Monday, October 26, 2009

October Catch Up!

October 24, 2009

Today, the weather became grayer as the day wore on. The weatherman has alerted us to the last of 70 degree temperatures, at least until Spring when the northern hemisphere will once again tilt towards the sun. Yesterday, these climatic changes lead me into the garden where I clipped a vase full of the last flowers of the season: Dahlias and Roses, American Calicarpa (purple) and Buddleia. Sitting on the dining room table, these blossoms continue to radiate the warmth of summer, holding the coolness of autumn at bay for a few extra hours. So, “Where have I been?” you ask, and rightly so. I apologize for not having made an entry since late summer. I do have what I believe are credible explanations for my absence, if you care. In August, I confess to having been slightly exhausted from our gardening efforts leading up to the Bucks Beautiful competition judging. When that was over, it was such a relief not to HAVE to pass hours each day, on ones hands and knees tearing at the pernicious roots of weeds, let alone documenting it.
Then, at the end of August, we experienced a terrible personal loss, to which we are still adjusting. In fact, it was in the early hours of September 1 – 6:30 AM – that our dear friend and fellow gardener, Deborah Gregory,  succumbed to an aggressive cancer. Even as I write these words I have a hard time accepting the reality and finality of their meaning. Deborah had such a vibrant personality, as any of her many friends would tell you! This was reflected in the plants she nurtured around her. She loved lush growth and even “lusher” efflorescence. Think towering Eupatorium, enormous Hostas or a monster Night Blooming Sirius, climbing out of its’ pot! Oh, how I remember her excitement upon arriving from Florida, as she did her first garden tour of the season, taking note of all that survived the winter.
As “Snow Birds,” - young “Snow Birds” at that – who divided their time between Bucks County and Florida, Deb and her devoted husband, Fred, often traveled with their favorite plants. This bestowed a sense of “hominess” immediately upon their arrival. These potted plantings complimented the in-ground plantings that she fretted over in each location. This past April, on her migration north, she even brought along two Oleanders, one white and one red, that I requested (for a little touch of Italy), since they are more easily (and more affordably) found in Florida’s sub-tropical greenhouses.  I had to confront her loss again recently, as the falling temperatures necessitated that these Oleanders and all of my and Debs’ tender potted plants be brought inside, or be lost to frost. To this end, Deb’s garden has been seamlessly integrated into my own. Fred has been relieved of a responsibility at a time when he is already overwhelmed, and caring for her plants is one way to honor Deb’s memory.
So it was, that I set up the basement “Limonaia” for the winter. In came the lemon tree, and the bananas, the pomegranate, and the palm. My “Vern’s Brown Turkey” fig, a potted mint (to keep it from becoming invasive) and the strawberry pots. Three varieties of pepper plants – Fish, Poblano and Peruvian Purple – were dug from their garden beds and potted up for wintering over inside. These plants have been joined by Deborah’s ferns, her Night Blooming Sirius and several specimens whose botanical identity are as yet unknown to me. I will remember her whenever I see them.
     There have been other distractions, as well. In Manhattan, in late August, there was what meteorologists call a “microburst”
storm over my neighborhood on the Upper West Side, leaving serious damage to our parks in its wake. In Riverside Park, upwards of seventy large trees were lost, and in Central Park, nearly two hundred mature trees came down, lending a denuded appearance to parts of these neighborhoods. The danger of falling branches actually caused the temporary closing of the 103rd St entrance to Riverside Park, much to Jaspers’ chagrin. For days after the storm, the sound of wood chippers devouring fallen limbs reverberated off the stately facades of Riverside Drive and Central Park West. The mountains of mulch they made still dot the local landscape. One can only hope that the lost trees will be replanted as soon as possible.
     But, not all of the experiences since my last entry have been so heart-wrenching. On October 10th, sponsored the first ever “Bee Fest,” held at Temple University’s Ambler Campus. Experienced beekeeper, Mark Antunes, who is the current president of the Montgomery County Beekeepers, acted as host and MC. He introduced presentations by a roster of speakers, including “Bee-whisperer,” Jim Bobb, president of the Pennsylvania State beekeepers Association. Jim addressed the topic of native plants and flowers available to our bees throughout the calendar year. Mike McGrath, of the NPR program “You Bet Your Garden,” spoke about natural and organic techniques for maintaining a healthy environment for the bees and their vital importance as pollinators of our food supply. A bee researcher, Maryann Tomasko Frazier, addressed the toxic effect of herbicides, pesticides and fungicides on honey bees and other pollinators. Bottom line, avoid them as much as possible!
Vendors were on hand offering everything from unfiltered, natural honey - bottled or in the comb - to specialists offering heirloom bulbs and seeds, known to appeal to bees. There was a small library’s worth of beekeeping books for sale, and some fashionable T shirts designed by members of the I believe there may be a few still available, for those who act fast. Christmas is coming!
No one who has seen this blog will be surprised to hear that I have been photographing the garden. It may however, come as a surprise to learn that I have been using my 8 X 10 Deardorff camera, and black and white film to do it. Eliminating color, one focuses on the textural relationships, organization and structure of the garden. One exchanges the “literalness” of color for the more abstract qualities of black and white imagery. This is an ongoing project, which, in time, I may mount to the internet. One of the big joys of this project has been to look at actual paper prints, rather than pixels on a screen. Nontheless, here is a digitized image from that group that I hope the viewer will enjoy.
As if these activities weren’t enough to keep me occupied, I have also given a great deal of attention to designing a garden feature for an historic property in New Jersey. While this is likely to remain an unrealized project, it is so appealing an idea to me that I have worked on writing about it as though it might actually come to fruition. The hope is that this idea may serve to inspire the imaginations of the committee that is charged with determining the property’s future. More about this, to come.
All of this, and still I found time to read parts of a charming book, French Dirt, by Richard Goodman. (Algonquin Press of Chapel Hill, 2002). In it, Mr. Goodman recalls his experiences over the course of a year, living and gardening in the South of France. I think it will appeal to gardeners and travelers, alike.
So then, that about brings things up to date, for now. Of course, there is more, there always is when one is discussing gardening, but that will do for now. Keep gardening!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The judges Decision!

as mentioned in the last post, here is the letter we received informing us of the judges decision, and one of their scoring sheets and written comments. Now, we'll be weeding more then ever!!!

Friday, July 31, 2009

Buck's (More) Beautiful

     The reader may recall from Junes’ Toonmoose blog, that the Milford Historical Society’s garden tour, in which we were invited to participate, was canceled for this year. What the June blog did not point out, was that for the second time, we would be participating in the annual Bucks’ Beautiful summer garden competition, in which we were awarded second place in the combination flower/vegetable garden category last year. Anticipating the work involved, I delayed entering until the last minute. Then, when Debbie Hays of the Central Buck’s Chamber of Commerce wrote to inform us of the garden judging schedule, the pressure was on.
So began what seemed like months (it was actually a few weeks) of frenzied scrambling around in the dirt, in positions only a yogi master could identify. It is a wonder that my poor fingers, crimped up from days of wrestling the roots of noxious weeds from the ground, can take pen to paper!
     As with so many things, J led the way, often appearing in the garden before seven AM, outfitted with straw hat, rubber-coated, stretch gloves, a foam knee-pad and his favorite gardening tool, a wooden-handled “claw” bought at a flea market for fifty cents. “Crocs” for our feet, of course. Jeans, that started the summer with mild wear at the knee, would, in the coming days develop gaping holes, surrounding our exposed kneecaps with heavy, fringe-like dangling strings. Which brings up the question, “What is your favorite “garden-get-up?” The first five responders to send a photograph of themselves in full gardening regalia will receive a free “Toonmoose” garden” treat.
     Jasper, our Irish Terrier, monitored our progress from the shade. A “trug” was ever at the ready, to cart away the seemingly endless number of bags of weeds that will, in time, become compost. We could hardly be blamed for identifying with the proverbial “prisoners, “ digging their way to freedom! Of course, at the beginning, a task like this – preparing a garden for judging – seems hopeless, given that for weeks, the weeds have run riot over ones intended plantings. Even so, one begins the campaign, waged one root at a time. Bit by bit, leaf by leaf, we made progress, editing out the weeds and giving definition to our desired plantings. Without getting into the “zen” of weeding, suffice it to say that we each developed a true relationship with the soil, what the French would call the “terroir.” In these days, the garden became the focus of our shared obsession. Simply put, we wanted the garden to look it’s “personal best,” independently of how any judge might assess it. That said, having been awarded Second place in last years Buck’s Beautiful competition, we felt a certain challenge to improve on our presentation. But, would we do enough? All of our efforts built to a crescendo in the week leading up to Friday, July 17, when the judges were scheduled to appear between 9AM and 2PM. Counting back the time required to accomplish our tasks, we identified a list of goals and set about accomplishing them, often working from sun up until the lightning bugs began to flicker. In one radical stroke, J ripped out a bed of Hollyhocks in the side-yard, beneath the kitchen window. He realized that the appeal of their blossoms would be overshadowed by the ugly “rust” attacking their leaves, and with a few deft strokes – chop, chop, chop – they were history. He was careful to gather the fallen leaves to minimize the presence of the disease in the soil. Where those plants had been, we now introduced a bench, creating a new seating spot in the “orchard” with potted oleanders , one red, and one white, on either side.
     Only the worst of the midday heat drove us inside, and then only to fuel up for more weeding. The day of the judging, after a fitful nights’ rest, which I interrupted to make a pitcher of fresh lemonade for the judges, I arose before five AM. It would become a sunny, hot day, but first, there was one more list of things to do, that I was convinced would help define the atmosphere of the space: the sphinxes needed to be put in place, astride the walk, but only after the sun had dried the morning dew from the grass. A weighted string needed to be dropped from the sleeping porch to the ground for the morning glories to be trained upon. What seemed like another mile of the walk still needed to be edged, by hand-ripping out the overgrown grass. The rabbit-guard fencing needed to be opened, to give the judges access to the “potager.” Lastly, I had the recommended balloons to tie in front of the house, to identify the location for the judges, and a “Garden Open Today” sign to tack to the front gate.
Last year, the judges began their rounds at our house, arriving shortly after 9 AM. This year, when first 9:30, then 9:45 passed and no judges had arrived, I became concerned. Were they lost? Not likely in the age of GPS. For another two hours, till 11:40, J and I paced about the garden, pulling a weed here, deadheading a spent blossom, there. I tried to do the Times crossword, but found myself unable to concentrate. An encounter with a baby Praying Mantis, my first such sighting of the season, I took as a good omen. Considering that we had begun this garden just four years earlier, from scratch, we felt good about what we had achieved. We just hoped the judges would appreciate our efforts.
I was inside when the judges’ car pulled up in front of our house, unmistakable with its “LUV2PLNT
license plate. Two ladies got out, clipboards in hand, and again, for the second time in two years, I was amazed that neither of these ladies was wearing a hat! On a bright, sunny day, when one planned to be outside, weren’t they required? Apparently not. I went out to welcome the judges, and to thank them for coming to visit the “potager” at Penrose Bungalow, “an American garden, reflecting a world of ideas.” I was eager to provide some context for the garden, but soon realized that, if we had done our work, the garden would do that for itself. I pointed out the orchard, the “potager,” the herb garden, asparagus and flower beds. I informed the judges of the presence of the honey bees, lest one of them be allergic, then left them to experience the garden for themselves. About this time, J appeared, bearing a tray with the pitcher of lemonade and ice-filled glasses; a refreshing treat that the judges and I appreciated. In twenty minutes time, it was all over.
Then, the waiting began. After such intense focus on our gardening chores, it was a struggle to redirect our energies. It had become “second nature” to start the day with a trowel in hand. In fact, after a brief respite, we reverted to our “old habits,” beginning and ending the day in the garden, though at a more relaxed pace.
This week, ten days later, the judges decision arrived in the mail. Below, you can read the results for yourself. My personal favorite quote comes from judge Estee Franks, who wrote “the passion is evident!”

Friday, July 3, 2009

June is "Bustin Out All Over!"

To quote from Oscar Hammerstein III in Carousel, June is indeed "Bustin Out All Over!" Those leaps of faith we started making in March, April and May, when the process of tilling the soil and planting seeds began, (our garden season officially begins on St. Pa tricks Day, March 17, when Progress # 9 peas are planted, for luck), have begun to pay off in the form of silken lettuces, succulent sweet peas, piquant radishes, and a myriad of green and red sprouts, that in the coming weeks will mature into delicious, nourishing vegetables.
In our neck of the woods, latitude 40.45 degrees N, longitude 70.35 degrees W, Junes garden growth was aided in no small part by the near record rainfall we received this month, 10.6 inches at last count. At times, it has felt more like Seattle than the Northeastern United States.
But, before we go on, there are two important items of news: First, the Milford (Pa.) Historical Society's planned garden tour was canceled, for want of enough participants. It is hoped that this tour will be rescheduled next year. More exciting news was the opening in New York of the High Line Park, the newest addition to the city's park system, on June 9th. I visited this elevated esplanade the day after it's opening and prepared a slideshow of it's reception by an eager public. To view it, please go to:
From the cold and snow of the winter, when, for the most part*, green growing things out of doors existed only as dreams in the minds eye, we have now passed the Summer Solstice, and those dreams have taken on corporeal substance, nutritional value and taste. (* I say "most part" because the boxwood border surrounding the potager continues to provide the "bones" of the garden, giving it shape and organization even in the winter when the beds are empty.)
This time of year, the garden has become our true outdoor "living room," where I enjoy having my coffee in the morning, tea in the afternoon and cocktails in the evening.
If I may suggest, consider the garden a theater set, on which Nature enacts her ancient role as "Bounty," Provider of Sustenance, to the body and soul. As with any "set," this one must be dressed. That process too, began in March, when we brought our iron, vintage 1930's American table and chairs from their winter storage spot in the studio, back outside. Now, they sit in their usual spot, under a red maple tree, a part of the "borrowed" landscape, but at the time the tree had not yet begun to get it's leaves.
When the spinach went into the ground, so too did the benches leave their winter storage and take their places overlooking the western end of the potager. When it was certain that we had passed our last frost, the lemon tree and other potted tropical plants were brought from the basement "limonaia," adding height and the element of "intention" to the unfolding drama.
By Memorial Day, when the peony's (Festiva Maxima) erupted into bloom, the first round of planting was complete: arugula, beets, broccoli, carrots, Brussels sprouts, peas, Swiss chard, spinach, string beans, endive, garlic, tomatoes, sweet peppers (yellow, green and red) okra, (green and red) radishes and fennel. These plants are the real actors in our drama.
But, our set dressing isn't complete, yet. One Saturday, along came some elements, ostensibly for the garden but equally attractive as interior decoration, as desirable as they were unexpected, so ancient in their inspiration as to be ageless, that they immediately fell into that special category we refer to as "MHI's" - "Must Have Items!"
Am I speaking in riddles? Appropriately so, for the elements I am discussing are a matched pair of sphinxes, the traditional guardians of temples and other sacred places, that since at least the eighteenth century have been coveted as garden ornaments. The sight of them stopped me in my tracks as I wandered about a country flea market in a Saturday morning. I don't know what surprised me more, that they were there at all, or that none of the other hundreds of people who were walking past them were as entranced by them as I was. Initially,, I didn't know their cost. I only knew that there was no going home without them. Despite the cobwebs that clung to them, they shone like beacons, drawing me closer to them, obliterating awareness of any other vendors wares. They are composed of a creamy white shade of cast plaster, twenty-seven inches long, seventeen inches high and eight and one half inches wide. They have no markings to indicate a place of origin, manufacturer, or their age. They are beautifully modeled, with fine musculature in their leonine bodies and serene, inscrutable human faces. Large enough to have great "presence" yet small enough to be portable, they have seemed "at home" since the moment they arrived, whether outside in the garden, astride the central walk, or inside staring at each other from atop their bookcase perches. They lend an air of history/mystery wherever they are.
Every garden is a deeply personal reflection of it's creators imagination. That said, everyone enjoys having sources they can reference from time to time, even if only to confirm their natural inclinations. Here, then, are two books that I have stumbled on - one was a present, the other I picked up at a street fair - that I think any gardener, novice or expert, will find inspirational. For those interested in flower borders, A Garden Bluebook of Annuals and Biennials, by Henry Stuart Ortloff, (Doubleday, 1931) is a rich source of information about color, habit and combinations of flowers.
Those whose botanical interests run to the edible landscape, would do well to seek out Gardening for Good Eating, by Helen Morgenthau Fox, (MacMillan, 1943). This is a compendium of her thirty years of gerdening experience, including many vegetable varieties that are long since out of vogue. Either or both of these volumes will give a curious gardener lots to think about.
Happy gardening!

Friday, May 8, 2009

May Merriment

     Day by day, the garden is revealing itself, like a photographic print immersed in developer. 
But first, (a drum roll please.....) the Potager at Penrose Bungalow has been paid the compliment of being asked to participate in the Milford Township Historical Society's eleventh annual garden tour on June 13th, rain or shine! This invitation came about as a result of our having won an award in the annual Bucks Beautiful garden competition, which we entered on a lark last year. A subsequ
ent article in the Free Press was seen throughout the area, and thus it was that Phyllis Boyer of the Milford H
istorical Society called to invite our participation. As a way to introduce the garden to her, I sent her the following description that the reader may also find helpful.

     "I call the Potager at Penrose Bungalow an American garden that reflects a world of ideas. The word "potager" is French for "kitchen garden," which is one of the aims this garden fulfills: in the European tradition, we try to grow as many vegetables as we can to supply our own and others food needs, in an atmosphere that is colorful, inviting and relaxing. 
The other part of our name, "Bungalow" refers to the American Arts and Crafts style brick home on the property, which also affected the design and organization of the garden. In this case, we aimed for a garden design that was simple to maintain, attractive from multiple vantage points, functional and organic. Ideally, any garden is designed to compliment the scale and needs of the house and residents who use it.

This garden includes a small orchard, the twenty by forty foot "potager parterre" or kitchen garden, a (rectangular) boxwood-bordered bed with symmetrical, gravel paths and seating. There is a lawn that is suitable for games, like croquet. The herb/medicine wheel garden pays honor to Native American tradition. Then, there are mixed flower beds, a rose garden, grapevines, asparagus beds and a small apiary. A fountain, swing set, an armillary sphere and a variety of seating arrangements contribute to a setting that evokes harmony and tranquility." 

     At least, this is what we are hoping for! Exactly what the garden will be doing on June 13th is anybody's guess! Meantime, the age old struggle of man against weed continues. Stay "Tooned" for more coverage of the preparations for the tour, and the tour itself.
     As of this week, a rare, late April heat wave cooked the remaining daffodils and made the peach and other fruiting trees pop into blossom! Our white and yellow tulips hung in through the beginning of the week, joined now by the pink dogwood, (Cornus florida var. Rubra) galloping into view in the front of the garden.                                                                                                                 
 We successfully harvested the first of this season's asparagus on April 23.

     The "purple patch," as I like to call it, is approaching its' full glory. This is an arc of space formed where the enclosed garden room and back porch extend off the rear of the house. Years ago, some forward thinking soul planted a lilac shrub (syringa vulgaris), that today is a twelve foot tall and wide mass of pale purple panicles. For a few weeks this time each year, the flowers' heady perfume saturates the air, so that anyone entering or leaving the house is forced to stop and inhale deeply. 
If it wasn't the only piece of landscaping that came with the house, this lilac is certainly the most appreciated specimen planting that existed prior to our arrival. Under-planting it, we have added deeper purple hyacinths, and muscari. Nature has collaborated with us by carpeting the surrounding area with violets (viola papilionacea). Factor in a nascent lavender (Hidcote) border, and this purple themed corner gives satisfaction from April through October.

     Meantime, over our shoulder, the first of the Irises, a legacy of our friend Jeanine Nearing, have begun to open in the "North" border, or "long walk." Jeanine, with John, fellow alumni of Coe College, brought a selection of her own Iris collection as a house-warming present on her first visit to Penrose Bungalow in the fall of 2005. Traveling from Hopewell Junction, NY, she brought them in all sizes and a broad range of colors, from pure white, (Totality), to an almost black shade of purple. At one point during that visit, with no prompting from us, she simply walked into the garden to a spot along the fence on the North border that appealed to her, and using her own tools, cleared the sod and planted an Iris bed, approximately four by twelve feet.
The shorter ones went in front, naturally, with the intermediate and tall plants towards the rear. She added short extending "arms" at either end of the bed that draw the eye left and right when standing midst them, and give just a hint of enclosure. Now, almost four years later, the Irises in blossom are a highlight of the growing season, doubly so for some of them that are fall re-blooming varieties. Jeanine also brought a selection of her Hemerocallis that we interplanted among the asparagus, some sedum and a peony, all of which has thrived.
     This was the beginning of all our flower beds. Since then, that bed has grown to be over seventy-five feet long. Other gardener friends have bequeathed plants to us, and we have grown many from seed. Some plant choices were made to recreate a childhood memory, while others were inspired by trips taken abroad. Together, they constitute a diverse fusion of Natures' bounty, and what could be more American than that? Yes, we have fusion cooking, and jazz-fusion music, why not fusion gardening?
     Which reminds me of a recipe that allowed me to prepare another Spring treat, Rhubarb, or Rheum. Here are my instructions for preparing 


For the compote:

1 lb. Rhubarb, trimmed and cut into pieces
1/3 cup of sugar or vanilla sugar
1/2 orange, juiced

for the wafers:

3 tablespoons icing sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1lb piece of frozen puff pastry
buy some madelaines

For the flavored yoghurt:

2 cups plain yoghurt, or one cup yoghurt and one cup heavy cream whipped to high peaks
1 orange, zested
1 heaping tablespoon of honey

Mix together the yoghurt, or yoghurt and whipped cream, and the orange zest. Drizzle honey throughout the mixture.

     In a small pan, heat rhubarb, sugar and orange juice. Bring to a boil for a few minutes, then remove lid and simmer until the mixture attains the thickness of a compote. Allow to cool. Make wafers by sprinkling ingredients onto puff pastry and baking for the recommended time. Or, use bought Madelaines. 
     In a tall glass, alternate spoonfuls of the yoghurt mixture with the compote. Garnish with the wafers or Madelaines. If you use bought Madelaines, sprinkle a little of the cinnamon into the compote mixture.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

April Fools

     We gardeners plod through the winter months, longing for the days when we can get back into the garden. What we wouldn't do, we think December through March, to get our hands back into the soil again?
     Then, no sooner has April arrived than we are promptly overwhelmed by garden chores: Spreading corn gluten meal? Check. Applying Milky Spore? Check. Working wood ash, compost and well-aged manure into the soil? Check. Pruning? Check. Pea and bean inoculant? Check.
     It is as if we go from "low idle" to "overdrive" in one deft movement. I guess that is why they call it Spring!
     This Spring, gardeners across America - indeed, across the globe - are feeling empowered and a sense of affirmation , with the Obama's re-establishing a kitchen garden at the White House. I have no doubt that this bio-friendly family would have done this of their own volition, still, I am proud to have added my name to the thousands on the Kitchen Gardeners International petition sent to the "next occupants" of the White House last November, urging them to do just that. Close scrutiny has been paid to the First Families' choice of plantings, with the Times publishing a list of the vegetables and lettuces they will grow. I read that the President doesn't like beets, which reminded me of a favorite family story. 
     Once, when I was a little boy, my fathers' younger brother, my Uncle JT, came for one of his rare visits. He was a career soldier, who occasionally stopped over when his travels brought him through nearby Fort Dix, New Jersey. Often, he arrived late, and would be gone by the time I awoke the next morning. This time though, he arrived in the late afternoon, in time for a celebratory family dinner, with all of us, daddy, mom, my older brother Wade Jr., Uncle JT and myself, gathered around the kitchen table. Daddy cooked, as he often did on celebratory occasions. One of the dishes he prepared that night, (the only one I remember) 
was beets. I didn't like beets, or so I thought, never having eaten them before. I made the mistake of complaining about them at the table, which earned me a withering glance from daddy. "I'll deal with you later" he said without ever parting his lips. A former soldier himself, the last thing daddy wanted was "dissension in the ranks" during his brother, the soldiers' visit. I had really "put my foot in it." That was when Uncle JT stepped in. In his most solicitous voice, he explained to me how tasty beets were, and how good they were for me. "And what about that color?" he went on, eating another forkful.
     The next thing I knew, I had eaten all of mine and was asking for more. Daddy was spared having to "discipline" me, which is reason enough to plant a row of beets in Uncle JTs' memory. Best of all, all of the things that JT said about beets was (and is) true. Red, white or golden, beets are easy to grow, delicious and nutritious. For those who may not know it, beet greens are likewise healthful and tasty, steamed or sauteed. I don't know that this story will get President Obama to try beets, but I hope he will maintain an open mind about them. His new favorite vegetable could be just a recipe away. 
     But, "what is happening in the garden now," you ask? Well, on Sunday, a late season hailstorm knocked most of the remaining snow drop blossoms off of their stems. Now, it is the crocuses, daffodils and hyacinths that are leading the Spring "charge." The leaves of the Rheum are starting to unfurl. Some of the poppies, papaver somniferum, have demonstrated vigorous growth, with leaves already six inches long.  I will plant more of them,
 specifically the "Drama Queen" variety, later this week. These well-named, red and purple beauties first came to my attention via my friends Malcolm Ryder and Kiki Bradley of Oakland, CA. The lush colors of the flowers make them irresistible in the early summer border. Acquilegia, from seeds I spread last year are already beginning to appear. I have

 a planting of Progress # 9 Spring Peas in the ground and I will make a succession
 planting of them later this week, as well. Spinach, broccoli, carrots and beets will follow shortly. Lettuces, another early Spring favorite, I will plant in the herb-cum-medicine wheel garden. I have seeds of the Merlot variety of lettuce whose red color contrasts nicely with the pale gray, yellow and silver of the herbs. 
     Finally, the end of March marked the first anniversary of the Apiary at Penrose Bungalow. I am pleased to report that my bees survived their first winter in good form. No sooner did we begin to experience temperatures in the forties than they began to venture outside the hive. When the crocuses began to blossom
the bees were on them the next day, rolling around gathering their pollen. 
 Meantime, at the recent meeting of the Montgomery County Beekeepers Association,
 "Harold the Beekeeper" demonstrated a new technique for feeding ones bees. The syrup is prepared as normally, five pounds of sugar dissolved in a gallon of boiling water. Traditionally, one gets this to the
bees by placing it in glass jars, in the hive. When the jars are inverted, the perforated lids provide feeding stations where the bees
 drink. With this new technique, instead of inverted glass jars, one uses plastic zip-lock bags to get the syrup to the bees. One simply fills a quart sized zip-lock bag with the syrup, and closes it with a large air bubble inside. Carefully, lay the bag of syrup on top of your frames of comb taking care not to squash any bees under the bag of syrup. The air bubble will float on top of the syrup. Then, using a utility knife, cut a line diagonally from near the lower left corner, about half way to the upper right corner of the bag. The air bubble will escape, but the syrup will stay in place, available along the cut for the bees to feed on. This is an elegant and effective means of feeding the bees and I salute whoever first thought of it.



Monday, March 9, 2009

March Madness

   March lived up to its' reputation for making aggressive entrances, bringing on it's first day the worst snow storm of the season that cut a swath from Georgia to New England, burying everything in its' path under as much as twelve inches of snow. But, only a week later, it has redeemed itself with our first day - and a Saturday at that - when temperatures reached 70 degrees! Even those among us who are prone to doubt must acknowledge that Spring is finally here.
     My favorite bit of evidence of the changing seasons is the appearance of the Snow Drops, Galanthus Nivalis, in greater and more robust numbers than ever before. Yet another 
harbinger of Spring is the Skunk Cabbage, Sym
plocarpus foetidus, now blossoming in the wetlands nearby. Like the creature whose
 name it shares, Skunk Cabbage can, when its leaves are broken, emit an unpleasan
t odor. Still, I cannot help but admire a plant that, in a process called thermogenisis, actually generates heat to melt its way through the surrounding ice and snow!
     I am delighted to report that my bees have survived their first winter. Enlivened by our recent warmer temperatures, their first official act has been to carry out their dead. Talk about Spring cleaning! On Saturday, I sat and watched as they struggled, one by one, to drag the bodies of their fallen comrades out of the hive. Shortly, they will resume the cycle of foraging for pollen and nectar, comb-building, raising new generations of bees and of course, making honey, that will go on until, once again, cold weather drives them indoors.
     All of which reminds me of the chores that we gardeners must face. My arborist friends Alan Haigh and Erika Hanson, have already been about the business of pruning fruit trees to achieve maximum yield. The timing of this work suggests to me that it is best accomplished before the sap begins to run. I know that sunlight and good air circulation among the branches are goals of pruning but suggest consulting a professional for further information regarding your trees. 
Likewise, it is time to prune ones' Butterfly Bushes, Buddleia davidii, back, almost to the ground. In our zone six conditions, they respond by growing vigorously to a height of nearly ten feet, and are laden with fragrant panicles of blossoms. Come summer, they will attract a steady parade of butterflies, hummingbirds and other desirable pollinators. Readers who wish to reduce the numbers of weeds in their lawns should not hesitate to apply an organic, pre-emergent herbicide, like corn gluten meal, to stop weeds like dandelions before they get started and spread.
     I admit, I face quite a bit of neatening up and preparatory work before any planting can begin in my garden. There are weeds that continued to grow after the last crops came out of the potager last fall that must be removed. There is compost and well-aged manure that must be worked into the soil. Wood ash can be added as an amendment to the soil, but only with care. 
Only the ash from non-treated wood should be used, and then not more than twenty pounds per thousand square feet of garden. The addition of a garden inoculant to the soil can greatly increase the yield of your sweet peas and string beans. Consult one of your garden catalogues for more information. This year, I intend to use straw as a mulch, to cut back on weeds and to help retain moisture in the soil.
     So, if one is to plant peas on St. Patrick's Day, for luck, there isn't a moment to lose! Get those seed orders in, and have a good pair of gardening gloves at the ready.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Thinking Warm Thoughts

     Here in Bucks County, it snowed another eight inches this week, refreshing the blanket of white already coating the landscape. I guess this is validation of Punxsatawney Phil, the ground-hogs' prediction of another six weeks of winter, as if we needed it. Still, I won't complain, as this will help to ensure an adequate water supply for the coming growing season, something that my gardening friends in northern California are deeply worried about. They are experiencing another year of drought conditions that will only worsen if current weather patterns hold, preventing the planting and growth of many of the edible treats that we here in the snowy northeast can look forward to enjoying once Spring comes.
     The question is how do we get that "green" fix we all crave, while waiting for the first shoots of Spring to pop up out of the ground? The answer is as varied as are gardens, but a few effective solutions come to mind. Simplest of all - if you don't have some already, get some houseplants. Even if it is just a philodendron from your local supermarket, having some live plant will ease that craving for something growing in your life. Better yet, use a sunny window sill to start some herbs or salad greens. When it warms sufficiently to transplant them out of doors, you will rejoice at having  a "jump" on the growing season. 
     My own solution to this dilemma was inspired by a trip I made to Florence, (Firenze), Italy, in early Spring a couple of years ago. Before going, I read in one of my favorite books - The Ol
d Gardens of Italy, by Mrs. Aubrey Le Blond, (1912) - about a garden of a Villa Corsini Al Prato. ( I use the indefinite article, as there are several villas with gardens belonging to this venerable, princely family.) As it happened, this one was located not far from my hotel.  I resolved that I had to see this space, which was noted for its "bosco," (an evocation of a woodland), and statuary aligned in graduated sizes, the better to create a heightened sense of perspective. Never mind that it remains a private residence, not open to the public. I showed up with my camera in tow, and begged the "portieres'" indulgence, which, of course, he refused. "Privato, privato," he told me. Nonetheless, my look of sorry disappointment ov
ercame him, and I was granted admission, for ten minutes. "Dieci minuto." I thanked him, "gracie, Senore," and went in. After all these years, it was just as Mrs. Le Blond described it in her book.
 Hidden behind high walls, it encompasses nearly a block in area, right in the middle of the city. There are gravel paths bordered by boxwood, and (in Spring) beds of blue Scilla. There was one feature however, which I couldn't make sense of; located at regular intervals in the border were round ceramic "bases" nearly level with the
 ground. "What use do they serve," I wondered? The answer awaited me in a long narrow structure - the "limonaia" - at the rear of the garden. Inside, were rows of mature lemon trees in tub sized terra-cotta pots. One wall, which I assume was south-facing, had tall shutters, which could be opened to admit light and warmth on sunny days. Otherwise, the trees were sheltered and protected from the cold until warm weather returned. Come Spring, these potted beauties would be transported outside and placed atop these mysterious ceramic "footings" where once again they would furnish the garden, creating an allee of blossoms and, in time, the fruit that the Florentines use so imaginatively in their cuisine.
     This garden - and the Botticellis in the Uffizi - made an indelible impression on me. I couldn't bring the Botticellis home with me, however, I was determined to have a lemon tree of my own. Thanks to One Green World, the catalogue that specializes in exotic and semi-tropical plants, I got my (Meyer) lemon tree. The streets of New York (104th between
 West End Avenue and Broadway) provided me with a large glazed ceramic pot in which my lemon grows happily. 
     As for a "limonaia?" Well, as it happens, the basement here at Penrose Bungalow works just fine. It is cool, but warm enough, and windows permit sufficient light to nurture not only myu lemon tree, but bananas, a fig, a palm, a pomegranate and all of the semi-tropical plants that are too fragile to over-winter out of doors. 
     So, when the winter "blues" get me down, I know right where to go. If you need me, just look for me in my "limonaia," right downstairs.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

January musings

     Now that the holidays are over and a refreshing new Presidential administration has taken the reins of power in Washington, my attention turns once again to the coming garden season. 
     I would be out in the garden now, pulling weeds, were it not for the six inches of snow and ice blanketing the ground. Still, one does what one can in these zone 6 conditions, which these days consists of curling up on the sofa, a pot of Grace Rare Tea Company tea (Assam being the current favorite) at the ready, and pouring through the stacks of seed catalogues that have arrived. I am tempted by the catalogues that offer discounts for early orders, or minimum expenditures that would consume much of my seed budget. And yet, I enjoy taking my time to decide what to order, then spreading my largesse around among a variety of suppliers. Indeed, it is tricky to decide who to choose from, when so many companies offer premium organic, and heirloom varieties. Still, one mustn't wait too long, lest a preferred variety sells out.
     I ask myself, "which new vegetables will I try this year," and "what was a success in the past?" Of course, it is helpful to take inventory of the seeds that are left over from last year, or that were gathered in and saved for this year. Then too, I consult one of the several maps I make over the course of the gardening season, especially of the "potager" to learn what grew where, and when. "Gardening is map-making," I always say; the goal being to anticipate how I might rotate my crops and companion plant for the most bountiful, floriferous beds.
      Indeed, the garden I encounter this Spring will be different in substantial ways from the one I started with last Spring, and not only because of the plantings. For one, the selection of tools available with which to work the land has improved considerably, thanks to my aunt Freda, who bequeathed to us most of the gardening implements left to her by her in-laws, Charlie and Inez Williams. They range from the simple, like a shovel for planting, to the somewhat arcane, like the thatching rake that has sat unused in her garage since Charlie bought it more than thirty years ago.  We were on the verge of buying a spreader until this trove of tools came along.   
     Nor shall I overlook our recent auction acquisitions, including a charming bench, strawberry pots and an armillary sphere and pedestal, each of which must finds its place in the garden. 
     This Spring I will have the benefit of my own hives of honey bees, Apis Melifera, which I got last March in fulfillment of a decades old dream.  Having the bees has been one of those "Wonderland" experiences, where the more I learn about them, the more there is to learn.  What they accomplish on a daily basis is nothing short of miraculous. I will have them, along with the Praying Mantises and Butterflies who make our garden home to thank for pollinating our crops and flowers.