31 March 2013

Butterfly beauty and science

One day last week Anna had a day off school with a cold.

When I went out to collect the eggs, a monarch butterfly landed on my shoulder. The chicken coop is right next to our large but well eaten and aphid-infested swan plant.

Of course Anna was delighted to have the butterfly on her.

We took it inside and put it on some flowers, where it seemed happy. Its wings were fresh and undamaged, and every now and then it flapped them. I think it was freshly hatched.

Anna thought it might turn into a caterpillar, so I drew out the lifecycle for her.

Then she drew one of her own.

Later we put the flowers in the sun, which is where I've seen freshly hatched butterflies choosing to rest and flap before. In an hour or so it fluttered away.

Look what I found a day or two later: what can you spot on the pea frame, about a 3 metre slow ooch from the swan plant?

Why do they have such beautiful golden flecks, I wonder?

Anna seemed to have a nice little 'home schooling' day. I also taught her about when and where to use an apostrophe, because I am so intolerant of incorrect punctuation that I can't even stand my six year old getting it wrong! In the afternoon she spent some time on YouTube watching something she's recently discovered and loved called 'Numberjacks'. But when I asked if she really liked the maths programme - because I could hear that it was very mathsy - she insisted it wasn't about maths! It was too much fun to be about maths, I think.

27 March 2013

Handmade felted slippers

I've been doing a bit of crafting again. One day last week I pushed aside all the other jobs I really should have been doing, and indulged.

I've been collecting old woollen jerseys for a while with the idea of felting them and turning them into cushions. That is why these slippers I made tone well with our lounge.

The sun pours into our living areas now autumn is here.
I'd felted the jerseys by washing them in a very hot wash, then putting them in a hot clothes dryer with some jeans. They turned into nice felted jerseys for midgets! Then they sat on the laundry floor for a week.

Finally I cut out the pattern - which I bought from here* - and sewed away. It took about three hours. It will be faster next time I hope, but this time around there was quite a bit of unpicking going on!

I made them for a dear friend as a birthday present.

I'm thrilled with them. The next pair I make will be for me!

*I pretty much stuck to the pattern's instructions. I ended up stitching the back of the cuffs together by hand, because the instructions seemed to leave them unattached. Next time I'd use a thinner jersey for the cuffs, because their thickness made them hard work.

26 March 2013

Fantail on a clothesline

Spotted on the clothesline under our carport today: a dear little fantail.

Actually, there were three, but I could only capture this one with the camera.

The cat was going absolutely crazy. The dear friendly little birds were darting and chirping about madly, almost as if to taunt him. They eat insects, so they dart about like insects as they hunt. That's also why they appear to be friendly - really they're after the insects that a moving person throws up.

25 March 2013

Summer garden successes

Finally it feels like summer's ending. Even last week temperatures were hitting 30 degrees around here, and a drought has been officially declared. All the grass is brown and farmers are killing their cows because they can't feed them.

The city's been on unprecedented levels of water restrictions, with no sprinklers or unattended hoses allowed, and hand-watering only allowed between certain hours. (Some people use that time to water their lawns. Truly. Brown lawns are a first world problem.)

But last week it really, truly rained.

Still, it's been weeks since I bought any vegetables, apart from onions, potatoes (we've eaten ours) and capsicums (the zucchini plants shaded my capsicum plants).

The winners from the garden are:

1. Zucchini (as always). Yes, sometimes it's hard to eat them all. They have been insanely healthy - check out the leaf size compared to my hand!

2. Runner beans. I used to put these in the same categories as mashed turnips, and thought they were tough. But they're only tough if they're allowed to get too big. We pick and eat them almost every day and have done for about 10 weeks. They're delicious straight off the vine, raw, or boiled for 4 minutes.

3. Tomatoes. Yum.

4. Cucumbers. $2 each in the shops and free here. We've probably had 20 and there are two left. This one's been climbing up our woodpile. The children eat huge chunks of these before dinner (it's often late and they're ravenous. Woops. Where does the afternoon go?)

 5. Silverbeet. Grows like mad around here. Actually, this is our 'winter garden'. Ian planted it about six weeks ago, in plenty of homemade compost. I can hardly believe how fast its grown.  He also planted peas, lettuce, coriander and beetroot. We're looking forward to the peas in particular. I feel I have paid quite a price for the peas, because the frame Ian made so beautifully is right under the washing line. On a mound. Under the big lines, where sheets fit. Hmmm. Snags. You get the picture.

He laid pruned plum branches along the side as mulch. We do have a drought on, after all.

6. Finally, there are grapes. Ripe now, extremely fragrant and delicious. Really, they are almost a different species to the imported ones generally found in the shops. This is grape 'Niagara'.

It's been a summer of bounty in the garden, that's for sure. The grocery bill will go up when it's really over!

24 March 2013

Tins full of fruit cake

Recently I yet again had the good fortune to be offered a piece of my mother-in-law's fruit cake. It is GREAT.

Even the children loved it. She also uses it as her Christmas cake. After you've made it you'll wonder why anyone would bother to use any other recipe. It is easy, cheap and divine. Very moist. Definitely success-in-the-kitchen territory, and it fits with my idea of reasonable cost and reasonable quantities of sugar, butter and eggs for the resulting size of cake.

Knowing it had pineapple in it, I asked her if it was Alison Holst's pineapple Christmas cake. Oh no, she said. It's been around a lot longer than Alison Holst. Her mother had given her the recipe - my husband's grandmother - and mother-in-law herself is almost 82.

So, for the fruit-cake gourmands among you, as well as for those who like a good slab with a good cuppa, here it is. I think I'd double it for a big, traditionally sized Christmas cake. It freezes well.

Old Fruit Cake

Boil together for 3 minutes:-
1 lb (about 500g) mixed fruit - I used cranberries, sultanas and raisins
1 tsp mixed spice - I made it a very, very heaped teaspoon
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 15oz tin crushed pineapple (a standard 425 g tin)
1 tsp baking soda
4 oz (100g) butter

Let cool a little and mix in well:
2  cups plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
2 beaten eggs
A good slosh of sherry (1/3 to 1/2 a cupful)

Bake in 8" (20cm) square tin (papered) at 325 degrees F (160 degrees C) for 1 to 1/2 hours or until skewer inserted comes out clean (don't overcook!).

Prick when comes out of oven, pour over brandy (I used whiskey as we had no brandy, and mother-in-law tells me rum is fine too. Use two or three capfuls).

22 March 2013

Dying languages

I reawakened my academic side last week when I went to a talk on the evolution of language by a visiting professor. It was fantastic.

He said that languages come about not because of groups being isolated, as I might have thought. In fact, the more densely populated an area, the more languages there are! It turns out that groups of people purposely make new languages to exclude other people. So it's about people purposely dividing themselves from other people. Turning a cold shoulder of the tongue, if you like.

It's effective, too. When travelling through Europe I was amazed at how separated I felt by the language barrier. It was almost as though we were travelling through these countries but looking at them through glass. We could never really 'be' with the local people, because we could never say more than a few basic words to them. (Unless they spoke English, of course, but it was rare for them to speak it well, except in the Netherlands.)

The speaker, Prof Mark Pagel, concluded on what was meant to be a sad note about the death of many languages. They are dying as people turn to the main languages such as English.

While I can see a sad side to that, is it not in fact great news? If many languages come about as people try to divide themselves from other people, then few languages come about because we don't want to be divided. We want to talk with each other now, not fight against each other!

Let's keep talking to each other, and understanding each other.

21 March 2013

Net curtains and soil

The thought of our summer vegetables ending worries me. See more about that tomorrow. Basically they've been saving us lots of money and have been delicious.

So the other day I got cracking and cleaned out part of the garden, pulling out weeds and old corn stalks. I dug in plenty of compost, and sprinkled seeds of mizuna (green and the coral type) and rocket. These greens, if established while it's warm enough, withstand frosts and keep us in salad greens all winter.

I also planted some more carrots and some purple sprouting broccoli (such a delicacy).

But to speed things up I put in some purchased broccoli plants ($2.50 for six at the local supermarket). I covered them with a net curtain - finally discovered near the bottom of the rag pile that was previously disgracing the linen cupboard - to keep off the white butterflies that lay eggs on brassicas so that their caterpillars can savage our favourite winter vegetable.

I felt pretty flash, actually. Nice recycling, don't you think?

The cat put me in my place. This is how the curtain was when I went out to the garden after dinner to admire my work. It had been graced with the presence of a comfortable grey cat, who leapt away before I could photograph him, too.

19 March 2013

Suitcase cleanup

On Sunday I had to find an old net curtain. Tomorrow I'll tell you why.

I know you're used to seeing beautiful photos around here. (Well, I hope you think they're beautiful.) So brace yourself. This is what the bottom of our linen cupboard looked like when I dived in to find those net curtains I'd taken down when we moved in.

A scary nook of the house indeed.

Most of it is clothes turned to rags that I just know will be useful one day...

Fortunately my mother had just given us two old suitcases, which I'd been wondering what to do with. So I sorted and placed, cutting out old zips and buttons as I went, thinking of one-day craft projects.

 This = me feeling pleased with myself.

That same evening I took a washing basket full of rags that I could bear to part with to the clothing bin down the road. That's a good thing about turning 40 - I don't feel strange about carrying a full washing basket along the foothpath.

Soon I noticed I was being tailed. It was by the owner of a tail - a big grey fluffy one. Our cat was coming too! Anna realised what was happening during her trampoline-powered leaps above the neighbour's fence (where she seems to spend every evening now) and caught up with us, delighted to join her grey friend on an adventure.

The three of us made a procession along the footpath. When Anna and I walked too fast, Duke meowed plaintively, but he kept coming. His bravery ended, however, when two cyclists came along in flourescent vests. His scaredy-catness took over and he turned on that fluffy grey tail and headed home at speed.

8 March 2013

Flower swapping

Recently I picked these sweet peas from our garden. They've been flowering like mad for a long time, and how gorgeous they are! Really, no matter how busy I am, I think taking a few minutes to pick these beauties is really crucial for a happy life. A high priority task indeed.

Then Anna had to pop back over to the neighbour's house she'd been playing at all afternoon, and I said "Give these to Heather!" (the mother). I bundled up the sweet pea flowers and sent her off with them.

A bit later, Anna returned with these, from Heather.

Somehow, these are even better than the flowers of my own I'd so loved picking. As a gift in return for a gift, there's more behind them.

6 March 2013

Going grey

I keep getting surprised when people say my hair is a similar colour to my daughter's. Only people who have known me a long time know that I'm really a darkie. I've just had to have some camouflage put in it to hide the grey.

Anna with particularly straggly hair the other
day, but you get the idea.
My boy has what was my true hair colour.
You can see my current hair colour here (and yes I still use baking soda to wash it, but I haven't kept up the vinegar conditioner - I use proper conditioner again).

The other day I noticed that I'm not the only one. My favourite hen, a black Orpington who's about three years old now, is looking particularly distinguished around the face.

Ah, she's a beauty, really.

5 March 2013

Garden action

The other day I was musing on the ecosystem of the garden, but as I went out to take photos for you, I got a bit of a shock.

I'd been picking green vegetable bugs off the runner beans, which have been giving us free greens for many weeks now. I feed the nasty little bugs to the chickens, who get very excited whenever we go near the bean pyramids. Then, of course, they turn them into eggs.

Waiting impatiently for live prey.
The bees were buzzing around the flowers, which pleased me because in early summer I was despairing the lack of honey bees, only ever having seen bumblebees doing their busy work on our flowers. Now, with probably a hundred sunflowers blooming, not to mention the purple phacelia and many colours of cosmos, they are in heaven.


What shocked me was some nasty fighting among black and yellow fuzzy things. There was one big bully wasp, clearly chasing off the honey bees. He left the bumble bees alone. The honey bees just avoided the bully and went to another flower, but he was making life difficult and probably exhausting for them.

There's the wasp on a cosmos flower
- wider body, very narrow waist.
What a wild world it is out there in our back garden!
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