Saturday, August 31, 2013

Mark your calendar

This week, the week of August 25, the MEGA supermarket in San Miguel de Allende started putting out Christmas merchandise. Considering Mexicans go on celebrating until January 6, this may be the longest holiday season in the Christian world.


Monday, August 26, 2013

Attack of the recluses

For a semiarid patch of land that at first looks dormant if not barren most of the year—at least compared to my vision of a jungle alive with the nervous rustle and chattering of monkeys and birds—our ranch is in fact teeming with critters though not many large or colorful ones that would make you reach for your camera. Occasionally a purple finch or vermilion flycatcher will flit by, or a tiny colorful snake quietly sneak under the door, but it seems as if most of the birds and terrestrial animals around here were designed to blend in with the nondescript brownness that hovers over the landscape most of the year.

Still. During the rainy season enough insects, birds, carnivores and other fellow travelers come out of the ground, or somewhere, however briefly, to remind you this land is hardly devoid of life. After dark, dozens of small toads gather up in the front patio, a throaty chorale forever rehearsing but never quite hitting a tune. Rabbits hop past the headlights of cars, rushing to an appointment somewhere. V-shaped flyers swoop by too, either swallows or bats of some sort. Tiny mice gather up in the outdoor light fixtures or any protected spot such as the folds of the awnings over the terrace. And during a full moon the volume goes up, way up, as farm animals, joined by dogs and coyotes, spend the night exchanging messages of love, warning or just mindless noise.

It's the animals hidden in the ground that we've grown to fear, particularly because they are prone to attack our four dogs: snakes, scorpions, and most recently venomous spiders.

A small rattler, about two feet long, bit Lucy, our biggest dog, about six months ago and gave her a golf ball-sized lump on the right side of her nose that took a couple of weeks to clear up. There seems to be some learning curve developing though: Lucy has lost most of her appetite for chasing rats or digging up animals that pop up or down out of holes in the ground.

The Brown Recluse Spider is about two inches long.
The vet called it a Violin Spider, for the mark on its
head resembling a violin. 
Two days ago it was Gladys' turn to get bit, this time by a venomous Brown Recluse Spider, which are not particularly aggressive unless a dog or other intruder sticks their nose or paw in the hole where they live. We found Gladys on the garage floor, motionless and bleeding from one paw. Off to an animal clinic, where two young vets quickly and accurately diagnosed the problem.

Snake bites, they explained, leave two punctures but spiders only one. The site of the bite by this type of spider develops necrosis, where the venom essentially kills living tissue. The venom spreads quickly up the leg, which swells almost immediately, and into the body, where it can kill the animal in short order. If we hadn't hauled Gladys to vet immediately we believe she would have gone into shock and died.

Fauna vs Fauna: Gladys got bit on the
 right leg. The mark on her left leg
is where the vet inserted the IV. 
Our affection for Gladys certainly doesn't stem from her looks. She is the muttiest of mutts and displays no pedigree or other distinguishing traits except "quadruped" and "dog." We found her on a parking lot in town, frantically fleeing from something or someone, with a piece of rope still hanging from her neck. When we finally seduced her with food and a plastic box to keep her out of the rain, she became the most loyal pet. Too loyal perhaps because initially she wouldn't let any strangers or other dogs come near us.

Gladys probably was either hit by a car or beaten by her previous owners because her rear drive train doesn't quite work smoothly and her tail is permanently down and crooked to the left.

I told you she wasn't much to look at. But her imperfections, and affection, are precisely what have endeared her to us.

The vets scraped the dead skin on one of her toes, and made two incisions that they used to force out the venom—a mix of blood and a gelatinous fluid they called "bad blood"—by gently massaging her leg downward. After a couple of days in the clinic and a number of these treatments, the swelling has gone down and Gladys is home and starting to walk again. She's still on antibiotics and a bit lethargic.

For Gladys—and us—the moral of this near-miss should be not to be fooled by the apparent lack of wildlife in the desert or stick our noses or hands in front of it when we run accross it. We've learned that. We hope Gladys did too and passes on the warning to her canine compadres.


Wednesday, August 21, 2013

It's raining vegetables! Hallelujah?

After two seasons of lackluster performances, this year our raised beds and the other vegetable garden at one corner of our ranch finally put on a show. It's a bit overwhelming, like sitting front row center at a vaudeville extravaganza, with chorus girls, clowns, comedians and jugglers all coming at you at once.

There's been nothing unusual about the weather, if anything it's been a bit dry, so the reasons for our success lie elsewhere. It could be our gardening learning curve is finally trending upward or that our soil, after buckets and buckets of compost it has reached party time. One factor that has definitely helped was the installation of a drip irrigation system that is a marvel of simplicity and efficiency, and not all that expensive or difficult to install.

Anyone who followed my anecdotes about vegetable gardening last year and the year before, and all my whining about the paltry results, probably walked away thinking that maybe I ought to take up a different hobby.

Take our much-anticipated Illinois sweet corn plants which for two consecutive years thundered out of the ground and up to an impressive height—only to keel over and crash pathetically like North Korean missiles.

Insects, plagues and other predators—rabbits, birds, worms and who-the-hell-knows, particularly the latter—seemed to wait expectantly by the edges of the raised beds to pounce on any plant matter that dared come out of the ground. The holey lettuce looked like green Swiss cheese while the tomatoes wheezed and then swooned even before they set any flowers let alone fruit.

The only thing that seemed to survive in this sorry battlefield were the zucchinis which grew to frightening proportions, some resembling small green torpedoes.

Who knew: Both zucchini and its blossoms are really delicious.
One thing we did this year is to listen to the Darwinian hints from previous planting and give up on stuff that just isn't going to grow for us.

Corn just doesn't work in our ranch for reasons that defy logic: All around us are countless acres of corn and a friend never fails to mention how much he enjoys gnawing on a butter-slathered ear of sweet corn from his garden.

"Aw, screw you and your corn," I want to tell John except he's a good friend and I'm a nice guy.

Another factor that might have helped production are the countless shovelfuls of compost Félix mixed in with the dirt both in the raised beds and the garden at one corner of our ranch. Nowadays both Stew and I eat alarmingly large amounts of fruits and vegetables and at least one bucketful of scraps goes into the compost pile daily.

Pictures in gardening catalogs of a smiling twit with a straw hat fondling handfuls of "rich organic humus" produced by his compost pile always felt like a sadistic joke, something unattainable by normal humans like a rippling six-pack just below two bulging pectorals.

No more. Stew and I may be flabby but we've got our own rich organic humus.

Félix standing by the compost factory.
That terrific black stuff continues to erupt steadily from our three-compartment compost pile. We've also dumped a couple of truckfuls of compost from a neighbor with a half-dozen horses with enthusiastic gastrointestinal systems. A front-loader mixes the poop with straw and here comes more compost.

So good is our soil anymore that a couple of skeptical worms were spotted in the raised beds whispering to each other, "Hmm, kinda like it here." In Spanish.

But the most significant boon probably was the installation of a drip irrigation system hooked to a timer that turns the water for twenty minutes or so each night. We bought a kit from which arrived in a large box with enough hoses, filters, pressure regulators and other fittings for our two raised beds and the other eight-by-eight-meter vegetable bed.

A drip irrigation set-up starts with a battery-operated
timer, a water filter and pressure control fitting. A
starter kit costs less than US$100
The kick of drip irrigation is that it waters economically and efficiently; the root zone six or eight inches below the surface is consistently moist but not soggy or swamped.

If you had a Tinkertoy set when little installing one of these drip irrigation contraptions is simple. Just think of it as a doohickey or a contraption rather than a "system" which sounds vast and complex and may remind you of that piece of software you can never get to work. If you're not that bright or handy, or ambitious, just hire Félix who's become really good at it and is always looking for extra money what with a third kid on the way.

Rather than picking through shriveled greens and skeletal tomatoes, this year instead has brought a cornucopia-near-avalanche of produce. A dozen cucumbers; a couple of varieties of squash; an initial, timid crop asparagus (grown from seed two years ago!); tennis ball-sized beets; lettuce of various types; a few carrots and even some dandelion greens.

One smash hit were the tomatoes, particularly the Black Krim heirloom, swarthy and sweet. We also got dozens of Brandywines, Early Girls, Mexican Yellows and a particularly tasty variety of grape-sized tomatoes though no one knows where they came from.

Mysterious beauties: We're not sure where these grape-shaped
cherry tomatoes came from. Probably from Costco via our compost pile.
Another hit were the cauliflowers whose green leaves grew about four feet across around the fruit (flower?) itself which reached eight inches across. Félix, who had worked on the fields around San Miguel picking cauliflower and broccoli, remembered to fold and tie the leaves of the cauliflowers supposedly to blanch the fruit white.

Except we kept peeking and the stuff remained greenish. What could it be? Félix was clueless and I even more so. Finally, smart-ass Stew suggested we look at the seed envelope, which in fact clearly noted this was variety of green cauliflower. Ah so.

Stew has become a whiz at cooking large amounts of vegetables in soups, salads, stir frys, pressure-cooked, broiled, grilled, often in weird combinations, like a tomato-beet gazpacho. Or how about Copenhagen-Style Cauliflower Soup?

Waiting for Stew, produce piled up on
the kitchen counter.
His erstwhile ally in this endeavor has been Marian Morash's "The Victory Garden Cookbook" (1982) which like any cookbook is by now dog-eared and splotched. Marian apparently never found a piece of vegetable matter that she couldn't coax into a saucepan; the woman must have been raised by a colony of beavers.

But the most amazing part of this mid-summer produce mania is that both Stew and I have come to like vegetables. Even Félix is learning to tease his tastebuds with something other than tortillas and beans.

Indeed, if our mothers could see us now: Gray, a bit wrinklier and chunkier but eating our vegetables with a gusto neither they nor us could have ever imagined.

Happiness is a big pile of fresh black dirt.