the host plants.  In addition, although they haven't attacked my pine trees yet - it is entirely possible that they will according to articles I've read.  We started looking at the bald cypress trees planted in the neighborhood - and noticed that ALL of them have bagworms hanging in them now.  They are in varying states of distress and it will only get worse.  I hate to say it but if we can't pull them through this season, I may cut them down and never replant them as long as I live in North Texas.  They are a beautiful tree but this is a serious problem.  


DISCLAIMER:  MY REVIEW OF THE PRODUCTS MENTIONED ABOVE ARE UNIQUE TO MY EXPERIENCE AND MAY NOT REFLECT YOUR EXPERIENCE WITH THE PRODUCTS.