Thursday, July 31, 2008

Magnolia Leaf and Seedpod

My eldest son is fascinated by leaves and seeds. Since he was wee, he has picked up magnolia leaves and pods on our walk to the library.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Angry Chicken Cracks Me Up

Amy Karol of has a fantastic sense of humor. Here she gives a great sewing tutorial on fold over elastic. Her popsicle-stick-selves who narrate the video are so amusing. I might even give F.O.E. a it for the gipper, I mean the chicken.

Garden Hose, Water, Mud = Bliss

As a parent, I find we are often too busy with our children, our lives, the events that we schedule for enrichment. Never underestimate the power of staying home. Respect the complexity of simple pleasures.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Feeding the Compost Pile

I recently bought a pitch fork to turn our compost pile. It makes it much easier than using a shovel. Everything decomposes fairly fast if you keep it aerated, moist and fed with new green material. Air, moisture and food keeps the microorganisms happy. If you click on the image below you can see that the stuff in the middle is already breaking down after about 4 weeks.

When the conditions are right the inside temperature of the pile is very warm - 100 - 140 degrees or so. It feels about the same as washing your hands with hot water. If the pile starts to smell bad it needs more air. The smell will go a way within about 15 minutes of getting air to any stinky spots.

When adding kitchen scraps I try to add them to a hot area and mix them in a bit. I try to get as much of the new stuff in contact with a warm area as possible. If the new material is scattered too thinly the pile isn't as likely to stay hot. Once it cools off it can be hard to get it going again.

As far as what to add or not add here are a few rules of thumb.

You should not add the following:

  • Meat - it attracts rats.
  • Cheese - see meat.
  • Salty foods - bad for your plants.
  • Tomatoes - unless you want volunteer tomato plants everywhere.
  • Weeds which have gone to seed. (If you are a composting master and can get the temp way up to 140 degrees or so the heat will kill the seeds but this is not easy )
  • I have heard you shouldn't compost wisteria because it is poisonous to the microorganisms and will slow the break down of the material greatly.
You can feel free to add, among other similar bacteria fodder:
  • Most any green material, grass, leaves, lettuce trimmings from your salad, carrot tops, etc.
  • Trimmings from vegetables.
  • Breads and pasta but not if they have a lot of salt. Salt kills plants.
  • Spoiled fruit, peels, watermelon rind, etc.
  • Egg shells are really good and help balance the ph.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Duke and the Peasant by Sister Wendy Beckett

I picked this book up at the library to enjoy with my sons. Granted, much of it slips past my ten month old. My almost-four-year-old and I have been thoroughly enjoying it. Sister Wendy Beckett brings her open eyes to the Duc de Berry's Book of Hours painted by the Limbourg brothers. I am a fan of the art appreciator nun and was saddened when she returned to a life of seclusion. What I love about her style of criticism is that she looks at art...really looks at it. She opens doors by sharing how the power of observation is in all of us.

The Duke and the Peasant: Life in the Middle Ages (Adventures in Art Series)

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Figs in Season

A small fig tree keeps us deliciously in fig this time of the year. These were sliced in half and topped with a dollop of lemon and lavender goat cheese from our local farmers market and shared with neighbors.

Each season, we race against the birds to get them first. The birds often win.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Spruce House at Mesa Verde

While on vacation we stopped at a few of the Anasazi sites in the Four Corners area. At Mesa Verde we visited the cliff dwelling ruins which were built in the 1200's by ancient Puebloans commonly called Anasazi although that name is Navajo and actually means "enemy ancestors".

The Anasazi were some of the original American Homesteaders. Their culture evolved from early hunting and gathering to farming the "three sisters" which consist of corn, beans and squash in a symbiotic planting arrangement whereby beans grew up the cornstalks and fixed nitrogen to the soil which the corn required while the squash provided shade the soil which helped retain moisture for all three. This practice is currently part of the permaculture repertoire of gardening techniques.

In order to farm the Anasazi needed to stay near the crops so they built adobe homes which were sometimes large elaborate compounds of 50 or more rooms. During the last 100 years or so before leaving Mesa Verde, they built in highly defensible positions under the overhangs of cliffs.

Spruce Tree House is one of the 3 largest cliff houses but there are dozens scattered about Mesa Verde. The photos hardly do it justice.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Is it a Bee or a Fly?

Julia snapped a picture of this bee-fly drinking nectar from a flower beside a path while we were visiting Mesa Verde park in Colorado. There were many of the same type buzzing around from flower to flower on the same bush. We thought they were red bumble bees but looking at the photo now it looks more like a fly to me.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Phoenix's Gluten Free Chocolate Bread Recipe

Camp Ramshackle is enjoying the fine company of our friend and fine cook Phoenix. We have been experimenting with gluten free cooking in our house. Thanks to Phoenix's amazing culinary acumen, gluten free life is very delicious indeed. He whipped up this fantastic bread in no time at all: recipe here. Last night, he made the most delicious meal with a spicy jicima and apple salad and a spicy vegetable main dish that included figs. So delicious.

Phoenix makes a mean plate of beans.

On the very left, a most delightful treat. Hazelnut and rice flour breaded squash blossoms. The picture does not do it justice. So amazingly good.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Mr. Monkeysuit's Nesting Dolls

Mr. Monkeysuit has done it again. These sweeties were made for her son. See the complete set. Interested in making your own? Mr. Monkeysuit buys hers from And although they are not nesting dolls, Casey's Wood Products in Maine makes affordable people wood turnings. I've been meaning to give it a try myself. I have fantasies about making some wooden toy dolls for my kids.

Huntington Gardens and Library

Thanks to a very generous gift from grandparents, our family enjoys a Huntington Gardens and Library membership. My sons and I enjoyed the day playing in the children's garden and exploring a seed exhibit.

Nothing like water to amaze and delight. If you and your family can't make it to Huntington Gardens, never underestimate the power of a water hose on very low (honor the drought) to unleash the imagination and creativity of the younger set. And don't be shy, let yourself enjoy it too.

I love this bench and sculpture in the children's garden. I always hope the ravens get the apple.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Ladybug Ride

I have always admired the ladybug Wheely Bug by Prince Lionheart, but my kids never showed much interest in it...until now. At a friend's house, my oldest son will ferret out the ladybug wherever it may be and play with it until it's time to leave. My generous friend has loaned the fine bug to Camp Ramshackle until her son is a wee bit older. Last night, my son slept with his arm around it in his bed.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Rope Swing in Colorado

While on vacation, we spent a good hour swinging from a rope off Valecito Lake. Our three year old even did a tandem jump with dad. At the end of our adventure, the creator of the swing showed up and showed us how it's done.

Ouch. Well, maybe skip the last part. I hope he's feeling better. The man made a great swing. Dangerous at times but a fine swing indeed.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Flight of the Paper Airplane

Houston, we have landed. Back in Los Angeles after a great journey to Colorado with family, life at Camp Ramshackle returns to important business at hand...flying paper airplanes.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Black Widow on the Steps

We are creating quite a catalog of spiders here at Camp Ramshackle. As I was taking the fragments of egg shell from the previous post into the house to get a better picture, I noticed this black widow stretched out on the steps. Pretty unusual. They normally prefer dark corners, wood piles, crawl spaces, etc. Of course this one will have to go.

We're Back

We were just in the Four Corners region of the country for about 2 weeks. It was a fantastic trip which I am sure we will post more about soon. While unloading our car, this egg shell must have fallen out of a nest right above us. It landed on the stroller. It looks like it was raided by another bird and dropped over the edge.

While I was taking pictures the yellow jackets began to home in.

Nature at work - It's good to be home.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Ramshackle on the Road

We are currently on the road in Colorado and New Mexico viewing ruins of the ancient Anasazi the originators of the 3 sisters planting.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Starting a New Compost Pile

We are often guided by the "less is more" principle here at Camp Ramshackle. In regards to composting this has definitely been our approach. Right now we do our composting sans bin. This method works well if you have enough space and material. You need a pile about three feet high and wide, and you need space to turn it, or mix it up.

We have a large unruly yard, much of which remains untamed. Pruning, weeding and general clean up generates lots of brown and green matter for composting. Our kitchen scraps are at most a quarter of the material we need to dispose of each month. The Western Garden Book, among other sources, recommends you start with about twice as much brown material as green material.

We use a chipper to chip up pruned branches and leaves which we also use for mulch. Chipping pruned green branches and leaves is a great compost starter. We mix in some of the dry leaves that constantly cover the ground around our oak trees and any kitchen scraps we have available. I like to imagine our compost pile as a slow motion fire. The larger the "logs" the longer and slower they will "burn" the smaller, the hotter and faster. Fast and hot is what we are after with our composting (and so many other things).

Here is how we do it.
  1. Gather enough compostable material to make a 3 foot high pile. One third green material including plant trimmings, fruits, vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, crushed egg shells, cow or horse dung, rabbit or bird poop, to two thirds brown material, which includes dry leaves, sticks, chipped up wood, sawdust, hay, etc.
  2. Mix it all together in a big pile and sprinkle it with water. You want it moist but not soaking wet. Try to make the bacteria happy but don't drown it. Adding a handful of finished compost to the mix will speed it up. You can also add some rotting leaves pulled from a forgotten corner of your garden if you are just starting out. I also like to cover the outside of the pile with brown material, as a mulch layer to hold in the moisture.
  3. Each week, mix the pile to get air to the center and the outer layer mixed into the middle. Add more green and brown material if you have it, sprinkle with water to keep it moist. If you live where it rains you won't need to sprinkle it much.
This method gives us finished compost in about 3 months from the last time we add to the pile. If you keep adding, mixing and wetting the pile, it will stay hot and break down material very quickly. Once the pile starts to cool down and the addition of new material doesn't heat the pile back up, we prefer to start a new pile.

This isn't the only way to do it. You don't need work this hard to compost. Make a big pile of organic material, turn it every once in a while to keep it from getting moldy or going anaerobic (when there is a lack of oxygen it still makes fine compost but it gets outhouse stinky) and eventually everything will break down.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Fourth of July in Durango

We are on the road this week and just had a fantastic 4th of July celebration in Durango, Colorado. I love armature parades, especially on the 4th and, for the record, Durango does it right.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Pavlova Dessert

About a year ago, the Los Angeles Times ran an article about pavlova desserts. I had never tasted one, much less made one. The idea of a light meringue with a fruit topping intrigued me. Sometimes a great dessert notion needs time to come to fruition.

Here she is. Her rather earthy exterior hides her divine taste. Surprisingly simple. Bake the pavlova shell, let cool. Then top with fruit. I used a fantastically tasty balsamic rhubarb compote with fresh strawberries.

Pavlova Shell
4 egg whites room temperature
Pinch of salt
1 1/4 cups of superfine sugar
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Serves 4-6.

Heat oven to 350°F. Draw 4-5 inch circle on a sheet of parchment paper and line a baking sheet with parchment.

Beat egg whites and salt with whisk attachment on mixer (if you do it by hand, holy-moly, please share your story in comments) until peaks form, about 3 minutes.

With mixer on medium speed, whisk in the sugar a little at a time, then turn machine back to high to fully incorporate.

Add the cornstarch and whisk to blend, then add vinegar, when incorporated, whisk in vanilla.

Pile meringue onto parchment paper, using spatula to spread the meringue around the circle and piling the sides slightly higher than the middle. Put into the oven and immediately reduce the temperature to 300°F.

Bake the meringue for 1 1/2 hours, then turn the oven off and prop open the door. Let the meringue cool down completely. It can be stored uncovered for several hours.

Balsamic Rhubarb Compote
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/3 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon grated peeled fresh ginger root
2 fresh rhubarb stalks, leaves discarded, ends trimmed, and stalks cut crosswise into 1/4-inch-thick slices

Mix together in saucepan. Let simmer for 30-45 minutes.

Makes about 2 cups.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Dining Alfresco

We are fans of mild summer days, long hours of sunlight, good food, friends and enjoying dinner outside.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Canyon Prince Native California Grass

Canyon Prince leymus condensatus in January 2006.


Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Male Brown Widow on Our Dish Rack

Julia noticed this spider on our dish rack and immediately went to the insect field guide when she noticed that it had a faint hourglass under it's abdomen.

She identified it as a brown widow almost immediately but it didn't seem quite right. The abdomen wasn't as large as the image of the female spider in the book and it had large round bulbous appendages near it's head. A little further investigation on wikipedia and then to this picture confirmed that what we had was in fact a small brown widow.

The males have very small fangs and are therefore much less dangerous than the females because they can't deliver as much venom but there are conflicting reports that the brown widow venom is either twice as strong or not as strong as the black widow. We decided to "get rid" of this chap rather than employ the usual Ramshackle catch and release program.