Tuesday, December 20, 2011

And a Chicken in the Pear Tree…

This Christmas, I'm asking my husband for chickens. I love chickens, have since I was a child and so, when I first moved out here, I got 6 black & white Barred Wyandottes that looked like they were designed by Coco Channel to be tucked under your arm and shown off at fashionable social events. I’m fairly sure that I chose my chickens for their looks alone, but I loved those chickens desperately.

They were killed one by one over the course of the two years I had them. One was hit by lightning, a neighboring contractor’s dogs killed two and one disappeared into the swamp. A fifth chicken didn’t survive a hit and run (there are some really terrible people driving on Sagaponack Road) and one was beheaded but it was a long time ago and time has blurred the pain of all those funerals. I want chickens again.

They had the most delicious eggs, with yolks the color of Van Gogh sunflowers that stood so tall in the pan they were amazing. It was like eating sunshine. I miss those eggs, I’m a gal who has, for almost every year of her life asked for the same birthday meal – poached eggs. This year I want them to be homegrown eggs.

So I’m talking chickens up a lot. Or rather, I’m trying to persuade my husband that having chickens again would be a lovely thing and they won’t attract rats. Of course, I’m totally lying, there’ll be rats, it’s just something that none of those wonderful, “aren’t chickens the next cool pet” articles you read in trendy magazines ever tell you, one of the things you forget when you are suffering from chicken lust.
Susan Orlean writes about her chickens in the New Yorker and doesn’t mention rats once in all her words of feathered bonding.  I know all about chicken bonding, my favorite chicken, Poulette (of course they all had names, they were my pet chickens) used to garden with me and would grab worms that I exposed while weeding. I’d try and stop her, with heavy clay soil you need all the aerating help you can get, but she’d run too fast for me.

She came when I called. I used to give her head-petties – backwards against the feather grain as it were – which she loved, and share my breakfast or lunch with her whenever I was home.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t home that much as gardeners work constantly during the season, rain or shine and the trick to keeping chickens alive is to make sure they get safely into their house each night. The night I lost one to the lightning strike I got home way past dark and even with a flashlight couldn’t find the roosting chickens in the trees amidst the slashing storm. The next morning, she was laying on her back appearing for all the world like she was beheaded, but when I prodded her with my toe, her neck which had been twisted under her body, uncoiled and she let out a slow, chicken “beeraack” and hopped to her feet. She didn’t actually have scorch marks on her feathers and probably was attacked but possums or raccoons and somehow, miraculously escaped, but I like to say she was hit by lightning. It sounds more dramatic. She was, somewhat slow and stupid after the accident, after being oxygen deprived with her head twisted under her, but the other chickens took care of her, until a few weeks later when I again didn’t get back in time to put the girls away for the night and the next morning was short two. Emily who I now say got lost in the swamp, and Harriet who had been hit by lightning. It’s my way of not dealing with the guilt I feel over their deaths.

Poulette’s death was also my fault. I went out straight from work, knowing full well that I should go home first and put her away, I told myself she’d be fine. She wasn’t. I sobbed hysterically for weeks afterwards.

When I tell Dereyk all these stories he looks at me like I’m a lunatic, says things like, “And yet you still want chickens?” and shakes his head.  I know he’s right and that the path of pet poultry is filled with potholes like rats, death, dismemberment and cannibalism (did I not tell you about when the chickens stole half a vole from the cat?), but still wouldn’t it be something to look in your stocking and find an egg inscribed “I.O.U 6 chickens in the spring” – I mean wouldn’t that make the winter go so, so, so much faster.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

No Bow Necessary

I’m a big gift giver.

I think it’s because I’m a bit of a compulsive shopper and so buying things, even when they’re not for me, gives me a frisson of excitement. I tend not to give gifts at specific times, I am a more random giver, but the holidays are filled with opportunities to do some bestowing, and so I tend to go a little crazy. And being that I am a certifiable plant maniac, I like to gift living things that bloom.
As I’ve written before, I am the queen of cutting crazy bouquets from the outside to bring indoors and to give as gifts. Utilizing everything from bittersweet to pinecones to dark purple viburnum leaves I’m still cutting the faded heads of my hydrangeas to make crazy dried arrangements (although this year, after the hurricane and the heat wave, the colors faded very quickly.)

Last year I found these fantastic sprayed silver branches that I tucked in all my arrangements, including my wreath, because silver makes everything more holiday to me. This year I’m thinking that I’m going to do a more out there kind of a thing and wrap found branches with yarn to give them stripes of color in a scaled down mini salute to the yarn bombing movement. It’s a little more time intensive and involves Elmer’s glue so it could be a dangerous thing, but I like the idea of pink silk cord wrapped branches among my faded hydrangea blooms.

Or I might just grab a can of hot pink spray paint and some glitter, it all depends on how much time I have.

What I know for sure is that those of you who aren’t just getting honey from my backyard beehive for the holidays, are going to revel in my flowering theme. The economy is depressing, the stock market is crazy and we didn’t even get a hard frost, but went right for a freeze two weeks earlier than I expected. It’s cold outside and so I think everyone needs something that’ll flower to bring a little life and color back into their lives.

Now I have all sorts of people to give gift to, from clients to family members, and each has varying degrees of plant expertise, so I can’t do anything too complicated which is why my first choice is the amaryllis. No one kills an amaryllis, I’m fairly terrible when it comes to inside plants, and I rock with amaryllis. So this year, instead of the bottle of wine or the baked good, I’m bringing a big, fat bulb of red, white, pink, striped, doubled and everything in between. I’m mad for the variety called Red Pearl that’s a deep, blood red and Christmas Gift, an amazing pure, huge, white. I’m going to give some of my more subtle friends the one called Exotic Star which is elegantly pinstriped like something you’d find placed in a wabi sabi pot in solitary contemplation on a Zen monastery sideboard. My more audacious friends are getting Cherry Nymph, a double flowered cheeky red bloom that looks like Tom Ford designed it.

For most people, I won’t bother starting the thing, but for the more horticulturally challenged, I’ll get a glass container, fill it full of pebbles and push the bulb in. Then I’ll hand it over with instructions to make sure when they add water that the bulb isn’t soaking in it, and I’ll be gifting them the easiest month of flowering they’ve ever had. Last year I stagger planted six around the house and had flowers from Thanksgiving through February -- it was crazy. I tell people that if they plant the bulbs in potting soil, they can then bring the plants outside in the spring, after all chances of frost is past, and let the leaves grow and replenish the bulb. Then, in the fall, when the leaves begin to yellow, they can bring the plant back into the house and cut back on watering to send the plant into dormancy. Remove the dead leaves, put the plant and pot together into a cool, dark place for about 8 weeks, then bring it out and viola, the whole cycle starts again.

I confess that I get new bulbs every year, but that’s because I want to try new colors and I have a limit on how much room I have for things in pots.

I also give paper whites. For those who find them overwhelming, there’s the Inbal variety, but for me paper whites have the best smell on the planet, a smell that totally signals the holidays in a way nothing else does. Then again, I don’t have the gene that captures the cat urine whiff of boxwoods, who knows, maybe paper whites really do reek, so I only give select, good-nosed people a few bulbs in their stockings.

For those folks in my life who need more instant gratification, I have two gifts to offer, the Christmas cactus and the orchid. I know, I know, everyone think orchids are difficult, but some of them (the Phalanopsis or Moth orchids) are actually quite easy as long as you don’t over water them (once a week in the sink with the spray attachment) don’t put them in direct sun and fertilize when they’re done blooming. If I can get an orchid to rebloom, anyone can.

I’m actually getting so confident I’m going to try one of the more unusual orchids like the one called Fangtastic ‘Bob Henley.’ Not only does it have a crazy name, it has flowers that look like Tim Burton drew them for Halloween hairstyles. It needs a more light and more warmth and more water, but other then that, the orchid folks at Marders tell me I can do it.

Last year’s Christmas cactus is still going, although my cats enjoy chewing on the foliage so I’m not gifting it to those with felines. It’s not actually in the cactus family, but is an epiphyte, which is what most orchids are. Who knew? They tell me the trick to getting them to bloom for the holidays is to make sure they’re spend the fall in a room where the light is not turned on at night which stays cool. The Internet suggests putting them in the closet but I KNOW that’s a mistake waiting to happen so I have mine in a guest bedroom away from the radiator. They like humidity, so get misted on a regular basis. I really should wait to see if mine reblooms before share this plant, but when it’s in flower its so fantastic that I’m willing to take the chance. Beside the white ones are incredible.

Paige Patterson thinks Tillandsia Xerographicas are the easiest plants in the world and are oh so very elegant.

Pages in the Garden

It’s been a strange Fall and I’m slightly stressed about the buds on my hydrangea pushing open in all this unseasonal heat, but since there’s nothing I can do about it, I’m trying to be more Zen. Now most people won’t use Zen as an adjective to describe me, but I’m attempting to reach a more peaceful state when it comes to the ways of my garden and I’m finding there are a few books out there that really help.

Although not a new book, Plant Seed, Pull Weed by Geri Larkin is a lesson on the importance of approaching both the world and the garden with an open and worry free heart.  Daniel Butler’s How to Plant a Tree, is not, only a practical how-to book, but speaks to the emotional, philosophical and folkloric reasons and ways to keep company with the branched entities with which we love to share our world. And Stephen Orr, the new garden editor at Martha Stewart, came out with Tomorrow’s Garden, a book that strikes a balance between the idea of having a gorgeous garden and the tenants of sustainability.  And isn’t balance what we should all be looking for as we head into the coming year?
Of course, there’s nothing balanced about the way I buy books, they’re just drawn to me as if I have a magnetic pull over them and to be honest I could fill this whole page just by listing all the titles of the books that followed me home this year. There are a few however, that would be lovely gifts for gardeners who will be jonesing this winter to get back out there in the muck.  The View from Great Dixter, all about Christopher Lloyd’s great English garden and the impact it’s had on gardeners the world over, is another book that shows what patience and experimentation and letting go of all your preconceived ideas can do to your outside world. Then there’s Hampton Gardens, Jack DeLashmet’s gorgeous coffee table book with the yummiest photos to let you explore and covet those gardens behind the hedges we’re all dying to wander through and own.

For the veggie gardeners out there, The Heirloom Life Gardener by the co-founders of the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, is a sweet book. An approachable and simple guide to which heirloom vegetables will work best for you, no matter how or where you garden ­– it even gives you advice on how to save your own seeds for next year’s plantings. A more in depth look at the world of heirloom seed saving is found in the wonderful book Gathering: A Memoir of a Seed Saver. Written by Diane Ott Whealy, a leader in this country’s grass-roots movement to preserve agricultural biodiversity, she talks about how seeds given to her by her grandparents inspired her to co-found and nurture the largest seed bank in this country.

I myself am asking for the new Michael Dirr book, Dirr's Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs. A combination of his two previous books on trees and shrubs for both warm and cold climates with new photos and new plants added, it should be the go to book of the season. Most zealots have or lust after the huge Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, his 1325 page opus with the black and white line drawings, but those who are slightly less crazy, or those who like color photos to peruse on snowy evenings in front of the fireplace as they are learning to be still, would love getting the Encyclopedia this winter. Hint, hint, hint.

As a final Zen thought, I want to share with you a fantastic book that has absolutely nothing to do with plants, but everything to do with learning to see through forgiving eyes. Arne Svenson and Ron Warren created the remarkably brilliant ode, Chewed, combining photographs of mangled and overly loved dog toys taken as if they were works of art with a few wonderful essays written from the point of view of the self same woobie, this the perfect gift for everyone who has ever been blessed with the company of a four legged critter.  

So at a time when we are thanking the world for all it’s given to us and our families, I’m going to promise to walk through the garden with a more peaceful and forgiving eye, to appreciate and be inspired by, instead of being envious of other people’s gardens and learn to observe the beauty in a wet, eyeless duck.

Paige Patterson has still got a big bag of bulbs that she’s going to plant to help burn off Thanksgiving calories.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Bring on the bad breath baby!

Love it or loathe it, rarely do I meet someone who is ambivalent towards garlic. I fall into the adoring category although, as I’ve gotten older, my body has had a harder and harder handling the bulb. Now that doesn’t mean I’m willing to give it up. In fact last year, for the first time, I decided to grow it.
In the process I discovered that I knew barely a smidgeon about garlic and it’s whole culture. Full bodied, spicy, mild to hot and flavorful, sharp with a kick -- the language garlic lovers and growers use to describe their favorites sounds a lot like wine connoisseurs. And that paper white fist you see in the market is just a tease, one of over 600 cultivated sub varieties of garlic from across the globe grown across the world. Although I don’t have the experience to go into all the varieties, the important thing to know is that true garlic fall into two sections of the Allium sativum family, the soft necks with flexible stems that can be braided when dried and the hard necks that cannot. Supermarket garlic’s are soft necks and have lots of tiny cloves, allowing people to tuck just a sliver of garlic into food. The hard necks don’t last as long when stored, and have larger and more flavorful (in my humble opinion) individual cloves.
Each individual clove is the equivalent of a garlic seed and if broken off and buried in very fertile but well drained soil, well amended with compost, about 1.5-2” deep and then mulched with a bunch of straw or good compost will grow into it’s own paper knuckled bulb. There’s a bit of a debate about when to plant garlic, but I’ve discovered that Halloween is the best time to this area. Plant each clove 5 to 6 inches apart -- I cheat some of mine a little closer as I tucked them among roses to deter aphids, but they’re a pain to harvest. You should add mulch to keep soil temperatures consistent and the soil evenly moist. The larger the clove planted, the bigger the garlic grown, so when you break garlic apart to plant it, is any cloves are tiny, just cook with them instead of planting.
In the spring, hard necks send up an elegant curlicue of a scape, cut this off to force the plant to send its energy back into the bulb. My husband, who adores garlic, makes wickedly good pesto from the.
Later in the summer, when the lower leaves start to brown or yellow, it’s time to dig the garlic. Avoid the temptation to yank the garlic out of the ground as this’ll destroy the outer skins of the garlic and don’t delay harvesting as to do so will cause those outer layers to disintegrate leaving no safe way to cure or store the garlic. I dug some of mine late this year, but it wasn’t a waste, as I just threw the naked cloves into the pickles I was making.
You’ll need to cure the rest of your garlic by letting it rest somewhere with good circulation and no direct sunlight. For me that’s my trusty garage, where I should have hung the plants but instead just laid them hanging over the edge of my spare wheelbarrow for 3-6 weeks. I thought I’d have plenty for the year, but my husband, seeing the wealthy of garlic available to him, has burned almost our entire supply, so this fall I’ve increasing capacity by threefold. I’ve already nabbed my supply from Marders as they sell out quickly, and I’m trolling the Internet for some of the other less common varieties like Chesnok Red and Persian Star.
Garlic also prefers to be stored in a cool, dark, dry space, so putting them in a mesh net and hanging them in the basement seems to be the best bet, although my basement is a little too warm (My dahlias never overwinter, but shrivel or sprout instead – very frustrating.)
Oh, and if you too suffer from garlic heartburn, get one of those little roaster thingies at William Sonoma or TJ Maxx, or just take a bulb and remove the outmost papery layers, slice the top off so that you can see the tops of the cloves, drizzle with oil, wrap tightly in foil and throw it in the oven at 425 degrees for 45 minutes. Then squeeze the yummy goodness over bread or chicken or pasta or anything else your heart desires.

Paige Patterson was forced to buy 5 of the 60 percent off Knock Out Roses  at Marders as at that price they’re basically free.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Bulbs Rule!

So the first thing all us bulb maniacs are going to have to do this year is find a source for real quinine water. It’s what tonic water used to be, but is much harder to find nowadays. The reason we need it is that we’ve just got a tip from a friend back from England who tell us that if you soak your crocus bulbs in quinine before planting, the squirrels will totally ignore them. Brilliant!

Tip number two, applies to planting anemone blanda. Forget about trying to dig among the tree roots, just soak the bulbs in water for 24 hours and then scatter among the roots where you want them to go and cover with an inch of compost. If you have a terrible squirrel problem, this might not be the right technique for you, but I’m going to try it. I figure the bulbs are so affordable that it’s worth experimenting, because there’s nothing like a swath of anemones to make spring perfect.

Another tip for peeps with squirrels is to push the bulbs under or next to existing perennials, as squirrels also check out fresh planting beds, and to spray the area with a pepper and egg repellent. You can also do the thing where you make a kind of pita pocket sandwich of small gage chicken wire for the bulbs and bury them in that to defeat the squirrels, but remember that the gage has to be small enough for the squirrels not to get at the bulbs, but big enough for the plant to push through, which means different size holes for different size bulbs.

Okay, I guess I should back up and fess up to being a bulb junkie, but there’s really nothing better then the bang for the buck you get with bulbs. And bulbs, starting with fall blooming crocus and extending all the way through oriental lilies, are an easy peasy way to extend palette of your garden without a significant expenditure. Consider the lily. It costs at least $20 to buy one pre-grown pot of three bulbs, get the bulbs straight you can get a whole sea of lilies, and they’re a lot easier to plant.

When this frigging heat wave ends, it’ll be prime bulb planting time, and there are a few rules you should know about bulbs.

One – plant all bulbs at least three times as deep as the bulb is wide. Two – it’s good to put the pointy end up, but you don’t have to, they will orient themselves. Three – always add bulb food or fertilizer to the hole when you plant. And when any old bulbs come up, fertilize them as well. And finally, four – you must let the foliage stay in place until it yellows and withers away. This is the most important rule, as a failing to do so means the bulbs can’t rebuild their nutrient supplies and they’ll start to fail.

Five – if you want to naturalize them in the grass you need to know that you’re not going to be able to mow that grass and it’s going to get to be at least knee high and not lawn like. My mowing guys laugh about at my lawn when they start mowing around my bulbs and say it looks like it’s got hair plugs that have gone crazy. Daffodil foliage can last up to 12 weeks so you do the math and if you can’t handle an untidy lawn, keep your bulbs in a bed.

Six – sunlight. Most bulbs need as much of it as they can get, excepting the woodland ones like English bluebells and Wood hyacinths, so try and plant them accordingly.  And remember that even though most bulbs bloom before the trees leaf out, they will need sun on their leaves to come back strong next year, so please don’t put Daffodils deep under Norway maples and then be surprised when they don’t thrive.

Seven – you need to wait until the soil temperature is between 40-60 degrees, so it’s looking like it’s going to be mid October before anything gets planted, but you run out and stock up now, because other bulb maniacs are already out there shopping. Marders got in this amazing new white parrot tulip that sold out the same week. They also have only a few bags of the white Allium Mt. Everest left, so skedaddle over there quick, quick, quick.

I’m braving tulips in a deer safe area so I’m in bulb friggin’ heaven, choosing deep blues and hot reds, which I’m sneaking into the house in waves, hoping my husband doesn’t notice, but (rule number eight) if you do have deer don’t do Tulips. It’s close to impossible to spray/protect them from the marauders, but not to fret, there’s more for you then just Daffodils. You get to try the world of alliums and what’s known in the trade as the minor bulbs. Camassia, Scilla, Leucojum, Puschkinia, Colchicum, Chionodoxa, the names sound overwhelming, but these bulbs are easy, hardy, deer resistant, affordable and beautiful. Now who doesn’t love those words when speaking about gardens?

Paige Patterson couldn’t resist 3 Japanese forest grasses on sale and is sure she can find a spot for them somewhere.

Friday, September 2, 2011

After The Fall

I was going to write about the way the light captures the fall colors and how, finally, trees and shrubs are on sale in all the nurseries and about the amazing deals to be found out there if you know how to look, but Irene interfered with my plans. Instead I get to talk about the clean up that happens after nature has a big party.

In many ways we were hugely lucky out here. Most of the rain missed us, so the number of trees that would have just slipped out of the ground and laid flat on the ground are significantly less. Now I’m without power and they say I’ll be that way until at least Friday, but none of the tools I would need are electric, instead I’m going to be getting a nice workout if my leg wasn’t in a cast. So I’m going to have help, and they’re going to get the good workout and I’m going to point.
First thing straight off the bat — be careful! Do not try and tackle any limbs or deal with any tree damage that is anywhere near power lines. Secondly, if you are using a chain saw, make sure you are not working alone. Now I am an animated talker and flail my hands around when speaking, or so I’m told. I made the mistake of engaging my husband in a long discussion while holding a running chainsaw. He says it’s a terrible thing to see — another human being waving a chainsaw and gesturing with it with no apparent self-awareness and has since suggested strongly that I never pick one up again. I can’t say he’s wrong, so if like me, you are an emotive speaker, I would let the more reserved person run the machine with the whirring, possibly flesh eating teeth. You, like I would if I wasn’t injured, could then be the “dragger away of the nicely sawn off limb.” But again, be careful.

You are also going to have to make some hard decisions. If you are taking off so much of the tree that it is no longer going to look balanced, it’s actually best to remove the whole thing, otherwise you are just creating more problems.

Try and make clean cuts angled so that when it rains, water doesn’t collect on the cut; and don’t cut flush against the trunk of the tree, but try and cut so that you leave a little bit of branch. Do not cover the cut with anything, as you want it to heal naturally. Don’t worry about it being perfect right now; we’re doing triage not plastic surgery at this point.

And the best thing to do would be to chip up the wood and add it to your piles of grass clippings that need carbon to become better compost, or to just get it into piles and let it start to break down on it’s own.

Most importantly, if like me, you have a number of prone trees you must try and immediately get them stood back up and cabled. And you should know that there’s a good chance the tree is not going to survive. If the roots have been exposed to air, the chance of the tree making it is not good. My trees are leaning very badly, all victims of root rot I believe thanks to my overwatering habits, but the remaining roots are still below the soil. Some of the roots have most likely snapped so the tree has lost a significant part of its support system and its digestive system. You are going to have to really cross your fingers and pray. You should use at least three cables in a Y formation and make sure the actual wires are not wrapping around the tree but are encased in a protective sleeve. Bolting into the tree is okay, if done by a professional, but I’ll be hoisting mine up on my own since they’re not that large (okay, okay, I’m going to ask the guys that help me with the lawn if they have time, but I’m not holding my breath.)

Now don’t get carried away and start pruning just because you have a pruning saw in your hand, it’s still a little too early for that. Go pull all the debris out of your shrubs instead and if you’re still feeling all ambitious you can go play around in the vegetable garden and seed fall lettuce!
Plus there’s the mess that was the perennial beds. Get out all the branches and debris and then do judicious cutting back. Prop up the dahlias, but everything that has an actual bend in it (if it’s floppy in your hands) gets cut right beneath the bend. Deadhead like your life depends on it as there’s still time for lots of plants to keep pushing flowers. Any casualties and empty holes can be replaced by some of those amazing fall perennials I talked about last month.
Besides, don’t the nurseries all have sales going on now?

Paige Patterson is truly impressed by the death of the street tree in front of her house. Snapped cleanly off right at the base.

Friday, August 5, 2011

How Local is Local

Yesterday I picked the first lemon cucumbers of the season. I’m growing them up a fence among roses that are still struggling after last years harsh winter, a cold, damp spring followed by a hideous heat wave and random deer munching. The roses are not doing so well, but the lemon cucumbers were delicious. I also gathered handfuls of eggplants and jalapeƱos, some zucchini and a random squash, but I had to go to a farm stand for tomatoes.

The farm stands have been stocked with tomatoes for over a month, as well as melons and peaches even, but I have a question for the various farmers, how do you all have Brandywine tomatoes already when mine are just barely starting? Basil, I have by the armfuls, but where are your ripe, red orbs coming from when mine are still hard and green? And how do you all really have melons already? And the corn? Although it’s sweet and white and delicious, I remember being a kid and the corn not being ready at the end of June. Strawberries end and then corn begins right? They’re not meant to overlap are they?

I don’t want to be a killjoy, but I’m a little suspicious of the “local” produce at some of our local stands. As impressed as I am by the perfect raspberries, cherry tomatoes and blueberries I’m buying at all these stands, I’m looking around and I’m not seeing the plants they’re growing on.

Is anyone else thinking these thoughts? I know that tomato blight has swept through the area, but only one farmer that I know of has confessed to not having tomatoes this year. He took a big loss, but when the blight showed up in his fields, he did the right thing and cut down every single one of the infected plants. And he doesn’t, miraculously, have tomatoes at his stand anyway. Look, he took a tremendous financial loss, but he’s at least being up front about it. Not so much, some of the other folks out here. Actually from the way things are stacking up at all the roadside stands I’m frequenting, it seems like he is the only guy on the entire island that was hit.

I don’t begrudge the farmers trying to earn a living, they have a ridiculously short season and the hardest job out here, and I love the fact that I can buy something local and help support the way of life that truly built this community, but I don’t need lemons at my farm stand. Really.

There are farmers out there I know I can trust. Marilee Foster wouldn’t be caught dead offering anything she didn’t plant, weed and pick. I’d bet my last dollar on that. I know David Falkowski is growing his mushrooms, I’ve seen the oyster bags hanging in his mushroom barn, and I’ve been handed one of his eggs still warm from the hen that just laid it. The Halseys will not have Pink Lady apples until they are ready on the trees down by Mecox Bay, no matter how much I long for them earlier. And if you don’t get there early, Bette Lacina and Dale Haubrich will sell out of their incredible mixed greens. I know Art Ludlow would be shocked at the idea of buying in milk to make sure he can tap deeper into the pockets of the summer shoppers who crave his cheese. And that pleases me.

When I was I kid I worked for John White on his farm that skirted the corner of Sagaponack Main Street and Montauk Highway. He was trying to be 100 percent organic (ahead of the curve by at least 10 years) and I not only helped plant all those crops, but I weeded them, picked bugs off them, hoed them, pulled irrigation pipe across them (using twigs to clear the heads when they clogged with caterpillars), harvested them and sold them. So I know a little bit about the timing of our seasonal crops.

So I’m a little disappointed. Look, given a chance I’d always rather put my lettuce money in a local pocket, and I thank the heavens every chance I get for letting me live in a place where I can get the best, tiniest, baby fingerling potatoes I’ve ever had in my life last time I stopped at Briermere Farms in Riverhead. On the other hand I do want to support farming on Long Island not shipping and marketing, so when you see me coming, put the stuff you guys didn’t grow under the table, please?
Paige Patterson just brought home five new panicle hydrangeas called Great Star created by the renowned plants woman Princess Sturdza of Normandy.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Big Lie

For all of us who work in the garden trade, the 4th of July is the day we all take a deep breath and collapse. Most of our clients have everything installed and are now focused on things like discovering the most affordable lobster salad and improving their various swings – tennis, golf, or hammock.  Not for them another trip to the local garden center, they’re done. Luckily, for the rest of us, it’s the time when some of the best plants are just starting to show up, as are some great deals.

My garden has suffered some significant losses. Bee balm decimated by deer.  Agastache weeded out by an over zealous helper. Roses that didn’t survive the winter. Wherever I look I see a space that could be filled in, or improved or addressed. Now I don’t transplant at this time of year, but I certainly start putting a lot of plants into the ground.

Clients are always surprised when I tell them I’m doing massive planting at home, they tell me I’m not supposed to be planting things in the heat of the summer – that it’s too hot to plant. They tell me fall is a better time to plant then July. I just laugh. It’s not too hot for the plants I explain; maybe it’s just too hot for the people doing the planting. Every plant out there would prefer to be put in the ground right now as opposed to staying above, the soil will hold more water then the pots they’re presently living in and it’s cooler too. Plus, I have an irrigation system, so they’re all going to get plenty of water. Piffle on this no planting in the summer silliness.

July is also when it pays to be a little knowledgeable about plants since select spring bloomers go on sale now. Roses are on sale lots of places, and if you know how to pick a healthy plant, you can get great deals on David Austins that are going to keep blooming all the way until the first hard frost. There’s a bunch of Claire Austin roses at Marders that no one else has. His first white climber (actually a clotted cream color that’s to die for) and they’re large plants. I’m going to claim at least three. Another garden friend came home with a bunch of mildewed phlox. Sure it’s not great looking now, but everyone’s phlox looks disgusting after all the rain and the no-sun spring we had this year. Next year they’re going to have an amazing flower show for just a fraction of the price.

This is also a great time to get a magnolia or other past bloom trees for less. Plus there’s a whole bunch of stuff that the nurseries are just getting in. Unusual echinaceas, a slew of agastaches (I think Pink Haze is awfully pretty) and the crape myrtles haven’t even started to bloom yet.

Plus, thanks to our wonky spring, the hydrangeas are really just starting. As you might have gathered if you’ve been following along over the weeks, I have a hydrangea problem. I’m an addict. And I’ve never been able to pass up a new hydrangea. The newest ones to follow me home this year are from the Forever and Ever series. Like Endless Summer, they bloom on both old and new wood, so the bloom season is totally extended, plus if someone inadvertently prunes them (something you really shouldn’t do) they’ll still going to bloom the following year. I got one bred in Japan called Together that is compact with double florets that’s amazing. And another Dutch one that has the most incredibly large mops (12” wide – unusual in a reblooming hydrangea) called Blue Heaven that is totally on the money with its name.

There’s also a new paniculata cultivar (those are the ones that have big fluffy white flowers that look like soft ice cream cones) called Vanilla Strawberry that White Flower Farm is totally sold out of but which just arrived at some of our local nurseries. Not for the all white garden, these flowers turn from white to pink and then to deep raspberry very quickly so the whole bush really looks like bowl of strawberries and vanilla ice cream at all times. Yum.

I actually think the whole myth of it being bad to plant in the summer was started as an evil plot by people in the trade to make sure we got a break and could get all the really good stuff for ourselves.
So go ahead and wait for the fall if you want to, but by then, I’ll have already gone and found the best stuff and thrown it in the trunk of my car. Sorry!

Paige Patterson will confess seeing someone’s roses grown with a whole bunch of chemicals made her a little envious – those roses were off the hook.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Vole, vole go away!

It’s June, peony, astilbe and rose time, and if we’ve battled off the botrytis and fenced off the deer, we should be filling the house with the lush scent of our favorite David Austins.

But wait, you say, what’s that rolling across your lawn like a tumbleweed on a wind-fueled stroll? Could it really be your five year old Pink Knockout rose? Ah, I’m sorry, but it is, and you, unfortunately, have joined the ranks of those plagued by voles.

Voles are the bane of the gardening season this year, the subject of the many a frantic call, so I thought I’d share my vole spiel.

First, voles are not moles. Moles are the things that make the tunnels under your lawn. They are carnivores (insectivores actually) that are digging through the ground searching out the various proteins (grubs, earthworms) that live there. They ruin the lawn, but they aren’t actually harming any of the other plants in the yard. Because they eat underground they are rarely seen, but if you spot a grey rodent with a long thick snout and webbed front feet with almost no visible ears, you’ve got yourself a mole, and as luck would have it, they are fairly easy repel. They respond well to repellents, and if you get rid off the grubs in your yard the moles will move onto to other, buggier, pastures.

However, if what you spot looks a lot like a mouse with a short tail you’ve got some serious problems. Voles are vegetarians. And they’re piglets, eating the equivalent of their own weight every day all year long. Plus voles are ridiculously promiscuous. A female vole can have babies when she’s about three weeks old and is capable of about 8 litters in a season ­– litters that can be as large as 12 at a time. Do the math and it’s downright depressing, a vole explosion so to speak, and here’s the really bad news – they don’t scare easy.

Now back when we had lots of foxes, the voles were under control. Voles are a fox delicacy. Unfortunately mange has decimated our fox populations. Snakes, owls, possums, hawks, crows and raccoons all think voles are yummy too, but I have yet to find a way to rent any of the above mentioned critters for vole control problems. I tell people a farm cat is a good way to correct the problem, but then there’s the issue of the songbirds who will suffer too.

The tough thing is that voles are not as responsive as moles to repellents and since they’ll eat the grains, seeds, bark, roots, and leaves of almost all plants it’s impossible to limit their food supply. There are lots of creative suggestions. Mousetraps can work when baited with apple slices or birdseed, but you have to be around to reset the traps – one gardener I know caught 60 in a week. There are rumors that hot pepper works, and also chewing gum, but I’ve not seen concrete proof. And there’s also poison that is provided in traps specially created to keep other critters, including our pets and kids, safe, but a whole bunch of my clients have had very limited success with these methods as well. Plus poisons scare me.
I can tell you that it helps to get rid of the moles because the voles will use their tunnels to avoid predators and to get easy access to plant roots. And that if you mulch while it’s still warm out in the fall you will be creating a luxury vole spa, plus you must never, never mulch right up to the base of shrubs and trees as you will guarantee yourself the telltale pencil point chewing of a happy, warm, well-fed vole. But other than that, I have no easy suggestions for vole riddance.

I tell everyone to try a combination approach. Fling some castor oil around, set a few traps, call your local exterminator, drop trident into the holes they make in your beds, shake red pepper flakes among the rose bushes. It can’t hurt. And until we can petition the local towns to reintroduce foxes the way they reintroduced wild turkeys, I’m still looking for the ultimate solution.

Over the years, I’ve done a lot of research, visiting various websites and blogs looking for answers. My favorite listed a variety of techniques, the last of which read, “Shooting is not practical or effective in controlling voles.” I want to meet the author of that site, share our varied vole wars stories, look him or her straight in the eye and ask, “Are you sure about the shooting?”

Paige Patterson insists that the new Pow Wow Echinacea jumped in her car and followed her home and she was powerless to stop it.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

How Sweet It Is

The first thing you need to know about raising honeybees is that it’s a little intimidating and crazy fascinating at the same time.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The first time I ever held a bee was last year at Marder’s honeybee demonstration with beekeeper Mary Woltz. Owner of Bees Needs Honey, keeper of 100 hives and maker of the most delicious honey I’ve ever had, Mary extolled the inherently gentle nature of bees. As she talked she had handed me a bee to crawl across my hands and up my arm and had spoken about how we’d lost touch with our need for the tiny creature crawling on my sleeve. She talked about how we fear bees, but that they’re actually extremely unaggressive — unlike their black & yellow lookalikes the wasps — and really only sting you as a last chance defensive move. The males, drones, don’t even have a stinger and that’s what she had handed to me.

Is it’s tiny feet tickled my wrist she spoke about how we take bees for granted, forgetting how we depended on them to pollinate both the foods we eat, and the foods the things we eat, eat. Blueberries, eggplants, pomegranates, plum, oranges, lemons, squash, peaches, almonds, pears, strawberries, alfalfa, raspberries, grapes, blackberries, sesame, clover, soybeans, and tomatoes — the list is endless.

When I bought my house it came with a stack of old beehives and a honey extractor that lived in the basement. Watching that bee crawl along my sleeve and listening to Mary talk about the loss of the almost half the bees in the world inspired me to finally get serious about trying to start a hive.

Asking around, I learned that the man to go see was Master Beekeeper Ray Lackey. Owner of Sweet Pines Apiary in Bohemia and President of the Long Island Beekeepers Club (longislandbeekeepers.org) he teaches a course that meets once a month in Riverhead and covers all the basic information on caring for a bee colony and raising bees for honey.

A man stuffed with bee keeping facts — bees wear out their wings after 500 miles, a single bee, in its entire lifetime, will produce less then a tenth of a teaspoon of honey – Ray lectures at a rapid fire pace and has the course broken down into easy to manage sections. Or so it seemed until I was out there on my own (my husband was watching from about 20 feet away) dressed like Darth Vader in my beekeeper helmet and veil, holding a frame of bees in my elbow length leather gloved hands, sweating like crazy and worrying that I was doing everything wrong.

I smoked my bees (it supposedly calms them) and started to pry the pieces of the hive apart to inspect and see how my bees were doing. It took forever and my bees were far from calm (they even flew over to Dereyk and stung him but that was because I hadn’t told him not to flail around if they got too close as bees see this as aggressive behavior. Whoops, my bad.) Finally I pried a frame out and lifting it up found myself face to face with thousands of bees, capped cells of honey, lots of bee larvae and a billion questions. I inspected every frame, slowly flipping them so I can look at each side, in an effort to spot my queen. No luck! There are eggs being laid, so I haven’t given up hope of spotting her, and I’m a little confused by the extra wax the bees are building up under the transport frames I used to bring them into my hive.

Luckily, Ray has been teaching for a while and is used to the craziness of the honeybee newbie, so he’s created a website where we can post all our questions, read each other’s worries and concerns and learn from the shared experience and see that we're not the only person who’s a little excited and overwhelmed by these new creatures we're trying to care for.

It’s still early in my beekeeping experience and I’m not so sure I’m doing it right, but when I’m holding those bees up close to my face trying to discover where the queen is, I’m involved with nature in a way that is both mesmerizing and a little awe inspiring. For that I’m truly grateful, especially for Mary, for putting that bee on my sleeve.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

So Many Weeds, So Little Interest.

It’s that dreaded time again. When everyone is meant to start taking care of his or her lawns and I just want to take to my bed and hide.  I guess that there are lawn people and then there’s the rest of us.  My lawn overwhelms me, or more correctly, the weeds within it and my futile attempts to keep them at bay. The one and only time I used a broadleaf herbicide I traumatized all my collectable magnolias – stressing them out so badly they almost died. It took two years for some of them to recover and the others are still struggling. Lesson learned. Especially since all the lawn guys told me there would be absolutely no issues. Hmmm. 
So no more poisons are allowed on my property. I’m now 100% committed to organics when it comes to the green stuff underfoot, but that means I’m fighting a bit of a Sisyphean battle against all this hideously invasive stuff. Onion grass. Henbit.  Creeping Charlie. Chickweed. Crabgrass. Nutsedge. Chickweed. Purslane. Speedwell. Red Deadnettle. 
The list goes on and on and just makes me want to lie down on the floor. Or drink. 
Dandelions don’t make me unhappy, I kind of like the violets and clover is actually good for the soil, but I’m fighting a losing battle against the rest.
Do me a favor and look up what they say to do to remove Creeping Charlie without an herbicide. Basically there’s a photo of a lawn person laughing hysterically and the words “Good luck with that,” written in florescent letters.
So I tend to ignore most of my weeds. I just mow the whole mess and try not to look down too closely when I’m wandering around barefoot later in the season.
The truth is that I know the best way to have a healthy and mostly weed free lawn is to have healthy and happy soil underneath it. If your soil is has good drainage, lots of organic and inorganic material and has the right level of acidity, your grass can fight back and prevent those weeds from taking over.
But taking care of a lawn organically seems overwhelming sometimes, especially if you’re used to the 1-2-3-4 the Scotts chemical overload regime. Luckily, Marder’s has a great pamphlet that simplifies it immensely and if you talk to a guy that works there named Mike Kusick, he can tell you all the chemistry you’d ever want to know about lawns (or not) and get you off in the right direction. I confessed to him that I was a lazy lawn lady and not emotionally or financially ready to do major stuff to all that green but that I needed a push in the right direction.
He was very understanding and has started me off with the simple task of getting more organic matter into my soil with something called pelletized compost. It’s expensive, but I’m planning on bringing it home one bag at a time and then treating myself to a glass of wine as I slowly but surely scatter it across the ground.
I would much prefer to spend the time and energy on other garden chores, but Mike K. convinced me that a good gardener treats her whole property with care and love and attention and doesn’t always obsess over the pretty flowers.
Besides, he tells me that if I get the health of the soil under the lawn back in control, there will be fewer weeds seeds to pollute all my garden beds. And that sounded very tempting. Especially since I spent three hours weeding part of a garden bed last week and I’ve only cleared space of about 200 square feet. Arggh.
Mike also told me that I was overwatering with my irrigation system and that if would just hand water the hydrangeas when they got stressed in the summer instead of turning on all my sprinklers I’d be much better off. I know he’s right, and I’m going to try again this year, but when my hydrangeas start dropping I’m not sure I can promise I won't be pumping those sprinkler heads up to full volume again. 
We all know that when it comes down to it, given a choice between the lawn and the hydrangeas, there’s no question about who's got my heart, and I’m sorry Mike, but it's sure not my lawn.
Occasionally Paige Patterson envies the Californians who use very soft and foot friendly artificial lawn as an ecological solution to the dismal watering needs of grass. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Going Native

As an official “Plant Maniac” there’s no chance anyone is talking me into giving up my rare and unusual plants. Centuries worth of botanists, explorers and nurserymen have gathered, cultivated and shipped stuff across continents and oceans to feed the frenzy of gardening nuts throughout the ages. And I’ve got the bug.

And I’ve been told many times that gardening with non-indigenous or alien plants is not always the “right” way to go. Alien plants are invaders; they don’t “belong” in our backyards. They can overrun our existing plant life; are not as well adapted to our ecosystems as the plants that are originally from here. I can’t argue the facts of nature with these folks, because they’re not wrong.

The dilemma for me has always been that these eco-enthusiasts have faced off with me in an all-or-nothing stance. It’s either I rip out all my foreign ornamentals and replace it with native plants or I’m a bad gardener. Which, frankly, was kind of a turn off. And, besides, I think the aliens are prettier.

Then, last week, I attended a lecture by Doug Tallamy, the author of “Bringing Nature Home,” and my world changed. Professor Tallamy, who teaches Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware, got my attention by telling us no matter how many butterfly bushes we planted, it was of no use if we didn’t have plants for the caterpillars that become the butterflies to eat as well.

Duh!! Of course I knew that I should have milkweed for the Monarch caterpillars, but he went further by pointing out that if I didn’t have native plants that the native bugs and other crawly things could eat, I wouldn’t have the birds and little mammals who eat the native bugs, and without them, there’s nothing for the bigger carnivores to eat, and, voila, we end up in a natural wasteland. A dead zone where there’s lots of color and flowers but very little other life. Sure birds like berries, he told us, but they feed their young mostly insects, and if there’s no bugs in your backyards, the baby birds are going to go hungry.

Then he told us that an Oak tree could support 532 species of caterpillars while a Zelkova supported 0. I was staggered. It had never even occurred to me to think of these kinds of plants as butterfly food, but there you had it. Oaks are yummy.

But wait, I thought, but if we have all these caterpillars etc eating my plants, they’ll look nasty and holey. It was like the professor read my mind, because he then explained, that when the insect life is back in sync with the rest of the world, more birds will return and when those birds populations get back to higher numbers again, my bugs will be kept in check. Back in the way nature had it all worked out for those millions of years it existed before we started to meddle with it. Hmmm.

In addition, there was no scolding for the plants I already owned or even the ones I still coveted. Instead, he suggested that I just add a few natives back into the mix. Give up some of my lawn he recommended. We have over 40 million acres of lawn in this country by the way, a number that is ridiculous. And if you don’t have a lot of lawn to begin with, just tuck them under trees, or at the corner of the house or in the front up by the road, even a few will make a difference.

Let some violets invade the lawn and you’ll make 29 crawling things available to those starving babies.

Not sure you have room for asters? How about if there are 112 moths & butterflies that would say thank you? I’m going to let some mingle with my perennials.

Blueberries support 288 critters, not including the two-legged short wearing ones that also enjoy their harvest, and they take some shade, so they’ll work almost anywhere.

And if you’re thinking about a shade tree, and want excellent fall foliage why not go for Acer rubrum, the Swamp or Red Maple that provides 287 different tasty birds snacks.

So the good professor has a convert. And although I’m not giving up my rose addiction, I’m now thinking there are 73 more reasons for me to indulge my passion for Sunflowers.

Paige Patterson has seen only one Luna moth in the wild. Now she’s planting to try and attract number two.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Food, glorious food!

You want to grow more things to eat, but hate the look of straight, boring vegetable rows.

You think your garden is too small to grow vegetables, or you’re already gardened to the max.

You’re starting a new garden and want to make something that’s both beautiful to look at and to eat from.

You’re totally brave and want to rip out your entire front lawn and remake it into a productive and beautiful potager –- a creative blend of vegetable, fruits, flowers and herbs.

It’s time for all of you to think about edible landscaping -- the art of growing the things you want to eat in more attractive ways.

To start, browse some of the amazing books and website out there for insights and inspiration. I have two favorites.

The queen of edible landscaping, Rosalind Creasy, has a new book, ‘Edible Landscaping,’ which shows over 300 color photographs of edible ideas that will have your mouth watering and fingers itching to get food among your flowers. I also love Joy Larkcom’s ‘Creative Vegetable Gardening’ for the way she approaches fruit, vegetables and herbs from a design point of view.

You might already have some edibles incorporated into your garden -- did you know that you could eat daylilies? And that rose petals can be used in salads? Most of us have a lavender or two or 30 already in the garden, so why not add in some other decorative plants that can also garnish the table?

Try using chives as an edging, they work wonderfully next to roses and mixed with geranium Rozanne -- snip off the flowers and leaves as need. There’s a newish, variegated basil out there, called ‘Pesto Perpetuo' which tastes wonderful and looks incredible in the middle section of a perennial border. I’m going to tuck it into all my beds next year, for a little hint of hot green and white to help pop other colors. Perhaps you’d rather use purple basil as an accent? It works just as well and looks amazing next to white phlox and blue balloon flowers.

With their pretty spring flowers and bright fall foliage high bush blueberries can be a screen, part of a shrub border or, if allowed to get large enough, become beautiful vase shaped garden sculptures. Plus they’re a native plant so they count for revegetation! Although some produce fruit all on their own, most need at least one other variety to get the best crops and so make sure you buy a couple different names.

You can also work any of the sages into your sunny flowerbeds. I use the classic ‘Berggarten’ as its velvety soft, silver leaves balance the oranges and hot pink flowers I have a thing for. I also plant pineapple sage every year (it’s not a perennial like the cooking sage) to attract hummingbirds and to use in fruit salad. It gets huge, but is open and airy so I plant it with bee balm towards the back of gardens.
Just the slight distance between Sag Harbor and Bridgehampton makes all the difference for winter hardiness, and a fig tree that overwinters for my father on Palmer Terrace needs a huge amount of protection for me. For him, and you in Sag Harbor, a fig with its dramatic leaves can be a startling accent plant. If it’s sited right, it can become huge, but it’s easily pruned and once you’ve eaten your own figs you’ll be an addict for life.

Try growing garlic in between your roses. Not only will it help keep away the aphids and look smashing when in flower, but if you save some of the bulbs you harvest to replant in the fall, you’ll have garlic forever. Tuck bronze fennel into the back of your border and snip pieces of the soft foliage for potato salad or with fish. I like the way it looks with daylilies and Nepeta subsessilis, the larger catmint.

Last year I dug in some currants and gooseberries. Although we don’t use their fruits as much as the Europeans do, I find the plants attractive, especially in spring when they are flowering. I used mine to make a mixed shrub border behind which I’m growing some climbing roses for later seasonal color.
Push nasturtiums seeds everywhere you need to fill gaps. I’m planting mine next to all my oriental poppies. I love the flowers in salads, and as we know, I’m an orange freak, but they come in a whole slew of other colors now.

Lets banish the idea of rows of greens and lines of corn and open our minds up to the idea that things that are edible being used in ways that are beautiful. Let’s use corn to screen out the neighbors’ pool and choose to plant Swiss chard and kale because they look pretty, not just because they’re nutritious.
Joy Larkcom recommends using loose-headed lettuces as edgings, knowing that by the time the heat of summer is upon us; neighboring plants will have filled in the spots where the lettuce once was. She also plants Bull’s Blood Beets as accent plants with their deep red leaves. I would interplant them with curly or large leaf parsley that could fill in the spaces that appear when the beets are pulled. This year I’m tucking eggplants into my flowerbeds. They have beautiful soft velvety leaves and I’m borrowing Rosalind’s idea of using them with pink Echinaceas. She also suggests planting them in pots with million bells as under plantings which I think is just genius.

I’m also going to try growing my lemon cucumbers up the same fence with my climbing roses and morning glories. I was truly inspired by the pumpkin that last year climbed to the top of the huge hedge opposite the Sagg Store.

Going to pick up my mail I pulled in and almost forgot to put the car in park as I stared at a glorious orange orb dangling 10 feet up in the air. I knew that squash, pumpkins, watermelons and cucumbers could all climb but I was stuck thinking of them as ground huggers. I’m still going to try and grow melons as groundcovers this year, but seeing that huge pumpkin vine threaded through the hedge changed my view of sprawlers into crawlers. And that’s the whole key to edible landscaping.

It’s about changing the way you look at about plants and rethinking the way you use them in the garden. Realizing that there doesn’t have to be a conflict between utility and beauty. That a fruiting Asian pear is just as pretty as a crabapple. That pole beans climb pergolas as beautifully as wisteria. That purple pak choi is as pretty as sedum and dill is as elegant as Queen Ann’s Lace but both taste better. That lettuce, alpine strawberries and zucchini can also be thought of as part shade plants. That hot peppers look great in containers, strawberries are great garden edgers and that some of cherry tomatoes get so tall they should be used to dress up an arbor.

And that the only edible plants that don’t belong in your garden -- are the ones you don’t want to eat.
Paige Patterson wants 5 truckloads of Sweet Peet to magically appear in her yard & for elves to start spreading it on all her garden beds.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

I'm such a sucker for seeds!

Of course, a girl who doesn’t know how to say no to plant is also a person with a seed packet problem. There’s actually quite a few of us out there, I know, because I seem them browsing among the packages as I make my choices. They’re the other people fingering the Little Lion Butterfly Zinnias and trying to decide if they need one of two packages of the heirloom Watermelon Radishes (I took only one – and I’m worried I might regret it.) They know how they are, so I’m not naming names, but who can blame us. With a winter like this, the idea of spring seems more tangible with a slim package of promise or two tucked into your down jacket pocket.

Now I confess, right up front that I am terrible at starting seeds inside – my house is too small, I barely have room for houseplants, and I don’t have the right equipment. I have friends with grow lights and bottom heaters and those cute little wooden thingies that you use to make newspaper into biodegradable pots, all of which I lust for, but which the dachshunds would make short work of if I set them up anywhere in the house. What I really need a greenhouse, but I have a list of other home and garden projects that take precedent so right now, a green house is a luxury I just can’t afford.

But I’m still going to try. I tend to get the packages and sprinkle them in and among existing perennials, a plan that rarely works out well, since I then tend to forget and either weed up the seedlings or remember not to weed and end up cultivating a beautiful crop and weeds with a few seedlings struggling in their midst.
Some seeds are just so easy they are silly, so of course I have handfuls of those, nasturtiums in five different shades. Cutting Zinnias in hot pink, white, purple, red and orange, California Poppies in butter cream. A color that goes with everything and a plant that can handle almost any soil as long as there’s sun, cosmos, cosmos, cosmos – this year I’m going with the Rose Bon Bon Double ones. I grew the Double Click last year and am now crazy about double cosmos. They are definitely “have to have” seeds. And I will tuck Tithonia, the Mexican Sunflower seeds everywhere as I love the color orange. I actually have two packages that I’m going to interplant among the collection of yellow, apricot and white climbing roses I am hoping will soon swamp the veggie fence. I also plant morning glories on the same fence, since the roses are fairly new and I’m fighting the deer to get them to put on height. Last year I had Grand Pa Ott’s – a fabulous deep purple but this year I’m thinking it should be Clark’s Heavenly Blue – an amazing sky blue morning glory from the 20’s with huge flowers.

Of course I have to confess that I also bought some specialty primrose seeds from England. Quite a few actually, but since I have no hope of starting these myself, I’m hunting down someone to grow them for me. I think I have a lead, and if I do watch out, because then there’s no stopping me. Okay, okay, I confess I also bought some Hollyhocks, Alcea Black Currant Whirl and Alcea rosea Simplex Hybrids. Plus I don’t know how it happened but there were seeds that jumped into my hands in a hardware store and in a supermarket. So really, there’s already no stopping me, but I think I’ve just come up with a brilliant business – How about a “seed starting” company? Where you could pick you own seeds and then pay someone to start them for you, and then when they are ready you could pick them up and plant them. I guess it’s the same as buying pre-started plants at the nurseries, but doesn’t it sound more personal? And much more fun? Any budding entrepreneurs out there??

What I really meant to write about today wasn’t flowers. I was planning to write about vegetables. In the winter one of the ways I garden is through the turning of pages and I’ve just finished ‘Fields Of Plenty’ by Michael Ableman. Fabulous book. And just like his mentor Elliot Coleman, it inspired me to want to turn my whole back yard into a vegetal cornucopia. I bought my Mache seeds already, Corn Salad for those of you who don’t buy it in Cittarella in it’s little plugs, but for those of you who are thinking about starting things to get them ready to put in the ground, this week it’s time to start spinach and mache, both of which can be put in the ground around on or about March 4th if you believe the seed starting calculators I’ve been testing on the internet. I used May 15th as the last frost date, although I’m not sure that’s completely accurate. I think last year we actually had a very early last frost date, but I tend to use the 15th because it’s a month after the day taxes are due and I always remember the date.

According the seed starting calculator at Johnny’s Select Seeds it’s time to start artichoke seeds. Now I just have to find some.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Winter Wonderings

I am an excellent dreamer. I girl filled with imagination. I can see how things will be and picture them with utter and complete believability. So for me winter is a time filled with reckless color, and swathes of possibilities. I see how it will look when I scatter dahlias throughout all my planting beds, huge heads of purple, pink, cream, maroon and orange rising through masses of daylilies and nodding over my fairy roses; pushing up and through and over the nepeta and blue phlox that surrounds the pear tree. I can almost taste the froth of the white Japanese asters I plan on planting in the back beds. I can flip through a magazine or a catalog or a book and seen my own garden transformed by the ideas that call so seductively from the pages as I turn each one. Wouldn’t a sea of Eryngium Miss Wilmot’s Ghost work wonderfully under all those yellow roses I put in last year? And wouldn’t it be wonderful to transplant the black pussy willow away from the garage (one day soon to be transformed into a painting studio) where it’s exploded and replace it with more Let’s Dance Starlight Hydrangeas to keep company with the ones that followed me home from the nursery this year.

I am not a winter person. I would be happier only seeing the white stuff if I chose to go visit it, like an aunt whom I like but don’t long to see. If we had winters where I could still be puttering around in and amongst my plants I would be a significantly happier person, but since I didn’t love the winter I spent in the Pacific Northwest – way too much rain and my eyes hurt when the sun finally made a fleeting, blinding appearance – I’ve had to learn to rely on my imagination to get me through these months.
As I’ve said, I’m quite good, and luckily winter is the time when all the nurseries and growers tease us with the promise of new and exciting things appearing in the spring. I myself am quite over the moon re: two new shrubs. The first is a dwarf form of the fabulous Endless Summer Hydrangea called Mini Penny. Like the ES it’s a remontant hydrangea, which means it blooms on new wood as well as old which is important in an area like ours where next year’s buds are often damaged by tricky springs where the weather warms too early and fools them into opening right before the temperature plummets. Brilliant right? But even better is the fact that Mini Penny tops out at around 3-4’, which means it’s the right size to surround a deck and still be able to see over when sitting at the table eating the perfect tomato and basil salad.

The second plant I’m thrilled about is another dwarf, Little Lime, a smaller Limelight Hydrangea. Now the Limelight was a huge improvement on the ubiquitous Pee Gee Hydrangea, the same Carvel soft ice cream shaped flowers but on stems that are significantly stronger and so do not droop under the weight of such excessive blooms. It opens a fabulous chartreuse that works with any color scheme and slowly fades to white and then, much later to pink. To have that plant in a dwarf form (one third the size supposedly) means it’s going to be perfect in pots and pretty much anywhere I want to work it in. I have plans to buy this plant by the gross and use with reckless abandon.

I will confess that over the years, whether to weeding them up in the spring (I know for sure that I’ve done this with every single aster I’ve ever installed) or due to their being crowded out by other too robust bedmates, I’ve lost many, many, many flowers. I have a spreadsheet where I try, with a small degree of success to write down which plants have become new additions and where they’ve found a home. It’s during the winter when I open that dreaded document up and wonder what ever happened to all those Japanese anemones? And where did all that phlox go? Did I really lose all 100 of those lilies? And I know I overwater but could I possibly have drowned all that coreopsis? And so on. I’d like to blame the deer for some of the plant disappearance, but the truth of the matter is that perennials take work and care and possibly, that dreaded word, planning. And I’m not good at planning. Imagining, yes, but truly working out the where and when of organized and synchronized planting – well that’s just not how I’m programmed. I can do it for other people, but I’m a girl who NEEDS a plant, just has to have it, and will figure out where it will go when I get home.

And I NEED phlox paniculata Tiara! A double flowering white phlox where each individual floret looks like a tiny white rose. I will confess I’ve only seen this plant in photos, but I lust after it. I don’t care that it’s the equivalent of deer crack, or that it may or may not be terribly susceptible to powdery mildew. I think it’s beautiful, and have fallen deeply in love. As soon as I find a source for it, I’m going to hog them all and bring them home by the truckload.
And finally I’ve found out about a lavender that is supposedly so vigorous that it flowers in its first year from seed, L. angustifolia Ellagance Purple. Now we all know that a girl with acidic, clay soil and an irrigation system set to meet the needs of her hydrangeas should run, not walk in the other direction from a lavender but I’m going to try the trick I always tell everyone else. A generous helping of lime for each plant as it’s planted and lots of sand mixed in with the soil to help with drainage needs. I’m not going to start with seeds, I know my limitations, but I’ve already tracked down the plants and in my mind I can already see how in a few years from now the back acre and a half could, with a little work and a bit of money, become a billowing field of purple sweetness. My own little Provence.
A girl can dream right?

Paige Patterson has counted 13 species of birds on her feeder in the last ten minutes and 1 species of squirrel.