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Catching Up

Thankful for the physical well-being and energy I’ve had this summer that has enabled me to keep up with the garden (though not with sharing its joy online!). Above, a selection of late-summer delights, starting with a plumtini, just a martini shaken with a very ripe plum, yum!

Thankful for half a dozen perfect strawberries gleaned from as many plants. Maybe next summer they’ll do better, but each fruit was certainly a burst of flavor as bright as its color.

Thankful for last month’s Harvest micro-moon rising directly behind Castle Rock
Thankful for snapdragons, bumblebees, and … colors everywhere!
Thankful for mother’s little helper Biko, eating aphid infested kale or broken tomatoes as needed to supplement his primary diet of bindweed, prickly lettuce, bad grasses and other weeds. Now semi-retired for the year, he spends a few hours outside some warm days and otherwise slumbers in his laundry room nook.

The past months have been a whirlwind of harvesting, pickling, canning, freezing, cutting back, drying, fermenting and other fun fall festivities. I’ve been spinning through each day drenched in gratitude, swimming in astonishing colors, savoring and storing for winter the flavors of summer.

It’s almost impossible to believe I am the same person as that awkward little girl in the DC suburbs who spent every free minute curled up in an armchair reading books. How did I come to be here? Living close to the land in this fertile valley for almost half my life now has allowed me to approach some understanding of my true nature, and I couldn’t be more thankful for that.

That Mangy Old Doe: Adventures with Peaches

Just a couple of recent dahlia pics to remind the world that yes, dahlias are worth the trouble, especially for native pollinators and honeybees. Deadheading with snippers once or twice a week and feeding occasionally keeps them blooming for a long season from mid-summer into fall.

How the young fawn knows to lay low when the doe steps away in alarm from a human strolling through the woods with dogs, old dogs that no longer give chase; and how now later, the older fawn, still spotted but fading, still more slightly built, less than half her mother’s size, how the older fawn knows to step lightly and exactly with her mother under similar conditions. They rise like a breeze from their bed west of the fence, already stepping diagonally away, the doe looking calmly, alertly over her shoulder at me, the fawn like a feather on that breeze a full stride behind, attentive only to the mother she knows at all costs to follow.

Another doe, the mangy old doe who kept the ground clean beneath the apricot tree now grooms the peach. We fenced it off again after she began pulling unripe peaches from lower limbs, shaking others to the ground with her tenacity, breaking branches. We waited that morning, watching, until she left of her own accord. 

Is she spitting out the pits? Kathy asked. 

It sure looks like it. But maybe she’s just dropping pieces.

Wouldn’t it be funny if she’s spitting out the pits?

After she left we rolled out the fence and secured a big ring close enough to the trunk, far enough out under the crown, that she’d be unwilling to jump inside it. She could almost reach the outer leaves. She looked sadly when she returned a few times, but then adapted. 

Recent weeks have focused on monitoring the peach tree, gauging ripeness not only by both color and feel, but also by observing birds. A scrub jay keeps returning, pecking at one or another of some top fruits, a finch or two checks them out. I’m waiting, morning and evening, and sometimes lunchtimes, to see when a whole finch family descends on the peaches; then I’ll know it’s time to start picking.

It feels like the right time but it takes a few days to get the feel of which peaches to pick, which to leave on the tree to ripen a day or few longer. Hummingbirds have been using the cover of peach leaves to guard their feeder, and buzz close as I lean over the wire, reach into the canopy, and quick pull or twist a fruit off. Filling my shirt with a dozen bright peachy pink fuzzballs… gently settling them into a bowl inside the house, and suddenly they look so much yellower, so much less ripe, so much smaller, than they did when I picked them!

Within a week I’ve salvaged all the peaches I can. What’s left on the tree, besides a few untouched just too high or deep inside for me to reach, have all been pecked a little or a lot by various birds. This morning, the old mangy doe is back, looking longingly at the peach tree just out of reach.

Oh! I think, I’ll open that up for you. She steps a few feet away and nibbles on Rhus trilobata, watches out the corner of her eye as I switch the water to another sprinkler, she waits. I approach the peach fence from farthest side and she glides twenty feet toward the yard fence, not unduly alarmed. Walking under the tree I slowly roll up the field fence into a tube a yard across, hook its loose ends over the next layer in a couple of spots at the seam, and drag it to the side, all while murmuring to the doe, glancing at her then down and away, while she waits, relaxed and poised for flight if necessary.

I turn and walk the thirty feet to the patio; before I reach my chair she’s under the peach tree watching me. I smile, watch her watch me, until she too smiles in a way, her body releases a level of guard, she drops her head, and begins to feast on fallen fruit remnants.

Hmmm. I wonder if she’ll spit the pits?

You’re welcome!

After she’s had her fill for the time being, she strides cautiously across the yard to get her greens, a few mouthfuls of feral heirloom arugula, before leaping the south fence, leaving the yard.

Meanwhile, I got busy on the peaches…
I’d never made cobbler before and found an easy recipe. After glopping the batter into the hot buttered pan I lightly smoothed it without disturbing the butter layer.
mmmmm, then I spooned the hot peach mixture on top of that, sprinkled with cinnamon, and baked.

With two big bowls of peaches on the counter and tomatoes rolling in, it’s time to get back into the kitchen and save some more summer for winter, coming all too soon. But first:

Puppy pile under the wild rose at Karen’s house. The litter of seven was born to a sweet bitch abandoned by her owners when they moved. They told a neighbor, “If she bothers you just shoot her.” Rescued by Karen’s daughter, sweet Nellie has been a good mama, and now it’s time for the pups to find good homes…. But mine won’t be one of them: I’ve got just the right mix of garden companions at the moment, a household in harmony, with two old dogs whose last days I’m counting with bittersweet attention.
Topaz and Stellar greet each other beside rapidly ripening paprika.
Elusive Admiral Weidemeyer flitted through the yard again a week after Kathy first spotted him, alighting on an aspen sapling. Not the only butterfly surprise this summer!

Are Dahlias Worth the Trouble?

You decide.

It seems like a lot of trouble to dig them up in the fall and store them through winter, a necessity in this climate, but to me the rewards are great once they start to bloom.

The best way I’ve found to overwinter dahlias is to leave them in a pot of dirt and cut them back, (or dig them out of a bed and plant shallowly, even in layers, in dirt in a pot), and bring them into the cool mudroom, then cover it lightly with something so no light gets in. I lift the cardboard, or other pot, or whatever I have on top, periodically to make sure it’s not getting moist or moldy. In spring, I pull the pot or pots out and either just begin watering them, or dig up the dahlias and replant them in the garden.

All manner of bees and other insects find ample delight in them when they bloom, which makes it all worthwhile to me. With regular deadheading, they provide a long season of fabulous color and rich pollinator provisions.

Coreopsis, above, is an abundant self-sowing perennial and a great source for all kinds of pollinators. Though I have not the luck of some whose snapdragons self-sow, it’s worth buying a few four-packs each spring to feed the bumblebees!

This year, cilantro has gone wild in my raised vegetable beds, and flowering now hosts tiny wasps and flies as well as some bees. Its lacy flowers interspersed with the vegetables and other blossoms looks lovely, and its precious white buds resemble the green coriander seeds they morph into. This year, I snipped most leaves off the plants just as their stalks began, chopped them in the blender with a smidge of water, and packed them into an ice tray. Now I have a tablespoon of ‘fresh’ cilantro whenever I need it for the kitchen.

Out in the woods, deep in the canyon, we discovered a turkey vulture nest last week. At first sight, these two chicks still had luxurious white ruffs around their necks descending well down their breasts. Since last Thursday, most of this down has transformed into mature feathers. Rumor has it that they are not common nesters in Colorado, though I can’t imagine why not, so I feel lucky to have found a nest in my canyon. It’s not a nest in the sense we generally think of: their mother laid her eggs behind a big rock in this pile.

Western tiger swallowtails are not as common this summer as they were ~ was it just last summer? ~ but still I see one or two a day. This tired butterfly straggled into a hanging basket, and then sought respite on the painting that hangs on my east wall. Recently unearthed from storage, this fanciful creation was painted by my brother when he was an early teen, and even then captured my love for the wild world. I’ve finally found the perfect location for it.

A Scary, Cold Spring

IMG_8669Never have I been so excited to photograph a honeybee on Nepeta, the catmint. Here it is mid-May and today I am relieved to finally see honeybees! Last year bees were late arriving; this year they were even more alarmingly late. Maybe because it’s been so wet and cold all spring? Maybe because there are fewer bees. There are definitely fewer bees.

When Amy first visited me a decade ago, she pointed out the sound of my yard: buzzing everywhere. For a couple of weeks I’ve been thinking about sending her a video of the big Nepeta patch outside my front door, with a “What’s missing from this picture?” caption. These flowers, usually crowded with bees from the minute they begin to bloom, were silent.IMG_7745

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The driveway a month ago, running with rainwater and still growing and greening to this day.

Spring is exceptionally green this year, after nearly incessant precipitation since Christmas. This is great, for the garden, the fields, my potential to sell my field, the irrigation ditches; also for the weeds, now knee-high throughout the yard where I haven’t gotten them whacked yet. And unless the precipitation continues through the summer, it could be a very good year for the wildfires. Not for those of us at risk, all species, but good for the fires themselves, which thrive on the fuel grown in a verdant spring once it dries out.

Oh well. As Bill Nye the Science Guy says, “The planet’s on fucking fire!” Only with conscious effort and some sacrifice from everyone (that “everyone” raises so many questions about justice; it’s a rabbit hole I’ll not go down right now) can we slow down climate chaos. This has been the coldest, wettest May that anyone remembers, generations back. A wheel of upper level lows has been plaguing the western half of the US… Something about the jet stream being stuck in an exceptionally low trajectory. Climate chaos.

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Lilacs drooping under May 23 snow shower, heavy and wet, and about the hundredth snow shower this month…

It begins snowing big steady flakes as I write this. No wonder the bees aren’t out. But they were earlier, just a few, in the few days that have been warm and sunny rather than wet and windy.

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A rare flowering grass emerged surprisingly in late April.

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Oh wait, it was just fallen apricot blossoms speared on sharp spring blades of regular old grass…

Butterflies and hummingbirds have also appeared but not in their usual numbers. I saw about half a dozen species of butterflies in April during a warm week, but not the usual Mourning Cloak.

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This painted lady had hot competition from native bees on the almond tree… but not for very long, before the snow and wind moved in and the tree leafed out.

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Red admirals were plentiful for a couple of days. By plentiful, I mean I saw a few at a time. 

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But too many of the flowers this spring went without pollinators… just pretty flowers. 

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It’s been a great year for Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja) with all the snow and rain. And right as rain, just as the first paintbrush buds emerged the black-chinned hummingbirds arrived. But so did the broad-tails, who usually come a few weeks later; both species arrived at least a week earlier than usual, because snowpack in the high country kept their food sources up there underground.

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There have also been a lot more globe cactuses blooming, most with more blossoms than usual. 

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Wild asparagus has also been abundant!

IMG_8553Mountain bluebirds, inspiration for our famous Colorado “bluebird sky,” are nesting close to the house, providing joyful glimpses frequently throughout the day. Magpies successfully fledged at least one chick from the nest north of the house, after spending months shrieking all day. It’s a sound I don’t mind, though; like the spring flicker drumming on the metal roof, or the phoebes chirping around their nest in the eave over the front door.  IMG_8566IMG_7577I’ve done some experimenting with the beautiful red salvias which are annuals in our zone, and might elaborate on those results later. It’s been far too cold to put them all in patio pots yet, so I put out the tray of tender flowers every morning, and bring it in every evening. I’ve had to put them outside even on cold blustery days like yesterday, and they’ve survived multiple hailstorms, snow showers, and wind attacks, though much the worse for wear, because the dear little hummingbirds started feeding on them right away, while they’re in 4″ pots on the patio table.

At last though, just this weekend, it looks as though the weather pattern may shift, and we might start our spring warmup a month late. Fingers crossed for some semblance of normal balance. IMG_7667

Inside the Kaleidoscope, Driveway Edition

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Valentine’s Day at Mirador

 

IMG_5820It was a long, slow, cold, dark winter. A few days of sunshine sprinkled amongst weeks, months of clouds, fog, and snow. Driveways in our neighborhood drifted more times this winter than in the full decade past’s winters. These photos are sequential, from Valentine’s Day through last week, showing just some of the excitement of this turning season. Some have days between them, others only hours.

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February 16, drifting in progress

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The next morning after neighbor’s stealth plow job

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February 20, evening

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… the next day

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Inside, warm and sleepy

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February 23, early; the most spectacular drifts of the season

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An hour later, neighbor Joe deep cleaning the driveway

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Pooped again

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February 28, warming fast

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24 hours later, one whole snowbank has melted…

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March 5, the first crocuses opened at last! More than a month later than last year.

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March 9, flurries overnight. This time of year the snow has ceased to be a threat. No matter how much comes, it will melt soon. There is a sigh of relief with mud season, knowing that snow won’t stay long, and even though the firewood is low, it won’t be needed much longer.

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Walking the mammals, a nearly daily joy.

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Meanwhile, inside the sunroom

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… and outside, full-on crocus patch, with the first honeybee!

 

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Day by day, snow melts away

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Inside, orchids and geraniums in full bloom…

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Iris reticulata in full bloom outside, while tulip leaves get nibbled by deer. Those worthless dogs don’t chase them off anymore, so I’ve had to cover them with scrap wire and sticks.

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Snowstorms turn to rain, and after rain…

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Hummingbirds: an Ongoing Commitment

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This Gaura has been as delightful a plant as any I’ve ever grown. Catching a glimpse out the window this morning I marveled at it again, dancing in the breeze in early September sun. I planted this a couple of times in the ground, but it wouldn’t overwinter, so I tried again this summer in a big clay pot. The combination of pink, white and red flowers has been spectacular.

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It draws hummingbirds as well as bees, even though the hummingbird feeder is just five feet away. Nothing is better food for these tiny dynamos than actual flower nectar.

I’ve mentioned some tips about feeding hummingbirds in previous posts, but I’m motivated today to just tell all. A friend asked me the other day, When should I take down my feeders? She asks me this every year. Every year, I tell her, About ten days after you’ve last seen a hummingbird.

Really? I thought you were supposed to take them down so they don’t miss their migration. Somehow this Myth resurfaces every fall instead of the answer I’ve given everyone who asks me for years. The birds won’t stick around late just because you have your feeders up: in fact, even after your summer population leaves, migrants passing through will benefit from your feeders staying up and clean.*

It’s not just the feeding schedule that matters when you commit to sustaining a hummingbird feeder through the season. Every summer, I inevitably encounter ill-kept feeders at the homes of people who should know better. Some of you have learned to keep your feeders clean, and some of you haven’t. Next time I have to say something, I’m naming names! And yes, I am scolding. I can’t help it, it’s in my nature. I’ve been subtle about this issue long enough.

COMMITMENT

Everybody means well when they put out feeders. Despite our best intentions, as frail and fallible humans, we don’t always follow through. Feeding hummingbirds isn’t something you do at your convenience, because it’s nice to have the pretty birds around. It’s a commitment: You commit to serving the welfare of the birds daily, because otherwise you contribute to their demise. There are so many ways to do it wrong, and the consequences are dire.

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Blue and red salvias planted in pots around the patio, when fed and deadheaded regularly, provide bountiful food for young hummingbirds migrating later than their parents, and learning to trust my garden as a reliable resource. I’ve learned it’s worth it to buy these tender perennials annually and tend them well, for the bountiful beauty they provide with both their blooms and their pollinators.

IMG_7334-131IMG_7300-132Caveat: exactly when to take down feeders is an art as well as a science; some people in the far north take them down at the first hard frost, or even earlier. This may be where the Myth originates. Places with year round hummingbirds obviously don’t need to stop feeding at all. I could send you straight to Audubon for all you need to know about feeding hummingbirds, but that would leave me nothing to say.

Here in the central latitudes of the continent, experience tells me to leave my feeder up for at least ten days after I’ve seen the last hummingbird, cleaning and refilling it as needed.* There is always a last hummingbird, sometimes after I’ve taken down the feeder, so I keep a jar of nectar in the fridge for a few weeks even when I think I’ve seen the last one, just in case of an exhausted straggler. I’ll make one cup, and if I don’t use it in a week I may make another cup. A small waste of sugar is worth a hummingbird’s life.

This time of year, I see mostly summer’s youngsters in my garden. They’re learning what’s good food and what’s not. They check out all the flowers, and don’t use the feeder nearly as much as their parents did earlier in summer. Many adults, especially males, are already moving south. These juveniles are exploring, gaining insight and wisdom, as they check out red honeysuckle berries and rose hips as well as salvia and snapdragons.IMG_7225-128IMG_7329-130Tending hummingbirds demands dedication. When you put out a feeder you initiate a real relationship with a particular population of little beings, the closest thing to fairies in our remaining wild world. Connie and John used to feed hundreds of hummingbirds of four species just a few miles south and a thousand feet higher than I live here. They were committed. They brewed gallons of fresh nectar a day, and their feeders never had a chance to get cloudy or moldy. The sound was amazing! They moved to Wisconsin.

NO RED DYE!

That shit shouldn’t even be legal to sell. Would you add an absolutely unnecessary red chemical to your every meal? No, you wouldn’t. Red food for hummingbird feeders is a sales scam, and hard on their tiny kidneys. Yes, they’re attracted to red, and that’s why feeders are usually red, but the food in them should be clear.

Once and for all, the best and cheapest nectar takes just a few minutes of your time. One (1) part refined white sugar to four (4) parts water. One to four, sugar/water, nothing else. You can put them both in the pan together, bring to boiling, and boil for a minute or two (no more!), or you can boil water in your kettle, pour it into the jar with the sugar, and shake the bejesus out of it until it settles clear, and you can’t see any sugar residue. The reason you heat the water is to increase its absorption of the sugar granules. There’s no need to cook it, as long as you make sure the sugar is thoroughly dissolved. Then let it cool to room temperature before pouring into clean* feeders.

I hear that hummingbirds don’t like to drink cold nectar, so maybe when you have refrigerated nectar you want to change your feeders at night. When they come to feed in the morning, the nectar is ambient temperature. On super hot days, nectar can spoil quickly, so change it every day or two even if they haven’t finished it. In early spring or fall, if it’s going to freeze at night, bring feeders in for the night and put them back out early in the morning so the food is there, not frozen, when they wake up.

*ALWAYS CLEAN FEEDERS!

You don’t have to scrub them every time you fill them, but you do have to rinse thoroughly in hot water, and swish away any sticky residue with a bottle brush or your fingertips, depending on the design of the feeder. Audubon recommends no soap, as the residue can harm them. Clean your nectar storage jars the same way you clean the feeders, every time you empty them.

You do need to rinse and refill more often during hot weather than in cool weather. And if there’s any sign at all of cloudiness in the nectar, or debris, or black or grey on the feeder, you DO need to scrub with hot water or a light hot water-vinegar solution, and rinse really really well. By the time you see that black stuff on the feeder, you’re already killing birds. It’s that simple.

An adult hummingbird who acquires fungus from your feeder carries it home to her tiny babies in their nest. She could die from it and leave them to starve, or she could transmit it to them. Or both. So keep your feeders clean. Invest in a bottlebrush or two, and get a pack of these perfect little brushes for the ports. It doesn’t take long for nectar to spoil in hot weather, and it doesn’t take you long to keep the feeders clean if you have the right tools for the job. I use really hot water if I’m cleaning a glass feeder, and less hot if I’m cleaning a plastic vessel.

OH, AND… CATS

I got rid of the feeders I kept for seed-eaters the summer before I started letting my two new kittens outside. It isn’t fair to bait the birds in when I’ve got cats that can’t help trying to catch them. I compromised on hummingbird feeders, cutting my three down to one, and kept that one mainly to supplement the flowers, which don’t always bloom at the right times anymore, another consequence of climate chaos. Last week I found the first dead hummingbird ever at my front door, and I think it was the one I photographed the day before, struggling to fly and feed.

IMG_6813-147You almost never see a hummingbird sitting still to feed. This little one was crashing about in the flowers all morning, clinging to stems while trying to feed, and tangling in the potted plants, most unusual behavior. Was she too young? Or too weak, or injured, or what? IMG_7016Another hummingbird kept diving at her, and I first thought it was the usual mine!mine!-aggression they all display while protecting a food source or territory. But the struggling bird didn’t seem to mind the other one, and when I followed them into the honeysuckle (with binoculars) it looked as though the strong bird was trying to feed the weak one. Were they migrating together?

IMG_6857-145Everywhere she flew this other bird followed, at times flying up underneath her as though for support or encouragement. Something was very wrong. It looked like the little slow one had a tuft of feathers sticking out where there shouldn’t be one, as though she might have an injury. It’s possible that this bird was snagged by a cat claw, or perhaps hit a window, or was in some other way compromised. IMG_7086It was one of those heart-wrenching moments when you wish there was something you could do but you know there’s not. Though she was flying badly she was still too fast for me to catch. And if I had, what then? So I left her to her fate, which I suspect was to be brought to my doorstep the next day, intact though darkly damp from cat saliva. I feel bad about that. These are the complex paradoxes that keep us dancing on our ethical toes.

Every choice we make has consequences, some (or most) of which we never fully know. Know that if you choose to put out hummingbird feeders, there’s only one right way to do it: Keep the feeders sparkling clean all summer, and keep them up til all the migrants have flown through your area. With habitat fragmentation, compromised migratory routes, and climate chaos all throwing anthropogenic challenges at these energetic little jewels, the least we can do if we choose to feed them is to do it right, helping rather than harming them.IMG_7232-140-141

 

Just Peachy, Really

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One of my best friends this summer has been the peach tree.

With James and the Giant Peach entrained early in life, there has always been something special to me about peaches, and this tree itself holds such meaning. Maybe that story is also why I love bugs and all other living creatures. That story, and “Are You My Mother?”

One of the first fruit trees I planted here, over the graves of a dog and a cat, I planted in memory of a woman I loved, Daryl Ann. She died of breast cancer twelve years ago, and lives in my heart for all time. So it’s a special tree, the peach tree.

It took a few years before it made more than a few peaches, and even since has only produced a bounty of peaches once before. This year, against the freeze odds, it made so many! I thinned, as I’ve been taught to do, a few weeks after the tree itself shed almost half its first flush of tiny green fruits. I’ve paid particular attention to it since then, nurturing with extra food and water, watching the growth and ripening of fruits closely, monitoring it daily for the past month in order to catch the most peaches as ripe as possible before the birds get them all.

On cold snowy days in spring, hot sunny days in summer, the oppressive smoky days of high fire season, cooler ripening days, I’ve spent time with the peach tree, dusting early for aphids before they could cripple early leaves, thinning, communing, watering, weeding around, photographing; generally keeping company with the peach tree, hanging out with and appreciating it.

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early summer

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mid-summer

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A month of smoke from wildfires

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and finally, ripening!

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Cocktails with the peach tree before first harvest

 

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This summer’s first peach harvest, about a third of what was on the tree. I watched and waited every day, until after a big wind I saw a couple of peaches on the ground. That evening I picked every peach that would let go easily.

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Plenty of peaches left, growing brighter every day.

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The August Manhattan includes a dash of peach bitters in addition to the regular Angostura and the secret ingredient, and is garnished with chunks of fresh peach.

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We made a peach pie with the last frozen peaches from two years ago, in anticipation of a fresh harvest. Thawed slightly sitting out, or 20 seconds or so in the microwave, the peels slip off easily and flesh pops right off the pit. Thanks, cuz, for taking pictures!

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Silicone mat (thanks, neighbor!) makes crust rolling easy.

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The second harvest from the tree, a bowl to share and a bowl to keep.

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And STILL peaches ripening on the tree, irresistible after a light rain. Altogether I picked three big bowls, and a few in between, always only pulling those that gave up easily. 

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An early sign that I’d better get the last of them off the tree…

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… and after birds, just a picked-clean pit. I did leave a couple of dozen on purpose for the birds, including one with a perfect view from the patio, so I could catch someone in the act.

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Last peaches, gifts for birds, glowing in the August sunset.

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… the best part of the August Manhattan.

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The peach tree finally at rest after a fruitful season.