Tangled Branches: Cultivated
happenings in and around my zone 6b gardens in northern Virginia and in central Virginia
Thursday, November 29, 2007
When I first opened the cover of Green Thoughts by Eleanor Perényi my heart sank. Approximately 270 pages of small type, no illustrations, very little white space, and no coherent story to draw me along - just a series of essays arranged alphabetically by topic. How on earth was I going to finish this in time for the Garden Bloggers' Book Club November meeting? We still hadn't had a freeze when I began reading, so there was lots to do in the garden plus the holidays coming up....
But I pressed on and I'm glad I did. It's a marvelously dense book, and I mean that as a compliment. Open it to any page and you'll find something interesting, useful, or just opinionated (but learned and well-considered opinions).
A few examples.
Have you read The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon? Have you heard of it? I hadn't. It's very interesting and now on my wish list. Ms. Perényi quotes extensively from it in the essay titled Seeing Eye.
Did you know that in Italy in the sixteenth century trees were pruned and trained to form treehouses? That's really interesting. I wonder how long it would take to grow a good treehouse. An illustration would have been nice here, and she had an engraving in front of her as she wrote.
To me, the most useful tips were in her long section about herbs. I've always been skeptical about putting fresh herbs in the freezer, but she says "Dill...freezes well, especially the fall crop with bulkier foliage. I freeze the stalks in bunches and when I need a tablespoon or two, remove the whole thing and clip from the end..." I can tell you that this works because I tried it after reading about it. Last night's baked potato was topped with fresh-frozen dill. On the subject of the nomenclature and identity of oreganos and majorams, she ends up as uncertain as I, but certain that the plant sold as oregano in the US does not taste like pizza.
A good deal of the book is given over to opinion. Many of these read like blog rants and take the form of "Why can't we....
- ...find skillful gardeners for hire?
- ...have clover in the lawn?
- ...procure seeds of better vegetables?
- ...find precise instructions for pruning and grafting?
She likes her gardens more formal than I do, but she uses her preference to make the point a garden is a human rearrangement of nature and the skills needed to create a formal garden are vanishing from disuse.
When it comes preferences and opinion, she's particularly vehement in her dislike of Miss Ellen Willmott. I hadn't known much about Miss Willmott before reading this book other than that she has serveral cultivars of various plants named after her. Ms. Perényi begins thusly "...the grand, somewhat tragic, more than a little hateful woman whose garden at Waverly Place...was famous throughout Europe and America..." She goes on to describe Miss Willmott's accomplishments, and then gets right back to dishing the dirt. "It is nevertheless apparent that she was an insufferable woman... She was spiteful, and a terrible, pretentious snob." All this was under the essay titled Two Gardeners, the first part of which is devoted to praising Hidcote and its owner - Lawrence Johnston.
There's humour here too, if a bit subtle. Her story of smuggling French fingerling potatoes into the US, and then finding them for sale in the Gurney's catalog, made me smile.
In short, I liked this book, and if well-written gardening essays are your thing, I think you'll like it too.
Sunday, November 25, 2007
Jodi has posted some of her favorite perennials, and asked others to do likewise. Easy, I thought, whichever one is blooming at the moment.
Well, there aren't too many things blooming on this gray, drizzly morning, and I haven't been out to check on the Cyclamen hederifolium lately, but they were still blooming a week or so ago.
Thinking a little harder, I came up with a few plants that I'd really miss if they were gone. A lot, maybe most, of these are filler-type plants. And you know, in music, I always like harmony more than the melody, so it must just be something strange about me.
I already talked up Calamintha nepetoides (aka C. nepeta), so I won't go on and on about it here, but that's close to the top of the list. Another frothy filler is Galium 'Victor Jones'. I wish I knew which species of Galium this is, but the name I give here is how it was sold to me. It sprawls quite a lot and weaves in and out among its sturdier neighbors. It sometimes blooms again, and I suspect that if it was cut back after blooming, the second bloom would be more reliable.
|Galium 'Victor Jones' behind some Echinacea|
I'm totally addicted to Dianthus gratianopolitanus 'Bath's Pink'. I love the thick semi-evergreen foliage and the flower fragrance is sweet and spicy at the same time.
|Dianthus gratianopolitanus 'Bath's Pink'|
Here's a favorite that isn't a filler - Peony 'Karen Gray'. She's neighbors with Bath's Pink and usually they bloom about the same time.
|Peony 'Karen Gray' and Dianthus 'Bath's Pink'|
Look at how much pink there is in these photos. I never thought of myself as a pink person, but the garden apparently knows more about me than I do. Let's get away from pink. Another characteristic of my favorite perennials is that many of them are bulbs. I like the Orienpet lilies a lot. 'Orania' in particular - very elegant.
|Orienpet Lily 'Orania'|
I like daffodils in general because they're early and reliable, but the ones I like best have elegant shapes, and ummm, pink cups.
|Narcissus, not sure of the variety|
And then there's a whole class of plants that might be my very favorites of all - the little blue spring flowers. Most are bulbs, but not all. I'm just going to link to an earlier post here, because I really can't choose between these. (That post is from the blog I used while Tangled Branches was homeless between web hosting companies, BTW.) OK, just one picture here - couldn't resist.
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Retro Thanksgiving Humor: WKRP Turkeys Away
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
As we in the US are getting ready to commemorate the Pilgrims' harvest (which they might not have had without help from the natives), another helpful native is brightening up the woods with its late flowers.
I started looking for the flowers of our native Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) beside a walking trail in our neighborhood in late October. The buds were showing color then, but none were open. When I went back last week, it was in full bloom.
An interesting book I acquired this year - The Book of Forest and Thicket by John Eastman - says the seed capsules produced the previous year burst open with a bang in the same season as the flowers bloom. The seeds are propelled some distance from the plant - 10 to 50 ft. depending on which source you believe. This, I'd like to see, but I suppose it would be out of the question to sit next to the path and wait.
Is Witch Hazel helpful in other ways? Water witching, for example, or medicinally? Well, I've never tried dowsing, but I dabbed what seemed like gallons of witch hazel extract on my teenage acne. I don't think it did a thing.
But back to The Book of Forest and Thicket. It picks up where field guides leave off - it's more of a guide to the plants' lifestyles than how to identify them. The author describes where each plant species likes to hang out and who with, who its friends and foes are, details of history or folklore regarding it, and/or the author's personal anecdotes. I've learned a lot from this book, and plan to read others in the same series.
Saturday, November 17, 2007
|This holly tree is at the edge of the deck|
Some views from the deck, from left to right across the lot.
All too soon, the view from the deck will be of my neighbors' swingsets, shed, compost bin, and woodpile with blue tarp, but right now the view is as good as it gets all year.
Thursday, November 15, 2007
Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day
|Calamintha nepetoides||Zephyranthes candida|
|Cyclamen hederifolium||Alyssum 'Navy Blue'|
|Alyssum 'Snowdrift'||Chrysanthemum, unknown variety|
|Buddleia 'Can't Find the Label'||Gazania 'Daybreak Mix'|
Now I'm off to check out all the other GBBD contributors - I have high expectations for our southerly friends ;-) Thanks to Carol for dreaming up this event.
Labels: in bloom
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
Oregano, Marjoram, Zaatar, Whatever
I made absolutely wonderful pizza over the weekend. A large part of the credit goes to Mark Bittman for writing about fried pizza in last week's NY Times, but some of the credit goes to the herb garden.
I gave up on fresh oregano long ago. Somebody sold me a plant that was called True Italian Oregano, or some such thing. I grew it. I tasted it. I didn't like it. But the darn thing grew and grew and I still have it. It's an unkillable ground cover if nothing else.
Last winter I ordered 2 varieties of "Marjoram" seed sold by Nichols Garden Nursery. I've been cooking with dried marjoram for a long time and thought I'd see what it was like fresh.
|Sweet majoram, in August|
|'Zaatar' flowering amidst the pepper plants|
Now I know what to do with it. Saturday I planned to make the fried pizza previously mentioned. The picture accompanying the article showed a pizza topped with fresh basil. There are still plenty of herbs in the garden, but the basil froze a couple of weeks ago. So I snipped a few leaves of parsley and Chinese chives and several sprigs of 'Zaatar' marjoram. All these were chopped finely and sprinkled on top of the pizza. It turned out very well and I thought that the 'Zaatar' marjoram tasted more like grocery store oregano than anything I'd grown before. In fact, when I got up the next morning, I kept thinking "I smell pizza". I finally tracked down the fragrance to the cutting board on the counter - which had been washed I might add.
I'm not the only one who's confused by the oreganos/marjorams. Looking around the internet, I found several sources trying to untangle them all (1,2,3,4). I'd like to try more of them next year, but which to choose? That last source gives the best advice, I think. She says:
With so many varieties of oregano, I enjoy having many different types in my garden at once so I can choose just the right flavor for a dish: a course and tangy Greek oregano for moussaka; an aromatic Italian oregano for my pizza dough; or a perfumey sweet marjoram for my summer salad dressing. I advise you to do the same and let your nose and taste buds be your guide, (rather than the confusing labels!) when you choose oregano for your garden.
Friday, November 09, 2007
Miscellany and Oddities
I should amend the title of the previous post to "I Was Half-Right". The subfreezing temperatures were enough to kill off the least cold-hardy plants, but the tough ones are left standing. This introduces oddity #1: A 90% frozen Alternanthera with one perfectly fine branch. The only thing I can think of is that the unfrozen branch was protected by some nearby zinnias, which then collapsed in a heap the morning after the freeze? Either that or there is some very strange microclimate stuff going on.
Today's pictures are from central Virginia, where I found the lettuce and spinach green and happy under a double layer of Agribon-19. On the way to the undercover greenery, I spotted oddity #2: one of my supposedly deer repellent plants - a nice little rosemary - was broken and chewed. Just last weekend I was admiring how nicely the 4 rosemarys anchored the corners of the potager. All spring and summer I fretted about how I was going to keep the deer away from the edibles, and all spring and summer they didn't bother much of anything. And now, when the tomatoes and peppers are frozen dead and gone, the critters come back to eat the "critter-proof" plants. I tell you, there's never a dull moment in gardening. Some of bronze fennel had the tops chewed off too. Apparently whoever did this was just tasting because the chewed-off pieces were left on the ground. BTW, something also chewed off the top of an Illicium earlier in the year - another reputed deer-proof plant.
There are foot-(hoof?)-prints all over the newly planted garlic beds too, but I can't see that anything was dug up. The soil is so sandy there that the prints are indistinct.
from the November album
We've been busy lately and I've been neglecting my blog reading. I opened Google Reader this morning and found 150+ unread gardening posts. I'm almost hoping for a rainy weekend so I can sit around and drink tea and read blogs....
But then again, I need clear skies to look for Comet Holmes. Have you seen it? I didn't even know about it until this morning when I was blog surfing and found it on a birding blog, of all things. I started at A DC Birding Blog, where I learned that this year may bring large numbers of winter finches to feeders in the US. More on this later. From there, I read his Friday roundup, and went to check out the Harris's Sparrow on Mike's Birding and Digiscoping Blog. I noticed there a recent post on Comet 17P/Holmes. I think I need to set a timer to limit my internet time.
Anyhow, the reason I was interested in the winter finches was because yesterday I think I saw a small group of pine siskins in the tulip tree in front of the house. I've never seen a pine siskin before, so I'm not 100% sure, but they were streaky all over with wing bars and very pointy beaks. I didn't get a real good look. This site claims that they eat tulip tree seeds, and I think that's what they were doing, so it makes sense.
So in keeping with the season, my gardening activity is moving indoors to books, catalogs and the internet, and my outdoor activities have more to do with the sky than with the earth.
Thursday, November 08, 2007
I Was Right
Wednesday, November 07, 2007
Central Virginia is not Northern Virginia
And microclimate is everything.
Last week as I was sitting in northern Virginia typing a smug post about escaping the frost, I was blissfully unaware that in central Virginia the pepper plants were frozen under their Agribon-19 cover. Oh well.
This year was to be all about discovery at the central Virginia garden, and I've just discovered that I can't extrapolate the northern Virginia weather to central Virginia. See on this zone map where there's an odd little pool of zone 6b in the midst of zone 7a in central Virginia? That's where my garden is. It's something to do with the topography, I think. There's a low spot in central Virginia where all the cold air drains. Really. I didn't make it up, but right now I can't find a good website to link to that explains it all. And then my garden is located near the bottom of a hill in the midst of that larger low spot, so the microclimate there gets the full effect of the cold air drainage.
Net result: frozen pepper, tomato, and basil plants.
But this wasn't all bad, because over the weekend I pulled out the remaining (frozen) plants without a bit of remorse so I could plant garlic. I put in 4 varieties, purchased online from Gourmet Garlic Gardens: Chesnok Red, Romanian Red, German Stiffneck, and Nootka Rose. Next weekend I'll plant the ones I bought at the Virginia Wine and Garlic Festival, along with some shallots I picked up today at the Korean grocery store.
Yolanda Elizabet mentioned in a comment that she relies on her own instincts to know when there's going to be a frost, and over the years in northern Virginia I've gotten a pretty good feeling for the sort of day that precedes the first frost. I think today was that day. It was cloudy, nearly overcast and blustery. I expect tonight the winds will calm down and the sky will clear and everything will be frozen in the morning. I'll let you know.
|Cloudy skies and blustery winds = frost?|
From the November photo album