Thursday, April 30, 2015

Taking Photos of Ladybugs: The Lost Ladybug Project

When I was a child, my family called me "Bug." (Well, some of them still do.) Because of that nickname, ladybugs are some of my favorite critters.

Recently I learned about the Lost Ladybug Project, run out of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

The scientists at Lost Ladybug are asking people all across North America to help them. They need photos of ladybugs--all ladybugs, any type of ladybugs--to help them learn important things. Like, where are they thriving? Where are they dying off? What are they feeding on?

Like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, these gem-like little insects, so beneficial to gardeners, can tell scientists a great deal about the state of our ecosystems.

This is a project that should appeal to science nerds, gardeners, and little kids of all ages (I think I may fit in all three categories).

Upload your photos of any ladybugs you see, on the Lost Ladybug website, and tell them when/where etc. you spied the little dotted beauty or beauties. Even if you go searching for ladybugs and don't find any, they want to know that, too!

I sent them a couple photos of ladybugs I found on my cat's outside water dish.

Even if the photos are a little blurry, the website urges you to send them. So, blurry or sharp, the photos help the good folks in Cornell do their important work:

Mu Shu was intrigued by what I was doing, and he stepped into the frame for a few shots. So I sent Cornell a "pug mug with bug" shot:

And then Won Ton wanted in on the action, too:

The Cornell folks sent me a thank-you back, and they said it was their first-ever Pug-and-Bug photo!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Disabled Placard Placement

Years ago, I used to see children in cars who weren't properly secured in car seats: Babies held in grownups' arms, toddlers bounding around the back seat with no restraint: Scary stuff!

Then came a campaign to increase public awareness of car seats. People began using them more--and more appropriately--thanks to local police agencies, the Highway Patrol,  and even hospitals (no more leaving the hospital without a car seat for your newborn!)

I think we need a new campaign to help people understand how to use "disabled-person" placards.

See the words at the top of the placard?

"Remove from mirror before driving vehicle."

You'd think that would be obvious: "Don't drive with this big ol' thing hanging down, obscuring your vision and making you more likely to have an accident."

And yet, I can't tell you how many people I see driving with this placard hanging from their rear-view mirror.

If you give it one second of thought, why would any municipality want a bunch of people driving around with their vision obscured?

Answer: They wouldn't.

And the warning to take the placard off is printed on BOTH sides, just in case you missed it on one side.

If you know anyone who uses one of these placards--whether it's for a permanent or a temporary disability--please: Remind them to take it off the rear-view mirror before they turn on the ignition.

Thank you. That's the end of my rant.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Laying Down Fabric for a Drought-Tolerant Yard

The weed-resistant fabric is being installed today. Our front yard looks really strange--like the house of a bunch of minimalist Goths, or maybe the Addams Family:

Won Ton appeared a bit baffled by the sea of black, but he was game to pose on it when bribed with a treat:

I was intrigued that the fabric is secured in place by what amounts to giant hairpins:

There is still a bit more ground to cover up (foreground, below):

Next up: laying the drip lines that will water the plants to come. The garden designer tells me the plants will begin to arrive later this week. I can hardly wait!

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Removing Turf for a Drought-Tolerant Yard

The first step in changing our front yard over to a more drought-tolerant design was taking out the water-hogging grass:

As the crew peeled back the turf, the strips formed fantastical shapes:

A turf mushroom:

The bare dirt temporarily baffled the pugs. After peeing on it a few times, they decided it was theirs:

A mystery popped up: The crew boss handed me these dog tags, which he said they found under the turf. Not in the grass, not in the roots, but under everything:

How they worked their way down so far below the lawn, I'll never know. Later this week the crew returns to change the sprinklers over to drip irrigation and lay down weed-blocking fabric.

I miss my green lawn. But there's no looking back now!

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Artichokes with Garlic and Olive Oil

I have a friend, a consummate cook, who has a blind spot. Although she loves to eat artichokes, she isn't sure about how to cook them. And therefore she never does.

So I dedicate this post to CC, and I hope from now on she never hesitates to cook artichokes. This recipe is ridiculously simple to do. It only requires four ingredients--artichokes, garlic, olive oil, and salt--and the results are utterly delicious:

Artichokes with Garlic and Olive Oil
(serves 4)

4 artichokes (pick tightly furled ones that "squeak" slightly when you squeeze them)
4-8 garlic cloves, peeled (depending on their size and your love of garlic)
1 Tbsp. olive oil

In a saucepan just large enough to hold all the artichokes upright (but not so large that they flop over), add an inch of water, the olive oil, and a generous sprinkling of salt (like the amount you'd add if you were cooking pasta in the water). Turn on the heat under the pan while you prepare the artichokes.

To prep the artichokes, cut a small slice off the bottom of each artichoke stem, making sure the cut will allow the artichoke to stand up straight. Like this:

Place the artichokes upright in the pan of water, bring water to a simmer, and cover with lid:

(I was only cooking two, so I downsized the pot accordingly.)

Let the artichokes simmer for about an hour, then check to see if they're done: Using a pair of tongs (or your bare fingers, if you're tough), pull on one of the outer leaves and give it a taste. If it comes out easily and the "meat" of the leaf slides off easily under your teeth, the artichokes are done. If the leaf doesn't release easily or doesn't taste entirely done, then let the artichokes simmer 10-15 minutes longer and test again.

Remove artichokes from the hot water with a pair of tongs and turn them upside down for a moment to drain out any water caught in the leaves.

Artichokes cooked this way are equally delicious when served hot, room temperature, or chilled. Serve with a side dish of hot melted butter (for hot artichokes) or aioli or mayonnaise mixed with something yummy (lemon juice, Sriracha sauce, etc.). Or just enjoy them "naked"--my favorite way.

P.S. If the artichokes in the store look a bit "scorched," they might have been touched by frost. The discoloration doesn't affect their taste. Some growers put a tag like this on their product, just in case. So don't let the homely looks throw you off!:

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Goodbye to the Green Lawn

California is suffering through its fourth year of devastating drought. Croplands are drying up, lakes and reservoirs are alarmingly low, and the snowpack in the High Sierra is AWOL. To cope, folks in Los Angeles are tearing out their green (and very thirsty) lawns and planting drought-tolerant landscapes, with gravel or bark paths and lots of hardy, native plants.

The Hubby and I have loved our white-picket-fence, rose-bedecked, lush green lawn for years. The pugs enjoyed it, too:

But it's time to change. We can no longer justify using all that water to support non-native grass. For a minute, I thought about installing a fake green plastic lawn. A few neighbors have gone that route, and their lawns look surprisingly realistic.

But then I realized: I have a one-time opportunity to create a microclimate that will attract birds, bees, and butterflies. I can't chase all those critters away with an ocean of green plastic.

So we're tearing out the front lawn. In its place will be a mix of decomposed granite paths (a figure-eight path in the center and a "racetrack" oval around the edge, for the pugs' amusement) and a variety of blooming bushes that birds, bees, and butterflies will love.

For the pugs' comfort, there will be no cacti, nothing prickly or sharp, no oddly placed boulders for them to trip on, or senseless pathways to nowhere.

I'm crossing my fingers and hoping it will be beautiful. I know it will be different, and it'll take getting used to.

And I'm keeping the roses along the picket fence.

Some things are non-negotiable.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Cake Disasters and Buttercream Frosting to the Rescue

I baked a cake for a dinner party yesterday. It was a chiffon-style cake--somewhere between a delicate Angel Food cake and a regular, dense cake in consistency.

I made the exact same cake a week before, and it was fine. But this time, when I flipped over the hot cake-and-pan combo on a wire rack to cool--as per the instructions--the cake tore open and half the top came off!

Quickly picking up the biggest chunks, I patted them into place. (There may have been some cussing.) I'd planned to drizzle the cake with a thin, glaze-type icing. But this thing was one hot mess. It needed camouflage.

Thank goodness for Buttercream Frosting! After the cake reached room temperature, I removed it carefully from the pan and put it in the fridge to chill. (A chilled cake is easier to frost.)

I made a double batch of frosting and used about a third of it to fill in the low spots. Then I frosted the chilled cake with a thin "crumb coat"--this seals the cake's surface so that the final layer of frosting doesn't tear up the cake. That used up another third or so of the frosting.

Back in the fridge to chill the crumb coat thoroughly--about 15 minutes. Then a final layer of frosting over all.

And to help draw the eye away from the low places where cake was missing, I added some cute decorations.

 Buttercream Frosting is a great way to disguise cake mistakes--not to mention that it tastes divine.

Vanilla Buttercream Icing
(citrus variation below)

3 Cups powdered sugar
1/3 Cup butter, softened
1-2 Tbsp. milk (or other liquid, like strong coffee, Kahlua, etc.)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

In a medium bowl, blend the ingredients on low setting. Slowly increase speed and continue until icing is soft and fluffy. If the icing seems too stiff, add more liquid, a teaspoon or two at a time.

Variation: Lemon Buttercream Icing
3 Cups powdered sugar
1/3 Cup butter, softened
1-2 Tbsp. lemon juice
2 Tbsp. lemon rind
1/2 tsp. lemon extract

Follow the same instructions, above, to prepare. If icing seems too stiff, add a teaspoon or two more of lemon juice.

Friday, April 10, 2015

High Sierra Beauty and Highway 395

Several weeks ago, The Hubby and I skied Mammoth Mountain one last time with Lovely Daughter #1, before she leaves to begin her career as an ER doctor in New York City. The High Sierra is shockingly short of snow due to a severe drought. But as we left Mammoth and drove down Highway 395, Nature's beauty poured forth, like a geyser.

I kept snapping photos. Every moment was more beautiful than the next.

It was a ski trip--and a car ride--to treasure for years.

There was this odd, lenticular sort of cloud with a rainbow halo atop it. Magical!:

Now, those are some happy cows:

Imagine popping out to your local convenience store for diapers or a diet soda, and this is what you get to see:

Good golly:

Near the end of the spectacular shadow-and-light show, I snapped a picture of my favorite sign. It made me think of my dad, who loved fishing for Rainbow Trout in the High Sierra:

So many happy memories made and remembered, that weekend.


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