Monday, December 27, 2010

A Solemn Vow, in Front of Witnesses

I was given some cash for Christmas, and with it I bought my heart's desire (or at least one of them - there are many): a pair of Felcos.  My history with hand pruners is not good.  Knowing myself as I do, I generally buy cheap pruners, anticipating that their life span will be less than a year.  They will either be lost behind a shrub, rusted shut after being left to fend for themselves in the rain, or hopelessly dulled through misuse and abuse.  Most likely all three.  But this year - oh, this year!  I will be good.  So very very good.  It is the new year, and all things are possible.

And so I vow that this year I will:
  1. Bring my pruners inside every day, and not leave them all alone outside perched on top of a fence post.
  2. Cease cutting wire with my pruners because I am too lazy to go inside to get wire cutters.
  3. Use a pruning saw to cut tree limbs, rather than mashing said limb into my pruners and forcing the blades shut between my elbow and thigh.
  4. Refrain from cutting nefarious woody weeds below the soil line with my pruners.  I shall employ a garden fork to elevate the buggers and then behead them.
  5. Refuse to use my pruners for any non-gardening tasks, such as snipping the rage-inducing plastic ties that hold plastic toys to their plastic packaging.
  6. Clean the dirt and bits of greenery from my pruners on occasion.  Promising to oil them regularly and disinfect them between cuts on a rose is going too far.
  7. Use my pruners gently, love them tenderly, and resist the temptations of pruner abuse.
 These things I solemnly vow, at least for the time time being.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Consolations of Winter

We have woken up to snow three mornings in a row, and the ground is frozen solid.  But there are amaryllis, and cyclamen, and there will be narcissus in a few weeks.  And the true consolations of a winter gardener - a fire, a cup of coffee, and a pile of gardening books - are already doing their comforting work.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Sleepless in Suburbia

I don't sleep well anymore.  It could be the child, or the age, or the lack of exercise, but whatever mix of brain chemistry and midnight visits from a small boy in footie PJ's is to blame, insomnia is a frequent bedfellow. My sleepless nights are often the same: I lay in bed for hours, right on the cusp of sleep, with my brain circling obsessively around a problem (usually one that is non-existent in daylight hours, sometimes one that is actually a product of a dream), never quite getting a hold of it.  On those nights, I need something real, something solvable, to whack my brain out of its circular rut and into a path that might lead to sleep.


Nothing much is fail safe when it comes to insomnia, but gardening actually works better than Benadryl, my other midnight friend.  No, I don't go outside and dig in my nightgown.  I lay in bed and plan.  Scheme.  Rip out beds, replant them with fabulously expensive drifts of tree peonies.  Buy the house next door (the boarding house, not our nice neighbors), knock it down, and make a market garden in their yard that allows me to quit my job and live on fennel and peas.  Last night I planned a way to connect the house to the back garden by taking off the railing of the deck and building terraces from the top of the deck to the lawn below.  Its doable.  It did it last night, in the wee hours of the morning, and didn't even break a sweat.  I did it in my sleep.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Rome wasn't built in a day...

...but I'm not that ambitious.  I like things that can be built in a day, or an hour and a half, like this little structure.  I'm not sure if it would be classified as a pergola, a trellis, or garden junk, but here it is.  I plan to grow vines on it come spring, either sweet peas or cukes or purple hyacinth beans.  We'll see.  Meanwhile, it was a good way to spend a nice November afternoon, working off some Thanksgiving pecan pie.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

My Child Laborer

Noah loves raspberries, and so it seems only fair that he help me plant our newly arrived brambles.  We planted twelve Caroline red raspberries in two rows in the patch of dirt just to the left of Noah - or rather, I dug and placed and backfilled while Noah did things like squeal "a worm! ahhhhhhh!!!"  I'll make a gardener of him, someday.

The reason for the new plants is the demise of the old.  They got some sort of unidentified disease last summer that killed a few plants and made the rest pretty sad looking and unproductive.  I've grubbed most of those out, and will grub out the rest when they come up in the spring.  Perversely, the remaining plants look quite good right now, and are producing a bit, making it very hard to hold to my resolution to take them out.  The buggers are diseased - but do I have the heart to euthanize them?

Monday, November 15, 2010

Of Roses and Buttercream

I still think of November as a barren time, a month of jackets and the hiss of dry leaves skittering across frozen roads.  But that was almost half a lifetime ago for me, in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.  In Maryland, November is still a time of roses.  November is also my sister in law's birthday (this one a momentous round number) and so I made a cake for her party:
It is almond cake with buttercream and raspberry filling, an attempted reproduction of Grant and my wedding cake, which stands out in my memory as the Cake of All Cakes, the Ur cake, the Platonic Ideal of Cakeness.  Not just because it was our wedding cake, and I remember the day fondly - it was a damn good cake.  An aside here that has nothing to do with my point, which I will get to, which really is about gardening: I used Alice Waters' recipe for almond cake this time, and it was less good than the last recipe I used for almond cake for my brother Nate's birthday.  That one I found on Epicurious, and it had a higher almond past to flour and butter ratio.

To my point: Kyle's cake is decorated with roses and sprays of raspberry leaves and unripe fruit.  In November.  I did not have to scrounge for the roses, or protect them for a week in hopes the tender buds would not get blasted.  I simply went into the garden on Saturday morning with my pruners, and cut some roses and raspberry sprays.  And Grant and I still talk about the year we picked tomatoes in his garden in a Baltimore row house the day after Christmas.  This all feels deeply weird to me, wrong, and far from my New England roots.  But...there are roses on the cake, and herbs in my cooking, and a couple of leeks yet to be eaten in the garden.  Maybe ten years of living in Maryland are simply not enough to accept that this gift of an extra month of garden harvest is for real.  I'll have to try another ten.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Houseplant Redemption

My mom used to send underperforming houseplants to the cellar to die.  Occasionally one came back from that purgatory, but rarely.  Usually they were composted after they had breathed their last down in the dark.  I always wondered why she did that, rather than just tossing the runts out into the snow, where their demise would at least be swift.  Now I realize it was really about hope: every plant is a living thing, even the dreadfully ugly ones, and they deserve a shot at bootstrap redemption.  And so they were sent to the basement to think about their sins and repent and reform, if they could. 

Last December I bought a small Christmas cactus to lighten up the living room during the holidays.  It bloomed, and then I forgot about it.  After languishing in some corner during February and March, I stuck it outside on the front porch to fend for itself, the brutal Maryland summer my own personal version of cellar banishment. 

When frost threatened a couple of weeks ago I went out to the porch to see what was salvageable.  I picked up the cactus, thinking at least the nice pot should not be exposed to the freeze and crack.  And lo and behold...the cactus was alive, and had flower buds.  Redemption.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Eating Cardoons

There was frost last night, and so the time had come for the cardoons to come down.  
After their nap under a paper blanket they were pale and celery like, and covered with sow bugs and slugs.  Not terribly appetizing.  I brought them inside and consulted Alice Waters, who told me to wash them, cut them into three-inch lengths, simmer them for 45 minutes, and then make a gratin with them (cream, salt and pepper, cheese).  She also said that young, tender stalks could be eaten raw.  I tried a white young thing - and spat it out.  It tasted like an aged dandelion.  I went on (doubtfully) with the recipe.  The moment the water with the cardoons began to simmer, the house was infused with the smell of...artichokes.  Amazing.

This was the resulting dinner:
The gratin is hard to see, on the left, eaten with steak and oven fries.  The gratin was quite good, with a distinct artichoke flavor, but still with a bitter hit that made it interesting.  I'm not sure cardoons would ever make it onto my weekly vegetable rotation, which is all to the good, seeing as getting them onto a plate has been a six month project.

Next year?  Maybe.

Fall Planting

One head of garlic, from One Straw Farm in Baltimore, via my CSA at Gorman Farm, to turn into eight heads of garlic in my garden come spring, I hope.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A New Fruit

I have long desired to grow currants.  Not because of any virtue of the fruits, that I know of first hand - I have never eaten a currant, fresh or jellied.  What you buy in the grocery labeled "currant" is actually a little raisin.  But I have read of currants, and all the descriptions use adjectives such as "gem-like" and "jewel-colored."  For a few years I have stared at one ugly spot in the back of my garden, envisioning a line of currants there:
Can you see it?  In five years or so a wonderful hedge will hide the decrepit back fence and the compost pile, and that hedge will bear gem-like fruit in jewel tones.  Or it is so in my dreams, at least.  If you look closely, you can see the currant babies, three of them (two red, one white, no further detail given), planted just at the shade line inside the vegetable garden, snuggling with the yet-to-be eaten cardoon.

Up close they are scraggly looking things.
That's the pull of gardening, really - the hope that somehow this ugly slip will grow and bear magical fruit.  It's every fairy tale ever told.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Small is Beautiful

My garden ideal is partly formed by my infatuation with Victorian chick lit and a couple of trips to Italy - not exactly attainable ideals - but is most shaped by the most beautiful garden I've ever known: my mom's.  Over decades my parents turned their average suburban acre at the base of a gentle, boulder strewn hill into the kind of garden that ends up in garden books.  There were perennial beds and shrub boarders and a woodland walk and a formal potager. The last year they lived there, my little son leaped off the stone wall, hid behind old trees, and ran laps on the lawn, and I was reminded how wonderful the place was for kids.  But it wasn't wonderful for people on the cusp of retirement, particularly when the snow fell and the walk needed shoveling.  So they moved, and we all grieved the loss of the garden and house we loved.

My parents are now living a hipster life in Providence (at least it seems a hipster life to me, suburban mom that I am) and they have built a new garden completely different from the old, but I think just as beautiful.  They have two gardens, or maybe even three, depending upon how one counts gardens.  The photo above is of the balcony garden, always blooming, always lush, and always visible through the living room, dining room, and study.  I don't think many gardens have as much impact on the inside of a house as this new, tiny gem does on my parent's place.

Mom's second and third gardens are allotments in the community garden down the street, where my parents are growing, among the tomatoes and lettuce, dahlias:
I think mom grows as much food and many more flowers in her tiny gardens than I do on my bigger one.  I've always learned from my mom's gardening, and I think I imagined that somehow I would cease learning when she gave up her large garden.  I haven't though - her garden keeps growing, she keeps teaching, and I keep learning.  What I've learned this past year, watching Mom, is humbling stuff: how a master gardener like her really is in a different league than a beginner like me; that community gardening is a soul enriching thing; and that small is truly and utterly beautiful.  Of course I still miss the old garden, and I know she does, too.  We'll probably all miss it forever, in the way I miss my grandmother who died not long ago - with a mix of sadness and sweetness and love.  The new gardens, though, are offshoots of the old, just as my son is an offshoot of the great grandmother he never knew - generations unceasing, watered with love.

Monday, October 11, 2010

When Pirates Invade the Garden

On Saturday, at about 10:30am, pirates overran the garden.  They pilaged, drank grog, and swashbuckled in celebration of Noah's fourth birthday.  A small exemplar of the species piratus preschoolerus:

As these little brigands ran through the lawn, and searched the rosemary and miscanthus for chocolate treasure, I thought: this is why I have a garden.  Most days I want a garden for the beauty, for the food, for the pure pleasure of dirt.  But really, I want a garden that little people can poke in, discover in, get dirty in.  A place where parents of the little mischief makers can sit and chat and watch them as they imagine the playhouse into a ship on a tossing sea.  I'm finding that a garden like that - a place for kids to play widly, and for parents to commune, and for me to grow food - can exist, but it takes more work than would a garden that must serve only one purpose, either food or beauty or play.  My garden cannot be completely utilitarian, because I cannot leave the garden fork where it might put out small eyes, or where rows of leeks take over the baseball field, such as it is.  It cannot be given over entirely to play, because I would grieve.  And I've never considered having a garden that was just about beauty, primarily because I'd never achieve it.  For me and my garden, balancing food, beauty, and play means an uneasy, and not always lovely, give and take.  Two weekends ago food took a bit more lawn, as I dug up a chunk for new raspberry bushes.  But last weekend play won, the pirates descended, and as I drank my grog I couldn't have wished for a better garden.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Have Blanched Your Cardoon Today?

This, dear readers, is a cardoon.  It is, they tell me, edible, although I have never tried one.  I bought this plant at Colonial Williamsburg as a tiny potted seedling after reading some lovely coffee table book on ornamental vegetable gardening which said something about cardoons offering wonderful vertical elements to the potager.  The book forgot to mention that you must do this to your cardoon before you may eat it:

Blanching.  I have never blanched a plant, as I think it may be a violation of some international treaty for the treatment of captive plants.  It at least sounds like something I would do in a kitchen or that some fainting maiden would do when confronted with a rapacious villian.  But a cardoon is no fainting maiden - they are spiny, spikey, thistley plants that can hold their own.  I planted my cardoon among the strawberries and chives after both were past, and it shot up and out, four feet tall and five feet wide, and then in August threw out spectacular purple thistle flowers.  If a cardoon were an artichoke, which it almost is, you would eat the thistle heads, which would have been comparatively easy.  Instead, you eat the stalks, and the flowers actually indicate (I found out too late) that you have watied too long to eat your cardoon.

Sadly, I cut down my cardoon two weeks ago, put its dried thistles in a vase and the stalks the compost heap.  And there beneath the severed stalk was a cluster of small cardoonlets.  I have no idea if they are seedlings, offsets, rogue stalks, or what, but as they began to shoot up and out I figured I'd try to blanche and eat them.

Just before the first frost (or in three weeks, whichever comes first) I will free my captive cardoons, cut them down, and eat them.  They better be tasty.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

My Personal Bull in a China Shop

Otis, dearest of dogs, darling slobbery galumphing beast.  There are a few things that are incompatible with gardening, I think: laziness, August afternoons in Maryland, and boxers.

When we got Otis, and he promptly romped through my strawberry bed and trashed the peonies, I bought a book about melding dog and garden.  I read it desperately, and found the main message was: make peace with dog paths, wire fences, and scooping poo.  And so it has been with with Otis and the garden.  What are some of my grudging concessions to my slobbering beast?

The white wire fence behind Otis in the photo is not my style - but it keeps Otis out of the sedum and nicotiana.  

Down at the bottom of the garden, underneath a holly tree, is a broken chimenea, sunk deep into the ground, where we toss Otis' double daily offering to the compost gods.

The vegetable garden is surrounded by low lattice fence, with chicken wire gates, and I occasionally must scoop poop out of my vegetable plants, after Otis has made a comando raid into the forbidden zone.

Grass.  Ah, the grass!  We live with whatever low green stuff will grow in our back yard with the treatment it receives from the dog, the child, the indifferent mowing, and lack of fertilizer.  I blame the whole condition of the lawn on Otis, though, because it is convenient.

All of this said...there are moments when dog and garden are in perfect harmony, like the other day when I found Otis rolling in the mint, his legs in the air, flews hanging open exposing his fangs, snorting.  The mint didn't care and Otis was blissful.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Portrait of a Fruitful Afternoon


Two bushels of tomatoes plus three friends and five hours equals a lot of really good sauce.

The tomatoes:

The process:

One tenth of the result:

Okay, so in reality those lovely roasting tomatoes went into freezer bags, but freezer bags aren't as photogenic as Ball jars.  The sauce was straight up tomatoes, bay leaf, and a sprinkle of oregano.  We made some canned whole tomatoes, too, but those are most definitely not photogenic, as the tomatoes tend to float up and leave the nether regions naked.  Too indecent for a family blog.

The tomatoes came from the farm where we get our CSA, Gorman Farm, and they were just beautiful and tasty.  I think I will give up on growing my own tomatoes next year, because I get blight so badly, and because my CSA really does supply most of my tomato needs.  But how can I not grow tomatoes?  A garden without tomatoes is like a...harumph.  There is no parallel.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Purple Haze

Purple hyacinth beans are my garden's little freebie to me, a September gift that always arrives despite my yearly fears that this year the beans will fail.  I planted them the first year or two, six or seven years ago now, and since then the steady rain of dried beans that falls from the porch where they grow onto a pretty vagrant piece of land below has resulted in this bit of garden grace. 

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Of Figs and Fantasy

I've always wanted a walled garden, with high brick walls covered with espalier apples and beds edged in rosemary in which I could walk gravel paths, basket on arm, harvesting figs and roses.   Instead, I have a suburban lot fenced with chain link with unruly fruit trees and rosemary that rarely survives the winter.  I do have my own sweet version of that fantasy, though, with a Brown Turkey fig tree that screens the neighboring house while bearing prolifically and a pergola over the front porch hung with New Dawn roses.  Reality is messier than fantasy - but at least you can eat it.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Zucchino Rampicante On A Bench

What do gardeners do in the winter?

It is September, the leaves on the fig tree are yellowing, and I've pulled the squash vines running rampant through the strawberry patch.  What do a garderner's thoughts turn to in the fall?  Reading about gardening, of course, and taking stock of the growing year gone by. Rather than using my trusty black and white marble cover notebook this year, I am going to try to overcome my troglodyte nature and write on line, instead.  Using a blog has one distinct advantage I can think of: photos.  I am too lazy to take photos, upload them to a photo sharing site, then order the prints and put them in my garden book.  It just doesn't get done.  So I will try doing what comes easiest - snapping a photo with my blackberry and emailing it to myself, then posting it when I have time.  Hopefully it will help me remember that the combination of phlox, iris, and Chinese red noodle beans was surprisingly beautiful, but that there was nothing but weeds in the patch where I thought the blueberry bush would thrive.  Hopefully, it will help me make fewer of the same mistakes over and over again.  The problem, I understand, is that the mistakes are the most fun, and so I'm likely to make them again next year, beauty be damned.