30 April 2014

Why We Prune

If you were to hear me talk about my garden, my tomato plants, the harvests we've been getting, you might be tempted to think my tomato patch is not only bountiful, but also beautiful beyond belief.

Well, here's the moment of truth.  It's not.

Wind-beaten and then overheated in those first three days of the week that were over a hundred degrees (there were tomatoes cooking on the vine the first day...the second and third day I put up a makeshift bed-sheet tent over them in hopes of saving some fruits because cooked-on-the-vine tomatoes do not equal lovely sun-dried tomatoes, just in case you were wondering), the poor plants just seemed a little sad.  

Now, there are two reasons gardeners prune.  The first happens when a gardener completely understands the plants or trees in question, and deliberately chooses the branches to make more fruit and leaves.

The second kind happens when the gardener sees so many dead leaves she needs to cut them all off to see if there are any signs of life left, in an attempt to strengthen the things which remain, that seem ready to die.  Because while there's life, there's hope, right?

Hence my extra-large pile of dry and drying tomato branches.

I accidentally broke off a few still-raw tomatoes in the process of getting rid of the cooked ones, but they're on the kitchen counter waiting to ripen up.

Meanwhile, I discovered more life in those branches than I thought remained, and I lovingly tied them up in new directions, trying to give them fortification against the heavy winds we've been having as best I could.

And see?  There are some good hopes still holding on to the vine.

In case you're wondering, that's what you should do when you're wind-beaten, too:  hold on to the Vine.

I felt absolutely awful when by accident I broke off this healthy branch, but knowing tomatoes' branches have the ability to put out new roots, I planted it deep in manure and gave it lots of water.  We'll see how it does!

And then, all of a sudden (i.e. three hours later) my tomato patch looked like this.  Taller, with some bare branches, but with definite signs of life.  They all had a good drink with some favorite nutrients mixed in, so here's hoping for a continuing harvest.

Interestingly enough, I've never had quite so much trouble with tomatoes before.  But you know what?  I've never learned as much about them in one season as I have this year, either.  I guess there's never a loss without some small gain.

28 April 2014

Black Swallowtail Caterpillars

This morning I gathered up extra food and extra vases, and carefully transferred most of the black swallowtail caterpillars to the new vases.  They were about to take their first ride in a vehicle.

You see, Mr. Second Grade Teacher was waiting for them at school, eager to let his students watch the life cycle unfold.  Sure enough, green branches with little things crawling on them were enough to capture the  students' curiosity, and within moments I was explaining to a wide-eyed youngster that these guys would turn into butterflies soon, holding out my fingers as I motioned, "THIS BIG!"

They've grown a lot in the last week, to be sure!  Soon I'll show you some more photos of the biggest ones.  You can't imagine how fascinating it is to watch one eat through a whole sprig of dill in a matter of minutes, clinging with some feet, using other feet to search out the juiciest leaves, twisting the whole body around to get the mouth around the newest morsel from the best angel.

26 April 2014

Dare to Doubt

It takes about forty minutes to get out to our favorite nature retreat, which time we generally spend reading missionary books and story books of steadfast faith.  We almost always fill the same roles:  the good husband, driver; and yours (well, his, actually) truly, reader. 

Today, in the middle of the story about some people who "risked all" to stay true to their faith in the midst of others who let faith go for a mere twenty-four hour period (and maybe you can guess which group actually paid dearly for the choice), a phrase jumps out vividly, and I decide I want its essence to shape my new week, the rest of my life.

"...dare to doubt..."

In other words, it's far more of a dare, a dreadful and dangerous and worthless risk, to doubt my Jesus than to trust Him.  But to trust Him?  There is no dare with trust in God, but only sure-footed promises, solid ground, steadfast and sure anchors for the soul.  Leaning on His arms involves zero risk.

So I want the kind of faith that refuses to dare this doubt, that trusts instead, holding firm no matter who or what tempts me to live an adventurous, daring life of doubt.  This dare always loses.

Tonight, I'm putting all my confidence afresh on the words that are true and faithful, resting secure, forsaking the life that would by worries, doubts, fears, or discouragements dare disbelieve anything God says is true and faithful. 

"And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be with them, and be their God.  And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.  And He that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new.  And He said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful."  Revelation 21:3-5

22 April 2014

The Black Swallowtail Dilemma

 {Black Swallowtail Egg}

Remember that Black Swallowtail who sweetly visited my yard recently?  Yesterday, I figured out why.  (Looking back at that photo, I now see a hint of the dilemma to come, right there under my nose the whole time!!)  Here's what I wrote, in great distress, to my friend who loves butterflies and raised some herself one year

"We have a terrible dilemma on our hands.

"Our dill patch has been doing really well this spring.  I've been so excited about it, because I love dill, and it is hard to find it in the grocery stores.  I picture containers and containers full of my very own dried dill, to use in all my favorite things.

"And we have been delighted to notice a few black swallowtails visiting our yard.  Such beautiful butterflies!  Graceful creatures to be sure, with their yellow and blue spots lining their backs...

{Black Swallowtail Stage 1 Instars}

"Well, we found caterpillars on the dill plants today, and with a little help from Google, we've ascertained that dill plants are indeed a common egg host for black swallowtail butterflies, and the little guys on the leaves are indeed first-stage black swallowtail infants.

"Hence the dilemma.

"Do we sacrifice the dill, or the butterflies?!  Neither choice seems like the best one.  :(

"Perhaps you can lend your sympathy, even if you don't have advice."

{Displaced Black Swallowtail Stage 1 Instar}

Of course, we have several possible solutions to this dilemma.  We could save the dill at all costs, no matter what the cost to the butterfly world.  We could save the caterpillars, no matter what the cost to our garden.  We could bring them all--or some of them--inside, and feed them with store-bought parsley (their favorite host plants include carrots, dill, parsley, and the rue plant) until they mature.

Here's what I've done thus far.

1.  Take photos.  I might as well document the downfall of my best dill patch ever miracle of the butterflies.
2.  Displace a few of the hungry little infants to our parsley plants which are about to go to seed anyway, since we have seven more teenage parsley plants coming along nicely to replace them....hence saving a few of the dill leaves for us?  Maybe?
3.  Show the yellow eggs and the instars/caterpillars to my piano students.  Bonus education.
4.  Harvest as many dill leaves as I can find that don't already have eggs or infants on them (at least, as many as I can find before being devoured by mosquitoes).  Put them in the Garden Master dehydrator, and know that at least we'll enjoy a small part of the bounty.
5.  Order more dill seeds while Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds is offering free shipping for Earth Day.  We're almost out, and I was relying on this crop to replace my seed collection...but I don't know if I'll get any seeds post butterfly life cycle.

We still don't know for sure if we'll leave them all in the garden, or if we'll try to find some wild host plants and displace some or all of them, or bring some indoors, but if you're interested in more information about the Black Swallowtail life cycle, or raising some yourself indoors, check out these two resources:

Life Cycle of the Black Swallowtail
Raise Black Swallowtail Butterflies Indoors

And do tell:  What would YOU do if you were in my shoes?

21 April 2014

Growing Okra (and our first flower!)

If I want to talk about my garden, my grandmother is one of the top people on my list to call.  She loves gardening.  My grandmother tells me okra is her favorite vegetable.  I tell her we chose a variety that grows up to ten feet tall or so.  She tells me she loves to eat it (see below).  I tell her I wish she could be here to watch it grow with me.  She tells me I should save the okra seeds for next year, and I tell her I will try but I haven't learned how yet, and she tells me it's easy--you just let them dry out.

This is my second attempt at growing okra, but my first attempt that has gotten anywhere.  Since we found our first okra flower on the plants today, I thought it would be a good time to collect some okra growing references.

Starting Okra from Seed

When we started our okra seeds (we managed to squeeze three plants into the corner bed by our back fence), my dad was surprised to find out they came up within three or four days.  Well, I credit the seed packet, and perhaps this excellent growing guide from Organic Gardening, both of which told me to soak the seeds overnight or for twenty-four hours before planting.  Sure enough, the little roots started forming right away, and we had our little plants much faster that way.

Okra Pollination

According to Grow Great Vegetables, okra doesn't need pollination.  Which, if you've been reading my gardening posts, is great news for us, because we don't have many bees visiting our yard.  According to the Backyard Chicken Lady, however, we may need to keep our eye on things and help the okra blossoms come to fruition by shaking them (like we do with tomatoes).

Okra on Your Plate

Everything I've consulted says to harvest every day in the height of summer heat, because the plants will be producing so fast you'll have a hard time keeping up if you don't gather the blessings daily.  As such, it's important to know how you like to eat okra, so you'll be prepared when they're ready to pile up like that.  Personally, I can't wait!

I've eaten okra in two ways.  The first, favored by my grandma and my dad both, is using a cornmeal breading.  My dad says they're especially tasty with white cornmeal.  Simply take some cornmeal, mix in some seasonings, salt, and herbs, and fry the sliced okra.  Delicious.

But last summer, my aunt introduced me to another delicious way to eat okra.  Using the whole pods (it's great not to have any slicing involved) and clean hands, rub some extra virgin olive oil on your hands, and rub each pod between your coated hands.  Then lightly dust the pods with salt, and roast them in the oven or on the grill outside.  You won't be disappointed.

What's your favorite way to eat okra?  Have you ever tried freezing your harvest for future use?

17 April 2014

Twelve Weeks to Wellness and Optimal Health Seminar

Over the last several days, I've been watching a health lecture--and taking copious notes--while I eat breakfast.  While I don't regularly share reading lists and videos here, and although I've only watched one full one and part of another so far in the series, I'm learning such amazing things that I have to let you know about them, too.

What?  A seminar called Twelve Weeks to Wellness and Optimal Health.  It runs for twelve weeks, and this is week five.

Who?  Presented by Dr. Youngberg, of the Youngberg Clinic, Lifestyle and Nutritional Medicine for the Whole Family.

Where?  Although the lectures are live in California, they are being streamed on the internet.  (Yay!  That means I can watch them from Texas.)

When?  The lectures take place on Monday evenings, and the videos are available free for one week each.

How?  Register to receive each week's video link by e-mail through Dr. Younberg's web site.  When the link comes, you can either watch live (and submit any questions you have to be answered at the end of the lecture, time permitting) or watch when you have time during the following week.

This week's lecture, called Optimizing Digestion for Health and Healing, covered everything from the health benefits of eating fruits and vegetables to several simple and natural ways to aid digestion when things aren't working quite right.  The question and answer section at the end briefly covered topics such as the use of apple cider vinegar, juicing, bloating, alkaline water, and the healing and reversal of neuropathy (nerve damage).

I would love to hear about it if you're able to watch some of the lectures, and what you think of them!

14 April 2014

Stopping for Delight

Black Swallowtail

What stops your world?

The world might have stopped, just a little, when I was six and broke my arm and spent the night in the hospital, even though that night was my one chance to go to a Steve Greene concert.  But they did give me blueberry pie.  Oh, and the new outfit that actually fit over my new cast, a room full of flowers and balloons, and cinnamon toast whenever I wanted?  It wasn't an entire loss.

The world had stopped for crisis--stopped to mend, heal, and nurture a broken girl.

And you know what?  It worked.  Those days in a bright pink cast, the exact pattern on that new pair of sweats, and the little book brought home from my brother's class remain some of my most delightfully vivid memories.  People had cared about much more than just getting a bone back in place.  They had cared--tangibly--about me.

Another day, the world stopped for a hot air balloon flying over, just asking to be chased.  We got in the car, followed it to a big open field, and sure enough took a ride.

The world had stopped for delight--stopped to drink in the unexpected adventures of an ordinary day.

When I was in a college biology course at a marine station, the world stopped for whales.  Sure, it stopped for a couple of hours while the lab burned (crisis for sure!) and the fire trucks came and they had to decide where to hold lectures until the building could be refurbished, too.  But whales? 

No class of any level stayed in session when the whales swam by.  This was among the first day's rules and announcements section of the lecture:  We will drop everything and run for the boats if anyone sees a whale.

And we did, getting as close to mama and baby whales as would be respectful.  Delight, sheer and utter.

After college, when I got my first full-time adult job, I wasn't really sure what to expect.  At first, I feared the days would be drab and dull, filled with necessary but lifeless paperwork.  And there were some days that felt like that.  Then there were days filled with crisis, because after all we were there to help people and people face crises in life.

I soon learned, however, that crisis should not be and would not be the only thing allowed to stop the world.  There were other events in my office days that, no matter what, by instruction and example of my bosses, meant dropping anything and everything I was doing.

For example, if the man stood in the lobby playing Shenandoah on his harmonica, we stopped everything to listen, and begged for more.  Or if it was lilac season, and one of our regulars brought huge bunches from her bushes, I stopped to get out vases, making bouquets for every office.

I think it would be fair to say that lately, in spite of all this good training from childhood on up, I've been much too aware of and tuned into the crises that come along, threatening to take over the world.  

I've been forgetting to let the world stop for delight.

That's why, after thinking about all these things for a couple of days, I jumped up from the piano bench and my scales (which I love, by the way) to go follow the black fluttering thing out in the garden this afternoon.

Black swallowtails (at least this one) don't hold still very well, but with your permission I'll nevertheless use this little blurred photo of his wings to remind me to notice and follow the delights that beckon me out of my routines and crises.

Care to join me?

10 April 2014

Huisache, Acacia farnesiana

Recently when some young ladies complimented me on my outfit, saying, "You look springy," I wondered how in the world they knew what spring looks like--really looks like.  

Here in south Texas, there are green things all "winter" long, there are flowers blooming, and sometimes you even walk around your neighborhood in the evening darkness looking at Christmas lights without wearing a coat.

In a world like that, how can they know what spring means?  The kind that bursts forth in full bloom after months of gray, the kind of green that replaces the brown, the kind that brings out yellow flowers first, as if knowing you need something the color of the sun after the weeks and weeks of long nights and short days?

Over the last few weeks, though, I've been delighted to see some distinctly south Texan signs of spring.  Many of the trees do bring out a new coat of leaves to celebrate the season, and the neighborhoods are full of flowering trees I've never seen before.  And wonder of wonders, while we have had no tulips or daffodils, there are Whole Outdoor Flowerbeds full of Amaryllises, which I've only ever seen grown indoors, one at a time.

It did not once occur to me that there would be a place in the world where such things were possible.

These yellow-blooming trees were among my new delights a few weeks ago.  Their soft, puff-ball blossoms smelled sweet, cascading down the full height of their tall trees along the city's exercise trail.  

I didn't know what they were until a friend told my husband about a yellow blooming tree named Huisache, whose flowered branches his grandmother brought into his bedroom in bouquets when he had colds, to help him heal faster.  I'm quite sure he was talking about the trees beside the walking trail.

And isn't it just like our heavenly Father, to tuck health and healing into the scents of blooming and beautiful branches of trees, abundantly available for our use and enjoyment?

Of course, I don't know if there has been a scientific study to show the health benefits of the Huisache scent, but I wouldn't be the least surprised to find out that their blossoms, especially combined with fresh air and good ventilation, really would help cleanse a room and the people in it.

07 April 2014

Pollination by Hand

We live in a pretty urban neighborhood at the moment, and while it has its benefits, thus far we haven't seen very many bees in our yard.  One here, one there, but not ever the little clouds I'm used to seeing once the tomatoes and tomatillos and squashes start blooming.  

Of course, we have more decorative flowers beginning to grow and bud as well, which we hope will attract more pollinators, but since we can't guarantee what kinds of sprays and chemicals other people might use around us, we are being careful to hand pollinate our fruits and vegetables.

Hand pollination doesn't actually take much time, and it's a great way to increase your harvest where there may not be many natural pollinators flying around.

Hand Pollination for Squashes, Melons, and Cucumbers

The female squash bud in the photo above just might yield us a nice lemon squash someday.  As with all melons and cucumbers, the squash's male flower pollen will need to come in contact with the female flower for that to happen.  Many gardeners (including us) simply pick off the male flowers and rub them face down over the female flowers (both flowers need to be open to do this, unlike the one in the photo above).

And a video for an example:

Hand Pollination for Peppers

I've found that peppers are the easiest plants to hand pollinate.  Each plant generally has more than one flower at a time, so having one of each variety is all you typically need, but it is nice to have more than one flowering plant to be sure there are enough blooms to pollinate each other.

Simply rub a finger inside a blossom, and then without losing the pollen from your finger, rub the inside of all the other open blossoms of the same variety, ending with the first blossom so that it will also get pollen from other flowers.  We've had goo results with our Cayenne peppers using this method--the other peppers are just beginning to bloom, and we're using the same method with them (can't wait to start seeing those peppers form!)

Hand Pollination for Tomatoes

Before YouTube earlier this spring, I had no idea how to pollinate tomatoes by hand.  However, I was motivated to learn, since we kept seeing tomato flowers bloom, die, and fall off, without tomatoes forming.  Since watching the video (below) and implementing what we learned from it, we have had to stop counting the number of tomatoes forming on our six plants because there are just so many.  It's really a great problem to have!

The video suggests using an electric toothbrush for vibrating the flowers; however, since we didn't have one of those, we use a small electric shaver/trimmer, which has worked quite well.

04 April 2014

Your Name Written in Heaven

If the light hits a thunderhead just right, and the colors start bouncing off the sky-water so that it seems to glow with its own light, I start to think I'm getting a glimpse--the palest of glimpses--of what it will be like to see the new Jerusalem, the holy city, descending out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband, having the glory of God, aglow with light like a precious stone.

I reviewed my memory of Revelation chapter 21 again tonight, and as usual, there were more amazing things standing out from the familiar words than I could ever manage to tell about in one post--because the more you digest the Word of God, the more you see its infinite depth of detail and beauty.

Tonight I pictured John, standing there with the angel tour guide, taking it all in, trying to find words to tell me what it was like to see that city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.  

He sees it all, the lighted glory, the massive size, the huge wall, the gates with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel written into pearls giant enough to be gates for a wall that measures one hundred forty-four cubits high.

He sees twelve foundations of the city, noticing names written on them, too, names of the twelve apostles....

...of whom he is one.

The tears linger close to the surface.  Imagine with me what it would be like to be John in that moment, realizing for the first time that his own name is on one of the glorious expanses of precious stone under-girding the very city of God.  

Because when Jesus chose twelve apostles?  John was one.  

And down to the very day of this vision, while he was imprisoned on a lonely island for his Lord, he was faithful to his call.  Imperfect?  Yes.  Growing daily?  Yes.  Slow to realize he had a lot to learn?  Yes.  Yet surrendered to the firm and gentle hand of One who could shape him for higher service?  Yes.

But though John must have seen his name right there, somewhere in that list of beautiful foundations written large, he doesn't say a word about it.  Not here.  Not to us.  He's completely focused on something greater.

"And I saw no temple therein: for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it.  And the city had no need of the sun, nor of the moon, to shine in it:  for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof."  Revelation 21:22, 23

The Lamb, Jesus, the Cornerstone, is the light that makes the whole city of God, including its streets, its wall, and its foundation, shine with the light of a precious stone.  And the city itself with all those jewels?  Perhaps simply a visual and physical glimpse of the spiritual beauty God desires His church to have.

"Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ."  1 Peter 2:5 

And right now, should you and I so choose, we are being built into the city, into that spiritual temple, and our names can be just as surely written in the book of life of the Lamb as the apostles' names are written in the foundations of the city.


"Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved..." Acts 16:31

02 April 2014

When You Need a Rest Stop

Sometimes we need rest stops.  Even though we might be within an hour of home, and we think we can make it...the better part of wisdom tells us to stop the bus and give everyone a five-minute break (you know, because if you give them five minutes they'll actually be back in ten, which is what you want anyway).

You take those few minutes to race through the necessities, leaving as much time as possible to enjoy the whimsy of the thick (by south Texas standards) grove of trees, and keep an eye out to see if there are any bright purple wildflowers close enough to photograph.  (There aren't, so you just keep enjoying them from the bus window when you're on the road again.)

Well, today was a rest stop day for me.  I needed a low-energy, low-pressure day.  You know what that's like, right?  A day to do what feels relaxing and rejuvenating, a day to be, to enjoy a space of quiet in the midst of whatever else life might be throwing your way?

It's hard work to give myself permission to have a day like that, but you know what?  At the end of today, one of the few times I've allowed myself a rest stop day, I'm immensely grateful I stopped being my own taskmaster and allowed myself some much-needed time to just be.

So can I give you that permission too?  Permission to slow down, to rest, to clear the to-do list of those things that feel like pressure and make room for those things that feel like enrichment?  Maybe for yourself, or maybe for someone you love?

Because we all need rest stops sometimes, even when we might be awfully close to the finish line.