Cedar waxwings

Waxwings

A flock of cedar waxwings visited last week.

The winds are blowing from the south one day, the north the next, a phenomenon of late winter-early spring that seems to mirror my city girl vs. country girl identity crisis.

It’s also bringing birds.

One of the things I loved most about our house in the city was the way in late winter, just for a day or two, a flock of cedar waxwings visited. They’re like a party of masqueraders with that band of black across their eyes and those tufts on their heads that make them seem like they’re always racing forward, head into the wind.

The first time they came, I heard them before I saw them: a quiet but insistent chorus of little chirps. It was a clear morning but it also sounded like rain. I looked up into the big water oak in our backyard, saw a sea of buttery-yellow bird bellies and realized they were raining blue-black berry poop all over the patio. A very small price to pay for the sight. (The Mr., of course, has hated them ever since.)

They loved the cherry laurel near that spot, technically a neighbor’s tree. The neighbors built some kind of pavilion thing back there and the tree died, but the birds came looking for berries anyway for a couple of years. Once, a baby flew into the large windows of my studio and landed in a potted ‘Cecile Brunner’ rose, where it was speared by a small thorny twig.

Horrifying. And yet, how else are you going to get so close?

It wasn’t dead, but it was stunned, and I picked it up. Birds weigh NOTHING. I pulled the twig out, set it on the ground and left it alone. When I went back to check on it later, it was gone, hopefully recovered and not devoured by something.

So imagine my surprise last week, on a cold, clear morning, to hear a familiar peeping as I bundled up on the deck with a cup of tea. Of course it made perfect sense! We have three cherry laurels, two of which tower above the house.

The flock swooped back and forth between the cherry laurels and a fine vantage point from the top of our big, bare pecan.

Okay, winds of change; life in the country is good.

Adios, Garden Design

On a rare day off when I should be outside pulling weeds, I am doing some long overdue catching up with the online gardening community. One of the first stops on that itinerary is always Garden Rant, where Elizabeth Licata reports that Garden Design magazine’s April issue will be its last.

I used to devour that magazine every month – stop everything and head to the couch when it arrived, and read it cover-to-cover. I say used to, as in the 1990s, when every issue was a surprise of gorgeous design and plant porn. Rarely usable in my own little garden, which was only half the size of the one I’m starting now, but inspiring nonetheless.

Even though I stopped reading it some time ago, I’d saved years’ worth of back issues in those silly plastic holders you buy at Office Depot. They were organized for quick reference. I don’t recall ever actually using them until right after we sold the Houston house, when I had to make some serious decisions about what to keep and what could go.

I couldn’t part with the back pages that offered excerpts of classic gardening books, so I tore a bunch of those out and put them in a folder. Who knows where that folder is now – somewhere between here and a box in The Abominable Storage Unit.

The young couple that bought our Houston house wanted it partly for the garden, so I left them a few of the best, most appropriate issues. The rest went, finally, to recycling.

Goodreadds

But I didn’t let go of the many books those pages led me to – including Eleanor Perenyi’s Green Thoughts – A Writer in the Garden (an all-time favorite, always on my nightstand), Russell Page’s The Education of a Gardener, Elizabeth Lawrence’s The Little Bulbs – A Tale of Two Gardens and William Bartram’s Travels.

Separation anxiety

Poppies

Here’s the thing about poppy seeds, or any other tiny seeds for that matter, if you are lazyish like me and sprinkle them into the soil to fend for themselves: They grow. And then, like a roomful of bickering children, they must be separated.

I have trouble throwing out bubble wrap and used tissue paper. You think I can toss dozens – hundreds – of living, green things with healthy roots?

Poppy1

You must, my neighbor Judy said, watching me today as I tried to perform surgery on the poppies that have sprouted in the ‘Martha Gonzales’ beds out front. I’m blaming my other neighbor, Betty, who presented me last fall with a harmless-looking little vial of seeds from Wildseed Farms out near Fredricksburg.

A week or two ago I painstakingly separated two flats’ worth for my friend Suzanne. But it looks like I have enough to cover a small field. I know, I know – keep the strong ones, toss the rest. I went on the attack again today and spread out several dozen in front of the roses.

This was probably not a good idea. I just hope they’re the orange ones.

Goodbye, little seedlings.

Goodbye, little seedlings.

Branching Out

DSCN0140

There’ve been times in the past seven months I’ve wondered about my sanity. It’s not the reduction in square footage but this whole notion of figuring out where, exactly, we belong. It usually hits when I have to get in the car to drive to work in Houston, which is about an hour and 15 minutes door-to-door. I have never lived more than 15 minutes away from work before, and I abhor freeways.

But on mild winter evenings like this, eating dinner on the deck out here in Blue Bell Country, it all seems worth it. Our old pecan tree isn’t all that beautifully shaped, really; it leans to the north almost precariously, while behind it in a neighbor’s yard grows a perfectly symmetrical big live oak. But both are at their deciduous, ferny-looking best just before sunset this time of year, every branch silhouetted black like the fans of delicate corals in a sea of cornflower blue sky.

Squirrels are still scurrying across their branches, and the mockingbirds are chirping their last calls before morning.

An Orange New Year

The Batch 2 labels.

Weeks have passed. The holidays are long gone. But the cheer of oranges dangling from the trees continues, and yet another large bag of plucked beauties awaits processing.

Oranges on tree

One of the first lessons learned from the Great Marmalade Experiment of 2012, which has segued into the Continuing Marmalade Experiment of 2013, is that you only need 5-8 oranges to brew up a dozen small jars. I haven’t counted the fruit on our two trees, but it looks like enough to start a business. Even after my friend Jean came and took some.

OnLadderAfter a very cold week to start the year, the weather has been warmish most of this month. Ripe oranges are beginning to fall from the tree and roll across the driveway or into garden beds. I could just harvest them, chop them up and call it compost, now that we’ve installed an Envirocycle bin out by the back fence, and it’s hungry. But then I wouldn’t have all this good raised-Catholic guilt hanging over me.

My friend Suzanne brought another friend over to help  me scrape and julienne the first batch using a recipe I found online.  Work intervened before the job was finished, so I hauled pots, jars and liquidy stuff to the Houston apartment — even smaller than this one! – to finish.

A zen personality helps when it comes to the julienning.

I cut up a tin foil tray to make a “rack” so the jars wouldn’t burst. I sterilized the jars in the dishwasher. I used a soup ladle to transfer the soupy liquid to the jars and wasn’t very exacting about filling to 1/4 inch of the rims. I was sure, when that stage finally arrived, that I had produced not marmalade, but some very pretty orange syrup.

But miracle of miracles, those gratifying little “pops” followed, a sign the lids had sealed. And the next morning the liquid had set beautifully into a clear marmalade.

My first batch. No one has died.

My first batch.

I took a jar to work with warm scones, and my friend Greg, the food editor, rewarded me with Elizabeth Field’s pretty book. It has, among many other types of marmalades, at least four recipes for using Seville oranges. Eye-opening. Mouth watering.

Elizabeth Field's new book is full of inspiration.

Elizabeth Field’s new book is full of inspiration.

Given our small kitchen, I am supposed to be on gadget lockdown. But the full trees outside (or did someone say “fool” trees?) justified the purchase of some marmalade-making tools. Into the already-full cabinets came Oxo’s Good Grips 5-lb. digital scale (partly because it’s flat and easy to store), a Progressive “essentials” set including a one-handed jar lifter (who knew there was such a thing?), a canning funnel (designed to fit over jar lids, with measurement lines) and a lid lifter (a plastic stick with a magnet on the end). I stopped short of buying a rack – the cut-up tinfoil worked just fine.

The newest book from the Baker Creek Seed Company folks has a great primer on canning.

The newest book from the Baker Creek Seed Company folks has a great primer on canning.

Jere and Emilee Gettle’s new The Baker Creek Vegan Cookbook also arrived serendipitously. No marmalade recipes but an excellent primer on canning. It made me manic about checking to make sure jars aren’t chipped.

Batch 2, Field’s Whole-Fruit Seville Orange Marmalade, was easier to make – it eliminates the peel scraping – but resulted in a cloudier marmalade.

Oranges, a lemon and a ton of sugar are all you need to make an excellent marmalade, but I couldn’t resist getting a little fancier with Batch 3, Field’s Aromatic Orange-Apple-Ginger Marmalade. The most labor-intensive of all but Mr. Glentzer’s favorite to date.

Banner Day 12.27.12

Noticed today in the Brenham Banner-Press:

“Today’s Verse,” from Ecclesiastes 5:19, moved to the bottom of Page 1, where it appeared underneath “Today’s Thought,” a quote from Sir James Matthew Barrie, the Scottish dramatist actor who wrote “Peter Pan”: “I’m not young enough to know everything.”

From the lead story on the fifth annual ‘Koledy Polskie,” a Polish caroling celebration that dates to the 14th century, coming Saturday in Chappell Hill: “Participants are also encouraged to dress in nativity costumes. ‘However, you do not have to have anything elaborate or fancy,’ said Mazurkiewicz. ‘You may dress as a beggar, an angel, a shepherd, a devil, St. Nickolas, a wise man and/or make a homemade costume.'”

Banner Day 2.26.12

3 things I read today in the Brenham Banner-Press:

1. 1 Corinthians 6: 9-10 appeared in the Page 1 “Today’s Verse” box, placed prominently in the center above the masthead: “Do you know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolators nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”

2. From the story, “Adults are acting up at Unity Theatre”: “Acting can be stress free for some. Damaris Koziol has had the bug for a long time but never acted. However, she did dance. ‘I did exotic dance with fire and feathers which was exciting, but I enjoy this as well.'”

3. From the Brenham Beat column: “Sunday at 9:41 p.m., three females between the ages of 21 and 48 years were caught shoplifting at Walmart. Because the females were accompanying several children and claiming they had no one to call to take charge of the children it was decided to refer the case for further investigation and no arrests were made at the time.”