Thursday, December 6, 2012

Forget the partridge, I want a pear tree!

As we have now passed Thanksgiving and are heading straight towards the dreaded “shopping season” anyone who loves, lives with or has a crush on a gardener is facing the age old problem — what do you buy for someone who would spend their last nickel on an unusual bulb or package of seeds when the ground is frozen solid and they can’t get a shovel in the ground. Trust me, it’s almost as hard for us gardeners as it is for those trying to shop for us.

 Last year was a crazy anomaly, my ground never froze so I was digging and transplanting and weeding and playing and making new beds all winter long, however if the squirrels are to be trusted, this winter might be a wee bit colder and the ground a lot harder to pry open. So here’s the short and sweet answer to all your problems and issues.


I know, I know, no one thinks its as much fun to open a gift certificate as it is to get an actual present, but you are wrong.  Gardeners are a different breed. With a gift certificate to our favorite nursery we can spend the next months imagining which specific plant we’ve been lusting after will now come home with us next spring. Switching from getting an armful of double black hellebores to envisioning an usual dwarf cryptomeria, to using that gift card to chip away at the espaliered apple tree we’ve always longed for, will make the winter months zoom by. In fact I have clients whose eyes glaze over with joy as they recount for me the birthday, the anniversary, or the Christmas they got a whole slew of gift cards – all of them recalling it as being their best gift receiving experience of all time.

So please, gift certificate us. If you have a need for us to unwrap something, there are of course, other gifts you can add in, but that little envelope is the one thing that says, not only do you really love us, it also says you get us. Okay, now that we have that settled, here are soon of your excellent choices for back up gifts. Stick with the traditional. Even if we already have it.

Clippers. A gardener can never have too many clippers. They need a pair, the way my friend Lori Barnaby says she needs reading glasses, scattered within easy reach everywhere. At the moment I have a pair in my car, a pair in the glove compartment of my husband’s truck, a pair at work, two pairs in a basket on the front porch and another in the garage. I also have three different loppers, one of which sometimes lives in my car as well. I also have a car trowel, but as I am particular about trowels, I need to give you some guidance. A trowel needs to fit nicely in the palm of the hand and the butt of it is going to push against the heel of our palms so please, don’t one with a decorative stud there, or a wrist lasso, it’s just going to give me and your loved one blisters.

Gardeners also need gloves, although many of us forget/prefer not to use them because we like getting dirt under our nails. Look I know we’re a little peculiar, but don’t judge us, love us and get us gloves that fit snuggly. When we use gloves, they really get sopping wet and filthy, the best ones are easily cleaned. They also don’t have to be a fortune, as we’re going to lose them and rip them and destroy them in our endeavors. On that same note, although earth tones are beauty for socks and sweaters, it makes tools and gloves and clippers very difficult to find when you put them down on the ground for a second to tie something up or push back your hair and then notice out of the corner of your eye the rose bush that needs deadheading only to be distracted by the baby Japanese eggplants crying out to be picked which leads you towards the raspberry patch that needs weeding. Two hours later, when you go to pick up your clippers, it can be significantly less hideous then tracking back through your steps while you try and remember where you put them down, if you can spot them a mile away because they’re colored like a male cardinal instead of the female house wren.

And ask us. I know you want to surprise us, but we’re probably obsessing about something anyway, and although we don’t expect you to understand the subtle lure of Digitalis Illumination Pink, there’s nothing more romantic then a card that says it’s an IOU for three of them as soon as they are available on this continent.

Paige Patterson just learned sunlight keeps male cardinals red from Cardinale, a fabulous shrimp pink and grey bird whose lack of sight means he can’t live outside.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Whats an environmentally conscious elf to do?

We’re not even at Thanksgiving yet, and people are bringing in their live Christmas trees, so it's time to address the issue. I'm not going to get sucked into the whole debate as to whether a live tree is better for the environment then a cut tree, as there are reams of literature supporting both arguments. I haven't actually had a tree for years, but if I did have one, I'd probably swing get one of the fantastic upscale charlie brown trees Marders is brining in this year.

However, a live tree, which you bring into the house and then plant outside afterwards, has the advantage of being dual purposed. It’s pretty once inside and then, hopefully, will continue to do so outside. The trick is to follow the following steps.

How big of a tree?
Jeff Peters of JCP Landscaping says, ‘I do this for people all the time, it’s really kind of easy, but the trick is to make sure you get the right size tree.” According Phil Bucking, the owner of the Sag Harbor Garden Center, where Jeff likes to get his trees, the best size to choose is a tree that’s about 4-5 feet tall including the height of the root ball. This means the tree is only going to be 3-4 feet tall when planted, but it’s the easiest size to handle. If you are looking to have a tree that sweeps the ceiling, maybe a live tree is not the way to go. If you want something to plant in the yard, remember you have to get it into and out of the house first, and that the taller the tree, the heavier the root ball. Any tree with it’s roots in a ball of earth wrapped in burlap is not an easy thing to manipulate up stairs and through doorways, and if it’s larger then 5’, according to Jeff Peters, “You’re not getting them in the front door.”

What kind of tree?
Although Jeff prefers the Colorado Blue Spruce, as he feels the needles are stronger, Mike Kusick from Marders is partial to Serbian Spruces. “Not everyone wants to work that traditional shape into their landscape,” he adds, pointing out that he’s also got a few fabulous blue Deodar Cedars that he’s presenting as Christmas tree options. “They can’t stay in the house for very long as they are more sensitive trees, but they’re more attractive and easier to work into a landscape.” He also pointed out that although the deodars only about 3’ high, they were on sale for 40% off, which made them seem so much taller. Phil Bucking carries both Norway and Blue Spruce and White Pines, but that he thinks the Norways are the best at acclimating

How do you care for the tree?
Once you’ve figured out how to get it in, the best technique for ensuring it’s survival is to place it in a galvanized tub, or any container that will hold water. It’s a living, breathing thing you’ve wrestled into the house, and you’re going to have to give it plenty of water to keep it alive, so make sure it’s in a waterproof container. Jeff uses bricks to balance and stabilized the tree in the tub, and says that he’s had great success with trees that have been in the house up to a week, longer then that and it starts to be too stressful for the tree. He does say that they will start dropping needles a little, “but once they’re outside they seem to recover.” He asks that the root balls of the trees are watered daily and the branches are misted as well, since the house is going to be much warmer and drier then the tree is accustomed to. Mike Kusick has the same advice, although he has a new product to help the tree survive the stress of being inside. Instead of guessing how much and how often to water, he recommends treating the trees with an organic, sugar-based product called Vacation in which you soaks the tree’s root balls before bring them into the house. “It helps the tree deal with the dehydration stress it’s undergoing and we’ve had great success with it with cut trees.” According to Mike, you only have to treat the live tree once and you don’t have to water it for the rest of the week.  Care wise, Phil Bucking has the best advice of all, “If you have a shed or garage that you can use as a transition place for the tree to go for a day or two after being inside, before it goes in the ground, those trees have the best chance of survival.”

Where’s the tree going to live after Christmas?
“It would be great if people knew where they wanted the tree planted first, but most times,” says Jeff,  “I just get a call telling me to go get a tree and then we have to figure it out later.” The idea of digging the hole while the ground is not frozen is a no-brainer for landscape professionals, but most people don’t think about it until it’s New Year’s Day, it’s freezing cold and they’re dragging a heavy tree all over the frozen yard trying to find the ideal place. “People are very particular about where they want their trees, and last year it was fine, but the year before with all that snow. . .” Jeff trails off. As the Farmers Almanac is predicting another long, cold and snowy winter this year, please figure out where you want the tree placed before the ground freezes. Phil recommends that you dig a hole that’s bigger then you need it to be, and to put the soil, as well as a bag or two of compost, in a shed or a garage so that it doesn’t freeze. Jeff uses Roots organic fertilizer when planting the tree, while Mike prefers liquid kelp, which is also excellent for stressed trees, or Superthrive, which has b vitamins to help plants establish roots.

All in all it doesn’t seem that difficult, but follow the experts’ advice, because if you don’t, as Phil Bucking adds, “You might as well get a cut tree because your live tree is going to be just as dead.”

Move Aside Martha.
For those of you who want to create your own holiday décor, Marders has two wreath-making workshops on November 18th and December 2nd, with a third class tentatively scheduled for the following weekend. Denise Kelly, one of their floral specialists, explained that for the first workshop people would be working with dried on a grapevine base and for the second they'd be wiring a selection of precut greens onto a form to create their own, custom wreath, which they’d then decorate with pinecones and berries. “It’s really fun to see how people respond to all the color and texture choices,” Denise says, “every wreath is different, and they’re all really pretty.”

The class is $45 for adults and $35 for children, which provides everything you need to build the wreath, with ribbons and millimeter balls costing a little bit more.

The ribbon prices are based on width, length and complexity, but with 50 plus ribbons to choose from, (and the most beautiful silver glittered baby breath branches) its hard to not want them all. Places are limited, so sign up by calling Marders at 537-3700.

Paige Patterson actually kind of lusts after the feather Christmas trees her father and Martha Stewart have.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

You say Narcissus, I say Daffodil

It’s an incredible day to garden, but I’m stuck inside sick as a dog with a head cold that has left me flattened so naturally I’m online researching (ha! lets call it what it is really – compulsively shopping for) bulbs.

Okay, so sitting on my front porch right now are three boxes of bulbs just waiting to be planted, I just receive an email telling me that another shipment is on it’s way, and I have three different websites open with bulbs in all their online carts, because there’s really nothing like the flourish of spring bulbs. And although I must confess that a lot of those bulbs on my porch are tulips, today I’m going to focus on the daffodils. I have five new varieties arriving this week. One called Manly and another called Obdam, are both doubles in the white or cream family. I already have Acropolis and Sir Winston Churchill, also white doubles, but there’s really nothing like an ironstone pitcher stuffed with fistfuls of these beauties to perfume your kitchen and pull you out of your winter crankiness.

I’m also getting a bag of Misty Glen, an all white single with a hint of green at it’s center and a bag of two types of daffodils that are both bicolored white and creamy yellow. One that’s larger with soft yellow petals (the perianth) and a creamy trumpet (the corona) and the other that’s smaller with a creamy petals and a stronger yellow cup (another name for the corona). I don’t know the names of either of the two plants, they’re being marketed under the name “funhouse” but I’m loving the colors together for around my new baby pink, spring blooming camellias.

Daffodils are the easiest of all bulbs to plant and the most rewarding as they are not (yet) eaten by deer or voles. They are sometimes dug up, but since they’re not really palatable they do tend to survive. Remember the rule of thumb is to plant a bulb three times as deep as the bulb is wide, so get your daffodils dug in deeply and they’re most likely start rewarding you by multiplying like crazy.

There are of course some caveats, you need to feed your bulbs, when you plant them, but also when they start come up in the spring or late in the fall so the food is there for them when they need it, and they do need sun, so planting them under the branches of a white pine is not really the best idea. There are bulbs for the shade, think Scillia and English Bluebells, but a daffodil really wants its head in the sun. They’re happiest nestled in the lawn, with no competing shrub and tree roots, but you MUST leave the leaves up for at least six weeks after the flowers are done to make sure the bulbs can recharge themselves -- and rarely do we find people who are willing to forgo lawn mowing for a couple of months. My guys do it for me, but under duress. I think it pains them to leave the tall hillocks and tufts scattered around, like a drunk who tried to shave his face while on roller-skates onboard the Titanic.
Oh and all you folks who are tying your daffodil leaves in tight little knots of order, it’s actually not the best thing to do as you are limiting the leaves’ exposure to sunlight.  Try planting them next to perennials that will come up quickly and hide the withering foliage.

If I was a little more organized of a gardener, or obsessed in a different way, I would think collecting daffodils could be madly entertaining. There’s even an American Daffodil Society associated daffodil show on Shelter Island every year, normally mid April. When I go to the society’s website to explore I find a website that helps you identify or find various cultivars, where I discover that there are over 100 double white daffodils that I could collect, my four are just a beginning, a tease, a smattering.

The problem I have with becoming a true collector is that I would have to memorize a whole bunch of terms and subtleties, as seen from the description of Misty Glen below,

“… perianth segments broadly ovate in outline, rounded at apex and slightly mucronate, spreading, sometimes creased, overlapping half; the inner segments angled at shoulder, a little inflexed, with margins wavy; corona long cup-shaped, bluish white, with green prominent at base, mouth straight, loosely frilled.”

I can’t do it. I’m impressed that I’ve been able to jam all the Latin names of plants into my brain, especially since I really didn’t start learning them until I was in my thirties, but I’ve decided that in the same way I’ve discovered you can buy wines based on what the label looks like and still end up with something delicious, I really don’t need to be able to remember how to classify all thirteen divisions to find and enjoy my daffodils.  I just need to know where to look online where I’m curious.

Oh and for clarity, all daffodils are narcissus, daffodil is just the common name  while narcissus is the Latin. And the term jonquil should only refer to a division 7 or division 13 daffodil with especially shaped leaves, a flare to its corona and specific perianth spreading. So there.

The Compulsive Gardener

There’s a huge pile of plants in my driveway. Amongst the crowd are three Lindera benzoin or spicebushes, a plant I’ve been threatening to get for a decade, mostly for it’s fall color, but also because I pride myself on having a lot of early blooms for my bees even if they’re fairly subtle, like the lindera. Plus it’s also the preferred food choice of the black and blue spicebush swallowtail butterfly larvae, and since I’m trying to bring more wildlife into my garden, it really deserves a place in the garden. I also found two Ilex verticillata or winterberry at the same 50% off nursery sale and seeing as I’ve raved about those for years, but didn’t own any, they had to take the ride to my house as well. And there are three yellow Exbury azaleas in the pile, a plant I’ve longed for and lusted after ever since I saw them in their full glory at Winterthur, but couldn’t justify before my deer fence came into my life, since it really is adored by the creatures for snacking.

Of course, one of the reason these plants are still in a pile in the driveway is that two tiny, fluffy deer have figured out how to belly slid under my back gate whenever they feel like it and are demoing the place, so I’m working on how to deer proof the thing before I just had these lovely snacking morsels our to my two new friends. The other reason these plants aren’t planted yet is a little more complicated. I don’t know where I’m going to plant them.

There, I’ve admitted it. Part of the reason I garden is to find a place to put the plants I buy.  For me, one of the joys of gardening has to be the pleasure of trolling through a nursery and finding a great plant at a great price. Like the Acer japonicum 'Aconitifolium' for that I found at the same plant sale for under $40 thus providing me with a great excuse to finally have one of my own. Or finding the hellebores at Whole Foods that were on sale for $8.00 when all the local nurseries were selling them for $24.00, a very justifiable excuse for getting 9 of them.

But if I’m really truthful, I just enjoy shopping.  I always have. Whether it’s art books or shoes or creamy tubes of oil paint or engraved French monkey prints, the process of ferreting out, narrowing your choice down and then plunking money down to own is exciting.  Of course with shoes, it’s easier, they live in their boxes until it’s time to show them off like the black kid Mary Janes with the rhinestone high heels and the jet bead embroidery on the toes that made an appearance at Ashley’s wedding.

Plants, well they’re a little tougher to squeeze in. I confess that I just recently found some pictures of my garden from when I first purchased it, and yes, I most certainly guilty of planting too many things way too close together. I most definitively did not leave room for these plants to grow. I left some room, but I really wasn’t thinking 15 years down the line.  I know better. I really do, it’s how I make my living, and I’m much better at steering clients towards a plan and not just taking them on a crazed shopping spree, but I could never do it myself. 

If I had to plan where the Chaenomeles speciosa 'Orange Storm' would go, I’d be stuck. I don’t really need it, I actually don’t really need any more plants, I haven’t for a while, but I want it. It has beautiful double orange flowers. Who cares that there’s not a place for it in the garden yet? I still need to work some oakleaf hydrangeas into this garden, and I have no bayberry or blueberries, plants I lecture about using constantly as they’re both fantastic.

Now if I can just figure out where to put the Cedrus libani a good friend gave me. It’s only a baby now, about a foot high, but a true Cedar of Lebanon will grow into a magnificent, enormous, soaring evergreen approximately 140’ tall. Simple to site, right? Hahahahaha. Whoops sorry, lost control there for a moment. Look, I know that wherever I put this tree it’s going to eventually take over, I inherited a copper beach with my house that suddenly, after 15 years, has decided to grow like it’s a white pine on steroids. It definitely needs pruning, as do a bunch of things, while others need transplanting, i.e. all the mophead hydrangeas that under skirted the hydrangea paniculatas and weigelas behind the garage, but that’s the way I like to garden. Impulsively, compulsively and with the knowledge that there’s always room for more.

Paige Patterson has three boxes of bulbs sitting on her front porch just waiting to be planted, oh and more on the way.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Get me that color!

It’s hard when surrounded by the temptations of spring shopping at garden centers and nurseries to remember that there’s a third season in your garden, the fall which needs to be planned out as thoughtfully as the rest of the year.

For many of us, by the time fall rolls around and the garden is looking a bit drab, all the nurseries for already sold out, to more thoughtful and less impulsive gardeners, the stars of September and October. This year is especially difficult, the whole season was skewed a month or so early, so many of us were facing August with less color than we’d anticipated.

So for those us with drab areas, here a few things worth hunting down. Beginning with the trees. Naturally, everyone should have a Ginko. The change of color doesn’t last for very long, but the shock of yellow the elegant leaves provide before they drop is shatteringly beautiful.

The best Black Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica) lives at the base of Lake Road in Bridgehampton its leaves a rich mélange of russet, red and auburgine

River birches also turn a good golden shade, as does the Bottlebrush Buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) and the Golden Raintree (Koelreuteria painculata). It’s hard to ignore a Japanese stewartia, with leaves that transition from orange to scarlet, forgetting of course that it also has fantastic bark and camellia shaped white flowers in July. It’s a must have for your garden.

I could write a book on the fall colors of Japanese Maples, but I need not. All I have to do is to tell you to take a stroll past my father’s house on the corner of Main Street and Palmer Terrace in a few weeks and the tree speak for me. I think each one has a different color ranging from plum to orange to scarlet and there’s yellow there two. I tagged seedlings I had to have last year based on their color but was too busy to purloin them in the spring, a situation that must be rectified next year. Of course if you don’t have the room for my dad’s sized trees, try and track down one named 'Orange-ola' after its extraordinary flaming fall foliage. Or visit nurseries and watch to see which tree turns the best color – chances are it’ll be on sale too, which is always nice. I’m watching a couple, but I can’t tell you where for fear you’ll scarf them up before me.

Shrubs fall into the category of where to start. The maroon of the Oakleaf Hydrangea, the paprika of some deciduous azaleas, the electric Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) with the berries birds adore, the scarlet of the Red Chokeberry  (Aronia arbutifolia 'Brilliantissima’). Or think of the berries available and grab up every Viburnum you can, especially the one named ‘Winterthur’ whose berries color from pink to blue just as the leaves turn a deep shade of bloody maroon. And of course the Compact Burning Bush is a have to have for those of us with full sun.

Marders had a variegated Beautyberry (Callicarpa dichotoma) that I missed out on getting this year, bad Paige! So it was striking even before it set its fabulous fruits. And each year I swear I’m going to invest in an assortment of Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) whether it’s 'Sparkleberry,’ 'Red Sprite,’ 'Winter Red’ or 'Berry Heavy’ but there’s still a need for them in my yard. For the most startling orange, red, purple & yellow in autumn all you need is a fothergilla ‘Mount Airy.’ I never remember to buy them in the spring, and when I see one and try and find it, all the nurseries are always sold clean out.

 I’ve run out of room and I haven’t even touched on the perennials, bulbs or annuals one must have to be totally blessed out in the autumn. Sounds like my garden doesn’t it? Too many plants and not enough room. I of course didn’t have room for dahlias in either my column or my garden this year, and the color they add is now especially missed. And of course if you don’t have any Japanese anemones you’re crazy. My ‘Honorine Jobert’ is blooming its guts out and my annual salvias are looking spectacular.  It’s time to go shopping darlings, just make sure everyone grabs a witch hazel if you can find one. Not only will it light up you spring, but boy will it electrify your fall.

Paige Patterson’s husband just asked if she’d ever seen one of the peepers that are singing so sweet these last few evenings. Confessing she hadn’t, they’re now planning a peeper hunt. Any takers?

Monday, September 3, 2012

Can it be that time already?

Let’s talk about Weck jars. When it comes to the combination of form and function, Weck canning jars rock my world. I discovered them last year, but it suddenly seems they’re on all my favorite gardening websites this week. This is not only because Weck jars use these amazingly cool clips to fasten, but because today is Labor Day and there’s a slew of us that will be choosing to spend our time today not on a beach but in the kitchen over a hot stove. I know, I know, we’re crazy, but once you start learning how to save some stuff from your garden and local farm stands, once you’ve cracked open a jar of frozen peaches from the Halsey farm in February and used it to make a peach pie that still has the taste of September clinging to it, you will never escape.

Now I will confess that in our tiny little house we have very little storage room for canning supplies and so my big pot in which I boil things that need a heat bath has been sitting on the front porch since the end of apple season last year. It’s a little unHamptons of me, but we’re planning the get the basement useable soon, until then on the porch it lives and actually, I’m really late this year. I totally missed my blackberries, didn’t make a tomato sauce (bad Paige) and now I’m thinking of broadening my storage tricks and preserving with alcohol! And for that there’s no pot required!

There was a great article in the NYT a couple of years ago about preserving food this way, which mentioned a recipe for Boozy Concord Grapes. Where instead of making a jam – and lets face it I have almost all of last years jam staring back at me from the shelves – you could macerate the grapes in sugar and brandy. The alcohol eliminates any threat of bacteria, so once you’re finished it goes right into a cool dark place for a month or two and then voila, it’s time to eat it or use it in a recipe. And I’ve got a bunch of ways to use drunken fruit. Imagine these grapes with roasted duck, or pork! There’s an enormous arbor filled with concords at work that get picked and handed out to the staff every year. This year I’m bringing home a box!

I’m also going to try peaches with vanilla beans in brandy or maybe rum and some lemon.

Of course I’m also going to freeze some of those same peaches in my Weck jars by slicing them, pitting them and jamming them in and then trying a couple of different liquids to fill the gaps. suggested orange juice, which I really like as an idea and uses white grape juice, which is also a great idea. If you want your peaches to stay the right color, you should make up a citrus bath for them either using ¼ cup of lemon and 4 cups of water to dunk soak your slices in before your put them in the jars and pour your liquid over them or add a ½ teaspoon of ascorbic acid powder directly into each quart of the liquid you are using to cover the fruit. (Easy to find in the vitamin aisle of the drugstore or at any of our health food stores.)

When you are freezing fruit, it sometime wants to rise to the top of the jar. Margret Roach shares her trick on using plastic wrap to hold them down, but I just don’t fill up as far as she does, let them rise while they freeze and the top off with a little more liquid later (making sure I still leave room for that to expand too.  I’m also thinking of making a light syrup with this case of white wine we bought by mistake and freezing my peaches in that. Martha Stewart has a recipe that uses 2 cups of rose wine, ½ cup of sugar, lemon zest, lemon verbena and 1-½ cups of water that sounds perfect that she uses to serve peaches in at the table. I think it’ll pour into my jars perfectly.

 Of course, you know that canning is still going to happen. My pickles from last year were a disaster (I used lemon pickles which didn’t work) and this year I grew pickling cucumbers just to do pickles, but of course never picked them when they were the right size, so I’m going to have to get on the stick and make more regular trips out to the garden to get the pickles back on track. 

And I have to make the world okay by pickling up the peppers that I grew to excess to have something spicy and hot for Dereyk in jars for the winter. If it’s spicy enough, it’ll make him hiccup and there’s really nothing like the sound of you husband hiccupping through his meal to bring the summer back full bore in the doldrums of February.  

Paige Patterson is going to try and overwinter her fig tree this year, hahahahahaha.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Who's wilting with me?

The garden is starting to look a little bedraggled and bewildered. Or maybe it’s just me. I confess it’s harder and harder to be enthused about getting all sweaty and grubby digging in the dirt when the act of just picking up a shovel causes little rivulets of sweat to run down your face. 

Let’s be serious, we’d all rather be hanging at the pool or playing in the ocean, when the humidity hits 100 percent, but there’s nothing inherently bad about working in the garden no matter what the temperature. So I’m not sure exactly why there’s this fallacy that it’s bad to plant things at the height of the summer. I hear it all the time, “oh no, I’m not going to plant now, I’m going to come back to the nursery and get the (your plant choice goes here) I want later, because, ‘it’s better to plant in the fall.’”Hmm. Okay, it’s true that planting in the fall is great for deciduous trees and shrubs; I think people just morphed it into a reason to avoid getting sweaty at the height of the summer.  I do need however, to clear a few things up. 

If a plant is sitting in a nursery above ground or in a pot nothing would make it happier then to be put into the ground. The same lovely ground that holds water and is cooler and gives roots room to grow. All those plants you’re eyeing for later would throw themselves at your legs and beg to go home with you if only they could. Of course, when you get them home, they’re going to need water, and lots of it as they are all getting watered everyday at the nursery, but you all are fooling yourselves if you think those same plants and going to do better when they come to your house a month later than if they come now.

The key is the water. Yes you need lots of it, but just increasing the days you water may not be the perfect solution. One of the mistakes people make is to set their irrigation clocks for 45 minutes three times a week in the spring and then when it gets hot turn them on every day. Big mistake. 45 minutes for overhead sprinklers might be okay for a lawn or other things with shallow roots, but plants really want nice long drinks that soak deep down into their soil. This allows their roots to follow the water deep into the soil and helps build a healthy and strong root system. If the water doesn’t get deep enough the roots will actually rise up towards the surface searching for the moisture and become shallow and stressed. 

Even your lawn wants a longer soaking.

When I tell folks this, they ask me how long their sprinklers should be on. I of course, can’t tell them, because it all depends on their soil. So I tell them to get out a shovel and dig a hole next to the plant they’re worried about right after a zone is finished. I tell them to dig down 12 inches and to check the soil. If the soil is moist all the way down great! If it’s sopping wet, there’s too much water, if only an inch or two is damp, not enough. There is no magic irrigation formula, besides as the weather changes your irrigation system must change too. Which means you will need to learn how to use your irrigation clock.

The horror on people’s faces when I mention this is startling. They’ve all figured out how to use their smart phones, but are stumped by irrigation clocks. Hmm. I don’t believe it. Come on folks, you can do it! I know you can. I guess people want to forget that plants are living things. It’s weird; they understand their children need to drink more when they’re all exhausted from the heat. They give their pets more water, but it’s like people have confused their gardens with their living rooms. 

A garden is not a static thing. It’s not an object, or a thing it’s an ecosystem -- it’s alive. It needs water and light and air and food. You would think this is basic, but the number of people who give me blank looks when I bring this up is staggering.
And the answer is not to just turn the water on and let it run. 

The soil needs a chance to breath in between waterings. 

There is such a thing as overwatering a plant. It’s hard to do with a hydrangea that lives in the sun, but if you have them planted in the sun at the base of a spruce tree and you give the hydrangeas as much water as they want you will rot the roots of the spruce. Trust me, I’ve done it. So learn to put plants with the same watering needs together. A willow will lap up more water than I hydrangeas ever will, lavender will die. And best yet, move those hydrangeas into a place where they get shade in the afternoon. 

So yes, you need less water in a wet spring then in a dry one, obviously, and any summer needs more water than spring, but more the answer isn’t a cut and dry one. Maybe you double the time on the zones out in the scorching sun, but the shady beds only need 15 minutes more. Or maybe also need add a day. I can’t tell you. Only your soil can speak such secrets to you. And they only way to get your soil to talk is to get a shovel or a trowel and get sweaty. 

Paige Patterson wants to confess that she is still putting hydrangeas out in the sun because she is running out of other places to put them. 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Gardener versus cook, or why I should have weeded the beets.

Let’s start off with the facts. I don’t cook. Well I do, but although I have a huge collection of cookbooks, I find it more satisfying to read them then I do to create from them. I’m actually a baker, but since baking is fattening, my mixer doesn’t come out that often. Besides, being as I’m a bit compulsive, I can’t just make one bundt cake, I feel compelled to make three. They’ll all be from different recipes and interesting to compare, and then of course, hard to resist and as I said, very, very fattening. 

Luckily, I married a cook and my husband is fantastic in the kitchen. Hand him a couple of ingredients, and he can invent something truly inspirational. Unlike me, with my reams of recipes, my tear sheets from Gourmet, Saveur, Vegetarian Times and Cooks Illustrated and my scales and measuring cups, Dereyk is improvisational. As long as I keep the refrigerator stocked, he’ll make dinner every night and all I have to do are the dishes. It’s a great deal, and of course, as I’m a gardener, I felt compelled to plant him a vegetable garden so that he could have everything he needed just a few steps away from the kitchen.

Doesn’t that sound perfect?

Okay, so the reality doesn’t really work as well as I hoped it would. So yes Dereyk made an amazing Roasted Beets with Hazelnut Vinaigrette and Burrata salad from a recipe he skimmed the other night in my Bon Appetit, but did he use my beets from the garden? No as they were deemed, “pathetic.” An apt description for the tiny little guys I’ve been harvesting from among the crabgrass that’s overrun them, oh yes and I was bad about thinning them too. So instead of using my fabulous crop of wee, baby beets, which Dereyk tells me will take significantly more work to roast and clean he just picked up big beautiful ones up from the farm stand on the way home and made little baby beet size bites by quartering them after roasting.

I just keep thinking that maybe this year it’ll be different. It isn’t, of course, so this might be the final hurrah of the vegetable garden at the Patterson house. Especially since the chef in residence, didn’t even want me to do basil this year. “If I need basil I can just pick it up on the way home,” he tells me. Painful right?

In fact after two years, Dereyk has laid down some rules for next year’s garden. I am allowed to grow as much garlic as I like (he now considers his pesto made from the garlic scapes to be one of our personal kitchen basics, and the man is a freak about garlic cloves) but no more peas, carrots or beets. No more cilantro too, as ours has always just bolted right when he needs a handful, no more lemon grass, no more oregano or summer savory or lemon verbena. He’s right that the tarragon is pathetic, but I missed out on the big ones when they came in, so maybe I can squeak that by next year.

He’s even trying to ban basil. In fact when he made his massive pesto batch, my basil was deemed too small, so he got his from Citterella instead. I’m allowed the variegated variety since it doesn’t go to seed, but he hasn’t ever used it so I might give it up. No more lettuce, of course since it bolts. Nor am not allowed to bring home any more enormous rosemary plants. A small one is fine. No more arugula – thank you flea beetles. There’s enough thyme for the rest of our lives and the same with sage. I know it sounds strange about a cook not wanting his own home grown basil, but I sort of get it. Now that garlic scape time is past, what’s Dereyk meant to do with 12 basil plants all getting ready to flower and demanding to be harvested, when we already have a freezer filled with pre-portioned pesto?

He’s also torn over the tomatoes. The heartache of losing them each year to blight is discouraging for both of us. Plus I think the fact that I have only plum tomatoes and yellow cherry tomatoes this year might put him over the edge, but they are meant to be blight resistant so we’ll see.

On the plus side, I can grow as many beans, peppers and cucumbers as I want. Also allowed are chives and as much dill (he’s going to have to battle it out with the swallowtail butterflies, but I’ll grow it for him) and nasturtiums as I can handle. I can have eggplants and he’ll grill them as long as he doesn’t have to eat them, and I can knock myself out with wax and hot peppers, but no habanaros. And no more tomatillos, which I agree with, we’re still weeding out volunteers from last year’s single plant gone rogue. I don’t even think he’s realized that we have ground cherries (He thinks they're tomatillos so we’ll have to wait until harvest. to get his ruling.) And I’m allowed artichokes, but they need to be worked into my flowerbeds if I’m not going to remember to harvest the buds.

And finally, only one summer squash or one zucchini plant allowed. I brought home two of each and they are galloping away from us. There’s a pile on the kitchen table that’s growing out of control, and I feel bad about giving them to the chickens. So tonight I gave the chef a break and made us zucchini fritters with a dill and yogurt topping from one of my torn out recipes (and Dereyk did the dishes woo hoo!) Tomorrow I’m threatening to do a comparison Chocolate Zucchini Cake test.

Version 1 found on the blog Mama’s Minutia adapted from Julie of Dinner with Julie

½ cup butter, ¼ cup canola oil, 1 ¾ cups sugar, 2 eggs, 1 teaspoon vanilla, 2 ¼ cups whole wheat or white flour, ¾ cup cocoa, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 1 teaspoon baking soda, ½ teaspoon salt, 1 cup sour cream, ¾ cup mini chocolate chips, 2 cups grated, unpeeled zucchini.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Cream the fats and sugar. Add the eggs and vanilla and beat well. In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the sugar mixture alternately with the sour cream. Fold in the chocolate chips and zucchini. Pour the cake batter into a greased angel food cake (or bundt) pan.

Bake for an hour or until a cake tester comes out clean (though the chips will leave some chocolate smears) and the top of the cake is cracked and boingy to the touch. While the cake is still slightly warm, invert onto a cooling rack.

Version 2 adapted from Martha Stewart Online

½ cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled, 1 cup sugar, 1 large egg, 1 cup all-purpose flour, 1 cup finely grated zucchini, ¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder (Dutch if available), ½ cup bittersweet chocolate, chopped, or chocolate chips, 3 tablespoons non fat yogurt (Martha says sour cream), 1/2 teaspoon coarse salt, ½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract, nonstick cooking spray.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, stir together butter, sugar, salt, and egg until combined. Add vanilla, zucchini, and yogurt and stir until incorporated. Sift flour and cocoa powder into bowl and stir until combined. Stir in chocolate.

Spray two mini muffin pans with cooking spray. Fill each cup with 2 tablespoons batter. Bake until a toothpick inserted in center of a muffin comes out clean, 15 to 17 minutes. Let muffins cool slightly in pans on wire racks before serving.

Version 3 is the King Arthur Flour version, improved by the repressed baker on her site.

½ cup butter, 
1/2 cup vegetable oil, 
1 ¾ cups granulated sugar, 
1 teaspoon vanilla, 
1 teaspoon baking soda, 
1/2 teaspoon baking powder, 
1/2 teaspoon salt, 
2 large eggs, 
1/2 cup sour cream or yogurt, 
2 ½ cups King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
3/4 cup, Dutch-process cocoa, 
2 teaspoons espresso powder, 
2 cups shredded zucchini, 1/2 cup chocolate chips.

Preheat the oven to 325°F. Lightly coat a 9″ x 13″ pan with baking spray.
In a large mixing bowl, cream together the butter, oil, sugar, vanilla, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Beat in the eggs. Stir in the sour cream or yogurt alternately with the flour. Then add the cocoa and espresso powder, mixing till smooth. Finally, fold in the zucchini and ½ cup chocolate chips. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan. 

Bake the cake for 35 – 40 minutes or until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove the cake from the oven and cool on a rack. 

Test Away!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Crying uncle in the back 40

Okay, so the rabbits ate the peas again this year, all the cilantro bolted in the heat and the Genovese basil is going to flower already! Plus can we talk about the weeds? The beets are losing the battle to the crabgrass that’ just exploded in the last week or so and it’s hot out there. Who wants to weed? The kitchen garden is one of those things I feel compelled to do every year, and every year at about this time, I want to rip it all up and plant dahlias instead.

Let’s be serious, we live in a place where you can’t go 50 feet without tripping over a farm stand or farmers market and all those folks do it light years better then I do. And although just recently I stood at a farm stand and watched an employee empty plastic containers of Driscoll raspberries and blueberries into little green cardboard boxes, there are still a lot of good straightforward folk, with honest, homegrown produce out there. Besides, my raspberries were demolished by the deer that got into my garden just as their first crop was all ripening, so I have to buy Driscoll raspberries anyway. Oh and have I mentioned that my potatoes are all collapsing into liquid puddles of nastiness? And that there’s already way too much squash?

Now granted, there’s isn’t anything as good as picking, steaming and eating your own artichokes, and adventure I experienced for the first time this year thanks to local starts that come to flower faster than the traditional varieties being available. And my blackberry bush is just loaded with berries, so all is not lost, but I confess I’m not a bad veggie grower.

I think it’s the maintenance that’s required. I’m not a big weeder. I believe if there’s an empty hole you can fill it with a plant, or spread a little mulch, a theory that doesn’t really work when you’re trying to grow carrots. Ha, what carrots? I tried a fabulous new arugula called Wasabi from Renee’s Seeds that really tasted like the Japanese horseradish, but it bolted very early thanks to the ridiculous heat this spring. The thirty leaves we ate were amazing, but really? Thirty leaves? Not such a good return on my time and energy.

The one crop I excel at turns out to be garlic, which is good since my husband, the cook in this home, adores the bulb. I put in ten pounds of garlic and presently have hundreds of heads curing in the garage as we speak. And this year I planted a late blight resistant strain of yellow cherry tomatoes that are going gangbusters already. But the spinach was just okay, not fabulous, sort of tough and not so tasty, and why grow kale if you don’t really do a great job cooking it?

So I’m here to tell you it’s okay to NOT have a veggie garden. When I first started out gardening out here, just doing it on weekends, I started with a vegetable garden and after the first year said, “This is for the birds.” I dug it all up (except for the foxgloves that had reseeded – loved them) and turned the whole patch into a flower garden. This realization not only led to my being employed in the gardening trade now, years later, but it was also much more rewarding to cut armfuls of flowers to bring back to my loft in the city each Sunday then to drive back in with piles and piles of zucchini no one really wanted.

I tried an heirloom zucchini this year, but I don’t love it so now what do I do? Feed them to the chickens? They’re not that keen on them either. I love strawberries, but I know myself well enough to know I will never maintain a strawberry patch perfectly, and why should I when the farm stand on Wainscot Main Street has such excellent berries right when they’re truly ready. And did anyone else enjoy the incredible asparagus they had this spring? It put my poor little pathetic patch to shame. I already gave up on lettuce, as all I have to do is look at the stuff for it to bolt, and again there’s that daily weeding issue. Perhaps if I’d put down straw as mulch as I’d been told to do by Ashley at Marders (who has an organic farm stand on Butter Lane with the best lettuce) I would have stayed ahead of them, but that wasn’t the vision of a vegetable garden I had. Of course neither is my critter chewed, weed infested, bolting veggie patch.

Yes, nothing tastes as good as a freshly picked, warm from the sun, cherry tomato, but do you know how many tomatillo seedlings I have invading the place from last year? And can I tell you that although the eggplant are doing okay, I really only got a handful of beans and the edamame were also enjoyed in leaf form by the rabbits right at the same time that something ravenous caterpillar destroyed every single frond of dill. So I’m not going to beat myself up about it anymore. I’m a bad veggie gardener and that’s okay. And although I might be disappointing Alice Waters, I imagine if she saw the pathetic radishes I raised this year she’d forgive me for giving up. Especially if I handed her a huge bouquet of dahlias instead.

Paige Patterson chickens have laid a total of one egg so far this year, so she’s also failing as a livestock keeper.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

I’m not high maintenance, but my garden sure is.

I’ve gotten to the point where I’m running out of room in the garden. Not that I like to admit it, but when a fabulous, red ‘Twombley’s Sentinel’ Japanese Maple followed me home, I was hard pressed to find a place for it to live and thrive because instead of buying it with a specific place in mind, I bought it because I just, “had to have it.”

Now every Sunday, I give a lecture with my cohort Mike Kusick at Marders, on various gardening themes and issues and recently we discussed low maintenance gardening. “The best thing you can do is to plan,” I told the assembled crowd, “something I rarely, rarely do.”  It is unfortunately true, that if you are going to garden the way I do, haphazardly, you are going to be in for a lot more work and rethinking.  Low maintenance means planning for the eventual size of the plant, not just putting something in a space and three years later transplanting it when it outgrows the spot and has suffocated and killed it’s neighbor.  It’s a lesson I have a hard time accepting even though you’d think that after gardening for over two decades I would have learned better.

Nope. I know the ‘Hayes Starburst’ Hydrangea I have my eye on is going to get 4-5’ tall and needs about 5’ of space, but the bare earth around it will call out to me to fill in. It’s only about 14” tall now and maybe 18” wide, but I’ll feel compelled to give it companions, it’ll just looks so lonely planted on its own.  For a girl like me, mulch should be a basic accessory, but instead of carpeting the ground and giving the poor thing the air and space it needs to breathe, I’ll want to give it white iris ensata buddies, and since I’ll get them from the sale table and they’ll be little plants in one gallon pots, I’ll get four and jam them into the same amount of space one plant will need in about 4 years. It’s a problem.

I’m trying to resort to annuals to fill the spaces in between, as a way of giving me the lush, billowing look I adore without torturing the plants by digging them up every season to rearrange, but it’s kind of expensive at $5.95 a plant. My other solution is to scatter seeds willy nilly across the bare spots, but then I get a lovely mixture of weed seedlings and plant seedling that’s a big mess to try and sort out. 

So I’m starting to buy fewer perennials, and to make borders out of flowering shrub instead. And rather then having the largest assortment of various and sundry new and collectible party, I’m trying to limit myself to fewer plants that are planted in masses so it’s easy for me to tell at a glance when I have a weed among them, instead of waiting until it gets three feet high and is flowering before I realize that I have been cultivating a coddling a bunch of weeds, thinking it’s one of last years unusual plants.

I can’t give up perennials, but I’m starting to focus bringing in more of the ones that really work for me. I love crocosmia and geranium ‘Rozanne’ – plants I would tell everyone to grow. And nothing beats nepeta and agastache and salvia as the one two three, triple punch of deer resistant blue for your garden, but in the new beds I’m creating, I’m using butterfly bush and spireas, clethera and kolkwitzia, hydrangeas and witch hazels, all to create mix masses of year long color with less weeding headaches. And I’m not saying that I don’t long for erynigium and yarrow and gentians whenever I see them, but since they’ve all failed me more times then I care to recall, I’m starting to appreciate the beauty of using either another alchemilla mollis (lady’s mantle) or another sedum as a way to fill a space. And I’ll never stop buying irises, echinaceas or peonies, it’s just ridiculous to even suggest such a thing, the equivalent of telling my husband he can never have cheese again, but flowering shrubs rule.

I used to think a girl couldn’t have too many types of plants, but let’s be honest, I couldn’t tell you the names of all the different hydrangeas I have nor could I really properly identify which was which without seeing them in flower and even then I’d mess some of them up. And some of my plants are so unusual I’ve mistaken them for weeds and pulled them out repeatedly. How high maintenance is that? Unable to identify the plant you put in last year, you pull it out the next year suspecting it’s a weed, only to realize it’s missing when it start blooming in the nurseries and you buy it again swearing that this year will be different and you replant it again, thus starting the whole cycle one more time.  And sure it makes me happy to look at the list of all the various echinaceas I have, but on that same list are masses of plants I’ve put in only to “lose” within a season or two because I wasn’t planning or thinking but just let that little plant follow me home because he looked cute in his pot.

I’ve actually gotten better at narrowing my list of plants when it comes to the shaded parts of the garden, which is good since they’re growing by leaps and bounds as all my baby trees start to stretch and grow. I’m still swearing on my five favorites of hellebores, cimicifuga, aconitum (monkshood), hakenochloa ‘All Gold’ (Japanese forest grass) and leucosceptrum japonicum 'Gold Angel' (Gold Angel Japanese shrub mint) with ferns and lamium to fill in and hydrangeas as my main shade plant. I don’t care that the deer eat them and they have to be sprayed almost daily to keep the deer away, nor do I care that they’re water hogs. I love hydrangeas and I’m not giving them up, regardless of the room I have left for another in my garden.

Paige Patterson has planted 6 Salvia ‘Black and Blue’ directly in the ground right next to her Monarda ‘Jacob Kline’ as she’s obsessing over hummingbirds this week.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A girl’s got needs.

As I carry the fifth box of herbs up onto the front porch for planting on my day off I know that I have to acknowledge that I am being somewhat excessive. Certainly, since I preach buying things in mass, as opposed to onesies and twosies, I must follow my own advice, but did I really need thirty thyme? Hmm, well then I would have to ask you to define need. This noun, defined by the online Merrian Webster dictionary as, “a lack of something requisite, desirable, or useful” as well as, “a physiological or psychological requirement for the well-being of an organism” is, I think, the perfect explanation to the overflow on my porch. Plants make me happy. Of course I do not need so many artichokes I could create a forest of them, but they give me joy. And I have great need of that.

I am going to be fifty this year, and as I approach the midsummer date, I find that the upcoming fifth decade is a very going reason to treat myself to things I love. I could take to my bed and eat chocolate, or perhaps loll in a hammock and drink champagne, two pastimes that are quite pleasant and definitely would contribute to my psychological well-being – instead I choose to indulge myself with plants.

My upcoming half a century is my reason why, but age is not the only reason why one should, or rather needs to bring home plants.

Got something to celebrate? A plant is a wonderful gift. For yourself as well as others. They are not fattening, they will not impair your ability to operate a moving vehicle, they are good for the environment, they will even breathe oxygen into the air.

Feeling blue? There’s nothing like an armful of annuals to brighten your day and your window boxes.

Everyone has a moment where they melt down and reveal their inner southern belle, honor yours with a camellia like the ones Marders has on special this week.

Feeling happy? Why not celebrate with a tree that will flower each year at this same time and reminder of they wonderful day you brought it home?

Redirect hostility – plant hostas. Feeling blue? Plant a mass of forget me nots. Seeing red? Invest in geraniums for every pot and container on the property?

Deer got you down? Create a library of boxwood shapes and varieties (don’t forget variegated) in the back forty

It’s a new moon? Get yourself a moonflower.

Pesto is the food of the gods, and with the new variegated basil called Pesto Perpetuo, you’ll never have to worry about it bolting, and therefore can use all that extra non-worrying time to actually learn how to cook.

Made it through some tough times? Don’t collapse on the floor, stand tall, grab a spade and plant potatoes so as god is your witness, you’ll, “never be hungry again.”

And speaking of fattening, much like shoes, plants always fit. Feeling a little chunky? A handful of perennials is so much more rewarding than a handful of donut holes.

Angry at a lover? Go ahead and buy that Meyer Lemon tree they never said would go with the wicker in the sunroom. You’ll show them.

Feeling contemplative? Installing a perfect grid of lavender along both sides of the entire drive will be as meditative and a Zen koan.

When speaking the language of flowers, hydrangeas symbolize devotion. Use them to tell someone how you really feel by filling up their driveway with piles and piles of them.

You’re getting married? Forget about china and pots; face it we all already have plenty, why not register at a nursery instead. Dereyk and I have a fern leaf beech that is a wedding gift from some of the people at the nursery where I used to work who all conspired to make sure we got to spend an awfully large amount of time together. How brilliant is that.

My sister has two different beeches planted for each of her sons so they and their trees can grow and mature together.

Depressed by the plight of the planet? A row of blueberries provides sustainence for you and the wildlife around you, or start smaller and plant dill until your wrists hurt to feed monarch butterfly caterpillars all summer long.

Got a raise? Get a rose! Won the lottery? Create an arboretum.

Bored with life? Start learning Latin and collect all the plants in the Dicotyledoneae category alphabetically.

Too many rainy days in a row? Don’t get glum, go jump into your boots and stuff your car with Dahlias, they’ll love the rain and brighten the darkest cloudiest afternoons until the first hard frost. And if you dig them up and store them properly, they’ll do the same year after year.

Children making you nuts? Significant other just saying, “Yes dear,” no matter what you say? And orchid will ease that headache, and two would make you feel so much more serene.

When I lived in nyc I used to go clothes shopping as a therapy of sorts, I habit I apparently share with many, many people – but now I am a proud plantaholic, and I have the garden to prove it. Besides, most of them really just jumped in my car and followed me home, I swear.

Paige Patterson knows orange roses are as restorative as bubble baths, which is why there’s one in her car as we speak.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Threading things together.

Now that I have gathered every variety of hellebore on the east end of long island into my hot little hands, my focus is turning to some of the other early spring bloomers popping up in the garden and at the garden centers. It appears that my forget-me-nots have disappeared due to over-energetic edging, so they will have to be replaced, but they’re not in yet, so my dirty fingers are wandering towards other interesting temptations.

I vowed this year I would be better at creating a tapestry of plants that have coherence and not just be seduced by the showy things that so often catch my eye, so along with the big flowers, I’m trying to make sure I’m bringing home plants that knit areas together.

I’ve always thought the best deal in the world was to buy Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’ (Creeping Jenny) in the 4” size people sell as an annual for pots, and instead stick it in the ground. After years of doing this, I’m finally starting to build up a momentum of chartreuse that works fantastically as connective stitches between different plant families.

I discovered the spotted dead nettle or lamium called ‘Purple Dragon’ last year, with a large white splotch on the leaf and a great purple flower that’s going gangbusters this spring. It’s much, much more vigorous than other varieties, so a few more jumped into my car and followed me home along with another variety called ‘Ghost’ that has the same deep purple snapdragon like flower and a bigger white blotch, but is meant to be an even taller, more vigorous version. I’m going to have a run off between the two to see which does better and I feel compelled to bring ‘White Nancy’ home too just because a girl can never have too many white flowers in her yard.

I also snatched up some of the variegated white edge salvia nipponica 'Fuji Snow.' It really isn’t about flowering (it has yellow blah flowers in mid summer that really do nothing for me) but instead is spreading nicely under the shade of my largest apple tree. And that’s a tough spot; my ajuga ‘Burgundy Glow’ is just sort of sitting there sulking, so more of it just happened to jump into the car. I

I know, I know, I know that for us plantaholics there’s always room for one more plant to squeeze in somewhere, but too many onesies and twoies end up as a polka dotted jumble, so repetition is the key – and a great excuse to buy things in bunches. At least five at a time is my new rule. This doesn’t mean that I’m not going to still slip one of each of those beautiful new tiarellas into my box of things I have to have, but it also means that when I’m deciding which of the two new edging salvias in the dimension series, I’m going to make sure I buy enough to make a real impact. I have to have the deep violet, rose-colored one, but I have to wait, because they were snatched up so fast it made my head spin.

For some reason, I’ve never really uses a lot of astilbes in the garden, but I adore goatsbeard, especially the dwarf aruncus called ‘Misty Lace.’ I think their flowers are just a little prettier and I love the way their lacey textured foliage blends in with other leaves, especially with epimediums. Now you might be a huge barrenwort fan, but if you don’t have soil that’s too heavy and they survive the winter, they will spread and run and eventually even take over your shady, dry places. And that’s a rare and amazing quality in a plant. I can’t remember if it was 5 or 7 that I added to my ever-growing pile, but I could have used a couple dozen.

Creating a tapestry doesn’t always mean buying just groundcovers, it also means thinking about how plants go together. So when you buy those amazing spring blooming plants, that you know you have to have and you know will go dormant, remember you should also plant something at the same time that will fill in later and cover the bare spot. With bleeding hearts, dicentra, the obvious partners are hostas and ferns – depending on your deer situation, but I recommend brunnera. People also suggest heuchera, but I murder those puppies with such impunity each year that this spring I’m going to try tiarellas and heucherellas instead, both of which seem a little tougher to me.

With oriental poppies, you can either use coreopsis or Russian sage or black-eyed susans or crocosmia. Anything that’s going to come into full flower after the poppies do their thing, but don’t push up so much foliage that they shade the plant out before it goes dormant will work. In other words don’t use daylilies like I did, as they’ll just run roughshod over the poppies. This year I only have three left as the rest got swallowed up. My solution? I’m trying the suggestion of a friend who planted bearded iris with the poppies, so guess what else is squeezing into the car? A mess of those new wine colored reblooming irises I spotted on the plant racks with a bushel of hot pink ‘Watermelon’ oriental poppies. Whoops I guess there’s not going to be a lot of room left in the car!

Paige Patterson is loved by her friends – especially the one who brought her a bag of Ivory Prince Hellebores from Whole Foods in Manhattan!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

It's not February, it's Spring!

Well the snowdrops are up, the hellebores are in full bloom, my witch hazel has been going for a couple of weeks now and I have two prunus mume, Japanese flowering apricots, in full on pink riots of open flowers. Welcome to the winter that wasn’t! Not that I’m complaining as I loathe the cold, but my hydrangea buds are swelling, my daylillies are up, all my roses have started to push out new foliage and I’m not really sure what I should do.

I thought about sowing so mache lettuce weeks and weeks ago but didn’t because I was sure it was going to get super cold, now I’m kicking myself because I didn’t. Of course, if I had, we’d probably have had a blizzard, but for the last week or so every cell in my body is telling me that it’s spring time and it’s time to root around in the garden.
I’ve already bought all my seeds, I even got some sent to me compliments of Renee’s Garden so I can write and tell you how they work out, but how do you figure out when to start seeds when there hasn’t even been a first hard frost, let alone a last one?

I did start my Imperial Star artichoke seeds on my one windowsill with sun, but until I win Lotto and get a greenhouse, I’ve got to play it safe for a while with sticking things in the soil.  I must say the idea of having artichokes that can actually set buds their first year would be killer, as they just not meant to make it through the winter here. There are a couple of us trying to overwinter ones from last year, and this winter has been a godsend for us, but I’m excited to try the Imperial and I think I’ve got a source for organic Tavor artichoke plants, I’ve ordered 48! Woo hoo! I’m going to tuck them into all my flowerbeds.

But since I’m really itching to plant something, I made a quick round to the few nurseries that are still open and picked up some more hellebores, because who can have too many hellebores right? Shady loving, deer resistant, hard to kill and one of the first signs of spring – what’s not to love?  What most of the nurseries have right now are your basic helleborus niger, commonly known as the Christmas or Lenten Rose. Even during this mild, mild winter, none of mine were up at Christmas, but I heard tell of a few in a sheltered area of springs and I thought I spied one on Suffolk street, although I might have imagined it.

What was blooming for me before the holidays were my helleborus foetidus, or stinking hellebore. I happen to love these plants, mostly because I go nuts for green flowers, although I’ve lost a number of them to cold snaps when we have warm early winters and then the temperatures drop. I have just reestablished a nice grove of the variety 'Wester Flisk'; which has a thinner, more finely cut, ferny leaf; around my non disease resistant peach tree’s base, and I’m hoping the last of my straight species will set some seed this year, but if not I can always get more babies at Marder's when they come in at the end of the month. Anyway, the basic Lenten rose is wonderful, but keep your eyes out for the newer varieties which all have larger, more upright flowers. There’s one called ‘Jacob’ which blooms earlier then ‘Josef Lempur’ which is also very pretty and then there’s ‘Swirling Skirts’ which is a double so try and find all three varieties if you can.

The hellebores I truly can’t get enough of are the helleborus orientalis and it’s hybrids. The species self-seeds with abandon in my garden, which is brilliant. Unfortunately, I had to move a big Japanese maple smack into the middle of the oldest and most prolific bed, so the show this year isn’t going to be stellar, but I did transplant a bunch of them to other spots in the garden.

I know I’m always raving about there being no such thing as too many plants, but I really feel that way about hellebores, and their colors are getting to be amazing. From which really looks like true black to pure white, purple, pink, spotted, frilled, contrasting veins, red, green, doubles and now yellows and peach, the heart does little flippy flops just thinking about them.

‘Grape Galaxy’ is deep purple with black freckles and is to die, ‘Mrs. Betty Ranicar’ is triple layers of white that looks almost ranunculus like, ‘Blue Metallic Lady’ is a cool slate blue single while ‘Frilly Kitty’ is a double that ranges in shades from the palest pink to deep maroon.

The ones I want most desperately are those that were bred by Marietta O'Byrne and are distributed by a wholesale plant breeding company called Terra Nova, the same folks that are responsible for the whole heuchera craze. They breed plants with the “havetohave” gene. I need helleborus ‘Winter Jewels™ Onyx Odyssey’, with double slate, purple and black flowers the way I used to need Manolo Blahniks. 

And then there’s ‘Winter Jewel Cherry Blossom’ -- single and semi double anemone shaped flowers in soft pink with dark rose veins, with a picotee edging and a little starburst in the center. Be still my heart.

Paige Patterson must confess that the ‘portable’ chicken coop she purchased requires three people using all their might to roll around the garden.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The death of the $180 chicken

Last week when I went down to the basement to check on my livestock, one of my chickens was curled in a little ball and huddled as if trying to get warm. This is not normal chicken behavior. When I reached in and put their food down, the chicken only moved slightly and then she didn’t try and escape as I cupped her tiny frail body in my hand and lifted her out. In fact she tucked her head into my hand and sort of snuggled up to me. Definitely not chicken behavior, so I brought her upstairs, wrapped her in a dishtowel so warmth in my lap and sat down at the computer.

Lethargic chickens — the internet is overwhelming with it’s helpful suggestions: lice, injury, birth defect, coccidiosis (no diarrhea so we probably are safe there), worms, botulism, cancer, bacterial infection, egg bound (too young for that), crop impaction (nope, that I could check) arrrrrggghhh, I don’t know, I don’t know. They also say that most chicks that get sick don’t recover, but I don’t want to hear that.
So off to the vet we go. At this point you must know that I have failed as a farmer. I know that there is nothing as silly as taking a chicken to the vet, but this chicken is another living, breathing, sentient creature and it’s unhappy. And I just can’t deal with that. I’m a girl who will scream at the little mouse on the PBS nature program to,  "Look out, behind you, it's the cobra!" I loathe the deer that destroy my garden, but was thrilled when my husband found a desperately weak and sickly fawn and took it to the wildlife rehabilitation center. I cried hysterically when someone sent me a link to a video of a tiny white dog that appeared vicious and was going to be put down but was just and needed a hug. Sobbed. I can’t ignore animals in distress, so off to the vet we go.

My regular vet has said they don’t do chickens, but has recommended another around the corner. The chicken, Eeny, I am toting around in a red and white Igloo lunch cooler since I don’t have a spare cardboard box or a small enough pet carrier, and the vet’s assistant gives me a little bit of a hairy eyeball stare when I place it on the counter.  Soon enough however, Eeny Patterson is in with the doctor. $90 dollars later Eeny has received subcutaneous fluids and an inconclusive diagnosis. It’s not the vet’s fault, there are no obvious telltale symptoms, no sneezing, no mucous, no running eyes, no diarrhea, no swelling, no punctures, no breaks, no signs of infection, no compaction of the crop — no real leads. However, he does add that he’s not a chicken specialist, and that he could recommend someone locally who is.

I wish he had told me that before the $90 bill, but I did rush over with my chicken instead of waiting for the doctor to get to the office and call me first.  So it’s my own, anxious, fault. Besides I’m game, I mean once you spend $90 on a pet chicken, and you still don’t have an answer, you go the next step right? So we make the appointment that has to be late in the afternoon.

I’m bummed, and frankly Eeny is tired of driving around in the car and I have to go to work for a while (to pay for all these chicken bills) so Eeny got to hang out in her cooler in the warmest office at the nursery with Cathy who takes care of the nurseries chickens. I was also hoping she might have an idea about Eeny’s issues, but she’s stumped too.  I have a meeting, I talk plants for a while, and I explain to everyone at work that yes, I know, for ninety bucks I can buy a whole bunch of chickens, but I have a suffering creature in my care and I can’t just let it suffer without trying to help.

We have an appointment with the second vet at 4:30, but again, I’m an anxious gal, I thought the fluids would have perked Eeny up a little more, but he’s still just curled up in a ball, so I call and ask if we can come earlier and for thirty additional dollars I can call Eeny’s situation an emergency arrive whenever I want. So off we go to the second vet.

Dr. Grosjean is quite lovely, but he too has no specific answer. More subcutaneous fluids, some antibiotics and instructions on how to force feed Eeny, that’s what we leave with after another $90 bill. I was really hoping for a diagnosis, I wanted a problem we could fix, but we’re just sort of shot gunning Eeny’s treatment instead as the answer is, no one really knows.

When I bring Eeny home my husband is lovely and doesn’t point of that for $180 we could have bought over 100 new chickens and instead volunteers to help me force feed Eeny the baby food the vet recommended I try. I’ll have you know I stood in King Kullen and obsessed over which food to feed her, but finally settled on organic sweet potato and apricot with a switch up with some cranberry applesauce I made this fall. I demonstrate the technique of forcing a chicken to open it’s beak and Eeny shows a surprising amount of resistance for a chicken in distress, I can only imagine that someone shoving a syringe in your mouth and forcing liquids and baby food into your beak is not a pleasant situation. The doggies can’t believe there’s a chicken in the living room, but I have to keep Eeny separated from the other chickens, so he stays in her Igloo swing topped lunch cooler but is placed high on top of a cupboard where he’ll be warm and out of cat jumping height.  Hugo, the largest dachshund keeps wandering to the base of the cupboard and sighing – if he could talk it’s very easy to understand what he’d say. “Mommy, listen, listen, listen, if you could just get that box down there’s a chicken in there who really needs to be kissed a little, no really, listen, listen, listen, up there, it’s a chicken, and I know this sounds crazy but most chickens really like to be licked. I promise.”

Over the next five days the dogs whine and cry when I feed Eeny twice a day at the kitchen table. My husband takes over for me the day I drive up to Boston but I come home that same night due to concern over Eeny. Regardless of all our efforts, there really is no change. Eeny is not getting better. The other chickens in the basement show no signs of any similar issues, so perhaps it is something inherent in the way Eeny is built. This is something Dr. Grosjean tried to explain to me, telling me sometime birds will fail to cohere as they mature. I don’t understand how a creature could get so far along in the process of becoming and then fall apart, but then there is much in the world I don’t understand. All I know is that I hold Eeny as often as I can and I feel the heartbeat in the base of my hand as I cup the small chicken close to my body for warmth.

When Eeny dies, it is not an easy passing. It involves death throes and flailing and vomit and a contorted body position that makes me wonder why such pain and fear is necessary. It makes me understand why death is sometime seen as scary. No gentle passing in her sleep for my chicken, which off course makes me terribly sad. I wrap her in a paper towel and bury her in a part of the garden where I will not exhume her by mistake in the coming months and years, and I think of something to say but fail.

When he gets the text that says Eeny has died, my husband tells me it’s for the best and that it’s better that the chicken is no longer suffering and I know what he says is true. I however had wanted a miracle, I wanted the storybook ending, and I’m crushed that it didn’t happen.