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