Freshly Minted

April 12th, 2012

“You know they say snakes won’t go around mint,” Laura Dorsey remarked casually.

“They won’t?” I cried.

Being of a scientific bent, Laura wasn’t about to give me any gold-plated guarantee but she did tell me this story. When they first settled their old house on the hill in Cherokee County they kept finding snake skins on the fireboard in the living room and this struck cold terror to the hearts of the young girls in the family, as it would to mine if I knew a snake was sneaking into my house unbeknownst to me to make his seasonal change of clothes.

“I planted mint all around the foundations and by the steps and the snake skins didn’t appear again,” Laura related.

However the snake himself showed up in the tool house. He was harmless, a kind of pest repellent in fact, but he also repelled Laura so she planted mint around the tool house. She never saw the snake there again.

“Where did he go, I wonder?” I mused, thinking of distant mintless regions.

“To the privy,” said Laura. “I’m planting mint around it now.”

~~~ The Sweet Apple Gardening Book by Celestine Sibley

It was with this passage in mind that I planted mint next to the side door.

Kentucky Colonel Spearmint

Kentucky Colonel Spearmint

There’s a small porch there with an open space under it, just large enough that I can’t see all the way underneath. It looked like a snaky place to me and one where I was planning to spend a lot of time.When Celestine Sibley wrote the words above, she was looking for empty places to deploy her exuberant surplus mint, but so far I haven’t had that problem. I pull up some stray runners in the spring, but that’s about the extent of my efforts to control its growth. I do use it a lot in the kitchen. With our weirdly warm winter and spring this year, it never really died all the way to the ground and we have plenty to use now – so early in the spring.

Easter Dinner was glazed ham, mashed potatoes with sour cream and chives, and peas with mint. The only garden components were chives and mint. I think I’ve mentioned peas and mint before. It’s something that I make often and usually with frozen peas (yeah, I know, sorry, but it’s easy). Put frozen peas in a microwave-safe lidded casserole. Add salt, pepper and butter to taste (more butter is better, up to a point). Microwave until the peas are tender – if you buy petit pois this only takes a couple minutes. Sprinkle with finely chopped fresh mint, and taste to see if it needs more butter, salt, or pepper.

I used ‘Kentucky Colonel’ Spearmint for this, but I also have Chocolate Mint and Peppermint growing by the side door.



Chocolate Mint

Chocolate Mint

This post is my contribution to the first Garden-to-Table-Challenge of 2012. And hopefully not my last, but this year the kitchen garden is going to be much smaller. Celestine Sibley and I reached the same conclusion, taking about the same amount of time to do it:

It’s funny how long it takes you to see a perfectly obvious thing. For the first half-dozen years in the country I wanted a big garden and everything I had ever heard about to be growing in it—the delicate spring lettuces, endive, escarole and romaine, radishes and tender young peas, new potatoes and all the summer vegetables—black-eyed peas and butter beans, okra, squash, tomatoes and great purple eggplant. I saw no reason why I couldn’t have strawberries and asparagus and blueberries and raspberries and blackberries and grapes and watermelons and cucumbers and cantaloupe.

The plain truth was that although I had the space—five acres mostly given over to young pines and hardwoods—I had neither the time nor the help to handle a big garden.

It was a terrible temptation to sit there and read and and sip coffee before work in the mornings and to sit there and sip something cool and visit with friends in the late afternoons but how could I with that disheveled, sun-baked garden standing there shaming me for my neglect?

“There just isn’t TIME enough!” I used to wail to anybody who would listen.

And then I remembered Mary Kistner and her one-woman garden.

“It’s so small!” I cried to Mary and she took me around and showed me that it was indeed small, tailored to supply fresh vegetables in season for two people and occasional guests.

She had worked out a system, probably after a little period for trial and error, that gave her time for other activities, but assured that in the growing season she would always have fresh vegetables for the table, herbs to season them and flowers to ornament the yard…

That’s my goal. Not to give up the kitchen garden, but to make it of a size where I don’t feel either frazzled or ashamed all summer long. I’m still seeking that proper size and contents. Right now the too-big garden is a mess of weeds that never stopped growing over our warm winter. Every time I looked at it, I felt so discouraged that I stopped looking at it. As a result, there won’t be many spring crops this year. There are still perennial herbs to use (like mint), but they’ll be seasoning store-bought vegetables until at least early summer.

Celestine Sibley was wrong about one thing though. I reached for the outdoor faucet handle one day last fall, and jumped back suddenly when I saw a black snake slithering along the house foundation—right through the mint.

Riverbend Park Wildflowers

April 4th, 2012

Go there today!

Virginia Bluebells

Virginia Bluebells and Paw Paw flowers

The Virginia Bluebells are at peak bloom along the Potomac River in Riverbend Park. Maybe even a little past peak.

In almost 26 years of living in Fairfax County, I had never visited Riverbend Park. Yesterday was a gorgeous day to see it for the first time.

The number of bluebells isn’t quite as overwhelming as at Bull Run Park, but having the Potomac River in the background is very adequate compensation.

Virginia Bluebells along the Potomac

Virginia Bluebells along the Potomac

The flora seems a bit more diverse than Bull Run Park too, or at least different. I saw lots of woodland phlox, various violets, spring beauties, trilliums, and paw paw flowers. And many Zebra Swallowtail butterflies, but none would pose for a photo. (Paw Paw is the host plant for Zebra Swallowtail caterpillars.)



Turning inland away from the river, you enter a cathedral of tulip trees.

Tulip Trees

Fresh green foliage on majestic tulip trees

I walked upriver from the Visitor’s Center on a section of the Potomac Heritage Trail, and then inland back to the Visitor’s Center on the Follow the Hollows Trail. About 2 miles of easy walking.

I apologize for the not-so-great photos, but I was playing with an HDR app on my phone. A good app, I think, but not really suited to handheld photography. Anyhow, you really should go see for yourself!

Edible Alliums and Row Covers

March 25th, 2012

Now, about those alliums I promised 2 posts ago. It seems to me that garlic is a crop that prefers warm winters. If you think about the places around the world where garlic is used in traditional cooking, most of those places don’t have very cold winters. So I had the bright idea to trick the garlic into thinking it was wintering in a warm climate and see if I get a bigger, better, and earlier harvest. And naturally, the year I decide to do this turns out to be the warmest winter in memory. So it hasn’t been much of a test. But, nevertheless…

Garlic and shallots under row cover

Garlic and shallots under row cover

I draped a double layer of Agribon 19 – a non-woven agricultural fabric – over supports made of rebar (concrete reinforcing rods) and plastic pipe. The rebar stakes are about 12″ long and pounded into the ground about 4 to 6″. We cut the plastic pipe into lengths that would give us a hoop about 2 or 2 1/2 feet tall. Insert one end of the pipe over the rebar stake, arch it over the bed, and place the other end over the stake on the opposite side. I sort of gather and pleat the fabric at the ends of the row and secure it with a binder clip or a clothespin. Then weight down the edges of the fabric with rocks or concrete pavers or branches from the woods or whatever else is handy.

On 28 November 2011, in the bed you see above, I planted ‘Thai Red’ garlic, ‘French Red’ garlic, ‘Ajo Rojo’ garlic (I like red) and ‘Nootka Rose’ garlic. I also planted some red Asian shallots from the grocery store, and a new batch of potato onions from an eBay seller from Tennessee. Everything except the potato onions began to grow almost immediately after planting. Well, actually the Asian shallots were sprouting on my kitchen counter before I planted them. There was so much green growth that I was afraid it would all freeze if the weather turned colder, and so I mulched with straw several weeks after planting.

Thai Red Garlic

Thai Red Garlic

Everything appears to be happy and healthy under the row cover. The potato onions have only recently sprouted, but everything else has been green and growing all winter. But, with such a warm winter, and with no control group (dumb, I know), I can’t say whether the row cover made a difference.

In fact, take a look at these White Multiplier onions that have been growing in the open ground all winter.

Hardy White Bunching Onions

White Multiplier Onions, 17 March 2012

They even have flower buds.

Hardy White Bunching Onions

White Multiplier Onions, flower buds

Those White Mulitpliers are excellent scallions (aka green onions or spring onions), but that’s all they do. I mean they never make a big bulb. In a normal year, they sprout early in the spring, give us scallions for several weeks, then the tops begin to die down when the weather gets hot. They’re dormant over the summer, sprouting again in late summer or early fall. The center of each onion divides and divides, making a very large clump if they aren’t dug and replanted.  I have no idea what schedule they’ll follow in this strangely warm winter and now spring – they were green all winter.

But I know another way to get early scallions. For the last few years, I’ve deliberately left some mature seed-grown onions in the ground over the winter. Each onion sprouts and provides us with a clump of scallions early in the spring – much earlier than planting sets or more seedlings. The variety I like best so far for this purpose is ‘White Lisbon’, but any onion seems to work this way. I currently have ‘White Lisbon’, ‘Yellow of Parma’ and ‘Red Long Florence’, all grown from seed last spring.

White Lisbon scallions

'White Lisbon' scallions

Above are some I harvested on March 17. These too sprouted in the fall and never really stopped growing over the warm winter, and without the benefit of any kind of protection from the weather except last year’s straw mulch. The only problem I’ve had is that deer/rabbits/something occasionally chew them to the ground.

I plan to repeat the row cover experiment next winter – with a control group – but so far it appears to be beneficial. If nothing else, it keeps the critters from munching on the onions/shallots. I’ll keep you posted as the season progresses.


February 22nd, 2012

I know I said the next post would be about the various edible alliums I’m growing under row covers this winter, but we escaped winter for the Florida Keys last week and the pictures from there are much prettier than straw and row covers.

I felt like a total newbie looking at plants down there. What’s that? What’s this? So many things I’d never seen before.

This Key West flowering tree caught my eye. The flowers looked so much like azaleas to me, but then I saw a bean-like seed pod and knew that I was looking in the wrong plant family. Eventually I identified it as Hong Kong Orchid Tree (Bauhinia blakeana). The common name is misleading because it is in the Fabaceae family, not Orchidaceae.

Bauhinia blakeana

Hong Kong Orchid Tree (Bauhinia blakeana)

Bauhinia blakeana

Hong Kong Orchid Tree. Different tree, sunnier day.

I remembered the banyan trees from a previous visit. This one grew a natural arch over the driveway.

Banyan Arch

Banyan Arch

Lots of palm trees, of course. We walked a nature trail in Windley Key Fossil Reef state park, were I learned to recognize the Florida Thatch Palm.

Florida Thatch Palm

Florida Thatch Palm (Thrinax radiata)

In this case, I knew the plant (red impatiens, ho-hum), but not the butterfly.

Blue Morpho

Blue Morpho, Red Impatiens

They have one of those butterflies-in-the-conservatory tourist attractions in Key West. You all know I like butterflies, right? I recognized none of these butterflies, either. They wanted us to buy a laminated guide for another $2 (or was it $4?), but we weren’t inclined to give them any more money, so we just marveled in ignorance. I did look up the Blue Morpho later on, just because it was so big and colorful. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a nice clear photo of the pretty side of the wings to show you.

Blue Morpho

Blue Morpho

You may be familiar with US Route 1 in the DC area? This is where it starts.

US Route 1 Mile 0

US Route 1, Mile 0

Or ends.

US Route 1 End

US Route 1, end

Feral Chickens

Feral Chickens

So a chicken walks into a bar…No joke, I actually saw this happen. Feral chickens are everywhere in Key West, but the one that walked into the bar was domesticated – somebody’s pet. I didn’t get a photo of that one, but I did take a picture of the door it walked through.

The Porch

The Porch, a funky craft-beer bar

Vacations have to end, though.

Key West Sunset

Key West Sunset

California Dreamin’, Part 2

January 25th, 2012

So after the wedding, we stayed a few extra days in California to revisit some places we’d been to long ago, and find some new favorites. In one of the those totally serendipitous moments that makes travel fun, we drove through downtown Petaluma past an elegant old building with painted lettering on the windows announcing that it was a Seed Bank. Huh? You mean like real seeds? What is this place? Well, we were on our way to somewhere else, so we didn’t stop.

But I looked it up later on the internet and said to the spouse “Damn, we should have stopped.” It turned out to be the west coast headquarters of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. They opened in 2009 in the renovated Sonoma County National Bank building, originally built in 1926. So we returned the next day, and it was well worth the detour. The store sells not just seeds, but books, magazines, tools, gifty-type stuff, etc. A vegetable gardeners’ paradise. I was too overwhelmed to even take pictures, but here are a few that other people have posted on Flickr.

Petaluma Seed Bank - inside view

The Seed Bank 1-9-11_3591

I was not too overwhelmed to shop, however. We spent quite a while oohing and aahing and then picked up some pepper seeds, radish seeds, melon seeds, cucumber seeds, flower seeds, magazines, and one bulb of Thai Red garlic. The seeds are awaiting spring, but the garlic is now growing under a row cover in the Tangled Branches kitchen garden.

More about edible alliums and row covers in the next post.

California Dreamin’

January 13th, 2012

…on such a winter’s day.[1] Actually winter has been unusually pleasant this year and I’m sure it will soon punish me for saying that.

We traveled to California in September for a wedding and a few days vacation and I just couldn’t get the blog restarted when we got back. But not because I don’t have anything wonderful to report – I do! We have happy memories of the trip – lots of fabulous food, wine, beer, cider (is there a theme here?) and even some plant-related tourist stops. More about those later. This post is about the beautiful bride’s interesting, lovely, and sentimental bouquet.

Bride's BouquetLovely is obvious.

And so interesting upon closer observation. How many wedding bouquets have you seen that feature cabbage, kale, and succulents? And garden flowers like Love-Lies-Bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus)? As a person who is expected to know something about plants, I often get asked to identify things. So when someone inquired what was that turquoise flower in the bouquet, I was stumped by the question because 1) I didn’t notice any turquoise flowers, and 2). I can’t think of any turquoise flowers. But my reputation may still be intact because it wasn’t a flower and only sort of turquoise – leafy gray/blue/green (does that color have a name?) rosettes of some succulent which I’m guessing is an Echeveria. Anybody want to help me out here? However, I was truly stumped by the cabbage and kale. The brain is expecting flowers and it will find them even if they aren’t there. Here’s a better view of the cabbage (top right) and fringy kale (just below and to the right of the cabbage).

Brides's Bouquet

But I think the sentiment behind some of the choices is the nicest of all. Callas and cabbages were two prominent and fondly remembered plants in the bride’s grandmother’s garden.

[1] Everything you ever wanted to know about the song “California Dreamin'”, courtesy of NPR.

Pentapetes phoenicia

September 20th, 2011

Pentapetes label…is the mystery plant in the previous post. The flowers make me think of Abutilon – they have that nodding look – and they’re both in the Malvaceae family.

It’s native to south Asia, where it’s a weed (of course) of rice fields. That reminds me that the Lantana standard I so admired at Monticello is also a weed in India (and probably not trained to a standard there).

Thomas Jefferson may have acquired his Pentapetes seeds from Bernard McMahon, the Philadelphia nurseryman. There is apparently a range of red-to-pink shades. I only saw the red one, but pink is mentioned on the Monticello website.

Some links: