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
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 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