Making Preserves Can be a Fun Family Project

Tallahassee Democrat, Thanksgiving Day 2009

My earliest memory of picking berries, at about the age of 6, is of a blueberry patch on a hot summer day near Woodville. I enjoyed the experience immensely. But for some reason, I wasn’t allowed to go on the next weekend trip to pick berries. Maybe it was because I had complained about the yellow flies, horse flies or redbugs. Or maybe it was because of the tick that had to be removed from a location I would rather not discuss. It was removed using the hot cigarette method, designed to make the tick think there was a forest fire and that he should back out of his own accord. Anyway, desperately wanting to go on the return berry-picking trip, I ran down Alachua Avenue after my parent’s DeSoto bawling. I guess I loved to pick berries, blue and black.

As a senior in college, I sometimes found picking blackberries at UF’s experimental forest to be more fun than studying. That same year was the first time I made jelly, from elderberries picked along US-19 near Perry.

Two years ago the mulberry trees at McCord Park in Betton Hills had an abundance of fruit. My college-age daughter and I went daily to pick as the fruit ripened, carrying a step ladder to reach the high fruit. I think the tall weeds under the trees kept neighbors fearful of snakes and away from “my” tree, and that was a good thing. We ended up with three batches of mulberry preserves, about 21 half-pint jars. Delicious! This year, however, these trees offered nothing. I’ll be watching next summer.

Mulberry, blackberry and blueberry are great for making preserves because there is no preparation of the fruit. Just cook add sugar and stir. I follow the recipe on the Sure-jell package. This summer my son and I spent a nice afternoon together washing jars and lids, smelling blueberries cooking, sealing them tightly and then boxing some up to send to his lonely sister in northern Minnesota.

Chickasaw plum also makes delicious preserves, though it is a tedious process to get the pit out of the small ½- to ¾-inch fruit. There is a row of Chickasaw plum trees on Centerville Road between Capital Circle and Potts Road that were loaded with fruit this summer. I saw a family picking them, but I didn’t pick there because of a concern about pollution in the fruit from car fumes. I guess that worries me more than snakes. We planted a Chickasaw plum in our yard; some years are banner years and others we get very little fruit.

The other fruits I like to use are muscadine grapes picked at Monticello Vineyards and kumquats from my own tree. Like the Chickasaw plums, these involve an hour or so of time to pick out seeds. If you make grape jelly you won’t have to pick out seeds since you merely strain all solids, but I prefer preserves with chunks of fruit. You probably can’t convince your teenage kids to pick seeds for you, but if you do the prep work, I bet they would like to see and smell the simple process of making homemade preserves. It is a basic lesson in where our food really comes from.

Anyone of any age would like to pull a jar of blueberry preserves out of the pantry in January to savor the sweet tastes of the summer past. For me there is no better Christmas gift than homemade preserves, except maybe my son’s chocolate truffles!

Pollinator Insects are Beautiful as They Buzz in the Garden

The Natural Garden, Eastside Chronicle, Tallahassee Democrat 8/13/09

In the heat of the day, I ambled around our front yard. It is alive with bees and butterflies. On a summer day, observing these beautiful insects is just a pleasant interlude between thunderstorms, but in reality, the survival of the human race depends on these little insects and their brethren for their pollination services.

The insects’ favorite plants in our yard that are blooming now are African blue basil, pentas, Mexican sunflower, dwarf ironweed and Agastache ‘Blue Fortune’. The flowers of purple coneflower are beginning to fade, but on the few new flowers, bees visit regularly. There are even bees and occasional butterflies nectaring on the white flowers of the garlic chives.

It is fun to position myself right in the thick of things and take notes on who is visiting what. During my ten minute walk about, I watched a hummingbird work the deeper flowers of the dark blue Salvia guaranitica, red shrimp plant, orange firebush and red cigarette plant, but also visit popular butterfly plants like pentas and Mexican sunflower.

The tall, bright orange Mexican sunflower attracted zebra longwings, lots of Gulf fritillaries and a couple of giant swallowtails. Big lumbering bumblebees were abundant on the African blue basil, the Agastache and the tall growing pink pentas grown by O’Toole’s Herb Farm.

The hot spot during this particular ten minutes was the dwarf ironweed, a North Florida native wildflower. Its pretty purple flowers were absolutely loaded with pollinators – metallic green sweat bees, yellow and black sweat bees, large bees with yellow and black striped abdomens, honeybees, skippers and some other small butterflies that I could not identify.

If you want to create a haven for pollinators, be selective when you choose perennials and other plants for your yard. Most need a fairly sunny spot to thrive with good organic soil that drains nicely. I learned recently at a seminar by Julie Neel, an experienced butterfly gardener and naturalist from Thomasville, that more nectar is produced while sunlight is shining upon the flowers so the pollinators seem to follow the sunlight through the garden.

When Jody and I walk about our yard on a hot, sunny day admiring the beauty of the flowers and insects, we feel greatly rewarded for our efforts in transforming this yard from an unproductive average lawn to a refuge teaming with pollinators and other wildlife. It didn’t happen over night; it has been a seventeen year transformation and happened one plant at a time. You can do it, too!

Luna Moths

The Natural Garden, Eastside Chronicle, Tallahassee Democrat 4/27/09

On March 13th Linda Mills and her granddaughter, Brayden, brought a female luna moth to show us. They had observed luna moths mating, but the next morning found the female on the ground with a damaged wing. Linda lifted the moth and placed her carefully in a shoe box where she began laying a hundred or more eggs. When employee Lilly Anderson-Messec held the luna moth in her palm, she called out with excitement, “Look, she is laying eggs on my hand!” Linda and Brayden graciously shared the eggs with us.

The luna moth, had she been able to fly, would have laid her eggs on sweetgum, hickory, walnut or birch leaves and the life cycle of this gorgeous moth would have taken place high in a tree, unnoticed by people. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to watch the proceedings up close.

The eggs began to hatch on March 23rd. I placed a dry paper towel over a damp one in the bottom of a plastic shoe box. Then I gathered a tip branch of young sweetgum leaves and brushed the tiny green caterpillars onto the leaves with a small paintbrush and then closed the lid.

I provided fresh leaves daily, after first installing clean paper towels. Caterpillars generally cling to the old leaves, so I positioned the old leaves over the new ones and let the caterpillars move on their own to the fresh leaves. Every so often I had to move a wayward caterpillar back onto the green leaves.

The caterpillars grew quickly, eating lots of sweetgum and produced more and more caterpillar frass (a nice word for caterpillar poop). I gave several caterpillars to teachers and other curious individuals to raise, keeping five for myself. By April 24th, each caterpillar had spun a cocoon pulling a leaf around it, where it will transform into a graceful, pale green luna moth, sometimes called the “Empress of the Night.”

I have learned from past experience to release the moths at night. Once I released a newly emerged luna moth during the morning. It flew into the air and was immediately captured and eaten by a red-bellied woodpecker!