Saturday, July 30, 2011

Newest Baby Robins: The Second Clutch Fledges

While we were on vacation during the beginning of July, our son called to tell us that the mother robin had been flying in and out of the nest. Curious, he checked and found three new bright blue eggs.

We returned home on July 7th and by the time I got out to check on the eggs, dusk was falling and the mother robin was perched on the patio chair, waiting to go to the nest, so I opted to wait until the morning to get a photograph.

The next morning, to my surprise, the babies had only just hatched, three tiny little bald babies snuggled together in the next.

The tiny pink babies, shortly after hatching.
We photographed them nearly every day, capturing the subtle changes as they rapidly grew in size and quickly developed a fullcomplement of feathers.

Within two days the ir pink skin has developed color where they well soon sprout feathers, and more feathers are sprouting on their heads and tails.

 By this time, the mother robin was so used to us, she would fly from the nest and perch close by on the trellis or a chair, but she seemed much more comfortable with us than she had, earlier in the spring.

Mother Robin flying toward the trellis that is about 10 feet from the nest. I was amazed at the detail I was able to capture.
We had some lawn signs on a table next to the screen where the nest is. I was photographing not just her babies but all of the flowers in the yard and she flew over and sat quietly on one of the wooden sign stakes, not three feet from me.
Gradually, they got larger and larger, sprouted more and more feathers, and they frequently sat with their heads up and out of the nest, waiting for their mother to bring food.

At less than a week of age, they have developed a fair number of feathers and more than quadrupled in size.
Waiting for mother to bring more food.
Their color is fully developed and feathers are gradually covering them. I love the wispy tufts on his head.
The mother was very attentive. We never saw the father robin this time around.
Feeding her babies. Because we knew she was alone with no father to help with food gathering, we left sunflower seeds for her in the bird feeder, which she seemed to enjoy.
I was so hopeful that this time, I would get to see the babies take flight for the first time, kind of like a baby taking his first steps. I had missed the first clutch by hours, but with my friend Blaine visiting from Texas AND two pairs of eyes keeping watch, we waited anxiously for their big day.

With a full complement of feathers and barely able to fit in the nest, I knew they would be gone before long.
 Our patience and persistence paid off. We were able to witness all three babies leave the nest. How exciting!

The first fledgling readies to leave. He is perched on a clump of twigs and straw next to the nest on the screen.
The first fledgling, moments before he flew off. To his left, extending in front of him, you can see the wing of one of the other fledglings.
Here, a second fledgling has left the main nest and is next to the her brother.

When the first robin flew off, I was so startled, I didn't have time to really focus the camera. He headed straight off to the side and struck the sliders, fortunately gently, and then gradually coasted to the patio.
Although he seemed to be stunned initially, we presume from his collision with the glass, he eventually flew off into the trees behind the pond, where the mother robin was flitting from branch to branch.
Two robins left, the female (left) who was the second to fledge, and one other, the runt, who left the next morning.
The little girl flew off and landed on the patio near the pool. Then she flew in short bursts around the pool to the rose garden, where her mother met her. They flew together onto the rose trellis, and then off across the garden to the pines behind our shed. It was amazing to watch them flying.
The last baby spent one more night in the nest and his mother came back to check on him several times. The next morning, Steve saw it fly down to the patio and then head off to join the rest of his family.
The first robin family stayed close to the yard, flitting in the trees in our tree grove. We heard their busy chatter and watched them flying together for weeks. This second family flew around the yard for a couple of days but within a week, the three babies had flown off. The mother still comes into the yard and perches on her favorite resting places. I don't know if she will lay any other eggs, but we are leaving the nest alone, just in case.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Lavenderlicious: Fabulous Cookies in a CrockPot

Savory and tart, lemon with a light touch of lavender is one of my favorite cookie flavor combinations. With a sweet-tart glaze, they are the perfect accompaniment to a cup of tea.

With temperatures soaring close to 100 degrees F. (just shy of 38 degrees C.), I am not about to put the oven on to bake these decadent treats. I recently saw a recipe for cooking brownies in a slow cooker and thought, why not give it a try with cookies?  The results are, in a word, spectacular!

Baking cookies in a crock pot might seem as strange to you as baking cookies flavored with lavender. Lavender is not the first herb that comes to mind when I think of herbs for culinary use. Indeed, there is a fine line between flavorful and foul. A very light touch is all one needs when cooking with lavender, and the variety of lavender is equally important. Too much, or the wrong variety, and your cookies will have a soapy, perfume taste.

L. angustifolia "Munstead"
Each variety of lavender has a distinctive fragrance and flavor.

The amount of camphor in a particular lavender's biochemical make-up is what most affects whether it is more or less suitable for culinary use.

In my experience, the lavenders of the group Lavandula angustifolia (often referred to as the English lavenders) are my favorites for cooking.

L. intermedia x "Provence"
The French lavenders, the L. intermedia x hybrids, have a much higher camphor content and while I love the fragrance in sachets and bath salts, it's not something I enjoy eating.   

A notable exception is L. intermedia x "Provence" which is milder than most of the other French lavenders and is considered a popular culinary lavender.  However, although it is lower in camphor than it's x intermedia cousins, it is still not one that I find particularly palatable in the kitchen.

My personal favorite is L. angustifolia "Munstead", the lavender that the famous garden designer Gertrude Jekyll grew at her home, Munstead Wood, in Surry, England. 

"Munstead" is a good over-all lavender for cooking and crafts. It's extremely hardy, in part due to it's shrubby growth habit, and that makes it ideal for use as a low hedge in the garden. It's fragrant enough for sachets yet mild enough for cooking. 

"Hidcote" has taller flower spikes and makes more attractive long stemmed dried bunches and swags, but it doesn't fare as well in our micro-climate. Although "Hidcote" is zoned for our area (and even a zone colder still), I have had no luck overwintering it even with winter protection.

You can buy lavender for culinary use in specialty shops but drying your own is simple and can be done quite easily in the microwave.

The first step is to pick some lavender. I like to choose stems with only a few to no more than a third of the flowers open. The flavor of the flowers is less intense than the bud and so having some buds open can help temper the intense flavor.

If you're picking it fresh from the garden to use in a recipe, you can use it without drying it first but trying to mince it finely enough can be a challenge. Since it does carry a punch of flavor, a better way to blend it into food is by drying it and then grinding it into a fine powder with a mortar and pestle.

To dry it in the microwave, lay out several flower spikes and a few leaves (for garnish and flavor) on two layers of paper toweling on a paper plate. Cover with another paper towel and microwave until it's dry. 

This much lavender takes 2-3 minutes and it is best to do in 30 second increments. The microwave will fill with steam from the moisture in the blooms. 

After each 30 second increment of time, open the door so the steam can escape and then set it for another 30 seconds.

After the lavender is dry to the touch, let it sit for a few hours to completely dry throughout. That will allow any remaining moisture to evaporate and makes grinding it in a mortar and pestle much easier.
Remove the blossoms from the stems by gently rolling the flower wands between your fingers and letting them drop into the bowl of the mortar and pestle. 

Grind the buds and flowers to a very fine powder, removing any bits of stem that might have inadvertently fallen in. You can also dry rose petals the same way, and use a mixture of rose petals and lavender for a really delightful, unique flavor.

To prepare the crock pot, spray the inside with non-stick baking spray and line the inside of the bottom with a piece of parchment paper. 

The parchment paper helps you to lift the cookie out when it is completely cooked, so use a piece very slightly wider than the width of the crock pot and let the long ends come up each side (don't trim) of the crock pot as these will be used to lift the cookie out when it is finished baking.

Here is my recipe. You can use lavender buds and blossoms or a mixture of lavender and rose petals. I find that the petals from the Sterling Silver hybrid tea rose make an exceptionally flavorful cookie as the taste, like the fragrance, is a combination of rose and citrus that blends well with lavender and lemon.

Cathy's Lavender Lemon Crock Pot Cookies


1 stick butter, softened
1 tablespoon dried, ground lavender buds and blossoms (or a mix of lavender and rose petals)
3/4 cup sugar or granulated sugar substitute
3 jumbo eggs slightly beaten
zest and juice of 1 small lemon
1 teaspoon vanilla bean crush or vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
2 cups all purpose flour

Prepare the crock pot by spraying with cooking spray and lining the bottom with parchment paper but do not preheat.

Cream the butter and sugar or sugar substitute and then add in eggs, vanilla, salt, baking powder, and lemon juice and zest. Mix thoroughly with an electric mixer. Add in flour and continue to mix.  The batter should be very thick but "sticky". Adjust the amount of flour slightly as needed.

Turn the batter into the crock pot and spread it evenly over the bottom. It does not have to be spread tightly against the sides. Cover the crockpot and cook the cookie on High for 2-1/2 to 3 hours. 

Crock pots may vary considerably. It may take considerably more or less time to cook than stated. The top should be a pale golden brown, the bottom slightly darker. If the bottom begins to darken, reduce the temperature to Low.

After the cookie is done, lift it out and cool for about 10 minutes on a rack, just so they can be handled comfortably. Then cut into individual cookie bars using a large knife, making diagonal cuts to the left and right, which will give diamond shaped cookies. Allow them to finish cooling before glazing.

For conventional baking, preheat an oven to 350 degrees F and drop teaspoons of batter on an ungreased cookie sheet to bake.

Lavender Lemon Cookie Glaze

2 cups 10X confectioner's sugar
2 teaspoons fresh squeezed lemon juice
water - 2-3 teaspoons
1 teaspoon dried ground lavender blossoms
small amount of dried, unground lavender buds for garnish
teaspoon or so fresh lemon zest for garnish

Combine sugar, lemon juice, and dried ground lavender blossoms. (Dried ground rose petals can also be used.) Add only enough water to get the glaze to the desired thickness. I like it to be pretty thick, thick enough to spread but still "soupy" enough to drip over the sides. 

Glaze cookies and allow the glaze to drip along the sides. If the glaze is very thin, you can add a second layer. Then sprinkle whole buds and zest over the top. Makes abotu 2 dozen 1 inch diamonds.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Another Rebloomer: Lovely Lilac "Colby's Wishing Star"

Frank Moro of  Select Plus Lilacs is one of the premier lilac growers on the planet and our favorite place to buy specialty lilacs, trillium, and other treasures for the woodland garden.

Several years ago, we ordered some trillium and other plants from this family nursery and when the boxes arrived, included with our order was a gift for us: a tiny twig rooted in a four inch pot. Included was a note from Frank that explained that this was a cutting from a new lilac variety that he had developed. The lilac, Colby's Wishing Star was named for his son who was his inspiration. He hoped to have it available for general sale the following year, but he wanted to share a plant with us.  We felt quite honored.

Until it was large enough to survive in a garden bed, Colby's Wishing Star grew and thrived in a pot on the deck outside of the kitchen and was sheltered under our deck next to the house for the winter. Frank's instructions had been to repot the plant into a larger pot each spring and to keep it in a pot until it was at least a couple of feet tall. The photograph at left was taken in August, 2007. That summer, we set the pot out in one of the garden beds for a few months where it continued to thrive, then returned it to the deck for winter shelter.

We were finally able to plant Colby's Wishing Star in the butterfly garden in the spring of 2008 and a year later, it was 2-1/2 feet high and wide and it had half a dozen small flower spikes. Last spring, it bloomed enthusiastically at the end of May but it did not repeat.

A dwarf variety, it grows to a maximum of 4 feet and it has reached that height and width. This spring, Colby's Wishing Star was covered once again with sweetly fragrant blooms throughout the last two weeks of May and the beginning of June.

Like many of the dwarf lilacs that the Moros offer, Colby's Wishing Star is a reblooming lilac. Now, I don't want to be thought of as a Doubting Thomas, but I had never planted a dwarf lilac before and I was skeptical that it would rebloom in our garden.

That was until today, when I was showing a friend through the beds and I stepped around a seven foot tall butterfly bush and came face to face with the fragrant lilac blossoms.

Colby's Wishing Star, May 27, 2011
Colby's Wishing Star, May 27, 2011
Colby's Wishing Star, July 22, 2011
Colby's Wishing Star, July 22, 2011

The shrub has filled out some in the past couple of months but what I realized is that in the spring, the butterfly bushes are cut down to about 8 inches and Colby's Wishing Star is the star of the garden. By July, the butterfly bushes are growing like weeds - 7-9 feet tall at this point - and this little shrub sits quietly among them, in the shade.

As you can see in the two photographs above, the flower spikes are reaching for the sun and we are going to have to spend some time this weekend doing some judicious pruning of the butterfly bushes to provide Colby's Wishing Star with a sunnier outlook.

A reblooming lilac is a treat for me and while the fragrance is not the traditional fragrance of the vulgaris that I love so much, it is a wonderful and much appreciated delight in our summer garden. Here's hoping we get an additional bloom in the fall, as sometimes happens with this particular lilac.

Colby's Wishing Star and Buddleia Black Knight

You can find more information on Colby's Wishing Star and Colby's Wishing Star Park HERE.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Re-blooming Wisteria!

July 19, 2011
Something truly spectacular is taking place in our garden.

We have never seen wisteria bloom again once it has finished flowering for the season but that is precisely what is happening.

Our wonderful American wisteria, "Amethyst Falls", is covered with a second flush of blossoms.

June 6, 2011
The vine put on a fragrant and showy display for several weeks beginning at the end of May and finishing by the middle of last month. After the blossoms faded, we gave it the usual spring pruning, a very light feeding, and we weeded and cleaned out the leaves and twigs that had collected around the main stems. We finished by shaping it a bit and supported the longest branches on the fence.

While taking pictures of Steve's yellow flower bed "Siberia" last week, I leaned over to be able to get a better photograph of some golden yellow coreopsis and there sat a plump blossom in full bloom.

On closer inspection, we found buds covering all of the new growth. The flower clusters are much smaller than the spring bloom a month ago - shorter and smaller by more than half in some cases. But we're delighted with this unexpected encore.

In this picture, taken this week, the American wisteria (directly behind the Buddha's head) covers the fence with thick, lush growth
This photograph, taken June 6, 2011, gives a hint of the growth that has taken place over the past six weeks.