Saturday, July 30, 2011

2011 California State Fair

The biggest spectacle in the Sacramento area summer calendar is the California State Fair. It’s always at the hottest time of the year, so sweating is as much part of it as the livestock and agricultural exhibits, the bad-for-you food, and the raucous and tacky midway.

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Golden bear at entrance to Cal Expo

We went on Friday because the Cal Expo fairgrounds, home of the California State Fair, opens early at 10am. This allowed us to do the outside exhibits before the sun got too hot. We started with the farm animals—horses, pigs, sheep, cows, etc.—and it’s easy losing track of time as you watch sheep being shorn, llamas paraded around the ring like dogs at a dog show, pigs snoozing in the heat, and similar vignettes of livestock bliss. However, when a miniature horse started to nibble on my younger daughter’s shirt and got a piece of skin in the process, it was time to saunter on.

As usual, one of the highpoints for me proved to be the Farm, a living exhibit chock full of farm crops and vegetables. Because spring this year was longer and cooler than usual, things aren’t as far along as they normally would be at the end of July. I didn’t see any ripe tomatoes or corn, and the patches of pumpkin and squash were still mostly flowers. Still, I couldn’t help but admire—and envy—the lush and dense plantings. I have no idea idea how heavily they are fertilized, but they must get pampered an awful lot.

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Pumpkin blossom
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Baby pumpkin
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Gold Rush zucchini
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Cloud Nine eggplant
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Hydroponic lettuce
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Hydroponic lettuce

Considering that rice is an important commercial crop in California, I was happy to see a miniature rice field complete with a levy. The larger section was still green, while the smaller section (on the left in the photo below) had already started to set seeds.

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Miniature rice paddy
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Rice seeds

Another larger demonstration field was dedicated to milo, or grain sorghum. In the U.S., milo is mostly grown as livestock feed and to make syrup, while in Asia and Africa it’s a dietary staple for humans. In fact, milo is the third most important food crop worldwide, according to an interpretive sign.

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Milo

Floral displays were found everywhere, and I noticed that some of them included vegetables and cereal grasses, like corn in the following photo. I thought that was a nice touch for a fair that has such a long agricultural tradition (the first California State Fair was held in 1854 to share knowledge among farmers and ranchers).

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Corn among annuals and perennials

As in previous years, the grass-covered truck and tractor were back. Unfortunately, they didn’t look as nice as they might have when the Fair opened a couple of weeks ago. I don’t know how often they get watered, but it looks like it isn’t quite often enough. Still, it’s fun seeing an entire vehicle covered in grass like giant Chia Pet.

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Grass-covered tractor

Water conservation and water-wise gardening were major topics this year. This is an issue that is dear to my heart, and I was happy to see displays of drought-tolerant perennials such as black-eyed susan, Russian sage, lamb’s ear, lantana, and the like. Even more exciting was seeing monarch butterflies visiting the flowers. People may walk by a bed of beautiful flowers without a second glance, but butterflies never fail to get them to stop and take a second look.

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Irish Eyes rudbeckia (Rudbeckia hirta ‘Irish Eyes’) against California fan palm
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Regular black-eyed susans (Rudbeckia hirta)  and Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia)
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Monarch butterfly on black-eyed susan
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Monarch butterfly on black-eyed susan

In addition to American natives, drought-tolerant plants from Australia and South Africa—countries with climates similar to ours—were on display in the Save Our Water demonstration garden. Kangaroo paws were everywhere. Landscape designers have clearly discovered their structural elegance.

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Kangaroo paw (Anigozanthos sp.)

As we were walking around the fairgrounds, my bamboo radar was in full gear, but there wasn’t much as bamboo in evidence as I had hoped. My first sighting was in the ghastly Big Bugs exhibit—giant robotic insects inside a dimly light tent that only young kids could get excited about. At the exit there were two pots of black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra) that I’m sure were waiting for the Fair to end so they could see daylight again.

The most prominent bamboo I saw was a fairly mature clump of Bambusa oldhamii at the edge of the Farm. It was underplanted with various kinds of tropicals, such as elephant ears and coleus. The result was a rather lush oasis. I can’t wait for our own Bambusa oldhamii to get to this size!

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The other bamboos I spotted were in the Kangaroo Joey’s Big Adventure exhibit. While my family was looking at the animals (young kangaroos, hedgehogs, porcupines, pythons, etc.), I was checking out the plantings.

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Juvenile Bambusa oldhamii
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Unknown bamboo next to faux buddha
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Mexican weeping bamboo (Otatea acuminata var. aztecorum) growing like a lacy grass among tropical foliage plants

After being outside in the heat for a few hours, we finally took refuge inside the air-conditioned halls. While they often verge on the tacky, I enjoy looking at the county exhibits where each county gets to design their own space. Our county, Yolo, had this year’s winning booth. Out of patriotic pride, here’s a photo of it (although my personal favorite was Placer County, but don’t tell anyone).

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Yolo County exhibit

As the kids were looking at bunnies, chickens and the like, I dashed into the fine arts pavilion next door. I love seeing the creativity displayed by mostly unknown artists, and this year had some strong pieces as well, including a giant metal shade structure (Whale of a Good Time by Terrence Martin from West Sacramento).

After the equivalent of six Red Bull’s worth of fine arts, I felt creatively inspired and snapped this photo as we were heading towards the exit. Maybe I will enter it in next year’s Fair!

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Lantern reflection

This year the California State Fair runs from July 14-31. If you want to go, you’d better hurry since Saturday and Sunday are the last couple of days.

Friday, July 29, 2011

I wish I were in Cornwall

As we’re hurtling once again towards 100°F (38°C) and my desire to work in the garden is wilting with the climb of the thermometer, I’m beset with a strange longing to go back to Cornwall where surely the likes of 100°F have never been seen. As if I needed another reminded that I’m inextricably mired in middle age, I was taken aback a bit when I realized that our visit to Cornwall was seven years ago. My memories of that trip are very vivid; I remember walking down the country lane shown in the first photo bundled up in a sweater at the end of June. Surely the sun must have been out a time or two, but what has stuck in my mind all this time are the glorious gray skies of the south of England. Here in California, we have blue skies for months on end, and I tell you, they’re not that exciting. Give me clouds and a drizzle any day! (Come December, I will regret saying these words, but that’s how I feel right now.)

This post isn’t about specific plants and it doesn’t contain any gardening tips. Instead, it is about a place where everything seems to grow of its own accord—willingly and vigorously, without the constant nudging and nurturing plants often seem to require in our parched Mediterranean climate. There is green everywhere, and every plant seems to be desirable rather than a weed. I know this isn’t really true, but in my somewhat overheated mind, it’s what I’m clinging to.

So, come along on this trip to the southwest of England. Most photos were taken in Cornwall, and some in Devon and Wiltshire.

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Thursday, July 28, 2011

Elderberry buckle, anyone?

Earlier in the month, I blogged about the blue elderberry bushes (Sambucus cerulea) growing near our house (click here to read that post). At that time they were just starting to ripen. Now they are at their peak.

These elderberries ripen in waves so the harvest season extends over quite a few weeks. The other day my mother, who is here for a longer visit, came home from her morning walk with a 3-gallon bucket full of berries. She then painstakingly stripped the berries from the stems and we ended up with a big batch of fruit—plump, juicy, and mouthwateringly tart.

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Bucket full of blue elderberries
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Close-up, these elderberries look remarkably like blueberries…
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…although they’re much smaller and taste nothing like blueberries
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Stripping the berries off the stems is the most tedious part

My wife froze most the berries for use later in the year, and from the rest she made a buckle. If you have no clue what a buckle is, don’t feel bad. I didn’t either. A buckle is an old-fashioned baked desert consisting of a layer of cake batter at the bottom, heaped with fruit and sometimes topped with streusel. Buckles are particularly popular in New England and are typically made with blueberries although any berry works. As the cake batter rises during baking, it pushes the fruit up, causing the streusel topping to “buckle,” hence the name.

The recipe my wife used came from Allrecipes.com, and it omits the streusel topping. We prefer this version because it’s less sweet and allows the fruit to take center stage.

Elderberries are quite sour even when ripe and have a slight note of astringency and bitterness, which I’m very fond of. They bake beautifully, retaining their shape while releasing their juice which then combines with the sugar that was added to the berries. The result is a unique flavor unlike any other fruit. I’ve had elderberries in a pie, crisp, and now buckle, and I’ve loved all of them. Other great uses are jams and syrups, which due to inherent acidity of the fruit end up being nicely balanced.

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Elderberry buckle (sans streusel topping)

“Our” elderberry species (Sambucus cerulea; sometimes referenced as Sambucus mexicana) is native to the Western United States and Mexico and produces fruit covered with a pale blue powder. That powder, called “bloom” or “glaucescence” by botanists, is the reason why the berries look so much like small blueberries. Underneath, the fruit is the same blackish purple color as other elderberry species. Sambucus cerulea is reputed to have the best tasting berries of all, and I agree.

If you ever have the chance to try something made from these wonderful berries (dessert, jam, etc.), don’t miss it. As for us, we’re already planning another harvesting expedition on the weekend!