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In Praise of Bumblebees

Bumblebees on Chive Flowers

Bumblebees on Chive Flowers

It’s National Pollinator Week, and I want to sing the praises of bumblebees. Without them, nothing in my own garden would be pollinated. We do get a few honeybees (we’re sure they come downhill from the hives our Pioneering the Simple Life friends keep), but bumblebees outnumber them by at least 100 to 1. My father kept honeybee hives when I was growing up, and I spent hours watching them come and go, dancing to share information about the nectar flow from our fruit trees and berry plants. I wasn’t as interested in bumblebees for the selfish reason that they didn’t make delicious honey for my toast. Sure, there was “Flight of the Bumblebee” and the intriguing (and inaccurate) folklore that bumblebees violate the laws of aerodynamics by flying when they shouldn’t be able to (see The Straight Dope for that full story), but still…no honey.

Bumblebee on Raspberry Flowers

Bumblebee on Raspberry Flowers

I’ve changed my mind. I still love honeybees, but I’ve fallen hard for the fuzzy bumblers that are all over my garden, in varying shades and combinations of yellow, orange, and black. I took them for granted for years, but with the decline of honeybees and rise of Colony Collapse Disorder, I started paying more attention to the native pollinators in my garden. Everything I learn deepens the awe I feel – All this time, right in front of me, bumblebees have been doing incredible things and I was oblivious:

  • There are about 250 known species of bumblebees worldwide, and around 40 of these Bombus species are native to North America. The US Forest Service and the Pollinator Partnership published this free online guide to Bumble Bees of the Western United States. It’s a wonderful resource, although I must admit I’m still trying to identify the species in my own yard; we seem to have quite a few!
  • Bumblebees use a process known as sonication or “buzz pollination” to vibrate the pollen out of flowers. That rather high-pitched buzzing that bumblebees make when they visit a flower? That’s the sound of sonication – To the naked human eye, it may look and sound like much ado about nothing, but there’s an awful lot going on – The bees are vibrating their flight muscles to generate forces up to 30 G that loosen and blast pollen right out of flower species that hold their pollen close in anthers with tubes (poricidal anthers).

    Bumblebees Buzz Pollinating Raspberries

    Bumblebees Buzz Pollinating Raspberries

  • Because of this, they’re able to pollinate a number of food crops that honeybees, who can’t sonicate, aren’t able to access. Sonication is necessary to pollinate a variety of food crops, including eggplant, tomatoes, blueberries, and cranberries. Bumblebees are an increasingly important commercial-scale pollinator used by many farmers much more industrious than I. See this Leonard Lab web page devoted to Buzz Pollination for much more in depth information, and watch the video below for a quick education in sonication.
  • Bumblebees can sting, but they’ll most likely choose not to. Until I started my Bombus research, I didn’t know they could – They can, and apparently their stings are quite painful. They’re such sweethearts by nature, I’ve been playing and gardening around them all my life without a single sting (something I can’t say for the honeybees, yellow jackets, and wasps I’ve crossed paths with).
  • You can pet bumblebees if you’re daring and respectful. You must use a very gentle touch, but you can stroke their fuzzy backs while they’re at work on flowers. They’ll put their hind legs on your finger if you’re annoying them. Native Plants & Wildlife Gardens has safe bumblebee handling tips in this article.

    Bumblebee on Spanish Lavender

    Bumblebee on Spanish Lavender

  • Bees have pretty high stakes sex lives. If you’re so inclined, you can watch Isabella  Rossellini’s Green Porno episode about honeybees; much of this applies to bumblebees, too. In a bumblebee colony, each queen lives just a single season and sends out daughter queens as her last act, to sleep the winter away before waking in the spring to build their own colonies.
  • It appears that bumblebees are also suffering population losses, with some species like “Big Fuzzies” all but disappearing from their traditional ranges. The Smithsonian has more information in this article about what we know and what we still need to learn.
  • In better news, it’s possible to invite bumblebee colonies to your own backyard habitat. Bumblebee.org has directions on building your own nest boxes and improving your hyper-local habitat to attract and support local bumblebee colonies.

So, here’s to bumblebees. They may not make honey, but their hard work brings us other delicious gifts. We need them and they need our attention and support.

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DIY Flower Petal Ink

DIY Flower Petal Ink

DIY Flower Petal Ink

Yesterday was the first day of summer vacation for my daughters, and it’s already off to a promising start. My rising 2nd-grader slept in until just after 11 am, then promptly announced that she was “so, so bored.” I love boredom as a motivating force – Left to her own devices, she ended up collecting flower petals from around our garden with a plan to turn them into ink for a summer’s worth of art.

Petals for DIY Ink

Petals for DIY Ink

Since neither of us knew exactly how to make ink from flower petals, preferably in the most immediately gratifying way, we did a quick Google search and found these simple directions from GardenGuides.com that called for petals, boiling water, an overnight wait, and a few drops of rubbing alcohol.

Testing the Colors of Our DIY Flower Petal Ink

Testing the Colors of Our DIY Flower Petal Ink

Voila, this afternoon my daughter has her flower petal ink. Painting the test squiggle of each ink was great fun – Many of the petals turned out a color very different from what she predicted she’d get, and each of the inks darkened and changed as it dried. The white clover ink, for instance, started out as almost invisible and then dried to a pale and pretty yellow, not unlike white clover petals when they catch the sunlight. Red and purple poppy petals made for a lovely red and green ink, while the rose ink that appeared to be a completely washed out disaster when it was wet on the paper dried to a pink with darker edges.

Calendula and Clover DIY Flower Petal Ink

Calendula and Clover DIY Flower Petal Ink

None of these colors are as bright and saturated as store-bought pigments, but they have a soft beauty all their own. Better yet, my daughter has a personal connection to each color, and she’s set for many afternoons of painting and writing.

Want to make your own? Give it a try – It’s easy and rewarding. 

Petals and Boiling Water to Make DIY Ink photo

Petals and Boiling Water to Make DIY Ink photo

  1. Collect petals from your favorite flowers. More petals will give you more ink, but you can work with just a few.
  2. Set each type of petal into its own jar.
  3. Cover petals with boiling water, just barely enough to cover the petals when they’ve been smashed down with a wooden chopstick or other tool.
  4. Set aside to brew overnight.
  5. The next day, strain each batch of petal tea through cheesecloth to separate the petals from the liquid. Pour each batch of ink back into its clean jar.

    Straining DIY Flower Petal Ink

    Straining DIY Flower Petal Ink

  6. Add a few drops of rubbing alcohol to each jar of ink and shake well.
  7. Store well covered when not in use. My daughter uses a small watercolor brush to paint with hers, but these should also work in an old-fashioned fill-it-yourself fountain pen. Or in a DIY feather quill…Maybe that will have to be our next project.

    Poppy DIY Flower Petal Ink

    Poppy DIY Flower Petal Ink

If you give this a try, please let us know how your colors turn out!

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Lemon Rose Sourdough Cake

Lemon Rose Sourdough Cake

Lemon Rose Sourdough Cake

This is my favorite sourdough cake recipe yet. The Chocolate Orange version is delicious, but I was craving something lemony. I love citrus cakes and I thought the extra depth of flavor that comes along with the sourdough starter would be wonderful combined with lemon. I searched online and found a few variations on the lemon sourdough theme, but not quite what I was looking for. So I turned back to the trusty King Arthur Flour Sourdough Chocolate Cake recipe and tinkered with that to suit my vision.

I wanted a good hit of lemon with a hint of rose in the icing, to bring one of my favorite summer lemonades to life in a cake. That’s just what I ended up with, although something about this cake also reminds me of a fresh doughnut, without the deep-frying. When you glaze the cake while it’s still hot from the oven, the rosy lemon sweetness soaks down into the top inch or so, making it sticky while a crispy crust of sugared waves remains on top. If you have fresh organic rose petals, they make a gorgeous edible decoration on top of the icing.

The next time I bake this, I’ll use a combination of lemon and orange juices in place of the milk for a Citrus Sourdough cake. I wanted to give the milk a try first since I’d already experimented with orange juice in my Chocolate Orange Sourdough Cake. Both cakes are wonderfully moist, but the milk-based batter is definitely a bit richer.

This cake does take a while to prepare, but only because the starter needs time to unite with the flour and milk or juice. You can let that happen overnight or during a lazy weekend afternoon. The other steps are straightforward and quick.

Lemon Rose Sourdough Cake

Lemon Rose Sourdough Cake

Sourdough Lemon Cake

  • 1 cup of sourdough starter ready for a feeding (meaning starter that’s been resting for 12 hours at room temp, bubbling and active, and now it’s ready to be divided and fed)
  • 1 1/4 cup milk, any kind (I used fresh almond milk) or the same amount of citrus juice
  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups rapadura or granulated sweetener of your choice
  • 1 cup oil or melted butter (I used 1/2 cup olive oil and 1/2 cup unsalted butter)
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 2 teaspoons natural lemon extract
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons natural orange extract
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt, finely ground
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1/2 cup eggs : 2 large grocery store eggs or 3 eggs if you’re using the slightly smaller ones my backyard hens lay
  • fresh zest from 1 lemon
  1. Combine the sourdough starter, milk or juice, and flour in a large bowl, stirring everything gently but firmly to mix it all into a relatively smooth mass. Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and set it aside to rest. If you’re in a rush, set it in a warm place for at least two hours; if you’re planning ahead, do this just before you go to bed, set it aside in a cool spot, and make time to finish the cake the next morning.
  2. Once your starter-milk-flour mixture is bubbling and looking lively, it’s time for the next step: Preheat your oven to 350 F and grease or line with parchment at 9″x13″ pan.
  3. In a clean bowl, blend sugar, oil/butter, extracts, salt, and baking soda together. You can do this by hand with a whisk or spoon, or use an electric hand mixer.
  4. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition to create a smooth batter.
  5. Stir in the fresh zest – Do this part by hand with a spoon, as the zest will just wrap itself around the beaters on an electric hand mixer.
  6. Now it’s time to gently stir the sugar and oil mixture into the starter mixture. At first, this will look like a culinary train wreck. Keep at it and eventually the two will become one. Gentle strokes of a spoon and persistence will make for a lovely smooth batter.
  7. Pour the finished batter into the prepared pan and bake at 350 F for about 45 minutes, or until the center springs back under a light touch from your finger and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
  8. Set the hot cake on a wire rack and spoon the Lemon Rose Glaze over it while it’s still hot. It will stay fresh for a few days in the pan, covered and kept at room temperature.
Lemon Rose Icing on Lemon Sourdough Cake

Lemon Rose Glaze on Lemon Sourdough Cake

Lemon Rose Glaze 

  • 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
  • at least 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
  • rosewater to taste
  1. Measure the powdered sugar into a small bowl.
  2. Add 2 Tablespoons of lemon juice and stir well. Drizzle additional lemon juice in as needed to form a smooth icing that pours easily from the edge of tipped spoon.
  3. Add rosewater to taste. I like about 2 teaspoons in my icing, but you can use less or more.
  4. Add more powdered sugar if your icing is too runny (or you can just wait a few minutes to let evaporation take care of that for you). Add more juice/rosewater if it’s not runny enough.
  5. Pour over a hot cake for a glaze that soaks into the top inch-or-so of cake, leaving a crisp crust of translucent glaze on top.

That’s all there is to it – If you give this a try, please let me know what you think of it. And if you have another flavor or sourdough cake for me to try, please let me know. I’ve still got plenty of fresh starter to bake with!

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Balloon-Free Party Decor

DIY No Sew Bunting

DIY No Sew Bunting

or The Joys of Bunting.

Summer Bunting © Rebecca Rockefeller

Back when it was time for my first-born’s first birthday, I brought home a dozen helium balloons to decorate our house. I tied them to the front porch, to each chair around our table, and left the others floating freely around the house wherever the breeze took them.

When we started our citizen scientist work collecting and cataloging local plastic pollution on our beaches and higher up our watersheds, my kids and I decided together that we didn’t want any more balloons. We find balloons and their attendant ribbons during every one of our beach walks; they’re high on our usual suspects list. While latex balloons are theoretically biodegradable on land, under the right conditions, we don’t see them biodegrading very well in our saltwater marine environment. We know for certain that balloons pose various hazards to wildlife along the way, even if they do eventually break down into organic components, and the ribbon that’s tied to so many balloons isn’t remotely biodegradable – It looks just as fresh as ever after months of bobbing around our Puget Sound.

Selection of Balloons, Ribbons, and Plastic Straws Found on Bainbridge Island, WA Beaches

Selection of Balloons, Ribbons, and Plastic Straws Found on Bainbridge Island, WA Beaches

In short, balloons were out. We needed something different to bring festivity and joy to our parties.

Enter bunting, beautiful bunting.

Make Bunting Not Balloons!

Make Bunting Not Balloons!

We make ours from fabric remnants and bias tape, no sewing required if you use a bead of fabric glue down the center of the tape. For a couple of years, I made a new strip of bunting for each new birthday, with the birthday girl in charge of fabric selection, but now we have plenty to decorate the front porch, the dining room, the living room, and outside along our fence and favorite trees.

Back Yard Birthday Party Bunting

Backyard Birthday Party Bunting

Easy No Sew Bunting Directions:

  1. Get yourself some fabric. We love to find sheets at a thrift store or garage sale, and our local fabric shop sells fat quarters meant for quilters; those are the perfect amount of fabric for bunting, too. We pick out 3-4 different fabrics for each bunting strip, each 3 yards long.
  2. Get yourself some extra wide double fold bias tape, one 3-yard piece per banner, or make your own.
  3. Get yourself some craft or fabric glue if you want to make this as a no-sew project. If you want to stitch this together, you’ll need whatever you’d like to use for that – I’m going to give no-sew directions, but feel free to upgrade to the stitched version for less waste and better durability.
  4. Make yourself a pattern. I drew a shape I liked freehand, a basic semi-circle with the flat side running 9″ wide x 6.5″ tall. I used the back of some sort of food box and it’s still in great shape 12 banners later.This size works well with 3 yards of bias tape, leaving enough tape on the ends to attach string for hanging, or to pin into.
  5. Iron your fabrics then trace your pattern piece onto your fabric. Use pinking shears to cut the bunting flags out.
  6. Decide how you want to arrange your fabrics, then open up that bias tape and start to glue the fabric into place, one piece at a time. Set the straight edge of your fabric pieces even with the inside crease of the bias tape. Before you place the fabric onto the bias tape, put a thin bead of glue on the bottom of the tape, then add another thin bead on top of the fabric and fold the top of the bias tape down flat onto the fabric. Run your fingers over the freshly glued area, pressing gently to stick everything together, then move along to the next piece. It’s a good idea to lay the whole pattern out with the bias tape before you start the gluing, so you know how much bias tape to leave free at each end. As you glue, snug the fabric pieces up so their edges just touch, and set the whole thing where it can dry flat.
  7. Voila! You have fabric bunting that can be tied or pinned into place, indoors or out, good for years of festive decorating. True, the glue makes the bias tape a bit stiff, and it can’t be put through the wash; you can remedy both of those things by sewing everything together. But I’ve been able to decorate years of parties now without having to wash our glued-together bunting, and nothing has fallen apart when left out in the rain and damp overnight. Sometimes I do need to add a bit more glue to a panel or two, but that’s easy enough to do. Of course, the plastic bottle the glue comes in is wasteful, as is the fabric if you buy it new, but there are no balloons to find their way to the ocean and into some creature’s belly.
Back Yard Bunting

Backyard Bunting

We like our bunting so much more than we ever liked balloons. Because fabric bunting lasts for years, ours has become part of our family iconography, specifically tied to our celebrations – Each strip of fabric has happy memories attached to it now, with more added each year.

Birthday Bunting in the Winter Sun

Birthday Bunting in the Winter Sun

Do you have a favorite alternative to balloons? Please share your tips and ideas – We’re always up for more festivity, light on the plastic.

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Berry Thoughts

First Raspberries of 2012

There are a few things that balance out our traditionally gray, wet early summers here. One of them is the giddy jolt of pure joy we all get when the sun finally comes out and another is the berries. Strawberries, raspberries, salmon berries, thimble berries, red huckleberries, evergreen huckleberries, blackcap raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, salal berries, gooseberries, loganberries, marionberries, boysenberries: I’ve picked all of these, some native and wild, some cultivated, and I love them all. I think thimbleberries might be my favorite wild berry, while the runty, wrinkled strawberries that hide below the jumbos on my June bearing plants might be my favorite cultivated berry (I swear the little ugly ones are the sweetest).

Sweet Strawberry Runt

The island I grew up on, and where my own kids are growing up now, has rich berry juice in its historical blood. The strawberry economy’s glory days were over by the time I was born, but there were some of my neighbors sill made their living from berry farms. Even where the farms had disappeared, there were old furrows and surviving strawberry plants hidden under the tall grass that had turned to pasture or future home lots. Our rival school from the nearby fishing town with Norwegian heritage still taunted us as “berry pickers” (we called them “fish heads” in return).

Berries and Borage Flowers

Strawberries and raspberries have always been tied in my mind to the Japanese American community here, and to the internment of Japanese American citizens during WWII. On March 30th, 1942, our island was the first community where Americans were removed from their homes to be held against their will in Manzanar. Only about half of the people who were forced off the island were able to return to their homes after the war.

Bainbridge Island Strawberries

One of them was our closest neighbor. My childhood bedroom window looked out on the strawberry and raspberry fields of an amazing woman, Shigeko Kitamoto. During the war, while Shigeko and her children were being held in Manzanar and then Minidoka, their home was protected and their land farmed by Felix Narte, a Filipino American friend and neighbor. His loyalty and hard work made it possible for Shigeko and her family to return to their fertile land and rightful home.

Picking Raspberries, 2012

Picking Shigeko’s berries was my first paying job (I made half the usual rate for my flats, fair enough since my kindergarten hands filled the containers about that full). She irrigated her rows and rows of fruit with a series of open trenches, releasing water into the field in the evenings. The music of that water bouncing along the rocky glacial till that covers this island was my childhood summer lullaby. I walked to the bus stop through her berry rows, past Shigeko and Felix, still working together all those years after the war. On the weekends, my sister and I walked through the woods on the other side of our home to the ruins of Bainbridge Gardens, where the skeletons of the greenhouses and the old store were  filled with blackberry vines. The berries that remained and the berries that had been lost with farms, homes, and businesses, they made this unjust upheaval concrete to my little girl brain and body. Berries meant sustenance, loss, friendship, community, history, injustice, the triumph of hard work and perseverance, sweetness and home.

Raspberry Sisters, 1979

My family had our own field of berries, about 1/2 acre of raspberries and strawberries, farmed by a neighbor or ours. Sam had them most delightful voice and infectious laugh, and grew berries in our field to support his family; in return for the use of the land, we got to pick and eat our fill. This abundance of berries felt like the best sort of wealth to me, even when I was complaining about our daily berry picking chore. My grandparents drove up from San Francisco almost every summer, timing their visit to match peak raspberry season. They’d call each week for a berry report and started driving when the berries were finally just starting to turn red. They’d arrive with the first flush of fruit, and my grandfather would fill bag after bag, humming while he picked, until every inch of their motorhome’s freezer was packed tight.

Raspberry Sisters, 2010

Shigeko’s field is now a Christmas tree farm turned forest (she switched to trees as she grew older and farmed to the end of her life). My family’s field of berries is now a community garden my parents created during our current Great Recession to provide growing space for the local food bank and people interested in feeding their families fresh produce. My dad put in a few long rows of strawberries and raspberries, just a tiny fragment of what used to cover the entire area, but enough to keep my berry-hungry extended family happy – Sadly, this takes fewer berries now that we don’t have my grandparents to share them with any more.

Backyard Raspberry Stand

My daughters and I have our own backyard beds of raspberries and strawberries, too, enough to grow all we can eat with full bowls left over to share with friends and freeze for the winter. Berries are one thing we never, ever buy from a store. If we can’t grow it or forage for it, we trade with friends or visit a local u-pick. Berries from this island have their own terroir, and imports just don’t taste right to me.

First Strawberries of 2011

It’s been my family’s tradition to photograph children with the first berry harvest each year and I make my girls pose for this annual shot. Then we sing the Shehechiyanu together before we eat those very first ripe berries, the beautiful red juicy gems that ooze the essence of early summer, family, community, and home.

First Strawberry of 2013

First Strawberry of 2013

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Haiku – 17th July 2013

my vampiric glow
empties the pool of strangers
thank you, zinc sunscreen

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Haiku – 16th July 2013

some people work hard 
on vacations at full speed 
I’m just sitting here

Wapato Point photo © Rebecca Rockefeller

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Haiku – 9th July 2013

this year I will eat
artichokes from my garden
before they explode
backyard artichokes photo © Rebecca Rockefeller

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Agua de Sandia

Agua de Sandia

Agua de Sandia

Watermelon Water is a Perfect Summer Drink

This drink is one of many possible varieties of Agua Fresca, and it’s an easy one to make as watermelon is already mostly water just waiting to be slurped up. When we have a watermelon sliced open that we can’t eat before it starts to ferment or attract fruit flies, I puree it up and turn it into a drink we can keep for days it the fridge. This is the liquid soul of watermelon, one of the tastes that defines summer for me.

  • 1 seedless watermelon – you can use a regular seeded watermelon; either seed it or ignore the pureed seeds that will sink to the bottom in the end
  • water
  • sugar or other sweetener to taste (honey is lovely) – and some people don’t add any sweetener at all
  • lime juice to taste
  1. Cut the watermelon flesh away from the rind.
  2. Puree in small batches in your blender or food processor (or mash it by hand if you’re going appliance-free)
  3. Strain the puree through a piece of cheesecloth and collect strained juice in a large jar or pitcher
  4. Add fresh water to taste. You’re going for a balance between watermelon flavor and the pure refreshing qualities of water; too much juice is cloying, too much water is boring. I like just a bit more juice than water, but adjust to your own taste.
  5. Add sweetener and lime juice to taste. Stir well to dissolve all sweetener before testing for flavor.
  6. Chill well.
  7. Drink.
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Haiku – 6th July 2013

up too late again
drinking pink agua fresca
floor sticky with pulp

watermelon agua fresca photo © Rebecca Rockefeller

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Happy 4th of July!

May we be the compassionate and engaged citizens our experiment in democracy requires and deserves.

red, white, and blue from the garden photo © Rebecca Rockefeller