Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Saving the Monarch Butterfly

The monarch butterfly is one of the most beloved insects in the world. Their numbers are declining at a frightening rate though, and they are in danger of becoming instinct in our lifetime. Image credit U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

The monarch butterfly is perhaps the best known and beloved butterfly species in the United States. But like hundreds of other beautiful creatures, the monarch is in grave danger. It is estimated that just since 1993, the monarch butterfly population worldwide has declined by a startling 90 percent. The reason? Destruction of its host plant on which adult monarchs lay their eggs and their caterpillars feed: milkweed. According to the Houston Chronicle, “Billions of milkweed plants have been lost in the breeding grounds of Midwestern farm fields because of indiscriminate use of glyphosate herbicide.”

But Friendswood, Texas, resident Kate B. and her granddaughter Kali aren’t sitting idly by waiting on their precious monarchs to disappear. Situated smack dab in the middle of the monarch butterfly migration route, Kate and Kali have taken the plight of the monarch butterfly to heart. Together they have implemented a process that saves hundreds – perhaps thousands – of monarchs each season.

During the spring and fall migration, Kate and Kali go out each day and collect monarch eggs and caterpillars. “We can't stand to leave them on the plants as they are eaten by predators,” explains Kate.  “Ants, lizards, wasps and various other predators will eat the eggs and/or caterpillars.”

The only food source for monarch caterpillars is milkweed. However, due to indiscriminate use of glyphosate herbicide, milkweed is being eradicated in the U.S., putting the survival of the species in grave danger. Image credit: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
After collecting, the eggs go in a sterile jar until they hatch. All newly-hatched monarch larvae – as well as the caterpillars that are collected – are placed in one of several mesh habitats and tended carefully. “We feed them and clean the cage daily as they poop a lot and will get diseased if not kept clean.  They’re very hungry rascals and it takes a lot of milkweed to feed them. On occasion, they will even devour another one if not fed properly.”

In fact, Kate and Kali have had a tough time keeping up with their charges’ milkweed habit. “We built a raised bed and bought enough milkweed to fill it.  I know that won't be enough though, as the monarchs are laying eggs like crazy. I’m working with a nearby nursery to get better pricing for milkweed plants.  They have agreed to sell them to us for $1.00 each.  I’m picking up 40 new plants on Thursday; I know that may sound like a lot, but they won't last long.  Right now we have over 150 caterpillars so we have to continually replenish the milkweed stock.”

Kate explains that paying for the milkweed on her fixed income isn’t the only challenge. First she has to find nurseries that don’t use chemical pesticides. Then she has to get there the day the truck delivers the plants or she doesn’t get any that week. And if all that wasn’t enough, “there’s a little fly that gets inside and kills them ... there are lots of things to look for.”

If you are interested in doing what you can to save the monarch butterfly, check out “Save the Monarch Butterfly” on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service website.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Grow a Window Box Salad Garden

Growing a window box salad garden is a great way to get a jump start on fresh spring vegetables and herbs. Image credit: AlisonW

We all look forward to those first fresh vegetables of spring. But you don’t have to have acres of land to grow these precious gems yourself. All you need is a window box and a little time. Growing a window box salad garden takes no more time than caring for regular houseplants. And you can grow them either inside or out. 

What You Will Need for Your Window Box Salad Garden


The basic requirements for a window box salad garden are just a window box planter and a sunny spot to place it. You will of course also need to fill it with soil and purchase some seeds to plant. Since one package of seeds will give your far more than you’ll need for your little garden, you may want to share with friends or neighbors. You can trade some of your lettuce seeds for a few of their radishes. 

What You Can Grow in Your Window Box Salad Garden


You can grow any shallow-rooted plants in a window box salad garden. If your planter box is at least four inches deep you can plant onions, various types of lettuce, radishes, beets, spinach and even stubby varieties of carrots. Many herbs, like basil and thyme, also do well in window boxes. 

How to Get Started on Your Window Box Salad Garden


If you are purchasing a new window box planter, be sure to get one with drainage holes in the bottom. This will prevent root rot if you happen to over-water it. If you’re using a planter box you already have and it does not have drainage, you’ll just need to be much more careful when you water it.

High quality potting soils work best for a window box salad garden, and since you won’t need a whole lot, it won’t be that expensive. If you use regular dirt from your yard, you may need to incorporate a little sand or humus to get a mix that has a good balance between holding water and draining well.

Fill your planter with soil and then tamp it down firmly. Then add additional soil to the top and plant your seeds according to package directions. Note: It is OK to plant the seeds a little closer than you would in an open garden, since you will be fertilizing them and caring for them more closely. Water your seeds well and place the planter in a sunny spot, either inside or out. 

How to Care for Your Window Box Salad Garden


Water and weed your garden at least every other day. You will also want to fertilize it often, since the seedlings will have little soil from which to extract their nutrients. If you want to grow your garden organically, you can make compost tea to water and fertilize at the same time. Or, you can buy a fertilizer at any garden store that should work well.

Growing your own vegetables – even on a small scale – is a great way to feel good about what you’re eating. It’s also the perfect opportunity to teach children a variety of lessons about nature.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Feeding Birds in Winter

Suet is a great option for feeding birds in winter. Here, a red-bellied woodpecker enjoys a tasty treat from a suet feeder. Image credit: Mike's Birds
As winter temperatures plummet, survival becomes more difficult for most species of birds. Their summer and fall food sources have diminished or disappeared completely. In addition, the colder temperatures require that they take in more calories to keep warm. For that reason, feeding birds in winter brings a different set of challenges for bird lovers. 

It’s All about Calories 

Keeping warm burns calories. So the colder it gets the more calories a bird needs to stay warm. The seeds we fed our backyard birds from March through November may no longer give them the extra calories they need for winter survival. Just as their eating habits have changed, our feeding habits need to change as well. Feeding birds in winter should include lots of high fat, high energy food choices. 

Healthy Options for Feeding Birds in Winter 
  •  Fat – Suet is 100% fat and is an excellent choice for feeding birds in winter. You can either purchase suet (usually found in square cakes) or make your own. It’s fun and easy to make yourself – check out this suet recipe for birds if you’re interested.
  • Peanut butter – Peanut butter is also high in fat and is a favorite of birds like nuthatches and woodpeckers.
  • Dried mealworms – Dried meal worms can be found in most large pet and feed stores. They are also high in fat and make a great nutritional supplement for feeding birds in winter.
  • Dried fruits – All-natural chopped dried fruit (like raisins, mango and prunes) make excellent additions to your homemade suet for feeding birds in winter. The sugar content of most dried fruit is very high, thus giving winter birds the extra calories they need to keep warm.

Tips for Feeding Birds in Winter
  • Place feeders out of the wind. Food items such as seeds and dried meal worms are very light weight and will blow out of a feeder in high winds.
  •  Frequently remove snow or ice from feeders. One of the reasons wild birds have such a difficult time in winter is because snow and ice often cover their natural food sources. This can happen with feeders, too. Be sure to check your feeders frequently and remove any snow and ice that may prevent birds from eating.
  • Don’t forget the water! Birds need water, too, and when temperatures drop below freezing their water sources are all but eliminated. Bird bath heaters are available at most pet and feed stores, and are a great way to ensure your birds have a constant source of water.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Ways to Preserve Fresh Basil


In the months of July and August when the sun is at its brightest and temperatures are at their highest, most varieties of basil grow like wildfire. For cooks who find themselves unable to use all this aromatic bounty before it goes to seed, all (your basil) is not lost. There are multiple ways to preserve basil so that you can enjoy its fragrant essence all year round.

Frozen Basil Brittle
Freezing basil brittle is a quick and easy way to preserve the freshness, aroma and color of your basil without totally losing the essence of the herb. Pick four to six cups of basil leaves and wash them thoroughly. Remove any darkened or damaged leaves and discard. Roughly chop the leaves into small pieces, but not so finely that you lose the sense of “leaf.” Place in a deep bowl, and with your fingers, massage in enough extra virgin olive oil to coat. Spread the coated leaves evenly onto a baking sheet and flash freeze. Once frozen, break the brittle into pieces and store in an air tight freezer container.

Basil Vinegar
Nothing is quite as easy as this basil vinegar infusion. Simply pick, trim and thoroughly clean a bunch of basil (about six nice stems). Place it in a glass jar with tight-fitting lid. Cover with white wine vinegar and store in a cool, dark location. The vinegar will be ready to use in just two weeks and will keep for up to a year.

Pesto Ice Cubes
Preparing and freezing pesto is a great way to preserve basil. Just whip up your favorite pesto recipe and transfer into the sections of an ice cube tray. Once frozen, pop them out and store them in an air tight freezer container. When ready to use, simply thaw the appropriate number of cubes for your recipe.

Basil Oil
Making basil-infused oil is another favorite way to preserve your summer’s bounty of basil. After your leaves have been cleaned and dried, add them to a food processor with your olive oil. Pulse until thoroughly mixed and then strain out all the solids. It is advisable to store your basil oil in the refrigerator to avoid spoilage, and do not add garlic due to the risk of botulism. 

Dried Basil
Probably the most familiar method of preserving basil is by drying it. The trick here is to dry and store the leaves whole to help preserve the flavors. Cut your basil with ample stems attached. Wash it thoroughly and remove any damaged leaves. Pat it dry and bundle it by tightly tying the stems together. Hang it out of the sun in a dry, well ventilated area for about four weeks.  Carefully remove the leaves from the stems and store whole until ready for use.