Sir Poopalot and Other Animal Tales

This morning as I headed off to work, I saw the cutest sight – a family of squirrels cavorting in a roadside plumbago bush. Until they saw me approach, they seemed quite carefree, the babies playing and nuzzling each other and just being cute.

Squirrel Family
Squirrel Family

This has been a year of an unusually large number of animal encounters. Remember the rhyme “For want of a nail…”? That has been the story in my garden.

California’s drought of epic proportions made for a rough winter for the birds, or at least that’s how I justified their actions. To get a jump on the growing season, I’d sown a few handfuls of fenugreek seeds in February in hopes of heartwarming dishes like chicken with fenugreek stew. The birds ate EVERY single seedling that ever emerged, leaving me with the heartbreaking sight of their neatly nipped nubs.

Being of the live and let live persuasion, I decided the poor birds needed nourishment too and ordered a gigantic (and expensive) bag of black oil sunflower seeds, touted to be the very best. Really, the descriptions were so good, I felt like perhaps I should consume a few. Anyway, the birds largely ignored the sunflower seeds, showing a marked preference for my seedlings along with plum blossoms and the California poppy seeds I’d sown.

The bag of seeds in the meanwhile was discovered by an inquisitive squirrel that tore a hole in the bag. For weeks he feasted on the veritable avalanche of sunflower seeds, chewing the insides and creating a mess of shells everywhere. I’d often find the squirrel sitting brazenly on the bag, working his way through the seeds, and he’d scamper away with a show of great reluctance when we approached. This continued for a while. Live and let live.

One day I came home from work and found the entire garden dug up! Some of the newly planted plants were completely uprooted, mulch was pushed away from the base of the bushes and scattered on the pebble paths. This couldn’t be the work of just birds who occasionally like to dig around a bit in the mulch to look for insects (when they are not nibbling my seedlings obviously). It wasn’t gophers – there weren’t any holes, just the mulch untidily pushed from the base of the plants. I concluded the nighttime marauders were raccoons. I’d never encountered raccoons before and a little bit of reading around indicated that they tend to go to places where there’s accessible food such as open trash cans or (Eureka!) birdseed. So, the raccoons showed up for the seed and decided they needed something a bit meatier to go with it and ripped up the beds in search of bugs.

Of course I quickly got rid of the bag of seeds. I scattered a ridiculously expensive jar of what really amounted to some pepper and garlic powder and covered only about a fifth of the garden AND needed to be repeated every now and then. This worked for a few days. Then I scattered blood meal here and there; raccoons are supposedly repelled by the smell. I can’t speak for the raccoons, but I was certainly repelled. Instead of jasmine, lily and rose, my nose was assaulted by the unmistakable animal smell that pervaded the garden.

Next I bought a Predator Guard – a solar powered plastic board with two flashing red LED lights intended to mimic the eyes of predators. I had high hopes with this. Until the raccoons stopped by, and I imagine laughed amongst themselves, and in a classic show of one-upmanship dug right in front of the Predator Guard, literally under the very nose of supposed predator.

I wondered how someone with the best intentions i.e. me, could end up the hapless victim of so many herbivorous animals. A line I read somewhere stuck – “It’s not personal”. I finally decided to let it go. Oh, I’ll still scatter some red chili powder and blood meal, perhaps soak a few rags in ammonia and scatter them all around, but for now, I’m just going to live and let live. Mostly live.

Oh and if you were wondering who Sir Poopalot (of the title) is – it’s the name my new bunny should be called, but he goes by something a little more cute, if not quite as apt. I’ve started using his pellets (or poop to be clear) in the garden. Results pending.

It’s all Greek to me!

A colleague asked me recently, “Does your garden look like that?” This was like being asked, “Does your body look like Gisele Bundchen’s?” “Uh… no!” Not by a long shot.

Where I work, landscaping companies come over every few months and give our surroundings a complete facelift. Little hills of compost are raked over planting beds and arrays of perfect perennials are planted in precise rows by an army of professionals.

Recently they have started building these beautiful enclosed kitchen gardens in unused spaces – high raised beds of wood or tastefully rusted iron planters surrounding a gravel-laid courtyard, Adirondack chairs, canvas umbrellas, a gurgling fountain, and the most lush, delectable vegetable plants punctuated here and there with a flowering plant in full bloom. Not a single bug-ravaged leaf, snaking hose or seedling pot is ever in evidence. Sitting there is to lose oneself in a warm, languid summer day in a European country of your choice. “That” was one of these gardens.

I don’t know about you, but my gardens never have and likely never will look like that. Our resident snails are indestructible and although I never see them, I have a feeling if I stayed out too long in the evening, I would find pieces of my body missing. I plant seeds, eagerly wait for the seedlings to emerge and the very next day find them mowed down to a pitiful nub.

I work hard on the garden but the proofs are everywhere – our wrought iron chairs jostle bags of compost and poop of different animals that I am usually too tired to put away. Our fountain stayed dry all of last year because of the drought. Seedlings are slowly emerging in extremely uneven rows. Two brilliant green hosepipes proudly declare their existence. It’s not a picture-perfect garden, but its a happy one. Much like my body.

Now, there is one plant that would make any busy/tired/novice gardener look good. Sadly, most people have never heard of it, certainly never seen or tasted it. Still, it is super easy to grow, delicious and nutritious, with an impressive resume of health problems it can cure – from digestive issues to dandruff, and also good for nursing mothers.

So what is this plant? Fenugreek! Botanical name Trigonella foenum-graecum

Fenugreek seeds Image Source: Savory Spice Shop
Fenugreek seeds
Image Source: Savory Spice Shop

Bunches of fenugreek leaves, which look a lot like clover, and the seeds, which are used as a spice, can both be found in Indian grocery stores. The leaves are too pungent to be eaten raw as in a salad, but cooked they have a warm, hearty flavor which enhances anything you might add it to, much like truffles. It plays especially well with spinach; substituting a third of the normal quantity of spinach with fenugreek leaves in a soup or a casserole will kick its taste up several notches.

Fenugreek leaves Image Source:
Fenugreek leaves
Image Source: Come For What

I first grew it when a kindly relative sprinkled a handful of seeds over my spent tulip bed. Within weeks, I had a lovely green bed of fenugreek that I harvested for weeks, since it doesn’t bolt easily. I have been growing fenugreek in my garden every year since. Germination rate is very good, irrespective of weather, snails for the most part leave it alone, and especially important for us Californians, it is quite drought tolerant. An all-round super-plant.

What the fig?!

This past weekend, we had a friend visiting from overseas, a regular high-tech guy with heretofore no noticeable quirks. And then he revealed his desire to buy a farm! He was serious; he even went and got a certificate in Farming 101 or something similar since laws in his country limit ownership of agricultural land to farmers only.

So of course he was genuinely interested in the goings-on in my backyard since he is still wondering what to grow, exactly, in the farmland he intends to purchase. While giving him the “tour” we glanced inside the greenhouse and there was this single, huge, luscious-looking fig on my LSU Purple fig tree!

Nearly ripe LSU Purple Fig  on a potted tree in the greenhouse
Nearly ripe LSU Purple Fig on a potted tree in the greenhouse

Now, I have been single-handedly hauling those potted fruit trees, each easily weighing 50 lbs., into and out of the greenhouse to give them clear sunshine and let the inside of the greenhouse dry out a bit. Not once during these most likely unnecessary and backbreaking exercises did I notice a figlet (yes, that’s a word) on this particular tree, which is practically leafless at this point. So that was a really nice surprise! Can’t wait to taste it.

In the meanwhile, the alpine strawberry seeds have germinated. Some varieties have had better germination rates than others. I keep the tray on our dining room table facing a sunny window and all of them are growing at an angle towards the sun. I thinned out some cells which had as many as nine seedlings in them.

Newly sprouted Alpine Strawberry seedlings
Newly sprouted Alpine Strawberry seedlings

And of all the papaya seeds I planted, 12 of them, only 2 germinated, both Hawaiian Solo Sunrise. I’m hoping the others will pop up sooner or later.

Hawaiian Solo Sunrise seedlings indoors on a heating mat
Hawaiian Solo Sunrise seedlings indoors on a heating mat

In the spirit of doing more with our garden produce a la Nigel Slater, I’ve been making things where at least one key ingredient is from the garden. The recipes are from different sources, though I’ve tweaked them to my liking. Here they are:

Vanilla custard topped with roasted blueberries in case just the custard is too vanilla, the spreading deep blue of the blueberries with a hint of tartness from the lemon juice really elevates this humble dessert. Recipe from here.

Vanilla custard with roasted blueberries Image and Recipe Source: The Smitten Kitchen
Vanilla custard with roasted blueberries
Image and Recipe Source: Smitten Kitchen

Sangria made from the Spanish wine, rioja, allowed to blend overnight with fresh squeezed clementine juice (still a bit tart but great in this drink), orange liqueur and cognac. Thin rounds of citrus fruit, chopped strawberries, lots of ice and 7 Up added just before serving. This was a great hit. The recipe is from the book 101 Sangrias and Pitcher Drinks by Kim Haasarud. I’ve only tried this one so far and in a cute pot belly pitcher it looks just beautiful.

Guacamole, where the only thing from the garden at this time are the lemons (used instead of limes). The idea is to have the tomatoes, chilies and cilantro also from the garden in the warmer months.

Mojitos, as much fun to make as to drink. I have always grown mint in pots, having heard the stories of them conquering backyards. For somebody just starting a little garden, a pot of mint is very encouraging. I just stick a few leftover twigs in a pot and voila, a lush, fragrant herb garden in no time! I like to garnish salads with mint leaves, and mint chutney sandwiches served English tea style are perfect for a summer picnic. Can you tell I can hardly wait for warmer weather?

Crema Catalana, reminiscent of Crème Brulee, but lighter and infused with spices and citrus zests instead of or in addition to vanilla. The cinnamon stick and lemon and clementine zests steeping in warm milk filled the whole house with a warm and inviting fragrance. I came across an interesting twist on this recipe with caramelised figs; I think my lovely Violette de Bordeaux figs might be destined for that one!


I am into modeling.

I would show you pictures of my work, but there are likely legal ramifications that I do not care to risk.

Oh, not this kind of modeling

Image Source: The Fashion Spot
Image Source: The Fashion Spot

but the considerably more interesting and equally glamorous, this kind of modeling.

Regression Model
Image Source: Economic & Social Research Council. I do not work here.

As the last leaves of our apple tree (which is a very late variety called Garden Delicious) are falling, I started wondering about this year’s harvest and chilling hours. 2014 was a very warm year, and while the weather these days is nippy, we had warm days all the way through Christmas Eve. With the sort of freakish coincidence that is common these days, CNN’s Breaking News announced just now that 2014 was Earth’s warmest on record. While one year of warmth does not make a trend, it did make for a welcome change – we could enjoy being in the garden without needing to dash inside for jackets as soon as the sun set.

Our fruit trees, apple, Asian pear, plum, cherry, peach and persimmon, all need a certain number of hours of chilling to bloom, leaf out, and set fruit successfully. I am worried that if we do not accumulate enough chilling hours by the time of the normal bloom season, we’ll have low fruit set and poor leaf growth.

The UC Davis Fruit & Nut Research & Information site has a wealth of information, models (hence the reference to modeling) to calculate accumulated chilling hours and data from weather stations throughout the state. The station nearest where I live shows that this current season, which runs from the beginning of November through the end of February, the chilling hours accumulated is less than half of that this time last year.

My apple tree and Elberta peach tree both have chilling requirements of 600 hours, from the Dave Wilson Nursery website. Since we are midway through the season, and at just barely over half the minimum chilling needed, there is a chance that the trees might bloom unevenly, or flower buds may not open at all. This is disappointing since fruit of both trees is delicious. The implications of a warm winter for those growing fruit commercially is very serious. Central Valley farmers had half or less than their normal harvest last year.

There isn’t a way to get around volatile climate changes of course. Planting low chill varieties brings with it its own set of problems – buds opening too soon and getting damaged by frost and that sort of thing.

Most of us here lead lives far too busy to even step into our backyards, let alone care about what goes on there with regards to chilling hours, bee populations and other horticultural concerns. If fruit trees produce poor harvests year after year, for no fault of theirs, fewer people would be interested in planting or keeping them in their backyards. While most people would never grow fruit trees with the sort of interest bordering on obsession that I do, a gnarled apple in the yard, a little strawberry patch are simple pleasures that we would do well to hold on to as long as we can.

Ripe – An Inspiration

The book recommendation algorithm at our library is surprisingly good; recognizing my interest in edible gardening, in particular fruit, it suggested “Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard” by Nigel Slater. If I were to ever write a book that combines my three loves of gardening, cooking + baking and photography, this is the kind of book I hope it would be. The prose is as delicious as the recipes, the photography rustic yet elegant.

Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard by Nigel Slater. Image Courtesy:
Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard by Nigel Slater Image Source: Eat the Love

Apples “… their skins a tapestry of moss green, sage and amber, their flesh crisp, acid-sweet, and full of character.”

and “The trees will be loved too, for their lichen-encrusted branches, tissue-frail blossom, and quiet benevolence.”

Side note: I have ordered my hardcover copy, this is a book to be lovingly held and lingered over.

There are no pictures in the book of shapely, perfectly colored apples tumbling out of artfully arranged baskets. Instead they suggest that the author just stepped into his garden and lovingly captured images of his harvest, endearingly ugly in a jumble of colors and sizes. For me this is especially heartening. You see, I have a 3 year old Garden Delicious (yes Garden, not Golden) apple tree. This is a genetic dwarf, developed by Zaiger’s Genetics of Modesto, California. The tree has only produced a grand total of 8 apples in the two years we have had it. The apples have been rather unattractive – small, green and yellow striped, with just a touch of red and somewhat lopsided. The flesh however was surprisingly good, “crisp, acid-sweet, and full of character”. I used to worry about how the fruit looked, being so used to the waxed perfection of grocery store apples. However, after reading about apples described with so much love, and all the delights you can make with them, I am happy to brush aside such concerns.

Cherries “bring with them a certain frivolity, a carefree joy like hearing the far-off laughter of a child at play.”

And when reading of a cherry pie “with soft sugar-dusted pastry and a river of unpasteurized cream running slowly over its warm crust” who can help being impatient for cherry season to arrive so you can bake such wonders.

Figs, blueberries, pears et al have been treated with the same love, respect and awe. The meat and fruit recipes, to be honest, I will probably not attempt, particularly the ones calling for pheasant, guinea fowl or rabbit. The dessert recipes are all tempting and simple.

In the meanwhile, the clementines in my backyard are ripening nicely. Every day their color seems to be a shade more orange. Last year, I started picking and eating the clementines in early January when they looked perfectly ripe and tempting. However, they all tasted bitter. After some frantic Internet research, I learned two things – one, don’t have citrus fruit immediately after brushing your teeth, a mouth freshly rinsed of toothpaste and citrus juices don’t combine well. Two, even when appearing to be perfectly ripe and coming off the tree easily, citrus fruit continue to increase in sugar content over time. So a few weeks later, the fruit had ripened properly to the sweetness and wonderful flavor I associate with our backyard clementines.

Ripening Clementines
Ripening Clementines

My potted Violette de Bordeaux fig, which I bought as a tiny twig last year with a couple of leaves, outgrew the pot it was in and now has 10 or more figs on it. It has been in my plastic greenhouse most of the fall and I intend to keep it there through the winter. Also, I got carried away and now have 5 more figs in pots or scheduled to arrive in the spring – Petit Negri, Celeste, LSU Purple, Peter’s Honey and Mary Lane. All of them I chose for a diversity of flavor and texture e.g. Mary Lane is also called Jelly fig, because it is seedless, Peter’s Honey figs are supposed to be as sweet as honey, and so on.

Figs on my potted Violette de Bordeaux fig tree
Figs on my potted Violette de Bordeaux fig tree
Young potted Petit Negri fig tree inside the greenhouse
Young potted Petit Negri fig tree inside the greenhouse

Among the flowers, Clematis Niobe has produced a huge off-season bloom. Winter-blooming jasmine is starting to form tiny buds. We have it growing around one of the supporting posts of our patio, and for a far too brief period in late winter, it perfumes the entire patio with its delicate fragrance. Hyacinth shoots are just beginning to poke their heads out of the ground.

Clematis Niobe in bloom in winter
Clematis Niobe in bloom in winter
Winter blooming Jasmine Jasminum Polyanthum in bloom last year
Winter blooming jasmine Jasminum polyanthum in bloom last year

The brisk air and mellow sunlight of winter is lovely, but I am impatient for longer days and for the garden to be bursting into life again.