Saturday, June 25, 2016

A new furry friend

Earlier this afternoon, my chicken, Athena, had a bit of a squawking fit.  Athena is the only hen left after a predator took out the rest of my flock over a year ago.  I'm not sure what the predator was, but I somewhat suspect raccoons.  In any case, Athena is understandably a little bit dramatic about anything that makes her nervous.  I went out to investigate the cause of her commotion, and I couldn't see anything that looked out of place.  She is in a large dog crate during the daytime, out on the grass, until we build her new coop - so she is safe.  I peeked around the corner of the house and there I saw a furry little bottom disappearing around the corner.  Ah-hah!  So it wasn't just a falling leaf or a large dragonfly giving Athena the jitters!

I rushed inside, grabbed my camera, and stealthily crept out into the backyard to see if I could find the owner of the furry bottom.  Sure enough, I heard a little scrabbling noise under the former homeowner's dog house.  I peered underneath (it's raised up on a platform) and saw that furry bottom going out the other side.  I slowly made my way around so I could see the back of the dog house. There was the furry front end glaring at me - a groundhog!

I took a picture from quite a distance, not expecting to be able to get much closer.  You can just see him right in the middle of the picture.  I thought he'd dash off as I tried to approach for a better shot.

He was surprisingly obliging about being photographed though!  He let me get within about 10 feet of him before toddling off.  I love his brown "sleeves" - what a cute little critter.

I watched for a while and he went back under the dog house, and then poked his head out as if to see if I was still there.  I was, so I talked softly to him and said I was just watching if he didn't mind too much, and that I was quite happy to have him in the yard.  He seemed to listen, just watching me quietly.

After a while he went around to the front of the dog house where there are concrete pavers, and he lay flat out on them.  I think they are cool, and perhaps that helped him feel cooler because it was a warm day.  He flattened out very well, but when he heard my footstep, he came back up on his front paws.  I did manage to get a rather good picture of him though, as he sat there on the pavers.

A bit later, I saw him again and got a picture of him on the edge of the woods.  It appears that he's been in a fight or something because he has a patch of fur on his right rear haunch that is short or maybe missing.

Again I sat and watched him for a while and he eventually turned and trotted off into the woods, waving his little bottle-brush tail behind him.  I hope I'll see this groundhog again - its lovely to have wildlife visiting!

Friday, June 24, 2016

Poppies and Bees

In my new garden, I have lovely oriental poppies (Papaver orientale) in a classic shade of red.  These have impressively large flowers and long fern-like foliage.  I used to have a few different species of poppy in my old gardens in Iowa, but I haven't had these before.  I have been enjoying their showy blossoms for a few days now, and I know the blossoms usually don't last long on poppies, so I am enjoying them while I can.

I went out to take some pictures of them and discovered that they are apparently a favourite of local bees.  I am quite sure that the bee who is busy gathering from this poppy is a honey-bee (Apis mellifera), although I'm not a bee expert, so please correct me if I'm wrong.

This bee is very busy indeed, and alighting on the anthers and rolling around inside the flower gathering pollen.  Sometimes the bee appears to get a bit stuck under all those anthers and it makes furious buzzing noises before emerging in a bit of a huff.  It then flies up a bit, and re-lands on the crown of the flower, which will eventually become a seedpod.

Here you can see the dense dark poppy pollen that has collected on the rear part of the bee's abdomen.

He also has a lot of pollen that he's collected on his legs.  That area of a bee's leg is called the "pollen basket" which I think is a rather endearing term for a insect leg!  It's like he's got a suitcase with him.

A new poppy flower was opening this morning.  You can see how dark the anthers are on this one in comparison to the other blossom - that's because the bee hasn't been collecting here yet.  Soon he will find it and begin his task, no doubt.

I found a different bee species collecting nectar from my batchelor's button (Centaurea montana) flowers.  This is a 'bumble bee' (Bombus species, although I don't know which one).  Such a difference from one flower to another, and one bee to another.

I think this was the best photograph I managed to take today - I caught the bee's wing in flight, which makes an interesting translucent flash on the photograph, and you can see its proboscis, which is ready to take the nectar from the flower.  You can also see an ant watching the bee.  I didn't notice it while I was taking the picture.

I hope I have a few more days to admire the beautiful structure and design of the poppy flowers.  To me, they are a stunning example of Mother Nature's incredible diversity.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The yarn bleach test - an easy check for wool

There are a couple of methods to check whether a certain yarn is primarily protein fibre (wool, alpaca, llama, mohair, silk, etc.) or whether it's a plant fibre, or a synthetic fibre.  One of these is the burn test, in which you carefully hold a small piece of yarn to a flame (candle is easiest in my opinion) and watch the reaction.  Synthetics actually burn and make a plastic-looking melted blob on the end.  Protein fibres smell bad and sort of smoulder, and plant fibres tend to make a light ash.  This method is a very good diagnostic for synthetics, but not as good for blends.  There are small differences between the types of ash for the various fibre types, but they're difficult to read, at least in my opinion.

I personally prefer the bleach test.  It tells me whether or not a fibre is primarily protein, but it can also tell me if I've got a blend.  It's also fairly diagnostic for determining silk apart from other protein fibres.  I also like the fact that I can re-use the bleach.  I don't keep bleach on hand for many purposes, but the bleach I use for yarn tests can be poured back into a glass jar and re-used.  Not everybody knows about the bleach test, so I thought I'd do a post about it.

You need to use real chlorine bleach - not the "colour-safe" stuff.  You don't need much of it though.  I use a small glass dish and cut pieces of the yarns that I'm not sure about.  Usually they're yarns from thrift stores, grab bags, or trades, and the content label is long gone.  Today I tested a group of yarns I thought were mostly acrylics.  I was surprised!

Here are my yarns at the beginning of the test.  I've just poured a wee bit of bleach in the dish - enough to cover the yarn.  I use an old fork to push the yarn into the bleach so it is saturated.  Do take a picture at the beginning of the test because you might forget which yarns were which....and some of them might be about to disappear...

The yarn on the far left - the dark red one - is my 100% wool control sample, so I can compare other yarns to it.

Within about 5 minutes, many of the yarns were telling me that they contained animal fibres.  As you can see in the picture below,  many of them are getting a halo of bubbles around them.  That's a sign that they contain protein fibres that are in the process of dissolving.

I was surprised to see the purplish bulky yarn was among the bubblers.  I had thought it was completely synthetic.  You can see it is definitely releasing bubbles, whereas the blue and green yarns to the left of it are not, nor is the cranberry to the right.  The pink yarn on the left is definitely a wool.

Here's a clear view of my control 100% wool sample, bubbling away.  The green and red yarns below it are doing the same, but the teal is not.

 After about half an hour, here's how things looked.  The wool sample on the far left, and many of the others, are definitely disintegrated and dissolving.  That tells me they're 100% wool (or another protein-based animal fibre).  I find that silk also completely dissolves, but it tends to take almost double the time that wool takes to completely dissolve.

You can also see that the thick purplish yarn has stopped bubbling.  This tells me that it's a blend.  It had a small percentage of protein fibre, likely wool, which dissolved initially.  Now it's just the synthetic fibre that's left over.

And here was the scene after an hour.  The wool (or other protein) fibres are completely dissolved. The five strands you see that never bubbled are completely synthetic, and the thick purple was a blend that bubbled for just a short time.

I didn't include any cotton yarns in this batch, but cotton, flax, and other plant fibres are unaffected by the bleach bath.  I can usually tell the difference between cottons and synthetics by feel, so I don't use the bleach test to differentiate between those fibre types.  If you're not comfortable discerning between plant and synthetic by feel, the burn test will certainly help you figure out which is which!  I also notice (but I'm not going to say that it's a guarantee) that the acrylics and other synthetics tend not to lose their colour in the bleach, even though it's 100% bleach.  You can see those yarns in the picture above are the same colours they started out as!  On the other hand, cotton and flax tend to actually bleach out their colour.

Another result that you'll see with this test is something that bubbles a lot and then leaves a fine thread behind.  This is the case with wool yarns that include nylon.  The nylon stays and the wool dissolves.  If you use your fork or other tool to swirl around any residues, you'll see if they're connected (i.e. synthetic leftovers) or just blobs of disintegrating protein fibre.

Here's an example of that in a test I did previously and photographed.  The dark yarn on the far left is a wool with nylon, and the black boucle in the middle is a likely mohair boucle with a binder thread.  The yellow, second from the left, is silk.  The far right orange one is a cotton.  The others are wool or other animal fibre.

Here you can see the dark wool on the right has partially dissolved, and the boucle has dissolved but left the binder thread, which is now on the right of the picture after I swirled things around a bit.  The cotton is in the middle and it has lost its colour.  The yellowish blob in the top is silk, but all the other wools have dissolved. The yellowish-brown thin piece along the bottom was an added afterthought, not in the first picture, so ignore it.

 At the end of that test, you can see what was left - the nylon on the left from the sock blend (which is folded in half), the centre is the boucle binder, also probably nylon, and the right is the now-bleached cotton.

 So, now you know how to do the bleach test to learn things about yarns when you're not sure about their fibre content.  I hope that helps someone figure out some mystery yarns!

Monday, June 13, 2016

Birds, and lending a helping hand!

There is a cute little bird feeder shaped like a house on the top of a post that was already here in the garden of the house.  It didn't have any seeds in it and looked like it hadn't been used in a while, but I wanted to start attracting birds, so I put some seed in it.  I've also installed a tube feeder with mixed seed and another with nyger seed, and a hummingbird feeder.  So far, I've been really excited with the bird activity over just a few short days since I put the feeders up.

The hummingbirds are visiting regularly throughout the day.  We only have ruby-throated hummingbirds here in eastern Canada, but they are lovely.  This picture was taken through the window screen.  Hopefully someday I'll be able to take pictures outside without them flying away!

I've had the following birds so far at the seed feeders, all of which are common here, but it's still lovely to have them visit (since our previous house only ever had chickadees and the occasional robin).

  • black-chapped chickadees
  • white-breasted nuthatches
  • purple finch (male)
  • common grackles
  • dark eyed juncos
  • robins
  • a warbler (I think) that I haven't identified yet that is mostly brown and white but has yellow patches on the side of its face (the bird ID book hasn't been unpacked yet)
Here's a poor picture of the purple finch taken with my phone - but I was so excited to see it! Sometimes it's difficult to differentiate between the male purple finch and male house finch, but I'm pretty sure this is the purple finch.

So today, I looked out at the little house feeder to see if I had any visitors, and a grackle was taking seed (as usual), but there seemed to be some additional fluttering going on.  I wasn't sure if it was another bird on the other side of the feeder.  Then I realized, it was another bird INSIDE the feeder!  A poor little white-breasted nuthatch somehow got itself inside the house!

Not wanting to stress the bird out any more than necessary, I quickly lifted the lid so he could escape. Here's a little video of my "good deed of the day"!


Saturday, June 11, 2016

I dug in the dirt today

Last week, Marc and I finally moved to our new home.  It was a long and stressful year, waiting for his house to sell, but once it did, things moved pretty quickly, and now we are just starting to settle in to our new home.  I still have the place in Nova Scotia to sell, but that's going to take a while, and I just need to be patient about it.

It has rained almost every day for the past week, so I didn't have many opportunities to get outside and do some garden work.  The new home has some established perennials already that I am slowly getting to know.

I'm really looking forward to the blooms on these poppies coming out - I do love poppy plants and they come in such vibrant colours.

There are a number of roses that I look forward to seeing in the bloom phase, so I'll know what colour they are.  My mom brought some English primroses to share that are originally from my grandfather's garden, so that is very special for me, and they are growing well already.  You can just see one of them in the centre front of the picture below - it has yellow flowers.  One of the trellises at the back has a clematis on it.

I wanted to get a few tomato plants into the ground - if you followed me back in Iowa, you might remember that I used to grow 30 or more varieties of tomato each year, up to 72 varieties one year.  I don't have that much space now, but I have put in a few.  I bought transplants this year because I don't have my plant light trolley set up yet so I didn't start my own, and it would be too late to do so at this point because we have such a short growing season.  I usually plant heirloom varieties, but this year it's just the hybrids.

I bought Burpee transplants - some indeterminate and some determinate varieties.  I planted a couple of different container varieties today - each of which produces extra lycopene, carotenoids and/or vitamin C.  I planted some "Cherry Punch" hybrid and some "Power Pops" hybrid in the containers.  They look a bit droopy here but I just finished showering them with the hose.

In the ground, I planted a "Super Sauce" hybrid as well as a couple of "Lemon Boy" tomato plants and a "Brandy Boy" F1 hybrid.  Next year I hope for better tomato supports too, but for now, I'll make do with what I have!

I also popped in a few creeping thyme plants because I do love them as a ground cover.  I received a peppermint plant from a local friend and planted it with a restraining "collar" made from an old planter to keep it from spreading too much.  I'm hoping to get some raised beds in for next year, but I have much to do before then, so a few tomato plants seemed like a good start.  I've also popped in a bunch of VERY old zucchini seed (2006 through 2010) with the hopes that a few might germinate.  I have my doubts but we'll see!

The perennial beds are really lovely and I'm excited to see what colours begin to emerge as things flower.  There are sedums and irises and astilbe, a wealth of hostas, and some plants I really don't know!  There's also a beautiful arbour but I think it has Virginia Creeper on it, which is not so lovely, because it's rampant and invasive and difficult to control.  If it is what I think it is, it might have to come out and something else will be planted on the arbour.

If you are wondering, yes, the sheep and goats will be here...but I do need to put in fencing and get a small barn in place first, so they're not here yet.  I have far less land than I would have liked - only 1.75 acres, because there weren't many places with land available to us in our target area, or the ones that had land weren't zoned correctly for sheep or goats.  Anyway, they'll have to have supplemental hay year round, but it will be so lovely to have them back with me.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Making No-Knead Bread

A while ago I had bookmarked a blog post about making no-knead bread.  When I say "a while ago," I would estimate that it was at least 2 years, if not 3 years ago.  Sometimes, it takes me a while to get around to doing things!  Finally, though, I remembered that I wanted to try making this bread, and I bought my ingredients and set about trying it.

The blog post I used for my bread is here:
The original post gives a number of variations on this bread, all of which sound really good.  I wanted to try the regular version first, just to see how it worked out for me and whether I wanted to make it on a more regular basis.  I really like the fact that this recipe has an overnight raising time during which I do not need to do anything with it.  I also like the fact that the timing is flexible.  I'm not repeating all the details of the recipe here - please use the original blog source above.  I just wanted to show how mine came out.

The basics of this bread are so easy.  Just combine 3 cups of flour, 1 3/4 teaspoons of salt, 1/2 teaspoon of rapid-rise yeast, and 1 1/2 cups of water in a reasonably large sized bowl.  The dough will be sort of sticky and messy.  I had to add a little more water to get my flour incorporated.  As the source blog instructs, I covered it with plastic wrap and left it on the counter.  The recommended time is 12-18 hours.  I think mine went for about 20 hours, so don't worry about it if you're a bit over on the timing.  What was initially a gooey blob in the bottom of the bowl rose to become this:

The bowl is 10 inches wide and about 6 inches tall, so that may help with perspective.

I had set my oven to 450 F as required, and I used my red Kitchen Aid Dutch oven for this recipe, which I put in the oven to heat for 30 minutes.  Meanwhile, I scraped the dough out of the bowl onto a heavily floured wax-paper surface, formed it into a round-ish shape, and put the plastic wrap over it again.  I then went away for 25 minutes while the Dutch oven was heating and the dough was considering its future.

At the 30 minute mark, I removed the hot pan from the oven, took off the lid, and dropped my dough into the pan.  At this point, it looks pretty pathetic.

I put the lid on and let it bake for 30 minutes as instructed.  Then, I removed the lid and baked it for its final 15 minutes.  Here it is just after removing it from the oven.  Let me tell you, the smell was amazing!

It produced a lovely loaf with a crusty exterior and a lovely moist interior.

This is the loaf after a couple of slices were removed - you can see that the interior is airy and not too dense.  I'll definitely be making this bread again, and will try some of the variations given in the original post.  The orange and cranberry sounds great, as does the lemon rosemary.  I do have a bread machine and I use it from time to time, but this recipe is just as easy and makes a delightful loaf.  I thoroughly recommend it!

Friday, March 18, 2016

The Wedding

I never blogged about the wedding.  I wasn't blogging much at the time, and it seems like such an afterthought to blog about it now, but I feel like I should blog about it just to record the memories. Marc and I were married on a beautiful September day, when the sun shone and the birds sang and there was a little bit of magic in the air.

I think that part of me had given up on the dream of a wedding day, or ever finding a person that would put up with my idiosyncrasies and peculiarities for long enough to want to share a permanent bond with me.  That made this day all the more thrilling and exciting for me, and I wanted it to be really memorable.  At the same time, I am now geographically very far from most of my friends, and haven't really made any strong bonds in this area, so it was with some sadness that I realized it had to be a very small wedding.  There's nothing wrong with small weddings, but there were at least a dozen people I wished could have been there, but whom I simply couldn't ask to attend, given the distance and the cost of travel these days.  As it was, we had 16 guests, mostly local, at the lovely Magnetic Hill Winery here in Moncton, New Brunswick.  The winery features a historic small barn that was just the right size for our small ceremony and dinner.

We had some difficulty in finding an officiant because neither one of us is religious, and yet we wanted someone who respected our wish for a meaningful ceremony.  We found the perfect officiant through the Unitarian Fellowship.  He has presided over a wide range of ceremonies including Wiccan and Pagan rituals, as well as mixed-faith marriages.  We felt a good connection when we met with him, and decided that he was our choice to perform the ceremony. We carefully studied a wide range of material for wedding ceremonies and selected wording that was meaningful and significant to us.  It made for a unique and customized ceremony that met all of our preferences.

The dress was an absolute fiasco that almost didn't happen!  I had ordered what I thought would be the perfect dress in a lovely pale silvery grey colour, and I had planned to do turquoise and green embroidered beadwork on the bodice.  Sadly, when the dress arrived, it was sack-like and shapeless and made me look like death warmed over.  I was crushed, and didn't know what I would do.  I turned to the internet and found Frock Follies, and ordered a crushed velvet custom dress 6 weeks before the wedding.  I didn't tell Marc much about it, but said it included dark green.  He went ahead with his order from the Gentleman's Emporium website based in the US, and didn't tell me what he had ordered either.  Marc's outfit arrived quickly (but I wasn't allowed to see it).  Meanwhile, I grew increasingly panicky about my dress since the dressmaker wasn't sending any updates and I didn't want to be a pest about asking, so I just kept quiet.  Almost miraculously, my dress arrived on the Monday of the wedding week (the wedding was on Friday).  My huge sigh of relief was heard throughout the city I'm sure!  Fortunately, it fit really well and was beautifully made.

The most amazing thing about the dress and Marc's ensemble is that they matched almost perfectly - as if they had been made to be together.  Even though neither of us saw what the other was ordering, or knew anything other than "dark green" being a colour, we both chose a nearly identical colour and we both chose the cream accent colour without knowing the other's choice.

Our rings were custom made by Magee's Jewelers in Fredericton.  They specialize in custom engagement and wedding rings, and were delighted to work with the stones that I had.  The stones included in our rings, as well as the gold, came from a number of different rings passed on to me from my ancestors, including my grandmother and great-grandmother on my mother's side.  Having rings made from the treasures of these strong and resilient women who were a part of my history made me feel as if they, too, were a part of our special day.  In addition, we had a large copper jug filled with fresh sunflowers. The copper jug belonged to my grandfather, so he too was there to celebrate with us that day.

I was absolutely delighted that my cousin Simon from England was able to attend.  I had not expected any of my family members to attend, apart from my parents.  I was really surprised and so pleased that he was able to come for a visit and he turned out to be an absolute champion at attending to critical matters that arose on the day, like helping to frost cupcakes and fill water pitchers.  It was truly a blessing to have him with us.

Having my Dad walk me down the aisle was one of the best parts.  I feel so lucky to still have both my parents healthy and able to be there for our wedding, not to mention helping with many of the preparations and decorating aspects.  It was extremely difficult not to dissolve into an emotional puddle on the walk down the aisle, but I managed to keep it together.  Only just!  Do take a moment to notice the stunning bouquet - my mother is an absolute whiz with flowers and she made it just for me.  The stems are wrapped with a lovely green ribbon.

We also enjoyed the musical talents of a wonderful harpist, Dorothy Brzezicki, throughout the ceremony and afterwards.  She was absolutely perfect.

We wrote our own vows from scratch, and Marc even altered his on the day of the wedding, which was a bold move, but we were able to read them from prepared, printed cards, so it was easy for him to make those last-minute changes.  I'm sharing a video here of the ring exchange and kiss, so if you weren't there, you can still share in a little piece of our day.   We didn't have a professional videographer for the wedding - this was taken by Marc's sister-in-law.  The lighting isn't perfect, but it is the words that count.

I was unable to find a local cake decorating person to create the cake I really wanted for the wedding, so I made my own cupcakes instead.  We had a sunflower theme, so I made chocolate and lemon cupcakes and frosted them to look like sunflowers.  (thank you Pinterest!)  My cousin Simon helped out with the frosting and we displayed them on a rented cupcake stand.  It was just right for the theme and everybody seemed to enjoy the cupcakes.

We were also delighted by Marc's Dad and his wife who surprised us with a musical performance, aided by the post-dinner jazz trio.  Martin played the keyboard and Holly sang for us - they are both extremely talented!

I felt tremendously blessed to have so many people who helped with making our day the magical moment that it was, and am thankful to have such wonderful, loving family and friends.  All in all, it was the perfect day and the perfect wedding.