Sunday, March 31, 2013

Blueberry Almond Crumb Cake

In honor of what I, as a pantheist/atheist, refer to as the pagan spring fertility ritual holiday, I baked a pair of crumb cakes.  I also wanted to use up some of the blueberries that I had been hoarding in the freezer and some of the buttermilk that I generated making butter a couple of weeks ago.  I've toyed with this recipe that originally came from A World of Breads by Dolores Casella.  This is a fine book that I often go to for muffins, quick breads and yeast breads too, she covers it all and it is the book that I take my Christmas stollen recipe from.  I've "healthed it up" a tad, I am at a point where I actually prefer to have some whole wheat in most baked things, and I try to follow the adage "make half your grains whole" as then I feel less guilty about the butter.  So here you go:

 Blueberry Crumb Cake

Sift together in a medium bowl:
   1 1/2 cups unbleached flour
   3/4 cups whole wheat flour
   1 t baking powder
   1 t baking soda
   1 t salt   generous grating of fresh nutmeg~ 1/4 -1/2 teaspoon
   3/4 cups of whole rolled oats (not instant, please)
   3/4 cups white sugar
   3/4 cups brown sugar- packed
   grated rind of a lemon
Cut in using a pastry cutter or 2 knives:
   1/2 cup of butter =  1 stick = 4 oz
Set aside one generous cup of the above mixture and add to it:
   1 cup of sliced almonds
   3 eggs
   1 cup of buttermilk
   1 t almond extract
   1 t vanilla extract
Mix together the wet and dry ingredients then stir in:
   2 cups of blueberries, fresh or frozen

Pour the mixture into 2 buttered cake or pie pans, top with the streussel mix.  Bake at 350 degrees for 35-40 minutes until nice and brown and a toothpick poked into the middle comes out clean.
Let cool on racks- if you can stand it- for at least a few minutes- before cutting. 

I also make this with apples, substituting 2-3 cups of chopped or sliced apples for the blueberries and walnuts or pecans instead of almonds.  I use 2 t of vanilla instead of almond extract and I add 1 t of cinnamon when making it with apples.

It freezes well, perfect to pull out for a quick breakfast or to accompany an afternoon cup of tea.


Friday, March 29, 2013

Spring Planting

A few things from the garden for supper and beyond
Today I dug the last of the winter carrots.  They have been so sweet and above you can see the haul, I think we've had this many about 6 times, so not bad, haven't had to buy a carrot since November.  It will be a while before the tiny ones that are just sprouting out there will be ready, so we will have a gap at some point.  

I worked in the garden most of the afternoon, planted a long double row of red pontiac and yukon gold potatoes that will be wonderful come June, dug two more small beds and in one planted spinach along with more beets and carrots, can't seem to get enough of those root crops.  Tomorrow I plan to sow more lettuce, Japanese salad turnips, kale, arugula and more radish and set out a few broccoli plants.  My back continues to give me trouble so I can only work so long and then I realize that if I want to stand up and walk tomorrow, I need to stop NOW.
In the Bedroom, L-R eggplants, peppers and tomatoes
Yesterday I stepped up the tomato plants, they were getting ridiculously tall, despite trying to keep the grow lights right on top of them.  So I moved them into larger pots and today began the process of hardening them off.  That term really makes sense when you see how leggy and tender they are after growing inside the house from seeds.  Their stems are fuzzy with down and the leaves are like tissue paper, all sticking to each other and making me nervous as I try to separate and stand them upright, hoping not to tear anything.  Within a couple of weeks of being moved out during the day and back in over night they will have doubled in size and toughened up considerably and be ready to set out in the garden.  I have50 plants!  insane, I will not plant that many, I always start too many but it's a challenge when I want to grow so many different kinds.  This years roster includes:  Red Agate and Marianna plum, sungold, sundrop, bi-color and sweetie cherries, Georgia Streak- a gorgeous yellow tinged with red inside, celebrity, bolseno, cherokee purple, big beef and moskvich.  Next week I will probably step up the peppers and eggplants.

Tomorrow promises to be warm, finally breaking into the 60's again and looking forward to it.  From here on out things will only be growing faster and garden tasks will be increasing.  Weeding and mulching will be top of the to do list all over the yard.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Monochrome Day

Despite low clouds and the threat of rain, I bundled up and headed out for a walk.  The below normal cold temperature is a bit of a drag, but I shouldn't complain because once it gets hot, which it inevitably will, I'll be complaining about that too.

Here at this spot above the creek, where the mountain laurel will bloom come May and a tiny patch of creeping galax manages to hang on to the edge of the bluff, both throwbacks from ancient times when it was cooler here, I was rewarded by a flock of birds foraging.  First a pileated woodpecker flew low through the mauve grey tree trunks, flashing his red crest and the white wing patches on the underside of his magnificent 30 inch wingspan.  Then the calls of two waterthrush rang out, newly returned from further south, when I spotted one, it's tail bobbed up and down, up and down.  I tried to spy the throat to determine Louisiana or Northern, but couldn't be sure.  Golden-crowned kinglets flitted about the small branches searching for bugs and poking up their surprising orange-scarlet head crests as they went.  A brown creeper quietly worked its way down a tree, its white breast bright, while its mottled brown back blended perfectly with the bark.  Also along the walk today phoebes, so many phoebes lately, fly catching above the stream, juncos, titmice, winter wren, song sparrow, red-bellied woodpecker and yellow-rumped warbler. As I passed beneath the tree where I spotted the red-shouldered hawks the other day, the male was circling at a distance and as I was thinking perhaps they've given up-the female flew from the nest with a scree!

My back is cranky today, it struck as I finished cleaning the house yesterday afternoon, when I was forced to the floor to stretch. There is something about vacuuming that invariably sets off my back, probably the bending, twisting, reaching motion trying to get under and around things, but sometimes I think its my disdain for the task that causes the spasm to set in. Either way, I'm hopeful that stretching and a couple of days of ibuprofen will do the job, because with the weather warming later this week I am eager to get into the garden to weed and mulch and get potatoes and other spring seeds planted, before its too late.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Bird Banding at Prairie Ridge, Raleigh

I had the wonderful opportunity yesterday to attend a semi-public bird banding event organized by John Gerwin who is the Curator of Ornithology at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences.  John specializes in studying painted buntings and other neo-tropical migrants.  He also seems to specialize in taking students and young birders under his wing (forgive me, it's too perfect), here he is with a group of disciples, holding a tiny wren in his left hand, explaining the steps to process a bird for scientific purposes. 
John has a wry sense of humor, is tremendously patient and never seems to fluster, especially when holding a fragile bird between his fingers in a "bander's grip", something that makes me nervous and jumpy and a little afraid of injuring the bird. I'm also troubled feeling the stress that I know the bird is experiencing in the process.  I still want to learn to do this thing, even though it makes me scared, John says he has often seen people cry the first time they hold a bird, it is such an intense sensation.

Yesterday there were somewhere between 30-50 people out at the Prairie Ridge Eco Station, a 45 acre parcel owned by the Museum.  The land is planted in prairie and trees to create habitats that attract birds and for various research purposes.  When banding is underway, fine meshed mist nets are set up across the area to capture birds as they fly past, they cannot see the net and are captured and hang there, until one of those adept at removing birds from nets appears to gently remove the bird.  Often their feet, wings or heads are tangled, but they are generally removed unscathed, perhaps a feather bent or out of place, some squawking, some biting, some quietly awaiting their fate, they are slipped into white cloth bags which calms them until they are taken back out at the banding station.
A hermit thrush having its wing measured

 Brown thrasher waits while the correct band size is determined
Head first, the birds are placed in film cans or pill bottles to be weighed
A flicker; tail feathers help determine age
Blowing on the feathers to reveal the skin,
Helps tell whether the bird is breeding, how much fat is under the skin, the age of the bird and if it is molting
Natalia and flicker posing for the camera
Ready to fly
I was so impressed by the skill and knowledge of everyone working out there yesterday and every time I'm involved in a citizen science or environmental education activity like this it gives me great hope for the future. When I see young people- like Natalia above- eager to work on advanced degrees in science, I'm inspired.  
Young girl releasing a field sparrow
Parents introducing their kids to nature, bringing them to an event like this, is so important  The children were excited and ready to jump in and learn.  I feel lucky to have the opportunity to participate in these projects and to learn some of the science of birds from pros like John and Natalia.   Birds-truly winged wonders- provide me with hours of pleasure as I watch them in my yard and around the country.  I am incredibly grateful to have this kind of chance to study them up close.

Thursday, March 21, 2013


It is to be 24 tonight so I popped out to pick a platter of camellia blossoms before they got nipped by the cold. I wanted to also clarify some of the varieties and say that in yesterdays post I gave the wrong name on the photo, but I've gone in since and edited my error.  Check out these beauties.
Starting with the pure white one at 12:00 and going clockwise:
  • Sudie Blanchard
  • High Fragrance (2 blossoms)
  • Aso Misune
  • April Remembered
  • Japanese Fantasy (with dark green leaves at 6:00)
  • Scarlet Temptation
  • Tiny Princess (2 blossoms)
  • A second April Remembered
  • Center- red and white elongated flower is Kujaku Tsubaki
Our collection continues to grow and so can yours by visiting the Camellia Forest website or nursery in Chapel Hill, they've got a great new video up on the website now that I just checked out- it's fun, take a look.

PS: the fire was super last night and the chicken wings succulent, I even toasted a couple of marshmallows before calling it a night.  It was so chilly today hard I find it hard to imagine spring is coming, but I know it will get here eventually.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

First Day of Spring

Pea Sprout
Nothing says spring like peas and here they come, well, the sprouts anyway, the peas, probably at least a month away.  Elsewhere around the garden today;
Peonies reaching for the light
Aso Misune Camellia
Anemone Blanda and little daffodil
It was another one of those days that started out gray and cool and ended up warm and sunny.  I had a delightful walk along the creek and scared up a small flock of yellow-rumped warblers, ruby and golden crowned kinglets.  They ticked and chattered as they dipped in and out of the knobs and roots along the mossy creek bank.  Loads of phoebes fly catching over and around the water.  A pair of yellow-bellied sapsuckers played tag spiraling up and around a tall poplar tree.  Also winter wren, they will disappear soon I think, Carolina wren, hermit thrush, song sparrow, titmice, chickadees, lots of robins, its been super birdy lately and I've been making sure to don the binoculars whenever I head out these days as I don't want to miss this change of the season in birds.

Planning a little fireside time this evening in honor of the equinox.  Chicken wings are marinating to grill on the coals, foccacio rising to bake and a huge bowl of spinach to saute.  It's going to be a fitting start to the incoming spring season, time to go gather some kindling.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Fickle March

I'm thrilled about this newest quince that we've added to our collection.  Pink in bud with pink and white  flowers. Gorgeous. 

Yesterday was the warmest day of the year so far, 74 degrees and I put on shorts when I went for my walk.  The trout lilies and spring beauties were in fabulous full bloom, dotting the forest floor with yellow and white.  Today an entirely different story, colder, cloudy and all the flowers were closed up tight when I took my stroll this morning.  It was super birdy though and I was happy to be wearing my binoculars today.  I saw yellow-rumped warblers- first this season, hairy, downy and red-bellied woodpeckers, (heard a sapsucker, but couldn't spot it), a flock of field sparrows, white-throated sparrows, ruby crowned kinglet, and the usual suspects, jays, tits, chickadees, juncos, big flocks of robins bopping along the roads, crows and red-shouldered hawks.  Most exciting was a barred owl that flew up out of Tilley's Branch as I walked past and perched in a tree above the trail staying long enough for me to take a nice look, but not close enough to get a decent picture.  It was a handsome bird, very chestnut brown, the white lines barring the back quite clear, the breast soft white with long, vertical brown streaks, positively regal.
Brightening up the gloom of the day
In the woods there are these large drifts of daffodils, washed down from a long ago homestead and spread through the lowland by high water and squirrels I guess.  They've been in bloom now for almost a month. 
I stopped to visit with Polka and Dot, they were bored and came right over when I approached the fence to give me a sniff and accept a pat on the nose, a scratch on the forelock. 

Last night we watched an episode of NOVA Earth From Space (you can stream it on your computer from this link or go to  Everyone should check this out, it's about what satellites orbiting the earth for the past 30 years have revealed about the interconnectedness of things on the planet.  Like the fact that phosphorous filled dust storms blowing off the Sahara desert cross the ocean and fertilize the rain forest, or that lightening strikes (40 per second or 3 million per day around the globe) cause nitrogen ions to separate and link with oxygen, creating nitrates which fertilize the earth and in turn provide humans with nitrates through food which helps build proteins and DNA, or that plankton blooms in the oceans are as much the lungs of the earth as the rain forest.  Really astounding, amazing science that also discusses global warming and the problems that might occur as a result of the way we are changing the earths atmosphere with the additions of carbon, sulphur and other pollutants.  Check it out.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Everything's On The Move

It's been warm this week and after an inch of rain last night, a front pushed through bringing clear, dry air for the afternoon.  In the yard there are a few things pushing out, the blood root (above) started opening on Sunday along with quince and more daffodils.  The primroses open wider, making their Easter egg colors pop from the leaf litter, camellias continue and the plum trees (below) burst into bloom over the weekend.
In the veg garden the peas are starting to emerge and in the past week I planted carrots, beets and 200+ onion plants.  Tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and basil are snugged up in a corner of the bedroom in flats sitting atop a heat mat and under a grow light, germination was very good this year, despite some seeds dating back to the late 90's and early 2000's.  I store the packets in the freezer in plastic boxes and they can keep for a very long time.

This afternoon while touring the yard together to see what was new and exciting, I said to David "Look at that snaky root over there"  and then together we said "That's not a snaky root, that's a rooty snake!"  On closer inspection, it was a good sized black snake, basking in the sun and looking gray like a tree root because it was probably about to shed.

Later I took a long ramble through the woods and saw more critters doing the work of spring.  The lowlands were pulsating with the songs of peepers and chorus frogs.  As I passed by the pond, mud turtles plopped into the water off their sunning logs and hung near the surface, enjoying the warmth of the water after crawling out of their muddy winter beds.  I stood for a while on the bridge where the water from the pond flows down a waterfall into a creek.  The overflow was running high from last nights rain, noisy, splashing over rocks and eddying into a swirling foam galaxy at the bottom of the fall before rushing on down to Morgan. 

In the woods and along the stream banks the trout lilies are peaking, and the dainty white spring beauties are also blooming now.  I heard a pair of red-shouldered hawks and looking up spotted them right above me, having a courting conversation and when  the male flew with pine needles in his beak I followed him with my eye to the nest and made a note of which tree top the platform of sticks was resting in for future observation. 
I roamed overland, climbing up to a high ridge line that I seldom visit because it's a steep climb.  I had the urge because I know that too soon the ticks will be out and I won't want to go off the trail. Cruising along I was startled when I came upon this BIG snapping turtle right in the center of the trail.
I spent some time with this girl?  I think so, obviously on the move in search of a mate and a place to lay eggs, she was quite a distance from the nearest pond.  Her shell was easily 12 inches long. 
I tossed this pine cone down as a measure, it is 4 inches, same width as her head pretty much.  I admired her eyes, elephant skin, snout and that beak of a mouth ( if you click on the picture I think you can zoom in).   I kept my distance, I have read that a snapper can reach their neck out 12 inches in a quick thrust.  And check out those bear like claws!

I relish this time of year when the sap starts to rise in all things living, myself included.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Downtown Gastonia

After my workshop let out this afternoon, I went in search of old Gastonia. After a bit of driving around I finally did find Main Street.  Like most towns in NC and for that matter, most of the country anymore, the downtown is largely empty, despite apparent efforts to revitalize the main street with small parks, old fashioned streetlamps and little flags hanging from the telephone poles.  The first thing that attracted me was the side of this building which looked like a giant abstract landscape to me.  Up close it was positively geologic, with veins of gravel running through the concrete.  It had the appearance of being sculpted, though I examined it closely and think it is simply the remains of the demolition of another building that once stood.
There were a few restaurants, some new, some old; like the Cafeteria Restaurant with red vinyl booths and Venetian blinds in the windows, hours 6 AM to 3 PM.  There were law offices, "antique stores", and this classic drugstore next to the equally classic Kress building, currently for sale by the Town of Gastonia.
I wandered into the former bank building which now houses the local arts council and artists studios.  There was some respectable artwork inside and some not so much, but what I found the most fascinating was the vault.  It's round and shiny steel door spoke to me more than anything else in the space.
I then joined folks from the NC Association of Environmental Education Centers, whose meeting I will be attending tomorrow.  We tucked into a fried fish dinner at Linebergers Fish Camp.  A huge plate of fried, perch, catfish and flounder, sadly, everything pretty much tastes the same once its been battered and fried.  The company was good though and I look forward to tomorrows conference.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden, Gastonia, NC

Ethereal in Pink

I think its fair to say that one who visits a botanical garden on a chilly day in March with the wind blowing at 35-40 MPH  is truly a plant/garden geek.  Yes, that would be me.  I was reminded today of visiting the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis a couple of years ago with David and my brother Alex and his wife Betsy on a frigid day in December.  We were delighted that day to be out of the car after many hours of driving to wander on a cold but sunny afternoon through the excellent collection of miniature evergreens, ancient trees and spectacular Japanese garden.

Today was similar as I visited the Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden near Gastonia, NC where I am tonight and the next couple of days for two back-to-back conferences.  The DSBG is in the midst of an "Orchid Extravaganza" and the conservatory was the warm spot to be.
I loved this purple speckled beauty with the hairy palm tree in the background.
Placing the orchids in picture frames seemed a bit much, framing the orchid being a "gilding of the lily" so to speak.
 Not only were the orchids extravagant, but so were the tropical displays, like this weird spiny tree trunk.
I did venture outside despite the wind, and may I add I was the ONLY person wandering through the display gardens.  Being March, there wasn't much of anything in bloom other than some daffodils and a few pansies, but the bones were good, several water features spewed and sprayed and I could see the promise of spring and the merits of a return trip at a warmer time of year.
I'm glad I made the effort to get down here a little early today to check it out and I imagine I will come again, hopefully when there are flowers in bloom!