Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Gray Catbird

For some reason I didn't figure it out until just last summer, when Mr. Red House pointed and asked, "What is the gray bird over there that sounds like a cat?"

Gray Catbird
Ahhhh, so that's why it's called a Gray CATbird!

Gray Catbirds do indeed make a 'meow' that sounds impressively like an unhappy cat, but they can also mimic other birds and animals in their impressive song repertoire, much like their Mockingbird and Thrasher relatives.  Usually on the shy side, they often sing while hiding in shrubbery.

The Gray Catbird usually lives in semi-open areas with lots of dense, low growth, such as scrublands, woodland edges, overgrown farmland, shrubby swamps, and suburban gardens that have dense bushes and hedges.  They eat mainly insects and berries, but they will also visit suet feeders.

Catbirds are considered omnivores, and people have noticed them eating such varied and diverse things as cheese, bread, milk, mushrooms, doughnuts, boiled potatoes, fried fish, beef stew, peanuts, and beef soup!  Fruit and berries constitute some of their favorite foods, however, and a good way to attract them.  When I left out a feeder with grape jelly and oranges for some resident Orioles, it was the Gray Catbirds that came and ate it.

Catbirds build their nests in dense bushes, briar tangles, or thickets usually fairly low to the ground.  Because of this their main predators are snakes and, ironically, cats.  They are scrupulous in the cleanliness of their nest, immediately removing any excreta from the young, and they are very intolerant of any foreign eggs sneaked in by parasitic birds like Cowbirds.  Grey Catbirds have strong mothering instincts after they are born, however, and have been known to adopt and take care of the babies of other types of birds that have been orphaned.

baby Gray Catbird
Gray Catbirds are migratory birds, spending summers in the Eastern and middle part of North America and then spending their winters along the Gulf Coast, in Central America, and in the Caribbean. (Wouldn't that be nice?)  Some will reside year-round along the Atlantic coast even as far north as Massachusetts if there is a plentiful amount of food.

range map from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Like many songbirds, the Grey Catbird migrates at night, forming flocks of around 10 to 15 birds.  They migrate at night to avoid predators such as hawks and because they need less water flying through the cooler night sky.  A major threat to the Grey Catbird and other migrating songbirds, however, is collisions.  They often collide with vehicles and buildings during migration.  Night lights from buildings and communication towers confuse them, leading to more collisions.  In 1991 the city of Toronto launched the Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP) in order to address this issue, and since then organizations such as local Audubon Societies have started Lights Out campaigns, working with buildings in large cities to get them to turn off their lights at night during migration times.

baby Gray Catbird
All of our local Catbirds have migrated down South for the winter, which is probably good as the ones that overwinter in Massachusetts have a high mortality rate.  I enjoy seeing these beautiful birds every summer, though, and hearing its most unusual meowing call!

Happy bird-watching!
And for all those being affected by the large winter storms, stay safe out there!

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Black Carrot

Did you know that originally most carrots in cultivation were a deep purple, almost black, in color?

Mutant yellow and white varieties sprung up through the years, but it wasn't until the 17th century that orange carrot varieties were developed by Dutch farmers.

Purple carrots are now making a comeback, however, due to the interest in heirloom varieties.  Furthermore, purple carrots are extremely high in anthocyanins, which are powerful antioxidants.  It is these anthocyanins that give the vegetable its purple color (similar to blueberries, blackberries, and plums).  Breeders are now working with purple carrot strains to develop new cultivars with more of these antioxidant properties, and one of these new carrots is the Pusa Asita Black Carrot, which I grew in my garden this past summer.

Pusa Asita Black Carrot
This carrot was developed by Dr. Pritam Kalia, the head of the Division of Vegetable Science at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in New Delhi.   Dr. Kalia has been working on developing varieties of vegetables that are both very nutrient-rich and also open pollinated, so that small farmers (who often cannot afford buying hybrid seed every year) can grow these and improve their nutrition.  The very nutritious Pusa Asita carrot is so rich with anthocyanins that it is practically black.

Much like beets, the juice of the Pusa Asita is a deep, staining, reddish purple, and would look beautiful in a juice or drink.  (In fact there is a traditional Indian fermented drink called Kanji that uses purple carrots to give it a beautiful wine color.)  I could see its color being more of a challenge when cooking it with other foods though.

So how did it do in my garden?  Well, honestly the germination rate of the seeds was extremely low.  I appreciate that Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, the place where I purchased them from, recognized this and sent everyone another pack of seeds.  I only planted the first packet, though, as I ran out of room in my veggie garden, and ended up with just a mere handful of black carrots.

They are certainly beautiful carrots, but the taste?  I was unimpressed with the taste of mine and thought them rather bland.  However, this may be due to the fact that they were overrun by my tomatillo plants and got more shade (which can make them less sweet), or my watering or soil conditions were not as good (both of which can affect taste).  Either way, they were not nearly as sweet as my orange carrot varieties.  I've found online reviews of the taste of this carrot to be quite mixed.

Maybe it's just too nutritious and healthy for my taste?

Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Bounty of 2015

My first love in the garden is flowers, but over the past few years I've found myself adding more and more edibles to the garden.  Nothing can beat the taste of fruit and veggies just picked from the garden; I actually never liked tomatoes until I grew my first tomato vine a few years ago.  When I tasted that first sun-warmed cherry tomato I knew my mother had been right.  It's true, the store-bought ones don't quite taste the same.

Two years ago we built a nice, big 20x20 fenced veggie garden, and, after some lackluster success, this year we added raised beds.  It took us quite a while to build and fill all those beds, carting free compost from our local dump, so we didn't get most of the veggies in the ground until June, but it was still a great harvest this year.  Raised beds are definitely the way to go in New England!

The final totals (for future posterity and so I have a shot at remembering what all I planted this year)?  Well, between the veggie garden and the Tomato and Pepper plants that were in the greenhouse, we ended up with:

18 pints Tomatillo Salsa (salsa verde)
6 half pints Tomatillo Salsa
several large grocery bags full of Tomatillos to give to friends
Tomatillos coming out of my ears
Tomatillos thrown in the compost because we just couldn't look at another...well, I think you get my drift.

Needless to say, no one should plant three large beds of tomatillos.  Ever.  Unless one wants to go into the Salsa Verde business.

Tomatillos and more tomatillos.  And a couple cucumbers.
The rest of the bounty included:
8 pints Tomato and Ground Cherry Salsa
6 pints Tomato Salsa
4 quarts Arrabbiata pasta sauce

and for random consumption/cooking (and including the most scientific way of measuring for future reference):
Snow peas (oodles)
Ground Cherries (bushels)
Green Beans (lots)
Cucumbers (maybe a dozen, which was too many for us)
Jalapeño peppers (a few handfuls - not totally sure, since Mr. Red House was constantly picking them whenever he could)
Carrots (a good amount)
Horseradish (awaiting processing still)

Ground Cherries and Green Beans from the garden
I like to choose different Tomatoes to grow each year and try.
The Tomatoes of 2015 were:

Amish Paste - a nice Roma type paste tomato

Chocolate Cherry - small dark cherry tomatoes.  Flavor was superb - I don't think hardly any made it into the house, as we just ate them all straight off the vine.

Green Moldovan - a bright, citrusy-tasting green beefsteak tomato

Minibel - small cherry tomatoes that grew on foot high bushes, great for containers.  These plants were incredibly productive and hardy! They just wouldn't die.  Even when I wanted them to.  Because the tomatoes tasted that bad.

variety of tomatoes from the 2015 garden
Of course, there were challenges.  We had a Zucchini crop fail, as my plants were decimated by Squash Vine Borers, Cabbage Worms turned my Bok Choy into Swiss Cheese, and Potato Beetles started into the Tomatillos.  But still, not too bad of a year!  I also started planning for some future fruit harvests, planting patches of Rhubarb, Raspberries, and Strawberries, and several little Blueberry bushes this past summer.

It's been a bountiful 2015, and I hope that this coming year will be just as blessed.
I wish everyone a happy and healthy New Year!  
And, as always, happy gardening!

p.s. It is my unfortunate duty to inform you of the demise of the Red House Garden computer.  It finally groaned to a stop at the end of the year, weighed down by the excessive amount of plant photos.  A new computer has been installed, but connected to an old monitor, and of course with totally different photo editing software.  Thus I can make no promises as to the quality of photos or to my sanity for the immediate future...

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