Friday, January 29, 2010

Birthday Season Again

I have never been one for fancy themed birthday parties.  When the kids were younger, the "theme" was set by whatever birthday cake they chose, and I would buy napkins and balloons in the same colours to match.  But as the kids have grown old enough to plan and participate in shopping and decorating their own parties, it is fun to take on a few more ambitious plans.

This year, my daughter wanted a "beach party" theme for her 11th birthday.  We had chatted about already last summer, but at the time it seemed to early to decide.  Then in the Fall I impose the "don't talk about birthdays until after Christmas" rule, so that by the time she decided on this theme, we couldn't find much "beach" stuff in stores in January!  Fortunately, we were able to borrow some inflatable palm trees and beach balls, and found some sunglasses and what looked like mini beach towels in the dollar stores.

My daughter did some nice creative work on the props and decorations:

The palm trees were definitely a "hit":

Instead of the traditional "loot bags", my daughter had a good idea to round up a number of different items, and draw names, and let people pick their gifts.  It was fun, and fascinating to watch which ones they picked - often not the expensive ones or ones which I would have expected to be snatched up.  I was glad that I was able to give away some miscellaneous items which I've picked up along the way for gifts, but then didn't give away.

I made some real fruit smoothies out of frozen mangoes or blueberries, combined with ice, water and a bit of vanilla ice cream.  They were delicious, but my poor blender had a hard time blending them up.

I was very happy with our little gummy-bears-on-the-beach cupcakes which we made:
When they were younger, I always bought birthday cakes from the store. Sometimes ice cream cakes, sometimes regular cakes, often with the character themes (which means you pay about $5 more for a little junkie toy on top, but the kids love it).

Then last year I discovered the joy of making my own birthday cakes. With a box of cake mix and a container of pre-made icing and some food colouring, it is pretty easy to whip up a pretty cool birthday cake within a few hours. Last year I made the campfire cake for my daughter's birthday, and the Pokemon cake for my son's. My son got to keep all the Pokemon figurines. This year he wants Pokemon cupcakes, and each friend will get to keep his own Pokemon figurine. That's pretty nice.

For the combined "family" birthday party which is tomorrow, we were going to just pick out a cake, but were very uninspired by the designs available, and there were none which both of them could agree upon. So we agreed that we would make our own, and I'd buy a small toy which they could keep. That seemed to convince them.

We chose a chocolate cake mix, and I made the two sizes of cake pan which I have, but then it looked a bit too short, so I made a second cake mix, and doubled the larger bottom layer and made some cupcakes too. With a bit of food colouring, we had green and pink icing.

At first, it was not going well. I guess I didn't really wait long enough for the cakes to fully cool and dry, so when I tried to spread the icing, bits of the chocolate cake peeled up. What a mess:
So I let it sit for a moment, then spread another can of icing on top, and that worked out well:

Then we added the figurines (Littlest Pet Shop, in this case) and some gummy candies which were very colourful, and seemed like a good idea for decorating the cake:

Then finally, I finished off all the icing (3 cans total - but it is the "Whipped" kind, and quite nice tasting for icing, so I think the result will still be good):

We're ready for the party!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

"Low Maintenance" Plants and Gardens

Today I snuck out into the garden for an hour between morning and afternoon rains, and did some more cleanup. While I was there, I was musing to myself about the concept of "low maintenance" and "no maintenance" plants and gardens.

It seems a number of my newbie or wannabe garden friends, or perhaps more accurately not-sure-if-I-wannabe-but-I-still-want-a-garden-like-yours friends ask for advice on "low maintenance" plants they can start with. I suppose that really comes down to how "low" your meaning of "low maintenance" is. My lower neighbour (next to us on the downhill side) makes a REALLY big deal about her garden cleanup activity, which is maybe one or two times per year, that she gets out to weed between her low maintenance (heathers, daylilies, etc) plants, which [I know this sounds snobby but...] I wouldn't think of as a "garden", it's really more like "landscaping".

For me, "low maintenance" means perennials, so I don't need to reseed or replant each year. If I can keep it under control with an average of about 1 hour per day about 250 days of the year, then it's pretty low maintenance, or at least pretty reasonable. After all, that's why I have a garden, so I can go out and do gardening!

As I cleaned up dead leaves and branches, pulling the weeds hiding cleverly beneath, I mused about a neighbour on the other side of the duplex where we previously lived. She was an elderly lady, and not able to get out and do much in her "garden" - which looked like weeds to just about anyone else who looked it it - but she would come out occasionally and really enjoy her "flowers". She had found a real gem of a secret in gardening - if you learn to enjoy whatever grows, then you are guaranteed to be happy with your garden. In the extreme, if you think about what an abandoned lot looks like... There is always lots growing, that's for sure! So if you like that garden "look", it is not hard to achieve success and gardening happiness.

Then I mused about my dear friend Betty. She is a definite wannabe, but lives a very busy work and social life. She has a beautiful garden on both front and back of her house. In fact, she had been enticed to buy the house by the previous owner's fresh planting of a HUGE numbers of tulips, and a nice brick deck in back surrounded by a semicircular garden and two beautiful palm trees. But the deep rich soil meant that very soon the weeds also found it a nice place to grow. So she quickly began the search for "low maintenance" plantings to compete with the weeds. I was happy to provide her with some of mine which clump or spread to cover an area quickly (which is one strategy for keeping weeds under control), but the following year she took further steps to bring in ornamental grasses which were even lower maintenance. Over time, by careful planting and holding the occasional weeding party with friends, she has come to where the garden is manageable to her, and still enjoyable.

My idea of "low maintenance" are plants which need care only once or twice per year (usually Spring and Fall). Some of my strategies for keeping things under control are:

1) Start weeding early, after thaw, but before the plants are really actively growing. In Vancouver, that often means January or February. Pulling away dead leaves and twigs from last year reveals bright green weeds hiding below. This time of year, the ground is moist and soft, and the weeds (except the taproot ones) pull up quite easily.
2) Get to the weeds before they have a chance to reseed. I can never achieve this 100%, but aggressive weeding early in the year can avoid a bigger load of weeding in the following year.
3) Cover the soil. I happen to like the look of no soil showing in the height of the growing season. But it also helps to suppress weeds between plants.
4) Grow only perennials. No replanting or re-seeding. I love perennials which expand and clump over time. Evergreen ones are even better.
5) Deadhead anything which reseeds too freely. Unless you want more of the plants to use in your garden or trade with friends, then deadheading can also avoid a lot of weeding out later.
6) Be at peace with what you have. It may not be "perfect", but then again it depends on what "look" you are trying to achieve.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Watermelon Carving

Watermelon carvingI guess I have upgraded my main computer (which I use to work from home) twice in the past 6 years, but have kept the older ones also (for example, one acts as our home network's file server).  In the process, we have tried to move along any significant files and photos and such, but each time some is left behind.  Today while looking for some old files, I was delighted to discover some photos from 2004 of my first - and only - attempt at watermelon carving.

According to the accompanying HTML pages (which are no longer posted anywhere, but I was glad to recover the narrative in them), I had taken advantage of a quiet Christmas morning (since we open gifts on Christmas Eve), and "with the children happily playing with their new toys, I took out my 4" Henckels knife, and tried my hand at carving a watermelon".  My inspiration for trying came "from the Zozocyan Carving Room displaying wonderful, detailed soap, vegetable and fruit carvings by Shiyo in Japan".  The cool thing is that Shiyo seems to be still carving and posting to that site - so you can still visit and see what I mean by inspiration!

Watermelon carving
I went on to say that "after only two hours of carving, I was pleased by the result, which made a nice addition to my sister Rose's dessert table for Christmas dinner that evening", and ended with "I hope my simple photos will inspire you to pick up your kitchen knife and give it a try, too".

I've posted photos here.  It brings back great memories.  I'm impressed that I did such a nice carving in only two hours.  It inspires me, I should try again some day.

Watermelon carving of butterfly and flowersWatermelon carving of butterfly and flowers
If this post inspires any budding vegetable & fruit carvers, please remember to return and share your creations with me.
How to carve a watermelon
Carved watermelon decoration

Sunday, January 24, 2010

First Hummingbird of the Season (?)

Yesterday we took advantage of dry weather (although the sky was cloudy grey) to walk the perimeter of Deer Lake Park in Burnaby, BC. It was about a 2 hour leisurely walk, with lots of diversions along the way.

Along with the usual mallards on the lake, there were a few cormorants and coots and a few other types of ducks. Here are two cormorants, with a skyline of Metrotown Burnaby in the background.
Cormorants on Deer Lake in Burnaby BC
A few of the birds seemed to have found a very shallow part of the lake, so it looked odd to see them just standing there, apparently in the middle of the lake.  The cormorant seemed to say "Hey, look at me, I'm standing on the water."
Cormorant and ducks on Deer Lake in Burnaby

I was surprised to see a hummingbird this early in the season.  Could it have stayed here for the Winter, or is it really starting to be Spring?  I looked back in my blog, and in 2006 I didn't spot my first hummingbird until April 27, and in 2009, I didn't say when, but my first attempt at photos was July 15.  So this seems to be very early in the year.

Hummingbird in a tree
Too bad for poor Cypress Mountain, there are some Olympic events planned there in less than 3 weeks, and they are trying to push snow reserves down from the top of the mountain, and keep up the snow-making to fill in the shortfall this year.  Last year was no problem, we had LOADS and LOADS of snow.  So I am praying that with the rain forecasted in the next couple of weeks, that the temperatures will drop a bit so that the local mountains will get snow instead of rain.  In Whistler - Blackcomb, where most of the outdoor events will take place, I hear that the snow is really good this year.  Blackcomb is blessed with a glacier, so they have good skiing long into the Spring.

Anyhow, back to Deer Lake.  I took my daughter's small Kodak digital camera, since my Canon is too heavy to carry for such a long walk.  So she enjoyed taking some photos too.  Many were blurred or out of focus, and much of that will be corrected with experience.  But she seems to have an eye for artistic shots, such as this one which I quite like:

Artistic photo
I'm trying to encourage her to start a photo blog.  What do you think?

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Bonsai Inspiration

Even with the mild weather allowing me to get started on Spring cleanup in the garden, my imagination is still captured by the idea of trying out the art of bonsai.

In addition to the Reader's Digest "Bonsai Secrets" by Peter Chan which I recently brought home from the public library, I decided to "surf" for some more ideas on varieties of plants and bonsai styles.

There were some nice examples of bonsai which caught my eye, many of them on a site called The Art of Bonsai Project. Some of my favourites are shown here.

Bucida spinosa (Black olive), from this page

Azalea "Nisho no Hikari" by Wolfgang Putz, on this page

Pinus mugo (Mugo pine) by Walter Pall, on this page

Acer palmatum (Japanese maple) by Walter Pall, on this page

Juniperis chinensis (Chinese juniper) by Cheng Cheng-Kung, on this page

Pyracantha (Firethorn) by Robert Kempinski, on this page

Ulmus parvifolia (Chinese elm) by Qingquan Zhao, on this page

Ficus nerifolia (Weeping ficus) by Ed Trout, on this page

Cotoneaster by Dan Barton, on this page

"Meyers" juniper by Dan Barton, on this page
I hope these images will stir and inspire you, as they did me. For any of you who own or have created bonsai, I would love to see photos. Please feel free to post links in the comments section.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Grapevining Pruning for Geeks (or more accurately, by a Geek?)

Today was a wonderful sunny and calm day, and I decided to take a break to enjoy the weather for an hour or so.  First I filled a wheelbarrow full of weeds and cuttings of dead twigs and such, and then I decided to be daring, and try to prune my grapevines.

The grapevines are still quite young, having had my first crop of grapes last summer.  So this is the first time  really "pruning" them.  In previous years, it was more of selecting the shoots which I would train on the trellis.  I have read lots of different descriptions on how to do it, and have been adequately confused by the terms and which of the Kniffen systems to use, and about the old wood vs. new wood, and how many buds to leave, to use as next year's lateral branches, or whatever.  But I think the basic concepts which I understand are these:

1) Trim back quite a bit, since grapevines grow like crazy.  I think I read somewhere that one should remove some 60% to 80% of the wood.  Well, since mine are quite young, I was aiming for more like 25% to 50%.
2) Train the trunks vertically, the main branches horizontally, and then the offshoots (vertical, for the most part) from these are the ones which will bear the fruit.

One of the descriptions mentioned tagging (they tied a bright cloth onto) the branches which you want to keep, and then cutting away the others.  So being the geek that I am, I decided that it would be even better to use one of the kids' paint sets (you know the ones, the sets of one-time use primary colours which seem to come with all sorts of art kits) to mark the branches.

I was very pleased by my painting technique.  I have 3 main vines, so I decided to mark each vine with a different colour, to figure out what tangled branches belonged to each one.  Here is the vines with the paint markings, before pruning (click any photo for a slightly closer view):
Grape vines before pruning

Grape vines before pruning
Since I found out that I had 3 varieties of grapes, and one bore the most fruit, I discovered that the middle one (marked in red, and also on the upper branch in white) must be that green grape which was great for juicing.  It had an overwhelming number of extra branches, whereas the yellow one on the left (which must be the dark grape which bore only one bunch) and the blue one on the right (which must be the delicious green eating grape which only bore a few bunches), these vines didn't have much branches at all.

After painting the branches I wanted to keep, it was easy to prune out the others, since I could quickly trace them back to which vine they belonged to.  If they came off the red one, they were chopped.  If they came off the yellow or blue one, I evaluated more carefully whether I could also keep and train them onto the trellis.  So in that way, my pruning should even the score somewhat, and hopefully give the other two grapes a chance to bear more fruit this year.

I am very pleased by the result so far.  I could tweak a bit more, but the job is for the most part done:
Grape vines after pruning
Looking a little closer, the "yellow vine has very few lateral branches, but the one on the very left makes its way along the back of the shed.  There may not be enough light there to bear good fruit, but I left it on just to give it a chance to try:
Grape vine on trellis
The "red" vine ended up having also a "white" branch (which is a bit redundant, but I decided to keep it anyhow), and a smaller offshoot from the trunk, which I ended up marking "green", and keeping it also, mainly because it has made its way all the way across to the front (porch) of the shed, and I think I'll try to figure out a way to support these branches - they'll look pretty cool if they ever bear fruit:

Grape vine on trellis
The "blue" one had sent a long branch along the top to the left.  Once I pruned enough to free it, I flipped this over, to be along the right, where it has more room to itself.  Then I kept all the other branches too, bringing them in line with the support trellis.  The one along the bottom which is bumped up, continues up and along the underside of the roof in the porch also, so I took care to keep that one also:
Grape vine on trellis
I may be a geek, but I am very pleased by the result.  The true test will be when the vines start to grow and fruit this summer, and I'll be watching carefully to learn more about them so I can do an even better job pruning them next year.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Bonsai Styles

I never had much interest in bonsai before, but recently (maybe with the Winter depriving me of time in the garden) I have started to toy with the idea of trying it out. So I looked at some bonsai books at the library the other night. Most of them were quite boring, and some had examples which I wouldn't consider bonsai, just little constrained trees.

Then I opened the Reader's Digest "Bonsai Secrets" by Peter Chan, and I couldn't put it down. It has some beautiful examples of bonsai, and techniques all the way from choosing the tree variety and style of pot, to the various techniques of growing, shaping, pruning, watering, and maintaining the bonsai, to the advanced techniques of creating driftwood effects ("jins" and "sharis"), grafting, and trunk thickening. I didn't know there were bonsai with berries and fruits (sadly, no photo of this) and flowers.  Pretty cool.  I was fascinated by one section which shows a juniper bought from a nursery, before (in its gallon pot) and after drastic trimming and wiring and repotting into a bonsai pot. Pretty cool, and pretty inspiring.

I really liked these 3 pages, which show different shapes of bonsai.

I'm inspired enough to want to try something.  So I dug out some Japanese maple seeds which I collected maybe 6 years ago (I hope they're still good), and have winter sown these in a plastic tray outside.  I'll need to take a look for bonsai pots (I suspect I won't want to pay the price for them, but I'll take a look at what I can get away with), and maybe look for a nursery plant (like that juniper example) which I could try my hand at radically pruning & shaping.  Also, I'll need to figure out where I'd keep such a thing.  I'm usually not much for keeping pots of any kind.

Today was a mild spring-like day, so I was able to spend a half hour or so in the front yard, cleaning up leaves and pulling old straw-like blades out of my ornamental blue oat grasses so I can see the blue-green colour again.  So pretty soon the urge to try out the bonsai will compete with my urge to lose myself in the garden.  Perhaps I can work on the bonsai after it gets dark.

Anyhow, I'd highly recommend this book, if you want to be inspired by the art of bonsai.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

We've got babies! Sticks, that is.

Do you remember my stick bugs? Well, my 2nd generation of 18 or 19 baby sticks started laying their eggs in late October, so 9 or 10 weeks after that would be some time in December that I would expect I could have my first hatchlings....

This winter has not been a good one for the eggs. First of all, a number of them were attached to the top of the cage, rather than just dropped to the bottom of the cage. So I couldn't keep those ones moist. I tried removing a few, and they broke, so finally I left them there. I managed to round up maybe 15 to 20 and kept them in an open-lid container on a moist paper towel, within the main cage. But a number of them had gone mouldy, and I have even thrown a few away that looked too mouldy to be good anymore.

Today, when I was replacing the blackberry leaves, I was telling my daughter that I hope I will have a few hatch, so I can continue the cycle. Already, 2 females (the original Grandma & one of the Moms) and 1 male (original one or offspring, I don't know) have died.

Then my daughter pointed out that there were babies in the cage. Sure enough, there were 3 of them!  (And one of them had already escaped around the corner, and was on the outside of the cage! They all looked very newborn. Adorable. I was ecstatic. Here is a photo of two of the little darlings.

I can't wait to tell all the friends to whom I gave stick bugs, and my sister (who bought me the original pair of walking stick bugs), that they should watch out for babies arriving soon.

Friday, January 15, 2010

"Picture This" Photo Contest Entry : Winter's Beauty

This year on the west coast, the Winter may have missed us. We had only a light dusting of snow - which is quite fine, since we had an unusually cold and snowy Winter last year.

We did have some beautiful frost in December, and I wish I had taken more photos at the time. I like how this epimedium is edged in frost - this will be my photo contest entry:

Epimedium edged in frost
Check out other wonderful entries and enter your own winter photo at this month's "Picture This" Photo Contest, which is themed "Winter's Beauty".

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Staying Up Waaaaay Too Late

I guess sometimes I stay up so late that I'm too tired to send myself to bed. I think tonight was one of those nights.

I know nobody appreciated my reference to Twilight, but I am still so struck by how handsome my little Handsome is, and got to toying with his photos on Dumpr. They have a few fun effects you can instantly apply to your photos. Not as extensive as Photoshop, but still, they are relatively quick and easy to apply.

Like this one, the "volcano" effect:
Future Twilight starTwilight fans take note
Or this one, a little more subtle:

Or this one, where you can find yourself the object of the paparazzi:
Handsome young star
Handsome young star

Yes, I know.... Waaaay too late. I'm off to bed now.
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