Monday, December 28, 2009

Whether the weather be snow or raine


2010 beckons and New Years Day is almost here. I am the Putterer today. No work for me. Today, I begin a much-needed week of vacation from work. And so all day, I plan to putter.

Already, however domestic deadlines threaten my repose. In short order, the housekeeper will arrive and I haven't cleaned up for her yet. There are many errands too, that have been set aside until I had the time to do them this week, so playful putter will certainly succumb to bothersome chores.

In my robe and PJs, I ventured out to the garden with my cup of coffee but didn't stay very long. With a high of 37 today, the early morning is a bone-chilling freeze. The snow is melted on the stone paths, but still piled up around the flower beds. The rare green sightings included the marjoram and parsley, but both are bent over, burdened with their load of snow. The witch hazel, which is in all other seasons a beaut, looks evil. Its branches are covered with withered brown leaves, which because of some gardener's error on my part--lack of sunlight or wrong soil--refuse to drop. The early bloomer Lenton rose (which usually flowers when my Catholic friend Tamara begins her fast for Lent) is also green, having shaken off the snow in order to show itself to be a robust winter plant. Last year, I put in a Harry Lauder Walking Stick for "winter interest." Its curly trunk and branches are indeed proving to be interesting this winter.

So back to the white sofa I go thinking of the plants that come in early spring. I just read of the Viburnum tinus, or the flower of Saint Faine, (above) which is said to bloom on New Year's Day.

Whether the weather be snow or raine
We are sure to see the flower of St. Faine
Raine comes but seldom, and often snow,
And yet this viburnum is sure to blow.

Apparently a group of monks of some long ago era put together a list of plants that are in flower for each day of the year. And these are flowers that are associated with the various Saints. My source for this is William Hone, a 19th-century scribe, who isn't even really worth a quick wiki (he's just a dead, white guy).

The Viburnum tinus is the first flower of the year, the monks decided.

With such a reputation, I hurriedly searched for this Vibernum in my catalogs, thinking that I might need said superlative for my garden.

Those monks, of course, were probably compiling their list from a monastery on Mount Sinai and not thinking hardly of my Maryland clime. Indeed, I discovered in my researches this morning that the plant is not a Maryland native. It hails from the middle East and Africa. So it's doubtful that even if I could find one, it would bloom here on New Years Day.

My own viburnum blooms early and smells sweet, but it certainly won't be toasting the New Year. I checked my Winter Jasmine, also an early performer, but it looks dry, shriveled and sucked of sap (analogous of any number of things on our aged bodies). And the forsythia, too, is just a mass of twigs.

I'm thinking, however, it's all just beautiful out there, frigid and barren as it is, and so I've asked Patsy for some photo documentation. But I really can't blame her if she can't or won't muster any enthusiasm for getting dressed to go outside and photograph my cold, wet sticks. The Putterer

Monday, December 21, 2009

Grandma's Caramels



There is a place in our hearts reserved only for the ones we loved and who loved us, but who are gone now. We were devastated when they left us, but somehow we've managed to recover and we muster on without them. But treasured memories remain; and we can recall their warm embraces, how they told us stories, and made us laugh, and how they made for us delicious homemade treats. Every year at this time, a spectral presence lurks warm and loving in my soul and I am happy that she is with me again. I wish I could share her fudge and caramels with everyone I meet and know, but since I can't possibly make enough for all of you, I am sharing with you her recipes. On December 29, we will celebrate my grandmother Marjorie Mathew's 93rd birthday. Every year at Christmas, she would make her caramels and fudge and no matter where we were living, she'd sent them to us in packages in the mail. Enjoy! The Putterer (Photo courtesy of Chip Py)

P.S. Grandma was a gardener.

Grandma's Caramels

3 cups sugar
3 cups white Karo syrup
1.5 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup butter
3 cups condensed milk (non-fat or skim will not work)
3 teaspoons vanilla

Boil sugar, salt and corn syrup to a thick syrup, then add butter and keep boiling, stirring all the while. Slowly add condensed milk and keep stirring. Cook to firm ball stage, precisely 240 degrees F. I recommend use of a digital candy thermometer. Turn off heat and add vanilla. Pour into a heavily buttered cookie sheet or 13- x 19-inch pan. Cool, but cut grid in early for easier cutting. Using a sharp knife or scissors and a lot of muscle cut into 1 inch pieces. Wrap in wax paper squares and twist up the ends.

Grandma's Fudge

4 cups sugar
1 cup evaporated milk
1 cup butter
2 tablespoons vanilla
1 large pkg chocolate chips, plus 2 cups more chocolate chipped from a block of chocolate
1 jar marshmallow cream
salt
nuts and raisins optional

Put the chocolate and the marshmallow cream in the bowl of the mixer. Cook the sugar, milk and butter to a soft ball stage. Remove from heat and add vanilla. Add the hot mixture to the mixing bowl and beat until creamy. Add nuts and raisins, and then spread into a buttered pan. Allow to cool and cut into squares.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Old Ladies Who Garden: Martha Logan


A woman's work is never done. Nor is it ever recognized, or honored or paid for.

Martha Logan (1704- 1779) is America's first garden writer. Her Gardeners Kalendar was published by a man in 1752 in the South Carolina Almanack. Credit for the work was marginally given as having been done by a "Lady of this Province" and various versions were published throughout the 18th century. Even today in the most recent version that I can find, a 1971 reprint by the National Capital Area Federation of Garden Clubs, she is curiously absent from the title page and some dude named Phillip Miller with a pretentious title (Late Member of the Botanic Academy of Florence, and Gardener to the Worshipful Company of Apothecaries, at their Botanic Garden in Chelsea) is taking credit for her labors.

There are no pictures in extant of Martha, but you can imagine her to be stout, sturdy and dependable. Take for example her entry in the Kalendar for December. "This month is subject to different sorts of weather; sometimes the ground is frozen up, so that little can be done in the garden; at other times hard rains and thick stinking fogs render it very uncomfortable stirring abroad, but especially to persons of tender constitutions: and this weather is also very injurious to tender plants."

Thick stinking fogs. Persons of tender constitutions. Injurious weather. Ahem. Reading Martha, I keep thinking she, too, is making metaphor of her garden. She was the daughter of a politician, who had been lieutenant governor at various times of both North and South Carolina. She had an abbreviated childhood, marrying just after her father died in 1718 when she was thirteen. She was likely well educated because in 1742 she advertized that she would board students at her plantation on the Wando River outside of Charleston, and teach them to read and write as well as to do "work Embroidery." Martha, unlike most women of that era, owned property. She inherited the plantation from dear old dad. Before her husband died in 1764, the couple had eight children. And it was believed that Martha managed the Logan plantation and later she acted as attorney for her son George Logan of Cape Fear. Indeed, I'm imagining Martha to have been quite a fearsome and fearless business woman and task master. Take for example some of her directives from the Kalendar:
  • Break up your gravel walks and turn them where they begin to be mossy.
  • When the weather is mild, you should continue trenching the ground where you intend to plant your trees.
  • If this month proves severe (as it often happens,) you must be careful to keep the frost out of the green-house; for if it reaches the earth of all your Orange-trees so as to freeze it.
  • You must carry dung upon the ground where you intend to transplant young trees.
And on and on, she lists the work to be done throughout the year in the kitchen garden, in the fruit garden, in the pleasure garden (flowers is what she meant, but it sounds racey doesn't it?), in the nursery, in the green house and even in the wilderness, where she would go to stock up on medicinal herbs.

This time of year, women are all maniacally racing through the Kalendar tasks required to arrive successfully at the end of December as the winner of the Christmas contest--address the cards, buy the presents, wrap the gifts, decorate the tree, make the candy, bake the cookies, host the parties, attend the parties. Our inner Martha commands our holiday Kalendar.

I remember once a long time ago when my mother was still alive how the holiday season was a magical happening that unfolded with with ease and pleasure. With her at the helm, it all just came together. This year, I've finally grown to embrace without resentment my role (her role) as I labored away. There never will be honor or recognition in woman's work. We will never be paid for all we do.

I was making the fudge and the caramels and my girls were lounging lazily on the sofa, the snow falling outside. As they watched movie, after sitcom, after silly reality show, it didn't matter to me at all that neither one offered to help.

There time will come. For now the season just unfolds and perhaps still holds for them the pleasure of it all just coming magically together. The Putterer

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Gardening, While Warm and Comfortable on the Sofa


Yesterday my favorite catalog arrived, Bluestone Perennials. I hadn't really thought about how significant this book out of Madison, Ohio, was to me and my gardening habit, until I'd begun my research on Old Ladies Who Garden and read Mrs. Katharine S. White's New Yorker essays from the 1950s on gardening catalogs. At the Bluestone book's core, one finds an alphabet book--80 pages from Achillea to Weigela. (Plants with names beginning with X, Y and Z are rare.)

When I first began my gardening education, it was to Bluestone that I turned. I wanted to learn not only the names of plants, both common and Linnean, but also, with so many different varying degrees of shade and sun in my yard, I needed to understand the subtle microclimates that each plant required for optimal growing. Bluestone's easy-to-read, pink highlighted sun-shade icons won my admiration. It was at that juncture that I knew I'd moved beyond a homeowner digging in some impatiens to a gardener. But the real reason, I'm a fan is because I'm cheap. My mother raised me up to appreciate a bargain (price, no matter the quality, mattered) and Bluestone's three-fer deal makes my heart beat a little quicker. I was already familiar with the elite White Flower Farm establishment, hailing from Litchfield, Connecticut, and purveyors of a premier catalog. But there, a single plant cost more than what my friends at Bluestone charged me for three.

So there on their cover was an Astilbe, the peach blossom. I bought two varieties of Astilbes last spring--six plants! (I think I may have a lot more plants in my garden beginning with A because that's where I begin, at the very beginning.) And then I turned the page and realized how intertwined my life was with this Ohio grower. Here was a note from owners Bill and Sarah Boonstra about how daughter Jess had recently graduated from Miami as a graphic designer and how she had moved recently to a job in Cincinnati, but not before doing a redesign on the catalog.

Full stop here. Have you seen the film, Food Inc? About the industrialization of our nation's food supply. How the idyllic family farm has been turned into a vast mud pit with thousands of mud-caked cattle mauling and mewing to get to the trough of corn feed before they are prodded into the slaughterhouse and grinded hooves, excrement and horns into hamburger for the huddled masses who want to pay less than a buck for a McDonald's hamburger and cup of corn-syrupy coke?

Okay, back to garden reverie. Sorry for that horrendous vision. I'm on the sofa in my warm house and I love Jess' new design. I like the way she grouped the pictures at the corners and the occasional silhouetted flower, blown up just a bit larger than the others to give the page a little more vibrancy. But isn't it nice to know that there is a tiny realm in our economy for these gardening enterprises that are still just small, family businesses? This is a fast-fading construct of the American ideal. We admire and wish, if only, we might ourselves retire to something like it. Ironically, it's people like me, bargain hunters, that undo such enterprises, searching always for the best price, we price chasers alone are responsible for the big boxing of our businesses. But the Boonstra's three-fer deals, which now populated my garden to the point where I have little space left to cultivate, date back over many gardening seasons to the time, when their daughter Jess, and my daughter Claire, not much younger, where little girls. And while I still have another little girl (who is almost out the door herself) at home, the Boonstra's are empty nesters they tell me in their note (their son had departed earlier).

The time-honored tradition of catalog makers who write personal notes to their subscribers is one that Mrs. Katharine S. White took note of some 50 years ago. There was one, Will Tillotson, a rose grower and the producer of the catalog, "Roses of Yesterday and Today," out of Watsonville, California. In 1954, Tillotson was on the fence about not only President Eisenhower, but also the rose named for him.

"I will admit the rose is red, fragrant, forty petalled, and is in nationally light supply for 1954. Beyond this I refuse to go." That year, the threat to drop the rose from his book lingered and Katharine White waited until the next year to read the verdict. Indeed it came: "The C. W. [meaning the catalog writer, Will Tillotson] has made up his mind about Pres. Eisenhower, the Rose (and the President of the U.S.)." And the rose Eisenhower was apparently included in the book that year. Two years later, however, the catalog arrived with sad news. It was announced that Tillotson had died and a new owner would take over. Yet Tillotson's last list of roses was honored, and Eisenhower had been dropped from the list, "without comment," noted Mrs. White, rather wryly.

Today, Claire comes home for a month-long visit. She's finished up another quarter at Ohio State. I am hurrying faster and faster at work to finish up my quarter so I can take some time off to be with her and Patsy.

And so I leave you with this fine farewell crafted by another garden catalog writer of days long gone, Mr. Geo. B. Park, of Greenwood Southwood, Carolina. "Floricordially Yours," was his salutation.

I am too, Floricordially Yours, The Putterer

Monday, December 7, 2009

Freezing At Long Last

Snow fell on Saturday and should have melted yesterday. But it stayed cold Sunday and this morning the view out my window is of the neighbors' houses, rooftops covered in snow, bare tree branches and a pale pink sky on the horizon. Lovely.

At first the impatiens refused to recognize the change in weather. So for most of Saturday as the cold, wet snow fell, they held firm, their spring pinks and purples poking proudly from the white flakes quickly piling up around them. The pots of geraniums are mounded like igloos and for the first time in months, I bought parsley at the market, because I knew I wasn't getting any this week from the garden.

Out at the compost pile, I experienced the joy and thrill that only a gardener knows when the pitchfork, in turning over the top layer of shredded leaves, revealed a colony of bacteria-ridden detritus radiating warmth. Nothing like a compost pile that smokes even as the temperatures dip below the freezing point on the thermometer.

Christmas and Hanukkah (blended) preparations were underway this weekend. Cards and gifts ordered. A trip to the shops. Wreath on the door. My first batch of fudge ruined--a holiday tradition--when I over-boiled it. Menorah cleaned and candles at the ready. Claire comes home on Thursday.

Patsy shot this winter scene over the Thanksgiving weekend. It's a view looking east from the National Museum of the American Indian, the tiny top of the capitol building is barely in the frame. She wanted to get the branches against the chilly, winter sky. We all stood patiently waiting for her to get the shot in the crush of the visitors on the Mall that day. It was blowing cold, and Patsy had a thin jacket on, but she seemed to hardly notice as she took picture after picture adjusting the settings on her camera, until she was satisfied. The Putterer

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Old Ladies Who Garden: Nan Fairbrother


I've been running quite a tab at Amazon.com lately, having discovered that my one-click key gives me easy access to a host of used book sellers. There's no intermediary paypal account. I just click and some little-known book dealer out in Iowa (or somewhere) runs to the shelf and pulls a yellowed copy of some ancient gardening book and pops it in the mail to me. Yesterday, when my 1957 copy of Men and Gardens arrived, it came with a nice note from Peggy Ross, owner of The Uncommon Book store in Cresco, Iowa. "Enjoy!" And so I have.

I judged this book by its title. I was thinking that after I had explored all of the "Old Ladies Who Garden" in this series, I would give a nod to a couple of Old Men. Caught up in the title, I didn't notice until the book arrived, it was written by a woman. (What do you know?)

Quick Wiki: Nan Fairbrother (1913-1971) was an English writer and lecturer on landscape and land use. She was a Member of the UK Institute of Landscape Architects, now the Landscape Institute. Her brother (James Alick (Rex) Fairbrother) was also a landscape architect. Fairbrother was born in Coventry, England, and attended the University of London, graduating with honours in English. After graduation, she worked as a hospital physiotherapist, before settling in London. In 1939 she married William McKenzie, a physician. During the Second World War, Fairbrother left London with their two sons for the safety of the Buckinghamshire countryside, and wrote her first book, Children in the House (1954), about the experience of living there while her husband was away serving with the Royal Air Force (RAF). Her most celebrated work is New Lives, New Landscapes, a visionary account of the challenges facing land-use planning in the United Kingdom.

Fairbrother's influence on planners, landscape architects, and educators continues today: in 2009, BBC Scotland Learning produced two programmes in their Industry series (first televised in January 2009), titled New lives, New Landscapes, an acknowledgment of Fairbrother's contribution.

I'm not quite sure what to make of Nan. I found myself, as I was reading her, silently lapsing into an English accent. (I tend to do that, I'm told, at the office when I phone some British source. I hang up only to realize all my colleagues are laughing at me.) There was something oddly overwhelming in scope to her first chapter, where she attempts to answer the question, "Why Men Have Gardened." (By men she means all of us, but I note a preponderance of Old Ladies in her survey.) She also seems to have preponderance of lofty ideals: "gardening was chosen by God himself;" "all human happiness is precious;" "enough to make everyday life significant and exciting;" and my personal favorite, "a most virtuous occupation."

The British are an enviable lot. I haven't spent too much time in England, but a vision of how they live plays out in so many movies and books and photographs, and so one pictures their world as an amalgamation of Cotswold cottages, topiary, Wuthering Heights, afternoon tea parties on the ceiling, fox hunts, Grace Pooles living in the attic, and dottering old gardeners like Ben Weatherstaff puttering about a countryside manor dressed in brogans and tweed.

The English also inhabit the perfect gardening climate. They never have long, hot summers without rain or spring deluges that wash out every seed, seedling and planting. Nan makes note of this: "A fertile climate covers our land with green without any help from us. A gardener's task is not so much to grow the plants he wants, as to keep the unwanted plants from choking them. We weed far more than we water, and as it is not more difficult to weed an irregular garden than a regular one, and since we can turn any patch of land into a garden if we will, the gardens we make in England are not dictated by our climate, but are expressions of something in ourselves and the society we live in." (See what I mean, you read that with a British accent, didn't you?)

Theirs is a Camelot where every night the wind whips up all of the detritus and swirls it into neat little piles that in the morning are easily whisked away.

Well Nan says the reason why we garden is because it makes us happy, (no kidding). But she assembles quite a list of sources in support of her thesis. It all began in the garden of Eden, she says, where our first parents were "happy in their sweet gard'ning labour?" And that Paradise, the one that is today famously sought by blood thirsty terrorists, was as Marco Polo describes it, "a beautiful valley enclosed between two lofty mountains, . . . a luxurious garden, stored with every delicious fruit and every fragrant shrub that could be procured." And a Chinese proverb says "If you would be happy for a week, take a wife, if you would be happy for a month, kill your pig: but if you would be happy all your life, plant a garden."

Today, all I can hope for is to get through this stressful month with the closing of two publications plus the daily blog grind and other serious anxieties that shouldn't be broadcast here. So in search of a way to make this month a tad happier, I'm off to kill my pig. The Putterer





Saturday, November 28, 2009

No Hard Freeze Yet



Patsy took these pictures on Thanksgiving Day. Traditionally, the hard freeze has come and gone in Silver Spring by now. But yet we have flowers blooming, the impatiens are still going strong. Parsley's full and bushy. And there is one lone pepper hanging in there in the back garden box.
The Putterer

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Cone Flower is in Bloom for Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving dawned gloomy and wet. I was up just as the pale morning light began showing at the edge of the shades. I tried to stay in bed until a more reasonable hour. But, too excited, I got up, made coffee and started cooking. I didn't stop all day and tonight my lower back throbes with every one of my heartbeats.

But it was a beautiful, happy day. The girls were profusely gracious with their compliments on the meal. By the time everyone showed up, the house was buzzing with energy and activity. My sister and her son were charming and fun. My brother, of course, had us in stitches. He also had us all posing for portraits in his studio. The cousins, Claire, Matt and Patsy, hammed it up for the camera (left). Caley stole things and guarded them growling in her kennel. It was noisy and hectic, but the expert hosts, Jim and Beth, controlled the chaos.

Stacey brought me a DVD. She'd made it from a videotape that Jim had made at another family Thanksgiving dinner. My mother was alive back then and so was my Grandmother and we were dining at my aunt's house. Patsy was just a toddler, so it must have been 1994. Always the reporter, I was interviewing Grandma. It was lovely to watch, a time capsule. We sat side-by-side at the table as the others cleared the dishes. She played with her fork and told us all about how she'd met Grandpa (at a square dance in Porter when she was 15), when he'd given her her engagement ring (May of the year they were married) and how they bought, financed and managed the farm (they paid $7,000 cash for 120 acres in 1946).

"Are you going to put this in Smithsonian," she asked with a giggle.

She finished her story, telling of the day Grandpa got news he had prostate cancer. She said he came in that day and she knew right away something was wrong. And after he told her the news, he said to her, "So be it. I want you to know that we've had a good life. We raised our girls and they were educated, but I want you to know those years on the farm, we're the best years (they sold the farm in 1975). They were hard years, but they were good years."

And with that characteristic inflection, and in that way she had of delivering so much with so little, she said, "Well then, 'Okay,'" and nodded her head. The tape ends with me hugging her.

Since, it was one of my best meals, I want to make a record of which recipes I used, so where better than Garden Putter?

Made the turkey recipe from America's Test Kitchen; and the green beans (with bacon and gorgonzola and walnuts) and the candied yams, both from The New Basics Rosso and Lukos; salad with arugula, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms and pomegranate; sour dough bread with raisins and nuts; garlic mashed potatoes; my sister's delicious stuffing and cranberries; and my fabulous gravy. Two pies, pecan and cherry, made with the Julia Child pastry dough are mostly waiting until we're all less stuffed tomorrow.



Patsy went out to take a picture of that courageous cone flower that I mentioned two posts ago. It is exquisite, a pale pink with white at the edges of its petals, and its lavender anthers each held a tiny drop of rain water. She captured its charm completely. She hasn't delivered the photo to me yet, but it's coming after she edits her shoot, and so I'll post it presently. (And I have.)

Exhausted. The Putterer

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Old Ladies Who Garden: Louise Beebe Wilder

It is remarkable how passion soon becomes obsession. I began my series, "Old Ladies Who Garden," with the idea that I would read the works of famous female horticulturalists, know their stories, find their images and post.

I have come across one of the greatest garden writers of all time, Louise Beebe Wilder (1878-1938). I have two of her ten gardening books, Color in My Garden and The Fragrant Path, and while reading through these works I've painted an imaginary picture of what she must have looked like. She's short, with soft features, friendly and charming with rough hands from doing the work herself. Her eyes sparkle and she's perhaps a little bit sexy even as she advances into her old age. (My doppleganger?) But sadly, and this is where my obsession begins, I can't find any images of her. Instead, I can only found a photo of her home, Balderbrae in Pomona, New York, which has a bit of a modern history, having been owned in the 1980s by designer David Easton and which was sold recently for more than a 1.5 million dollars. The real estate notes brag that it was once the former home of my lady Louise, but apart from the reissue of some of her books, which I heartily recommend, Louise seems to be lost.

The 1990 version of Wilder's 1918 Colour in My Garden is a lovely book. In fact, a few of my friends might receive copies this year for Christmas because, not only is it fun to read, but also recreated in it are 24 of the original oil paintings that the gardener commissioned from her artist friend and neighbor Anna Winegar. (It's interesting that Louise documented her garden in this way but somehow eluded the camera herself--I'm still searching and I may beg some of my colleagues at the Smithsonian to help.) Louise apparently was a women of means, married to architect Walter Robb Wilder, who worked for a time with McKim and White. Her 220-acre farm had a walled garden and her husband designed many of the stone features and ornaments, including a fountain with a series of pools and pergolas for the roses.

But despite her upper class digs and means, she followed a decidedly down-home path when writing about how to garden. Simply put. Louis says choose and select your plants by the colors of the season. She also maintains that by knowing precisely the flowering moment for each, you fill in your beds so that you create what she calls "pictures." The gardener is an artist, her palette the plants.

"It is true," she writes, "that in the natural progress of the seasons we have certain colours predominating at certain periods. The earliest colour scheme, of the garden as of the world beyond its walls, is yellow and white; this is followed by the rose colour of late spring and early summer when fruit blossoms and then Roses adorn the World. Next come the blue and yellow of midsummer which deepen to scarlet, gold, and purple as autumn lavishly spreads the colours. . . This much simplifies our work, since there are always plenty of good and willing flowers decked in the prevailing colours of the season."

In setting forth her easy-to-use prescriptions, Louise notes the way the blues and violets all seem to seek shady spots where the shadows best highlight their "piercing distinctness;" while yellow, orange and scarlets show "their greatest advantage in full sunshine." In other words, a beginning gardener can distinguish sun from shade plants based merely on their color.

Now I'm picturing the amazing success of my false Forget-me-nots, the spreading Brunneras, tucked away beneath dark greens of the euyonomus bush and old Aunt Rhody. Every time they flower in the early spring, I'm delighted with the touch of cool color they bring to that dark corner. And so perhaps I might try other blues, like campanula, larkspur, anchusa and delphinium in that unlikely spot.

And then of course most helpful of all might be her charts, "Periods of Flowering." Keeping notes throughout the seasons, she created a list for each week of the year from April through October of plants "upon which we may count for a display." Oh, Louise, where have you been all my gardening life? The Putterer

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Old Ladies Who Garden: Elizabeth Lawrence

It's a beautiful, chilly gray morning out my window this Saturday and I'm on my third cup of coffee. My garden books are piled up around me and I'm happily perusing a correspondence between my new friends Elizabeth Lawrence (right) and Katharine S. White.

This winter as the chill hardens to a freeze, I'm going to be studying the world of old-fashioned garden writers, so forgive me if my prose starts to slide back in time and sound lock-jawed and pretentious. The era of letters posted rather than "sent" as lengthy, thoughtful correspondence between friends over days and weeks is in high contrast to our speedy electronic communications. And this morning, I was wishing for a little of that era, thinking perhaps that those folks had more time in their 24-hour day than we do in ours.

Oh, and the formalities of the period are so rich! Imagine addressing me as "Mrs. Lieberman," instead of Beth. I'd assume my mother-in-law was back from the dead. But still, imagine writing an email to me in this fashion. "Dear Mrs. Lieberman," preceded neatly at the top with a date, and the city and state from where you happen to be writing from. Next follows the gracious thank you for the letter received and the profuse exclamations of how much pleasure the letter delivered. "I read it over and over again." Such leisure time they had!

Mrs. Elizabeth Lawrence, according to her friends who maintain her Charlotte, North Carolina, home and garden at 349 Ridgeway, had a "desire and passion" to garden and to write about gardening.

Here is her biography, lifted from the website. Miss Lawrence’s. . . friendship with actress Ann Preston Bridgers, who collaborated with George Abbott to produce the Broadway hit, “Coquette”, became the catalyst Elizabeth needed to hone her writing skills. Ann and her sister, Emily, became her mentors and beloved critics. In the 1930’s she slowly gained publication in the smaller garden periodicals, and then in 1942, A Southern Garden was published. It was lauded immediately. In 1948, . . . Elizabeth and her mother decided to move to Charlotte to be near her sister, Ann, Ann’s husband Warren Way and their family. The two sisters purchased adjoining lots on Ridgewood Avenue. . . . Elizabeth designed her new smaller garden, and it is a reflection of her ingenuity, vision and thrift. Elizabeth’s house is a charming and inviting cottage with an enviable relationship between the house and garden. Elizabeth lived [there] for 35 years and wrote three more books; The Little Bulbs, A Tale of Two Gardens, Gardens in Winter and Lob's Hill. She also prepared over 700 columns for publication in The Charlotte Observer. One of the most significant and interesting aspects of her life was her friendships with plants people and gardeners from all over the country and the correspondence she enjoyed with them. Her relationship with Katharine White is just one of these, and the bookTwo Gardeners: A Friendship in Letters edited by Emily Herring Wilson records their exchange from 1958-1977. Katharine White wrote in her book, Upward and Onward in the Garden, “I have learned more about horticulture, plants, and garden history and literature from Elizabeth Lawrence than from any other one person.” Elizabeth Lawrence died in Maryland in 1985 and is buried at St. James Church, Lothian, Maryland.

So this morning I've made my way through multiple letters between Mrs. Katharine White and Miss Elizabeth Lawrence. I'm relieve to see that over time as their friendship developed, they dropped the formalities and became to each other just Katharine and Elizabeth. It was Elizabeth who noted the moment in a post script: "I thought you did call me Elizabeth. I always call you Katharine in spirit."

Taking delight in the slow pace of their lives, I could only imagine the luxury of having such a pen pal (and the pair each had dozens of others). They even sent packages of items from their respective gardens. "I enclose a butterfly lily, hoping that the scent will linger until it gets to you," wrote Katharine to Elizabeth. And the favor was returned: "I put the little Nandina seedling in with the hellebores, and a nice root of Ivy Fleur de lis that came up with the Nandina."

So now as I set my sails toward what this day and what this weekend will be--furious and frantic preparations for Thanksgiving, the pie crusts, ordering the turkey, planning the menu. And the excitment and anticipation of Claire's return home on Tuesday--washing her sheets and getting the stuff we've stashed on her bed out of the way.

And oh yes, some gardening? There might be time for it. The hard freeze is late this year and out front a courageous cone flower is actually in bloom. It bloomed narrow and tentative with just a tiny bit of pink playing at the edges of its cold, white petals.

In December of 1961, Miss Elizabeth, who gardened much farther south of where I do, noted a "mild before-Christmas winter," where she found more than a dozen things in bloom in her garden. "Even after ice in the bird-bath and beautiful white frost, the snowdrops are unharmed, and so is the wintersweet and the clematis and the one little crocus that the chipmunks have spared. I have been getting letters from all over the country about the things in bloom in December."

Where did all those letter writers find the time? The Putterer


Thursday, November 19, 2009

Back When I Lost My Petals


A lot of people have asked me what I think of the raging controversy over mammograms and I'm scratching my head in wonder just like every woman on the planet. Our world got rocked this week when we were told, "Oh just never mind ladies, that whole schedule your mammogram thing was just a big canard."

At first I tried to look at this as a well-reasoned, fact-seeking journalist. Is this a battle between public health officials, who look at the big picture, and medical practitioners, who look at the individual? It looked as if it was one of those cost-benefit analyses that doesn't suit the individual but rather benefits the whole. Just 1,200 women will die if they don't have their mammograms between the ages of 40 and 49, but that offsets the costs to the whole. In other words, hundreds more will have to undergo unnecessary biopsies, lumpectomies and radiation and chemo for early cancers that might not ever develop. Well, ouch. That sucks. Too bad for you. But then you get that noble label of "Survivor" regardless, and you get to run in the race and collect the medal with the pink ribbon. It's kinda nice. Or, alternatively, in the cold cruel statistical world, if you really did have a cancer in that age group, well, you're dead.

So I went to my lady, Susan Love, and I thought surely she'd send me some Love and unfortunately, she wasn't all that helpful. Because, here she's gone and backed the committee's findings. And I was resisting that. But she thankfully offers some clarity, to the cost-benefit analysis formula (which shame on you, you journalists, you forgot to mention in your multiple reports) that the radiation the mammograms deliver might be the cause of future cancers. Now, that's true. You survive breast cancer at a young age and risk getting thyroid cancer from all the radiation that follows in the steadfast effort to make sure you don't have a follow-on breast cancer, or metastacize.

And, Ladies, don't read the New York Times, because that reporter (who will remain unnamed) has an agenda, or something. I just don't trust her. Besides, back in the day, I had the great misfortune to have had to check her material and well, hmm. But more importantly, when I was going through my treatments, a story she'd written had me all torqued and tangled up and it turned out that she just didn't have her facts straight and my dear oncologist, Dr. Fred Smith, had to straighten me out and explain the study to me in such way that one could only shake your head that the Times doesn't spend a little more time and effort checking her material first before publishing. (And that is a breathless and probably ungrammatical sentence.)

And while we're discussing bad-faith sources. Let's just send a huge, dark cloud to settle over any of those who would politicize this mashup. I'm talking about you, You Scourilous Republican Basturds, who would no sooner turn this into a debate over the state of health care reform. You are more deadly than the most viral of tumors and you should have to suck down a cupful of straight-up taxol without benefit of nausea medication as your punishment.

Here's the thing, I'm outside the committee's recommendations. My mother died of breast cancer in 1998 and so my sister and I started to have mammograms early. We do not have either of the known breast cancer genes. But then my mother's sister got it, too. So we obviously have some familial cancer issue. My daughters, too, are going to need to be ever vigilant as their father's mother and grandmother also had breast cancer. My two cancers--I had it in both breasts--came on quickly. I had skipped a mammogram. But my left breast had three tumors that weren't found on a mammogram. I found them and they were detected and confirmed by ultrasound. My right breast had the highly curable DCIS, which was detected by mammogram. That cancer detection probably saved my life because while everyone was focused on my right breast, I pointed out the irregularity in my left. And without all the fretting, I might not have done that.

So if you're asking me today, what I think. I just don't know. I want better answers and I want the people that I trust, Susan Love and Katherine Sebelius, and the American Cancer Society to get together and agree and make some sense of this mess. The American Cancer Society, this morning in the Post, said the data that the committee used was outdated. What? And Sebelius told CNN that the committee was not to be trusted because it was appointed by the Bush administration. What? So that gives me even more to scratch my head over.

Meanwhile, look at the picture. I was 45 years old. I was strong, healthy and fit. And I got breast cancer. And now I'm 49 and I'm a survivor and I got a couple of medals on pink ribbons for running the race. The Putterer

Friday, November 13, 2009

Mrs. Katharine S. White, My New Friend


Gardening in November, especially after a five-day steady rain, takes place indoors. Our first hard frost has yet to come and I can still find and snip handfuls of parsley, but largely it's back to planning for next year.

This week, while working until the point of breathlessness at my day job, I've been spending my evenings reading from a book that practically jumped into my hands last Saturday at a used library book sale at Brookside Gardens, "Onward and Upward in the Garden" by Katharine S. White (left, courtesy of Bryn Mawr), first published in 1958.

Katharine has become my new friend. Her eccentric gardening habits, wandering into the garden in a tweed suit and Ferragamos and coming back mindlessly muddied, I knew all about. I could sympathize, but I could hardly afford the dry cleaning. So when the book showed up on the "for-sale" cart, I was delighted. Now, I'm picturing this grand dame of gardening and literature spending her waning days hunched over her typewriting, hurriedly setting forth her own encyclopedia of gardening lore mastered over the dozens of seasons of her lifetime.

Katharine Sargeant White was the first fiction writer at the New Yorker and according to Bryn Mawr College, where her papers are stored, she was "one of the most important figures of the twentieth-century American literary world." Her second husband was New Yorker staff writer E. B. White (author of Charlottes' Web and co-author of Elements of Style). In 1925, she was hired as a part-time reader of manuscripts for the then-fledgling magazine. Six months later, she was promoted to editor of the Fiction Department, a position she held until her retirement in 1961. Her Bryn Mawr bio asserts that: "As the first fiction editor of the magazine, White not only exerted an unparalleled influence on the course of the development of the magazine, but on contemporary American literature itself." She apparently "discovered" many of the great writers of the century, John O'Hara and Vladimir Nabokov. She was also an ardent sponsor and promoter of the work of new writers, among them Mary McCarthy, John Cheever, John Updike, Irwin Shaw, Ogden Nash, Theodore Roethke, and Shirley Hazzard. She died in 1977 at the age of 84.

Last night, as I read into the midway point of my already, well-used library copy, I was pleased to receive an affirmation from her on behalf of all soil and word lovers, when she described a certain nurseyman, who had a penchant for writing. "A talent for the soil, a taste for writing and editorializing," she said, "the two interests often seem to go together." White was a connoisseur of the gardening catalogue. She wrote several articles at the end of her life for the magazine describing the offerings of the season's catalogues. And as a result, her nurserymen and women of the horticulture world blythly passed muster to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Updikes of the literary world.

Her high praise showered on the editorial content of the catalogues issuing forth from White Flower Farm, Jackson & Perkins, Burpee Seed, Brecks, Park, Bay State Nurseries, Swan Island Dahlias, Wayside and dozens of others mirrored almost exactly the line up of emails crowding my box every morning with their potent pleas for my next order. The online catalogues, of course like all the other print products of our time, have certainly overpowered and trounced their parent publications. But the very idea of settling in with dozens of catalogues on a cold winter day sent me off to the online catalogues to search for the tool that would allow me to order the old-fashioned copy on paper. White Flower Farm is now processing one, I hope, and sending it my way.

I told my husband that if I took Katharine White's book and randomly opened to some page, I'd stumble on some garden gem or literary moment of unparalleled delight and so the pages opened to reveal this fun poem. I'm not a flower arranger. I can't stand to the cut the flowers and bring them in because that only spells their certain doom. But I know a wonderful man who is married to a wonderful gal who fashions flowers for a living and because he reads my blog, I'm stealing the poem from Mrs. White's pages. (And I presume the two of you have already worked this out in your marriage.) "The Solitude of Mr. Powers" is by Mrs. White's old pal Ogden Nash.

Once there was a lonely man named Mr. Powers.
He was lonely because his wife fixed flowers.
Mr. Powers was a gallant husband, but whenever he
wished to demonstrate his gallantry
His beloved was always out with six vases and a bunch
of something or other in the pantry.
He got no conversation while they ate
Because she was always nippin' dead blossoms off the
center piece and piling them on her plate. . .

Finally he said Hey!
I might as well be alone with myself as alone with a lot
of vases that have to have their water replenished
every day.

And he walked off into the dawn,
And his wife just kept on refilling vases and never
noticed that he was gone.
Beware of floral arrangements;
They lead to marital estrangements.

The Putterer






Saturday, November 7, 2009

Fibonacci and the Flower


If I had been any good at math, I might not now be spending my days in a small cubicle writing inspirational text for tourists, but rather calculating the cosmic rays in the universe, or formulating algorithms to calculate the allowable maximum weight and pressure on the truss of a magnificent bridge.

Instead as an ordinary wife and mother with a gardening habit, I'm left to ponder numbers as they figure in design. The threes and fives rule was only recently revealed to me by my aunt one day as she helped me arrange my tchotkes and object d'art around the house. Things just look better, she had told me, if they are grouped in threes and fives. I'm sure my aunt has never heard of the Fibonacci sequence, and neither would've I, except for this day job I have, which is forever increasing my knowledge (to the power of threes and fives, I might add).

Fibonacci is a fun guy to know about, largely because his name trips so swimmingly from the tongue--Fib-Ah-Nachee. (I recommend him as fodder for cocktail parties, but don't blame your guests if he's quickly replaced by topics more Rahm and Axelrod.) The guy would have been a Renaissance man, but for the fact that he was born in the 12th Century.

Stand by for a quick Wiki: "Fibonacci grew up with a North African education under the Moors and later travelled extensively around the Mediterranean coast. He then met with many merchants and learned of their systems of doing arithmetic. He soon realized the many advantages of the "Hindu-Arabic" system over all the others. He was one of the first people to introduce the Hindu-Arabic number system into Europe-the system we now use today- based of ten digits with its decimal point and a symbol for zero: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 and 0." (Where would we be without Wikipedia?)

The fabulous Fib also figured out a sequence of numbers, which fall in such an order that each number is the sum of the two preceding numbers--1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, etc. It's basically my aunt's threes and fives rule, but her name isn't as much fun to say and she didn't learn math from the Moors (Mopes?). In the garden, Fibonacci is everywhere. The petals on the plant, (count them on P.'s picture of a trumpet flower just before it bloomed) the leaves on a branch, the layers on a pine cone--even the garden junk that I buy at Target harkens back to Fibonnaci. If you count the scallops on my bird bath, 13, it's all Fibonnacci.

And when we were out in Yosemite this summer, I started to notice, too, that the tree tops that lined up in my field of vision from where I sat sipping wine on the porch of the old Wawona Lodge were referencing my pal, Fib.

So the question is this. Is Fibonnacci mysteriously magical or maddingly precise? On the one hand, he lends a DaVinci Code style conspiracy to nature, suggesting perhaps that flowers and leaves are referencing secret codicils or cosmic signals from the gods. Or more likely, he brings order to chaos. Plants are, in fact, selecting their petal or leaf arrangements to optimize their success for a life that requires water, sun, soil and nutrients. It's a physiological thing. Just like a bunch of school children told to line up in a tight space. They'd squirm themselves into the lineup, pushing and shoving until they each had enough room for shoulders and knees, so they could stand tall for the count down. And if the teacher was smart, she'd teach them the Fibonnacci,
0,\;1,\;1,\;2,\;3,\;5,\;8,\;13,\;21,\;34,\;55,\;89,\;144 \ldots. The Putterer

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Eternal Spring in Springsteen


My arms are having trouble lifting the cereal spoon to my mouth this morning. I have to lower my mouth to meet the utensil coming up because I'm noticing a subtle quiver that could ultimately dump a mess into my lap. It comes from dancing straight through a three-hour Springsteen concert last night.

I'm loath to admit that I am one of those aging, hippy rocksters that knows every word to every Springsteen ballad, and knows just when to pound the air with my fist when the music blasts between choruses.

I, among thousands of gray-haired paunchy pals, stand transfixed by a Clarence Clemons saxophone solo and beg Bruce to give Nils just a few moments for his guitar riff/dance.

I've lost count of all the concerts that I've been to, but I can remember the first time I ever heard "Born to Run." I was 15 years old and driving with some high school kids to a church teen breakfast and feeling cooler than anyone else because it was the first time ever I was in a car that my dad wasn't driving. I can't even remember who those boys were. In my mind's eye, they are just hulking gray figures, but oozing sexy testosterone.

Yesterday, in anticipation of the night, I spent a few moments picking through the poetry of Bruce's songs. Behind the mighty guitar riffs and sound surges and fist pumping and high energy, are the most poignant of stories and tales that feel just like we lived them.

I am Mary, my dress waves; Wendy, strap your legs round these engines; and Rosie, come out tonight. Every song is a story and whether it's our experience or not, we are transported to the rough streets of Jersey with Jack, his pocket stuffed with his friend to face down the Rat. (If only I could have, I'd stop them. The two thousand dollars on the bed won't ever be worth it.) I'm up on the tilt o'whirl--didn't think I'd ever get off--my shirt stuck in the gear. I'm hanging with Spanish Johnny and taking my vacations in the stratosphere (and you know it's really hard to hold your breath).

And when the lights come on in the arena and the pretty girl down by the stage is dancing and pleading with the Boss to bring her up on the stage, I'm there in her skin, pretty as ever, Dancing in the Dark. He takes us there, he's the troubadour of our times. Our eternal Springsteen. (Photograph courtesy of Sandy Mayer via Facebook) The Putterer

Friday, October 30, 2009

A Beautiful Day for A Beautiful Girl


Today, twenty years ago, I became a mother. There is no greater high in life than the moment the pain of childbirth ends and the child's life begins. It seems almost wrong to take credit for that child when she has worked so hard to define herself and to grow into the incredibly lovely and loving creature that she is. But just as one lays out the designs for a garden to grow successfully through the seasons, the mother looks far into the future and makes plans for a life well lived.

On that day when C was born, I could have turned cartwheels down the hall of the hospital. I felt superhuman in strength and I was giddy with excitement. That little, tiny swaddled child slept peacefully beside me throughout that day, her perfect nose and eyes and tiny lips mesmerized me. And when my mother arrived and took C into her arms, I felt as if I had delivered the perfect gift to her. I have never seen such joy (that was my mother's middle name) play across her face. And little C and my mother bonded like no others have, I am sure, in that sweet moment.

Would that my mother could be with us today to meet this fabulous girl with the raven red curls, the broad shoulders and the self assurance that is tougher and stronger than the granite substrate of the Yosemite cliffs and boulders she scampered over this summer. She would meet a young woman that would give her a greater thrill and pride than on that day she first held her. Our C was an extension of ourselves, a tiny child harboring a piece of each of us as part of her DNA infrastructure, seeds of our individual selves, planted so that all three of us could walk gracefully together into the future. The Putterer

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Old Man Lear Sends Cordelia in Search of Herbicide


We humans are not perfect. The mistakes that we make are many and every one made becomes a tale for the telling. It's the opportunity that got a way; the road not taken; the deal that soured. It is our infallibilities that make us interesting. And in my case, I can embellish the tale and make my mistakes ever so deliciously entertaining.

But then there are those that never learn from their mistakes. These are the people that live angry lives. Sometimes they hurt others for no other reason except that they require your pain to soothe theirs. They are the toxic people of the world and to know or love one is one of life's trial. Like weeds in a garden, they persist in your life, wrapping their grasping tendrils slowly around your soul like bindweed curling around the stem of a hydrangea. You can yank on them, pull out their roots or spray them with herbicides, but they come back. I have a bitter, sad person in my life who tries hard to make his sorrow mine. His world is never hopeful. His disappointments are many. Even the highlights of his life are subsumed in his bitterness. And as he comes to the end of his life, his demons grow, and they wrestle with, and choke, every moment where a tiny bit of joy might seep in. Slowly, now he alienates one member after another of his family.

Recently, I let him have another opportunity. Ever hopeful that change would come, that a life lived should be about growth and learning, that eventually some wisdom and compassion might be his to own, I made the mistake of trying to forgive him. Maybe in the forest, he'll meet his Gloucester, but this Cordelia is in search of the herbicide and the weeding tool to banish him again from her world.

Another of my mistakes, but this one is a sad tale to tell and there are no embellishments that will make it any more palatable. The Putterer

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Dahlia Daze and Squirrels Baffled


Productivity this week was at an all-time high. I was the master of the zen of get-it-done. And so no time for a Garden Putter post. Though I posted on Around the Mall this week--after previewing a wonderful show at the Sackler, "Falnama: The Book of Omens."

This weekend will rush by, I have no doubt. But for now, in the early morning, I'm enjoying a beautiful fall scene through my huge windows. The trees are a delightful copper yellow with burnt orange hints and still plenty of forest green. In the garden, the leaf litter is piling up and every time, we step outside, we bring inside a trail of detritus. The dahlias are in their glory. Mine are the size of your fist and they are swollen and heavy, but somehow their seemingly delicate stems manage to hold them high. They blaze with color as if they can sense that they have just about 20 days to strut their stuff before the first hard frost. It's unusually warm and wet, but not raining, so the air clings and smells deliciously like decay and fall and chill and cooking and family warmth and holidays and presents and shopping and everything all at once. Tomorrow, J and I will head up to Pennsylvania to Harper's Ferry for a hike with our friends, who are birders, and to see the leaves.

Speaking of birds. Last night, as I stumbled home with my friends from another fabulous Friday night party (I was hardly sober, slurring my words and laughing at the messy, silly results), we all stopped to marvel at the decidedly overbuilt, over engineered, over structured bird pole that I bought from a picture I'd seen on the Internet. When you buy on faith and hopefulness guided only by a picture, a testimonial and some barely acknowledged measurements, you have no idea really of the true scale of these things. When the enormous box (and the surprising shipping costs) arrives at your door, you keep the faith. So, a good idea at the time becomes, under the influence of many hours of scotch, tequila and gin, a huge giggle-inducing structure planted now firmly in my tiny front yard.

Now I had to defend my actions, bolstered by online testimonials, but undone by the lime-laced liquors I had consumed. Squirrels will hardly attempt to climb this behemoth. (And I must get a picture to share.) It comes complete with a patented squirrel baffle that hangs like an enormous cow bell from the pole. Rigged with a set of interior springs, it is an engineering marvel.

My friends, my husband, my brother and I stood there last night laughing so hard at its ridiculousness, we could barely breathe. The Putterer

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Think Like a Plant


Today, I'm going to try to think like a plant. I don't know what that means or how to do it, but it was advice doled out by gardening maven Barbara Damrosch in her newly updated The Garden Primer, which I just got in the mail yesterday. Presumably, Damrosch means that everything will just work out handily for you if you make like a plant. Incidently, I bought the Damrosch book because I enjoy her weekly columns in the Washington Post Home section. But I was a little disappointed because her book really is a primer, and a lot of the information in it was fairly basic. It's kind of rewarding, however, to think that I've moved up a notch in gardening stature.

But still, I liked the idea of thinking like a plant. I should think a plant would have a very sharp focus and clarity to it. Its goal simple: anchor roots deep, eye-gaze high.

I can't focus deeply anymore. There are so many small, superficial items that consume my time. Before we were involved in so many various ventures, I was an immersion girl. I would take on a topic and completely immerse myself in its complexity. I could travel in time to the places I was studying--the pit at Fort Pillow, the trenches at the Somme, the apex of a maelstrom. I'd pour over generals' reports at the Library of Congress, draw out diagrams of troops and cavalry, surround myself with Atlases and other reference materials. The immersion experience has its lingering effects. On Thirteenth Street, most mornings on my way to work, I can make out the figure of Abraham Lincoln on the parapet at Fort Stevens. His top hat is clearly visible as he surveys the enemy troops bivouacked just up the road by Walter Reed hospital. "Get down you damn fool," I always warn him, as we drive by.

I am completely engaged today in the pace that we keep. It feels like a challenge to be up for anything. Drop one thing. Take on another. The constant messaging, email, aim, Facebook, phone, cell. The multiple publishing opportunities, blog, newsletter, web page, video, photo gallery, and of course, magazine. It creates an excitement that curls around your spine and creeps into your neck and then, it turns to tension. And at the end of the day, there are small piles all over the desk, things started but not finished, ideas not pursued, emails unfinished. Little shoots and roots laid down in the soil, some will grow on their own, others will perish. But nothing big is really accomplished.

The picture was taken of my dwarf cavendish banana tree about a week ago. I bought the plant on a whim for $6.99 at Home Depot. It was a just a tiny thing when I planted it with maybe, two leaves on it. All summer it grew on the pot on my deck. I did yoga next to it a couple of times and I loved looking through its dense leaf from underneath when the sun was high above. Last weekend, I pulled it out of the pot, knocked the soil from its roots and wrapped them in a plastic bag and laid the plant on the back shelf of the garage, on top of the beach blanket. Its leaves are close to the heating duct that warms the room above. I'm hoping it will over winter there nicely and next year I'll replant it. Wouldn't it be cool if it grew some bananas? The Putterer

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

My Birthday

This is anemone, or Thimbleweed. It blooms throughout September and even on my birthday, which was yesterday, Columbus Day, a day off from work. It grows on a tall stem and it blooms from a tight formation at the tip that resembles a thimble. I have a large mass of them, but the deer ate a number of them. Mrs. Dana says they are "chiefly striking by reason of long, erect flower stalks."

Yesterday, P went to school. J went shopping. I went to the garden. And worked and worked and worked, for hours. I raked leaves and chopped them for compost. I put away stuff for winter. I clipped and cleaned up the brown stalks of the tall yellows (cleared out six bags of biomass). I dug up a hosta the size of an elephant and divided it in four ways with my bread knife, and replanted three and gave away one. I pulled the banana tree (dwarf cavendish--Musa acuminata) out and wrapped its roots in a plastic bag and laid it away in the back of the garage.

It was chilly, but I was sweating and ended up taking off two of my layered jackets. It was satisfying. And today it's back to the office.

P.S. I read that Katharine White, the fiction editor at the New Yorker from 1925 to 1960, used to garden in a tweed suit and Farengamos. She'd return to the house hours later, kick off her mud-caked shoes and then have to send her suit to the cleaners. Something about being out there, it's all-consuming.

P.S.S. I just went out to the garden this morning and the anemone have lost all their petals. They must have been hanging in there just for my special day. The Putterer

Sunday, October 11, 2009

A Chill in the Air, Part II

My friend, Elizabeth, has correctly identified my mother's flower. Her comment on my last post sent me into a paroxysm of researches. After exhausting the internet, I turned to a couple of my favorite books.

Chief among them is a well-used (scratch that, I mean to say, it is practically impossible to use because its spine is cracked and the cover is falling off and the end pages are unattached) copy of How to Know the Wild Flowers by Mrs. William Starr Dana. My Mrs. Dana once belonged to J's Aunt Edna. It is dated 1906 and it is filled with Edna's footnotes ("For daisies--Indiana-Lincoln (#3) to Irving PR Blvd. Transfer West to Milwaukee Ave. Transfer South (Cicero) Ride about 5 blocks. Walk east.") The green volume is laced with dozens of botanical specimens pressed into the pages as if Aunt Edna was trying to collect one for one each and every of the book's entries.

I keep Mrs. Dana in a pride of place on my living room bookshelf. But these last few hours, I've been using the work in the way she intended.

Turtle-head (Chelone glabra) is of the Figwort family. It will grow one to seven feet high. Its stem is smooth, upright and branching. Its leaves are opposite, lance-shaped and toothed. Its flowers are white or pinkish, and grow in a spike or close cluster.

Of the turtle-head, Mrs. Dana says: "It seems to have been my fate to find the flowers which the botany relegates to 'dry, sandy soil' flourishing luxuriantly in marshes; and to encounter the flowers which by right belong to 'wet woods' flaunting themselves in sunny meadows. This cannot be attributed to the natural depravity of inanimate objects, for what is more full of life than the flowers? --and no one would believe in their depravity except perhaps the amateur-botanist who is endeavoring to master the different species of golden-rods and asters. Therefore it is pleasant to record that I do not remember ever having met a turtle-head, which is assigned by the botany to 'wet places,' which had not gotten as close to a stream or a marsh or a moist ditch as it well could without actually wetting its feet. The flowers of this plant are more odd and striking than pretty. Their appearance is such that their common name seems fairly appropriate. I have heard unbotanical people call them 'white closed gentians.' "

Well, Mrs. Dana, my turtle-head is thriving, rather flaunting itself, in a sunny spot, at the top of a berm and not anywhere close to where its feet could be wetted by a stream. Unbotanically, I thought it was a snapdragon. Thanks Elizabeth for setting me straight. And thanks too to you, Mrs. Dana. The Putterer

Saturday, October 10, 2009

A Chill in the Air


Today, the kids are playing that perennial game that kids play in the fall. The rules are simple: run around like crazy and try to catch a leaf before it hits the ground. It's one of those instinctive games that kids are genetically programed to do generation after generation. And any nearby adult witness suffers an acute attack of nostalgia, suddenly jolted into a memory of what it was like to effortlessly hurl body around in the cool breeze, arms and legs loose, nose full of the scent of autumn decay. It's the kind of day to remember to call your sister and ask what she has in mind for Thanksgiving, or a day to consider mixing up the pie crust and freezing it for the festivities ahead. It's the kind of day for heavy cream-based soups, chicken stews and a college football game. Is it right for a former Badger to root for the Buckeyes, just because all her money along with her daughter goes there?

This is a plant that grew in my mother's garden. She called it a Monk's Hood, but I'm certain she was wrong. The Monk's hood has leaves that are differentiated into a number of points. I'm guessing it's some kind of a snapdragon. I've moved it around a number of times to try to find its optimal home and I think last season, I finally achieved that. It's now living happily at the back of the garden and multiplying itself into quite a display.

In the time it's taken me to the write this, the rain has stopped and a little sunlight is trying to shine through. Out the window a leaf is gently falling from high up in the tulip poplars. I'm taking P and her friend to a festival to shop for holiday presents and then we'll snuggle in tonight for some football and post-season baseball. The Putterer

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Love of My Life: Eggplant


I love eggplant. I can't get enough of it. Whenever we order out for our Friday night meals, my friends always pick out an eggplant dish especially for me.

This year, I stumbled across an eggplant plant at Behnkes. It was kind of late in the spring when I planted it and I wasn't sure if I'd have any success. But it has sweetly delivered about five good-sized eggplants this summer, or more elegantly in French, aubergine. This one is likely the last that the plant will offer me (though there is one blossom coming in now, and if I count the weeks until the first freeze--about five. Well, maybe she'll pop out another one for me).

Now, here is a funny story dredged from a long ago horrible time when I was smitten with my first real case of love. There is nothing worse than unrequited teenage love. The boy was in my third grade class and I fell deeply in love with him the first time I saw him. I harbored a painful passion for him for years. Maybe, as I recall, all the way through sixth grade. I did terrible things like phone him and hang up when he answered. I would sit starring at him in class. Sadly, he had no interest in me. I think he even called me Pyface. (I hated when the boys called me that.) So I made up a name for him. I channeled my love into a huge force of hate and loathing and worked up a powerful contempt for this boy, the former love of my life.

To ratify my contempt, I came up with a name for him that was certain to convey my utter and total disregard for him. His new first and last name were derived from the two most vile, repugnant vegetables that a mother could ever set before a kid to eat at dinner--"Broccoli Eggplant." Thus baptized one day on the playground, his moniker quickly caught on. The other girls on the playground and I used it to create a song, and later, a line dance to go with it. It was a chant that I'm sure unnerved him, and possibly caused his mother to phone the principal.

Today, the boy is a nice man who sells real estate. I wonder if he likes eggplant as much as I do?

My kids love eggplant, too. The other day, C. called from college and asked if I would please send her the recipe for her favorite eggplant dish. So here it is. The Putterer


Maccheroni Al Forno Alla Rustica

Ingredients
14 oz maccheroni
vegetable oil
1 aubergine, peeled and cut into 1/4 inch thick slices
salt
2 oz butter, plus extra for the baking dish
4 oz thinly sliced onion
12 oz tinned whole peeled tomatoes, with their juice, coursely chopped
freshly ground black pepper
4 tbsps freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano chees
4 pz Italian smoked mozzarella (use fresh if smoked mozz is unavailable), very thinly sliced
Preparation
1. Pour vegetable oil into a saute pan until it comes 1/2 in up the side. Place over a high heat. Once the oil has become very hot, carefully slip in as many slices of aubergine as will comfortably fit. As the bottom of each slice turns golden brown, remove from the pan and transfer to a plate covered with kitchen paper. Continue frying untill all the aubergine is done. Sprinkle with salt.
2. Pour 7 pints of water into a large saucepan or pot and place over a high heat.
3. Melt the butter in another saute pan over a medium heat. Add the onion and cook until it softens and turns a rich golden colour.
4. Add the tomatoes, season with salt and black pepper and cook until the tomatoes have reduced and separated from the butter. Remove from the heat and set aside.
5. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
6. When the water for the pasta is boiling, add 1 tablespoon of salt and drop in the pasta all at once, stirring well.
7. When the pasta is molto al dente (about 1 minute away from being al dente), drain and toss with the sauce and the grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese.
8. Smear the bottom of a shallow baking dish with butter and pour in about half the pasta, spreading it out evenly. Cover with all the aubergine slices and half the mozzarella slices. Pour in the remaining pasta, and place the rest of the mozzarella slices on top.
9. Place on the upper shelf of the oven. Bake for about 15-20 minutes or until a light golden crust forms on top. Remove from the oven and allow to rest for 10 minutes before serving.
Source: The Classic Pasta Cookbook by Giuliano Hazan

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A Plant with Attitude

This weekend was satisfying. I did an enormous amount of cleanup, fix up, put away and get it done. On Monday morning, I took the dog out and strolled through the garden and all was order. Nice way to start the week. (My hip hurts like hell, though, and I felt exhausted all day yesterday.)

I can't remember the name of this plant. I never can for some reason. It just won't stick. So I call it the Plant with Attitude. They are a mainstay in my garden and this time of year they come into their own. When we traveled to Africa, they were all over the place. If I only gardened with Maryland natives, I'd have to forgo this beauty.

I contend that the Plant with Attitude is a better name than whatever it might be called. I remember once I was in Behnke's with my brother. That was that unforgettable day that my mother died and C. and I just couldn't figure out what to do, so we went to the nursery. I wanted to buy one of these and of course, had forgotten the name. So I asked for the Plant with Attitude and the nurseryman knew exactly what I was talking about.

I'm all attitude as I march toward my 49th birthday. It's all good and it just seems to get better. My husband, my family, my friends. I'm going to close out my forties contendedly. And when I'm dead and gone, they might not remember my name, but everybody will know who that Girl with Attitude was. The Putterer

Friday, October 2, 2009

Everything that Dies, Some Day Comes Back

October and it's all done. This picture of my phlox David (white) and Veronica (lavender) is old, stored for a future post back in August. Outside this morning, the remnants of phlox petals are gently drifting away.

The 2009 garden might have been one of my best. The dependable rainstorms throughout the season meant I rarely watered (I think once or twice this whole summer). In fact, the biomass that I've raked and weeded out of the garden this summer is probably a record. The deer that came through must have encountered the deer resistant plants that I'd put in, and decided to graze elsewhere. His damage was minimized by a flush of growth. The family of wrens that took up residence in my birdhouse hopefully made it to adulthood. The goldfinches have moulted. Their gorgeous yellow feathers have turned an autumn brown. The banana tree in the pot on the deck is probably confused by the cool evening temperatures. (What am I going to do with it?) The apple tree never produced but at least it's not growing sideways anymore. The peach tree survived the gypsy moth infestation. The Fourth of July tomatoes delivered all through August. The herbs and peppers are still holding fast. And the eggplant plant gave me two or three lovely Aubergine.

Now comes the process of closing it all out before the first freeze in mid-November. The fall chores sometimes come with a self-imposed anxiety to rake and clean and put away. The crush of fall social obligations, sports games and school activities. The temptation to work late in the evenings and go in on weekends to meet the press deadline for goSmithsonian. All of this conflicts with garden work and chores. I have to remember that no one cares if the plants turn brown and fall over, and the leaves gather on the lawn. It's the way it is supposed to be and I need to move slowly, deliberately, one step, one season, at a time. The Putterer

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Fall Days Make for a Perfect Pepper

The temperature fell last night. It's fall officially. J will work late tonight to close out the fiscal year. My mother's birthday follows, and then mine and J's the week after. Leaves are spotting the ground, which is damp, and the grass is thinning. Two pumpkins are on the porch and as is the custom at my house, their fall orange flare will clash with the pots that hold the springtime purple and pink blooms that I can't bear to pitch.

On Sunday, with minutes to spare before a darkening sky brought another deluge, I raced to mow the lawn. The clumps of wet grass are still out on the sidewalk. I can't possibly find enough time to clean everything up before an autumn gust blows in more detritus.

It's the way of fall. I mourn the passing of summer, but I love the coming of cool days. My jeans fit loosely after a summer of exercise and my arms long for the warmth of a soft sweatshirt. Everything is in order with the girls back in their school routine. Early morning coffee, fast departure, dog is walked, house locked up for the day. No deviations, no late night teen parties. Chaos over.

In the garden, the parsley is plentiful, the peppers are turning a deep red and a burnt yellow, a thin growth of arugula is coming in from the seed that I threw down about ten days ago. There's a sweet bush of lavender that anchors one corner of the farmer box balanced by the thick bunch of chives at the other corner.

I've stored up some grass to salt the next pile of leafy compost. And the compost from last fall is wormy, warm and black.

It's time to stop blogging and blast off to work. That is the routine of fall. The Putterer

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Now I Want Chickens


Meet Caley, my dog. She is not a farm animal and she has no job to do other than to sit artfully around the house as if Diego Velazquez might happen by. Caley would be most annoyed if I were to follow through on this morning's vaguery--to buy backyard chickens, though they would certainly upstage her productivity.

But just the other day, J and I were driving home on a nearby street, when he suddenly lurched his head around and exclaimed that he'd just seen a flock of chickens in someone's yard. He was incredulous; suggesting that it must be a recent immigrant family that brought them in. I informed him, however, that raising chickens was the new, best thing in gardening. Fresh eggs; ready, steady fertilizer; and even something to throw in a pot, if for some reason you couldn't walk the few blocks to Whole Foods. We pondered the idea together and considered turning around to go gawk at the menagerie, but we had to hurry home.

This morning, I got up earlier than I really should and settled in with my New Yorker and found Susan Orlean (I have a secret crush on her only because I just wish that by now in my career I was as famous a writer as she is). And of course, she's one-upped me again, because she's moved to the country and bought chickens. And the chickens are lending her a special credibility in the arena of gardening elite and domestic goddess. "When one of my hens laid my first home-grown egg," she writes, "I was as proud as if I had been attending my daughter's bat mitzvah." I know this emotion. I've shared it many times. When my first tomato ripened. When my mixture of grass and leaves and kitchen waste turned to black compost gold. When my eggplant plant (is that what you call it?) delivered. This is the ecstasy the domestic goddess achieves when her efforts bear fruit.

So calculating my latest vaguery. . .That would include purchase and upkeep of a chicken coop ($1,000, because everything costs $1,000 to begin with); nurturing and care of said chickens (do you walk them on a leash?); veterinarian bills (rabies shots?); neighbor complaints (attorney fees?); J's protestations (divorce attorney?), and of course, Caley's feelings (the elite Cavalier King Charles Spaniel's bark is pitched at an ear-drum-shattering spike). . . my first egg would likely be costly.

The truth of the matter is that Orlean, because she's such a great writer and observer of life and culture, nailed it right were it hurts. Pegged me with this provocative observance, that chickens seem to go "hand-in-glove with the post-feminist reclamation of other farmwife domestic arts--knitting, canning, quilting. . . . newly appreciated as a declaration of self-sufficiency, a celebration of handiwork."

My hero is a cynic. True scorn for the post-feminist working/wife/mother/hand-maiden still to male dominance. Us girls, clinging to the hope that we might have stepped up and out of our domestic roles and always hoping to briefly touch on Orlean-like fame. Oh, if only, we just had 37 more hours in the day to do it all, and raise chickens, too. The Putterer